University: Preparation for???

Back in October, I wrote about the difference between talent and labour. I was inspired by Harold Jarche’s review of a NY Times article, and today I read another of Harold’s blogs along a similar vein. Harold writes for an audience that primarily focuses on work-based training, while I write from a HE perspective – not sure about my audience, I just write to get it off my chest.

Anyway, in his blog, Harold contrasts the values that traditional industries looked for in workers – obedience, diligence, and intellect – with the skills desirable in todays workplace – initiative, creativity, and passion. In the workplace, this maps closely to the labour and talent continuum.


This begs the question for us in HE to consider: Why are we preparing our graduates for producing?

As Steve Wheeler observed last week:

We live in uncertain times, where we cannot be sure how the economy is going to perform today, let alone predict what kind of jobs there will be for students when they graduate in a few years time. How can we prepare students for a world of work that doesn’t yet exist? How can we help learners to ready themselves for employment that is shifting like the sand, and where many of the jobs they will be applying for when they leave university probably don’t exist yet?

To prepare our students for yesterdays jobs is doing them a disservice, and yet, that is exactly what we are doing. In March I wrote about conformity and creativity in education. Our formal systems are all about conformity (and obedience, and diligence, and attention to detail – all highly valued in yesterdays workplace) and in the process, we go out of our way to stifle creativity. I was in a Teaching and Learning Committee meeting a few months ago with the topic being warmly debated being the penalties to be imposed on students who exceed word limits on their assignments. This wasn’t a team meeting or a departmental T&L committee, but a regulations meeting for the entire University. One of my colleagues commented that he wasn’t willing to read “War & Peace” when a student turned in an assignment. I innocently asked the question, “What if they actually produced War & Peace as their work?” The response is telling (I think) – “No chance of that with our students.” I have to agree – no chance of that. There’s no room in the syllabus for creativity, passion or initiative, only obedience, diligence, conformity and attention to detail.

We focus on the traditional, time honoured form of teaching. I’ll tell you what I know, you memorise it, and in a few weeks, I’ll ask you to regurgitate it back to me. This will either be in the form of a set essay question (I will encourage your creative juices by giving you the choice of two topic to choose from), an unseen essay exam (as before, but with no resources), or an unseen tickbox MCQ or short answer exam (we have to examine on all the material). I find that whenever I talk about this form of teaching, lecturers go red in the face and indignantly say to me “I expect them to bring something into their writing that I didn’t say in class!”. Okay, regurgitate, with a little bit extra. Conformity, obedience, diligence, and attention to detail – all virtues prized in producers, not thinkers.

Why? It is because we have so much material to cover.

The tyranny of content. I have written about this topic on a number of occasions, and yet, content expands just like The Blob. Since the first time I wrote about content almost two years ago, according to the pundits, information had doubled twice (approaching thrice). This means that the lectures scheduled for this autumn will have to contain twice as many slides, and the lecturers will have to go through them twice as fast as they did last year. There is no room for creativity or thinking when there is just so much that has to be learned (memorised).

Steve quoted Etienne Wenger in his blog last week  ‘If any institutions are going to help learners with the real challenges they face…(they) will have to shift their focus from imparting curriculum to supporting the negotiation of productive identities through landscapes of practice’ (Wenger, 2010).

When are we going to start seeing these vital changes happen? When will we have institutions changing to embrace tomorrow instead of clinging to yesterday?

Our unwritten contract with society has been breached – by us. Donald Clark (I think convincingly) suggests that it has been our obsession with grades and qualifications that has done it. With up to 60% of Western Europe’s graduates (and similar numbers from North America) from the past five years either un- or under-employed, we don’t have a shortage of qualifications, we have a shortage of learning.

We have such a rich history of teaching and learning in higher education. We must look ahead and figure out how we can change the system to return to a place where learning lies at the heart. We have wasted too much human resource by our inability to move on from what we have succeeded with in the past. Tomorrows world needs something different, and if we don’t deliver it, someone else will.