A call for organisations to take education seriously
TIME magazine Asia recently included an article with a very sobering assessment of schools in the region. According to the article, high drop out rates, strikes, stress, suicides – along with a lack of creativity, initiative, motivation and focus in students – are a current reality. After decades of focusing on high academic achievement, there are now obvious negative side effects that cannot be ignored.
Why has this happened? Is it because knowledge and facts have become valued above wisdom and a love for learning? Educationalist Illich says that many school systems have been designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life, that the quality of life depends on knowing those secrets (or facts), that secrets can only be known in an orderly fashion, and that “adult experts” called teachers have all the answers. He believes that learning has gone through a dramatic transition from an “activity” generated in real situations and where learning was “about” the world, to a “commodity” where learning was taken “from” the world. Illich says that schools are unbalanced social institutions that share much in common with the military, penitentiaries and convents by offering a “sugar coated pill of compulsion and conforming”, ultimately alienating people from learning.
Have the chickens come home to roost – or, more appropriately, roast? Have we seen the full implication of these sorts of failures in education systems around this region? I doubt it. When children graduate from these dysfunctional systems, they will not only be struck by the real life expectations of the modern working world, but they will have to forge a way through the varying cultural approaches that characterize corporate life. We shouldn’t be surprised that many adults who have come from these systems are finding it so hard to cope.
Why should corporate multinationals get involved?
For many years the corporate focus has been on the bottom line of profit. Education and training have been forced into the “low priority” basket, and are the first areas to be cut when times are tough. But now even “bottom line” companies will need to take note. The TIME magazine article gives the warning that “with their rote-based curricula and examcentric systems, Asians are finding that even children who attend the very best public schools lack the creative skills to compete in a new, challenging information economy”.
“The existing education system has produced reliable managers for predictable times,” says Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s Senior Minister of State for Education, “but it now needs to produce a new breed of leaders who have a certain ruggedness, an ability to respond quickly to situations.” It is critical thinking skills, not simple abilities in regurgitating facts, which are urgently needed.
Do we need to change priorities?
A friend of mine, the director of a well known financial institution, told me that he couldn’t believe that his salary was ten times higher than his wife, who – as a teacher – was responsible for educating the next generation, those who will shape the world that he will retire into. “I merely trade in gold, a useless commodity, and she changes lives,” he admitted.
I believe that teachers are the most underpaid and undervalued of all professionals, and that reflects the priority we place on personal growth and development throughout life. Most organizations ignore the need individuals have for ongoing development, and fail to realize that by not providing ongoing education they are in fact undermining the value of individuals within the organization and the organization itself.
What can organizations do? Training is not always education
Smart companies will start taking some responsibility for education, and not just simple skills training. They must start to understand, firstly, that training is not always education. Training is about developing a specific skill set, imparting knowledge and facts in the hope that workers can reproduce this information when called upon. Education is about developing skills for ongoing learning and enquiry.
Aristotle was one of the first to introduce the difference when he talked about “Moral Training” v “Moral Education”. Moral training, he believed, was the process of teaching people right or wrong, without a discussion of why these distinctions were being made. “Moral Education”, believed Aristotle, implied that the learner had developed an understanding of moral principles and acts deliberately on the basis of these and had become committed to them. What good leaders must have is the ability to make decisions based on understanding of principles that they have become committed to.
Developmental psychologist James Fowler says that education needs to move people out of a synthetic-conventional type of belief system – where something might be believed because it is the perceived norm – into one that involves questioning, enquiry and tolerance with ambiguity. This is the richness that is missing from so many “education systems”. This is why there is so little creativity and now also little motivation. Perhaps we should call the current system by its real name – “knowledge banking” (according to Friere) – and start to think about how we might really incorporate learning processes into our organizations instead.
How can organizations make learning relevant?
Too many trainers are out there just thinking that they can impart facts that will solve everything. But it’s not the knowledge that we lack. What is lacking is the method of passing that knowledge on so it has an impact and is relevant in people’s lives. This is an art and a science, and it needs to be seriously studied in our region. There should be a continuing dialogue about the philosophy of education.
The challenge of teaching is to keep the experience of the student relevant. Dewey believes that the core subject matter of education consists primarily of the meanings that supply content to existing social life. Sales experts say that the biggest problem with an experienced sales person is that they know “so well” why their product benefits their customer, that they forget that the job is to help the customer make this connection, not themselves. Many will, teach the subject matter as if it is fact, ignoring that their goal is for the buyer to develop the skills to discover the facts for themselves. What organizations need to be developing instead is what management guru Peter Senge refers to as “knowledge workers”.
Challenging the cynics
No wonder the TIME article reported, “the biggest problem with Asia’s schools today is that children themselves no longer link substantive learning with schooling. Students don’t see any interest in what they’re being taught.” The article goes on to report that, “Surveys show that while East Asian pupils top worldwide academic tests, they retain the information for the least amount of time, believing, not surprisingly, there is little utility in what they learn in the classroom…”
It is a mistake to assume that the participants in corporate training programs want to learn and want to hear what the facilitator has to say. Adult cynics can provide the greatest resistance to learning. Their bad experiences with education often leave them with little desire to learn more, and consequently they cannot cope with change or new ideas. When these people end up in management positions, the friction they can create between their understanding of way the world is and the way they see the world can have far reaching effects – can even grind a company to halt.
Have we missed the point?
What people want or are interested in is, to a large extent, a product of the value system they have acquired. Most people have acquired this value system through their school and culture.
The job of the educator is not just to build on existing wants, but to present what is worth wanting in a way that it creates new wants and stimulates new interests. If educators don’t do this others will. Advertising companies, politicians, and religious fundamentalists will all happily tell the population what they should and shouldn’t want or value. But the consequences of greed and power and a desire for constant material growth (rather than sharing, responsible development and sustainability), values that were encouraged through the 80s and 90s, are now surfacing.
Although it is sad to hear about the state of school systems, it doesn’t come a surprise. They say that if you put a frog in hot water it jumps out immediately, but if you put it in cold water and heat it up slowly it will eventually die. Can we not see that the methods we have used to “educate” (or “bank knowledge”) have been responsible for the way our societies now operate?
What are the results of a bottom line focus?
One of the most sobering revelations from The Economist about the Anderson failure with Enron was the connection of the outcome with the value system that had been adopted. A recent article from The Economist identified the implications, pointing out that, “When undue attention is focused on a single figure (bottom line profit), undue effort is devoted to manipulating it.” And the results of such a misguided focus? The report confirms that 257 public companies with $258 billion in assets declared bankruptcy in 2001, shattering the previous year’s record of 176 companies and $95 billion assets delared in bankruptcy. It is commitment to principles, not skills, which will save future companies from this fate. As the old saying goes, “When you train a devil you don’t get an angel but a clever devil.”
Did you know that along with putting people into outer space and building nuclear weapons, we now have the means to wipe out poverty and eradicate many diseases? The budget for world military spending alone is enough to provide every person in the world with basic water, health and education. Next time someone you know dies of a disease remember that that there are approximately five times as many scientists (and therefore five times more brainpower) currently dedicated to developing weapons of mass destruction, than there are researching diseases and the environment. A great quote I once saw at a school fete highlights the issue: “It will be a great day when the education gets all the money it needs, and the military has to hold fetes to raise funds!”
Roasting the roosting chickens
Not only are the chickens coming home to roost, but as a generation of poorly educated children reaches management positions, companies unprepared will be in for a real roasting. Let us start to seriously value education. We must realize that we can no longer get away with “knowledge banking” through training skills, and ignoring underlying values and principles. It’s time companies started to invest in the organisation’s future through developing individuals on an ongoing basis. There can only be positive change through a dedicated focus on individual and organizational growth.
Andrew Grant is the Managing Director of TIRIAN, an international training & consulting company that works with multinational executives throughout the region. Along with his partner, Associate Director Gaia Grant, he has been involved in education for the past 15 years. With degrees in Education, they have had extensive international experience in education at all levels. Along with their corporate work, they have taught and consulted at the Central Philippines University, with tribal groups in Thailand, orphanages in El Salvador and the Department of Education & TAFE in Australia. They also were associate directors for the Indian Schools Total Health Program, training and developing programs targeted to reach 25 million children. Andrew and Gaia Grant are the authors of Living in Three Dimensions, and Gaia has also written The Rhythm of Life and A Patch of Paradise.
© Andrew Grant
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