BayBuzz posed the question: Should our educational system be more focused on equipping students with “practical” skills to enter the workforce successfully, or on catering to students’ broad intellectual development?
Before I launch into my latest thoughts on this very interesting question, I would like to congratulate Tom Belford and BayBuzz for devoting an issue to education. It’s such an important and fascinating aspect of our lives, and it’s an area about which everyone has an opinion, because we’ve all been students of some sort, and/or parents of students, employees of educational institutions, employers of ex-students, the list goes on.
Like many others, I’ve been all those things, but it’s probably my most recent three roles – as a secondary school Principal, a “mature” university student (don’t you hate that description if you’re over 40?) and now Deputy Chief Executive at EIT Hawke’s Bay – that have helped me to develop a perspective on skills training.
There always seems to have been a supposed “divide” between skills training and general academic learning. People older than me remember when schools divided their students into “technical” and “professional” streams with all the connotations those terms or similar terms implied. Apparently one group could be considered “academic,” and the other best suited to being trained in a technical skill or qualification.
Now that I’m working in the tertiary sector, I note in people’s perceptions a similar supposed division between the offerings of polytechnics and institutes of technology versus universities – the former apparently devoted to “practical skills” training and the latter to general, fairly highbrow academic and research programmes.
What I have discovered, of course, is that just as schools offer both skills and generic learning, so do our tertiary institutions, whatever type they may be. EIT for example offers nine degrees and undertakes a substantial research programme, just as Victoria University, where I have just finished studying, offers a range of “applied” undergraduate and post-graduate programmes, as well as its various generic Arts and Sciences and other degrees. The three Wananga also offer a range of skills and “academic” programmes.
So I suspect the great divide in terms of skills versus intellectual education offerings is probably more imagined than real, but let’s look at another aspect of the issue – that of the link between education and employment.
As a High School Principal, I overheard many conversations between parents of students and school staff over the purpose of particular subjects. Parents would ask would it get their daughter a job? If so, did that particular profession have a future? These were excellent questions, but I suspect that even while they were being asked, the worlds of education and employment were shifting on their axes, pushed off their formerly stable paths by the tremendous technological changes that have occurred over the last twenty years or so.
If you have time to explore a version of Karl Fisch’s fascinating presentation, “Shift Happens”, which can be found on the YouTube site, you may find as I did a rather mind-boggling summary of the ramifications of those changes on both education and employment. For example, today’s young people will change jobs many times in their lives, and many jobs that they will take up haven’t been invented yet.
How should the education sector therefore respond to such a scenario? With great flexibility I would think, and by harnessing its most strategic thinkers to look at some scenarios. We also need to develop excellent teachers who can respond to those possible futures in partnership with employers and the wider community.
In the emerging world of work, my view is that neither skills training nor purely academic education will equip us to deal with the complexities of 21st century life and commerce – both will be needed. As changes demand new and different types of skills, people will need to have the ability not only to quickly learn new skills and adapt to new technologies, but also to be able to think clearly about the overall context and purpose for their work, whatever it may be.
We need people in the workforce who have leadership and managerial qualities, no matter what their place in the hierarchy, and those who can solve problems and articulate ideas confidently. As most good leaders know, it’s the staff at the front line who know what’s going on and what’s coming up – we would all do well to listen to them and equip them to help us to shape up ourselves and our businesses for future challenges.
In my view then, we need to start to challenge the idea that skills training and general academic learning are two distinct and mutually exclusive things. During 2006 and 2007, I had the luxury of studying again – a Master of Public Management programme at Victoria University. I discovered that while I might have enrolled in a “practical” or “applied” programme looking at the leadership and management skills required to work in the public sector, it was a given that the very acts of studying, of thinking, of discussing ideas with fellow students and lecturers and friends, all constituted what Tom has called “intellectual development” in the question he has posed.
At the same time that I was learning about the legal and management processes of the public sector and government, for example, I was also addressing matters of philosophy that related to how we “serve” the public as public servants. We debated how and who should determine the “public good” and what that might look like. And for me, there was nothing more exciting than this great mix of skills and ideas, and doing and thinking. I know that I grew as a person, as a practitioner, and as a thinker in an “intellectual” sense because of that wonderful combination of both skills for the job, and general intellectual pursuits.
So that is what I believe all areas of the education and employment sectors should be offering their students and staff – both skills and ideas, and opportunities for doing and thinking. That combination, I believe, will firstly produce an inspired and inspiring workforce, and will secondly equip our society to respond quickly and flexibly to the rapid technological and other changes that are now part of our daily lives.
Education, business and the wider community need to work together to ensure that no matter how far the world’s axis shifts, we hang in there, make the most of change, and indeed flourish and develop further as human beings and as societies in this exciting century that we all inhabit.