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Work, skills, education and 21st century blarney

Had a good ol’ chat with Tom Bennett on Twitter last night. In case you don’t know Tom (and neither do I, really) he’s a superb edu blogger – very funny and very much in the ‘trad’ camp when it comes to the current debates on school education.

Tom hates stuff about teaching 21st century skills: emotional intelligence; resilience; teamwork collaboration and those sorts of things. I sent him this link which he commented on as ‘total gibberish’. I’m not so sure.

But even if I’m not sure, I think all educators owe it to their students to engage with the world of work and business. That’s where the large majority of our students will end up. And we hope that what we teach them will have at least some connection to and be of some value in their working lives.

I don’t really need to hear the ‘education is about more than getting a job’ stuff. Of course. Obviously. I regard myself as, ahem, a fairly educated and cultured sort of chap and those things would be, well, important to me. I hope my students find education as enriching and fulfilling as I do and have done. But if business and employers are talking a very different language about education, we won’t do our students many favors by telling them, after 12-16 years of school, college and university to jump up and down at interview and say, ‘I know loads of traditional things; employ me’, if the employers don’t care about what our students know and don’t want to employ them.

Even if the thoughts like those in the above link are BS and ‘brainless and toothless’ as Tom says, there is, at the minimum, a vocabulary thing, a language thing going on here which educators need to acknowledge if they want to help their students negotiate the current world of work.

To some extent business culture has always been self-perpetuating. A lot of business isn’t terribly mysterious. You work with people you like working with and buy and sell things and move them about.  So the culture is important because if you don’t fit in you won’t be asked to do any business. And a large part of the culture is the language, the terms used and the way people think about what they are doing.

Business is talking very widely indeed in these ’21st century skills’ sorts of terms. (Check out the list of sponsors of this project) Maybe as classicists and philosophers, historians and English teachers, and even biologists and mathematics teachers, we don’t like it, but I don’t think that matters. Barring some return to Victorian Britain and our erstwhile industrial empire when all one needed as a middle class gent was a decent factory or two and an understanding of Greek and Latin in order to administer our colonial subjects in foreign lands, these will be the new terms of work for our current, and growing, middle classes. Educators, therefore, need to join the conversation – out of simple respect, if nothing else – but also so that they can tell their students that they have some idea of what is going on away from their schools and universities.

I’m actually fairly optimistic about the situation. I don’t see this as a simple divide between ‘traditional people’ who think education is about school subjects, good handwriting and cultivating your mind and the umpteen commentators who write about the new world of work and how we are not educating people properly for it.

The new world of work is, after all, a ‘knowledge economy‘. Creativity and enjoyment of  learning – to name just two attributes – are touted as absolutely essential in this new economy. This sounds rather like some good, old-fashioned academic values I know about, similar to ideas that many universities have espoused for centuries. So I’m all for them. You won’t get far in academia without enjoying learning and all the best academic work is creative to some degree (though we may need to revamp some of our uni courses to encourage this more). I see the possibility of quite a bit of happy coming together between academia and the work-world of ‘design mindset’, ‘cross cultural collaboration’ and so on. This happy marriage isn’t surprising, really, in context. A knowledge economy will rely on, er, knowledge and universities are good at knowledge.

This is not about business ‘dictating’ what schools and universities do. This is about acknowledging some widespread predictions about the way the world of work is changing. This from the Economist – not your typical woolly guff-mongers – is one recent piece to outline the way we are heading.

I am not a great fan of the ‘shift‘ meme or even the ‘accelerating rate of change‘ idea. But you’d be nuts to think the jobs and careers of our children won’t be very different to ours. There’s little call for falconers and stirrup-makers in Barnsley these days and where are those chaps from the Midlands and the North who smashed up the looms? More recently, travel agents and milkmen are disappearing. What goes obsolete next? I like the Economist’s call that accountants are on the way out ;), and if google cars do happen, then it’s an end to lorry drivers and entire careers in logistics will change. And estate agents? Hmm.

I’d have to go more into the literature but I’d take a bet that lots of people pooh-poohed Fordism and Taylorism at the time. Then suddenly no-one was laughing. We owe it to our students to discuss the way business thinks about the future of work, and to offer some guidance as to how we think our students might best adapt, even while we teach them all that lovely knowledge which we enjoyed as kids.

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