Feb 102013

Factory Learning?

There is considerable pressure for the education sector in the United Kingdom to return to a model of learning that originated with the factory production era. While ‘investigation’ and ‘knowledge management’, ‘hypothesis testing’ and ‘case building’ are seen as significant virtues at the upper-echelons of the educational establishment, for example lawyers, doctors and politicians, they are not considered to be appropriate for the rest of the population. Instead, the so-called ‘mass-market’ end of the educational spectrum is asked to learn by rote, memorise the names and dates of historical events, and think about how they can place dubious former monarchs names into an uncritical account of the process of empire building. Thanks Michael Gove.

All of which is retrograde and a huge step-backwards at a time of great technological, cultural and international change. At a time when thinking skills and the independent ability to learn and think should be given priority, we are heading back, instead, to the comfort zone of recall, memory and useless recitation. Pleasure in learning is being denied as the ’skills’ and ‘employability’ agenda’s are prioritised. Seldom a week goes by without some sort of initiative or event taking place that aims to make our young people more capable of dealing with the world of work, of acquiring the right skills to the workplace, and having the right disposition to show that they can get out of bed every day – just to suit the nine-to-five mindset of the begrudging already employed. The question is, does this enhance learning and the love of learning, or not?

On the whole, the school, college and university systems in the United Kingdom have been used repeatedly as places designed to simply churn-out skilled workers, as you would in a sausage factory. For those workers who are able to be clearly differentiated in this supposed meritocratic order, they will be. Some lucky people get to be chosen and will have a say in which buttons will be pressed. But the vast majority of people are merely expected to know their place and do the bidding of their masters. Since the 1990s, government education policy has largely been about addressing the skills shortage, rather than creating jobs, so the hysteria about the skills shortage has grown increasingly shrill. As Paul Krugman is fond of reminding his readers, there was no skills shortage during World War Two. People skilled-up very quickly once the work was there.

So, what is this supposedly unassailable divide between investment in learning and investment in skills based on? Russell Ackoff is famous for his critique of the American Business School system. Ackoff argued that business schools have repeatedly churned out an uncritical and unimaginative cadre of business managers, fit for nothing more than the cemetery. These managers have been schooled in the idea that they are entitled to act as an independent class of executive operators, who merely need to give a command to exercise control. Indeed, their proficiency is judged by how well they hold the reigns in the command and control system, rather than in the outcomes that they deliver for society in general. Ackoff’s alternative was to think of business operations holistically, and to design inclusive and democratic processes that are suited to problem solving and innovation in an organisation. According to Ackoff, an organisation has to be capable of looking “beyond simple metrics and calculations” that can only be understood as “idealised options”. Instead, Ackoff wanted decision-making to be taken in the real world, by people who had been grounded in the practice of implementation through experience, and not simply well versed in the theory of systems management.

The recent report on failings in the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust highlights the dangers of maintaining an unaccountable organisation that exclusively promotes executive management and executive governance. The culture of executive management that has driven these public organisations, means that ordinary patients, staff and supporters alike, can be bullied, and their independent views suppressed. Employees live in perpetual fear for their jobs, and service users live with the threat of an axe being taken to their beloved local services if they dare to speak out. If there is even a hint that an alternative voice might be expressed, then a way is found for it to be snuffed-out. Usually as soon as someone is remind that they might be ‘bringing their employer into disrepute’. As a consequence, mistakes get hidden and people die. Executive managers, however, seldom suffer, and more often get promoted because they have demonstrated that they can make tough choices – whatever that means.

The usual prescription for a dysfunctional organisation in these circumstances, ironically, is that the executive management systems that repeatedly led to these calamities are only in need of being reinforced and renewed. Managers are encouraged to do more ‘listening’. They set-up focus groups and bring in so-called independent consultants to talk openly and transparently with staff, service users and stakeholders. Eventually the executive team will produce a statement pointing out that ‘you said’ and ‘we did’.

The BBC’s executive management, according to The Guardian, is happy with the anti-bullying processes that are in place at the BBC. Though it looks like staff on-the-ground have said something different when they have been able to express themselves anonymously. According to The Independent “More than 850 BBC employees have come forward to raise their concerns about bullying and sexual harassment at the corporation, fuelling fears about the broadcaster’s culture.”

Atul Gawande, in his book, “The Checklist Manifesto” describes how successful emergency surgical teams do what they can to promote a ‘learning culture’. Rather than brining out the firing-squad every time there is a problem, the successful team will allow team members to openly discuss and analyse how mistakes happen. They are expected to evaluate their own performance and make recommendations about how to respond to mistakes. Gawande argues that “we need a different strategy for overcoming failure, one that builds on experience and takes advantage of the knowledge people have, but somehow also makes up for our inevitable human inadequacies.” Clearly there are limits to our individual capability, and a team has to be made of the best people for the job, but Gawande’s thesis is that in employing the firing-squad we are more likely to hide our mistakes than learn from them. In a surgical team hiding mistakes costs lives.

The point is, therefore, that rather than thinking about education simply as a depository for knowledge, or as a factory for the development of employability skills, we would do better to remind ourselves that we are a development community. A community that is composed of co-learners and co-teachers. This should be a community in which our learning is shared and respected, regardless of the individual roles either as an experienced learner, or if you are just starting out on your learning journey. If we merely use our educational spaces as a point of social replication, rather than as a place of invention and transformation, then we will continue to undermine the potential that we have to be innovative, creative and relevant. The world is moving very quickly on from the factory systems of the past, and there is no assurance that Western Europe can maintain it’s inherited advantage of investment in knowledge? Unless we are willing, that is, to let go of the past and think about new ways of co-developing knowledge and expertise. Without letting go of the past then it will be highly unlikely that we will be able to do the essential task, which is to pull the future from the air.

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