Double Helix of Learning and Work

Editors Note

The Double Helix of Learning and Work by Orio Giarini and Mircea Malitza is a report to the Club of Rome first published by UNESCO in 2003. It advances fundamental paradigm-changing ideas in the field of education. Drawing inspiration from the double helix structure of DNA, the authors seek to strengthen the relationship between education and employment in order to bring ‘The Knowledge Society’ within reach. This article is an abridged version of the second chapter of the report. Successive chapters will be carried in subsequent issues of Cadmus.

Chapter 2

The Modular Approach

2.1. Dismantling the Disciplines
Whenever knowledge experienced a boom following a scientific breakthrough or a dramatic assimilation of novelty in society and the economy, a feeling arose that the new acquisitions had to be ordered, controlled, and better organized for more effective use and broader distribution. Looking back, it seems that such moments of stocktaking tended to occur once in every century, always during the first half.

Without going too far back in history, it is possible to suggest that in the Eighteenth Century such a moment of truth was the project of the Great French Encyclopaedia (1750), which was preceded by the earlier English Chambers’s Cyclopaedia… (1728). The era was that of the Enlightenment that followed Newton’s spectacular achievements in science. In the Nineteenth Century, Auguste Comte engaged in a classification of all sciences (1830) in an attempt to cover the entire sphere of knowledge, with the resulting emergence of positivism. He also contemplated the project of an Encyclopaedia that would stand for a “philosophical system of all knowledge in general”. The progress of education was also one of his concerns. In the Twentieth Century, starting from the same premises, the Vienna Circle initiated a daring programme comprising the preparation of a new comprehensive Encyclopaedia (only one volume was published at the time, in 1937) and the establishment of an International Institute of Unified Science (1936). Both projects had to be abandoned right before the outbreak of the Second World War.

It is to be noted that a philosophical approach took pride of place in all these projects. Comte represented the unity of science as a tree (all sciences having a common root). The Vienna Circle saw logical empiricism as the basis of a science that tended to apply a single unifying methodology and to eliminate those branches that they were not capable of being used.

Each of those displays of unlimited trust in the power of knowledge, as incorporated in the sciences, elicited reactions and gave rise to protests. L’Age des Lumières was contested by Romanticism. After Comte, the sciences of the spirit were separated from the common trunk of the natural sciences by the “great schism” of Dilthey. Historicism and the axioms of the Vienna Circle were challenged in their very logic by statements indicating the limits of formalization or the untranslatability of language (Gödel, Quine). What should be noted is that crises of overproduction in the sciences generate projects aimed at ordering and classification. It is as if people of vision were looking for systematic methods to store knowledge goods so that those goods could be retrieved easily and rapidly. In the Twenty-First Century, the problem has resurfaced with a much greater sense of urgency. No wonder that it has not waited until 2030 simply to be in harmony with historical experience.

The knowledge boom occurred in the second half of the past century. Its magnitude defies conventional description. Books become obsolete as soon as they come off the press. This phenomenon explains, at least in part, the emergence of thousands of learned journals devoted to a single domain, such as medicine. Even so, no sooner are the magazines printed then research may advance considerably. The Internet has provided a much more rapid vehicle for registering and spreading knowledge. And yet, not even the new science of “information retrieval” has been able to cope effectively with the growing mass of unordered information.

The problem is that classification methods are still rigid and antiquated. They have not changed much with the passage of time. Geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and physics have stayed, each in one piece, ever since Aristotle. All they did was to multiply by division, but broadly they are the same. During the Middle Ages, universities taught liberal arts in two groups: the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy). Auguste Comte also counted only seven basic sciences: astron­omy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, and ethics.

As soon as a science acquired more advanced methods, it was made into a model. According to the Neurath and the Vienna Circle, the unity of science was suggested by “physicalism”. Galileo in the Seventeenth Century and the school of quantitative models in the Twentieth Century chose mathematics. These days they seem to have been dethroned by biology.

Broadly speaking, the administration of knowledge has been undertaken by individual disciplines for centuries, no matter how diverse and specialized their subdivisions may have become. The disciplines have been institution­alized in higher education institutions: a comprehensive area of knowledge has a corresponding faculty, while its sub-branches are covered by departments and chairs. The university provides a common roof for all and ensures the implementation of legal requirements. It awards graduation diplomas for accepted disciplines that are so described under the relevant law or other act issued by the national educational authority. In some countries, degree diplomas (BA, MA, PhD) in international relations are not awarded. Very few countries award formal degrees in mathematical linguistics or bioelectronics.

Now that the file on the organization of knowledge is finally reopened, it becomes obvious that the approach, based on a strict compartmentalization of disciplines, is the most serious barrier to innovative solutions. Teachers as a professional group display the greatest amount of inertia; they fiercely defend their own disciplines with a dedication that reminds one of the way large predators assert control over their hunting grounds. The classical pyramidal scheme, school-teacher-disciplines-students, has endured for centuries.

It would still be unfair to regard the university of today as a medieval fortress. Spatial unity in a confined sanctuary of learning is no longer the rule. In a modem campus faculty, buildings are often scattered, sometimes even located in different cities. The teaching staff has become considerably more mobile than in the past. Guest lecturers or visiting professors are quite common in most universities. Students move to other countries for a semester and come back with credits obtained from other universities. Optional courses are advertised for those who may be interested in them. During lectures or seminars, students frequently ask for additional explanations on pieces of information they pick up on the Internet. Distance learning competes with day courses. Professors and students alike carry their auxiliary memories in their laptops. Lectures are given using PowerPoint multimedia techniques with visual demonstrations and even musical accompaniment. Mass education has replaced latter-day élitism: universities have become crowded places offering a variety of events, always dynamic and heterogeneous. Informality and casual dress codes are the latest fashion.

At least, that is what one sees from the outside. More importantly, one must note that, on the inside, the university, which used to be the most conservative of institutions of learning, is now engaged in a serious debate on innovation. Myriads of circles, associations, and groups are dedicating their work to innovative teaching and learning in order to absorb the impact of IT. From here to examining the very mechanisms of change there is only one step to take.

Networking has transformed the world’s leading universities into a huge laboratory of experimentation, innovation, and change. Which issues are the most topical? The classical education system was dominated by theory. Now, emphasis is being laid on learning through experience and on work-based learning. The traditional school focused on the development of intellect; now, the spotlight is aimed at skills and the acquisition of core skills or key skills. Such concerns are living proof of the fact that education is moving a step closer to the world of work.

These concerns are announcing further spectacular developments in the Twenty-First Century. Both experience-based and work-based learning and the rediscovery of the impor­tance of skills have been the result of pressing demands from knowledge users in the social and economic environment. Satisfactory answers have not yet been provided. Which disci­plines are able to meet those growing concerns? Who is going to teach them? The disciplinary teachers ponder.

The basic tactic that the universities have used in their approach to change is to adopt the new techniques while still retaining the disciplinarity structure. The least problematic were the audio-visual methods that have been on the agenda since the 1950s. Audiovisual laboratories were created, but they served only as additional teaching aids to supplement traditional courses, which remained unchanged. The same happened with the use of television in schools.

The challenge of interdisciplinarity was even more remarkable. A new generation of universities emerged in Europe, in the 1960s, mostly as a reaction of worried governments when confronted with student unrest. The modernity of such new universities was expressed in the first re-wrapping of knowledge. Interdisciplinary faculties and schools were established to cope particularly with complex environmental matters. The response of the universities to the challenge of interdisciplinarity was not the weakening of disciplines but their multiplication. Those new rooms added to the old building “rapidly began to behave like conventional subject departments with the traditional means to maintain boundaries and to discourage the permeability of the staff, students, or resources through them” (Bridges, 2000).

The same tactics were applied to the assimilation of information technology, even though it proved to be more difficult to tame. The computer was viewed as a useful, even indispensa­ble, instrument in educational practice, but still no more than an appendix to the disciplines. That attitude was a mistake. As James Bosco (1994) put it, the new technology does not fit into the old picture as a touch of color, but as an active element that establishes connections with each and every component of the structure, thus altering it. We should remember the words of Marshall McLuhan (1965); “the medium is the message”. IT takes a central place among the issues brought forth by the innovative trend in education and learning.

Increasingly, the Internet is a working space within which knowledge can be co-constructed, negotiated and revised in our time; where disparate students from diverse locations and backgrounds, even internationally can engage one another in learning activities; where collaborative projects can be developed; where communities of inquiry can grow and thrive; and where simulations, models and visually based prospects can be created that allow real interactions within vivid and complex environments that span sensory experiences. […] Such activities are not just supplements to the classroom experiences; they are unique and irreplaceable learning opportunities themselves; and often they exist only online, not in real classrooms (N. C. Burbules and T. A. Callister, “Universities in Transition”, 1999).

There is an item in the innovators’ programme that not only provides solutions for the others but also becomes the kernel of the new structure of educational systems: modularity. It has the appearance of a most benign and technical methodological approach, but it is the first-ever coherent attempt to break the compact block of the disciplines. Shy and prudent, experimental and local, it has come up with the best way to alleviate the suspicions of disciplinarists: it looks like a mere method to emphasize the individuality of various chapters in a discipline-based course. Modularity actually behaves like the computer: once seen as an instrument, it becomes the generator of total reform.

Orio Giarini: Director, The Risk Institute; Member of the Board of Trustees, World Academy of Art and Science
Mircea Malitza: Founding Member, Black Sea University Foundation, Romania; Fellow, World Academy of Art and Science
* All content being used from the book The Double Helix of Learning and Work – a Report to the Club of Rome – by Orio Giarini and Mircea Malitza,
published in 2003, is copyrighted to UNESCO. The full book is available online for download at

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