The Double Helix of Learning and Work

3.6. Learning and Work Programmes: The Initial Phase
The concern of education not to separate itself from work – as a final goal, an additional pedagogical instrument, or a link to real life – is old and topical at the same time. This duality is also visible in the way it has found its place in the edifice of knowledge. Let us examine the other perspective, that of work and of the way it has moved closer to learning in practical terms.

Primary and secondary education were the objects of early experiments in this respect. Up to the end of the Twentieth Century, the political map was divided into three distinct worlds: (i) the developed world; (ii) the socialist world; and (iii) the developing world. In the charts of international organizations, these worlds were identified either with numbers (1, 2, 3) or with letters (A, B, C). During the entire postwar period, which was dominated by the Cold War mentality, the Learning and Work idea functioned differently in each of the three worlds in terms of reasons and solutions. It was known as the EWP (“Education with Production”).

Let us begin with the Third World. There was an ideological precedent here. According to Gandhi, village crafts, such as spinning, were reliable methods to build character and to cultivate self-reliance. Some Third World leaders, such as Julius Nyerere, interpreted idea as a means of shedding the colonial heritage. Then the notion of self-reliance moved into the area of economic necessities and rural transformation and acquired the status of a prerequisite for development. In 1975, all schools in Tanzania established their own production units. In Cuba, schools were allotted large crop fields to tend (especially of pineapples). The curriculum and the production plan became equal targets of school activities.

The challenge of each individual, as subject of the learning process, is to acquire and maintain his own “employability”, fully assume his responsibilities and compromises, enhance his culture and completely exercise all his rights, all pointing to a permanent or recurrent education during the entire life. Thus, each student also has the duty and the right to ask himself, according to his circumstances and possibilities, to what extent the educational offer and his own learning opportunities lead to the accomplishment of his life projects, instead of following a study program in order to obtain a degree, hoping to get a job, besides the cultural opportunities and of social involvement it can offer (Ricardo Diez Hochleitner, Apprender para el futuro).

In the socialist countries, ideological motives took precedence because the worker was assigned the role of an ideal social prototype. His leading position was established in the cultural superstructure that also comprised education in the organization of production and the fundamental institutions of the state. In the Soviet Union, those functions were reflected in production strategies; in the German Democratic Republic, in the polytechnic centers; and, in Romania, in the school-production-research triad. The ideological rationale also took precedence in China: production activities were sometimes performed in centers that allocated half of the time to work and half to study so as to impart the “right” attitudes.

In the West, the interest in Education with Production also had philosophical roots: pragmatism always attempted to balance a leaning towards theoretical elaboration with experiment and practice. Never before had school and production been so close to each other. But the forays of schools into productive activities rarely produced tangible benefits, other than the realization of certain social, cognitive, and moral goals (orientation, information, and familiarization).

Several reliable surveys indicated that, despite their multiplicity, the Education with Production experiments yielded negative results in all of the three worlds. The resistance of both parents and young people to manual labour, the fact that they viewed education as a means to escape the hard toil of rural life, the skepticism of teachers, the lack of enthusiasm on the part of enterprises that considered that their routines were being disturbed by this new complication, the exaggerations bordering on absurdity, that drove entire schools to harvest grapes, corn, or potatoes, seriously affected the credibility of Education with Production and slowed its application. The lack of clear guidelines, the absence of material conditions in schools and of educational conditions in enterprises, and the difficult assessment procedures contributed crucially to the decline of the Education with Production approach. The greatest obstacle was the rigid curriculum, which was unable to adapt and innovate in terms of knowledge and skills and stuck to the familiar path of teacher-based theoretical education.

The interest in Education with Production resurfaced in the last decade of the Twentieth Century. In the developing countries, now freed from the doctrines that consecrated underdevelopment rather seeking ways out of it, a new wind of realism and modernization began to blow. The trend was illustrated by the Rural Education and Agriculture Program (REAP) in Belize, the Self-Help Action Plan for Education (SHAPE) in Zambia, and the Polytechnic Education Support Programme (PESP) in Tanzania.

In those countries, where “scientific socialism” collapsed, following a period of rejection of anything that might have evoked the “cult of socialist work”, schools entered the phase of computers, management, marketing, and exposure to new market economy conditions.

The most significant revival of the Education with Production idea took place in the developed countries. It happened because of a combination of reasons including the need for schools to establish contact with their social environments. The new concept was reflected, first and foremost, in integration within the community, a target of utmost importance for Western society. But schools were also interested in establishing partnerships with enterprises in order to obtain their support for additional financing of education – an increasingly difficult task. A new definition of knowledge in relation to its usefulness and applicability began to gain ground.

A vast amount of literature is available on this subject. Sociologists considered it to be an ideal angle for the study of class divisions within society, perpetuated through education and consecrated during one’s working life. The new formula assigned to the school the task of reproducing the hierarchy and the power relations in society by means of a system of values, norms, and languages. The emphasis was on inequality and discrimination in the field of work, for which school is a mere rehearsal. Some American authors – free of European ideological accents – adopted a functionalist perspective and offered the vision of a society that is busy preparing young people to become competent adults, i.e., training them for their future jobs: organization, control, and hierarchy, which are replicated to this end by the school.

One might well ask from where the increasing degree of nonconformity that dominates schools and the vindictive trend that troubles the harmony of life has come. The variety of opinions is huge once one considers a cultural perspective, which also includes ideology. If one seizes the more neutral ground of information, the approaches appear less controversial. The normative theories speak of a school of “social efficiency”. The Learning-Work link presented is that vision of the school as training “workers in the appropriate numbers, with suitable skills and behaviors to serve the system of production”. At the opposite pole, we have Dewey and the “progressive school”, according to which education should not be assigned goals with a specific output. Without completely ignoring the specific professions, education should also consider the free development of the child’s personality, talent, and resources, and therefore it should provide him with a variety of stimulating experiences.

The main positive input in the development of theory did not come from either philosophers or sociologists but, rather, from the economists. In 1965, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (UN/ECOSOC) adopted a resolution concerning “human development”, a dimension that had been neglected during the heated debates on the new economic order initiated by the developing countries in 1964, in Geneva. The issue would subsequently rank high on the agenda of international organizations. The UNDP “Human Development” series has been issued ever since. After the Social Summit in Copenhagen (1995), a new session dealt with “humane development”, thus introducing new ethical concerns. As long as the concept was not used as a counterweight to inaccessible or undesired technology, the idea of human development enhanced the efforts of developing countries in the area of education. It was eventually accepted as a policy guideline for all countries.

The opening of the “human development” chapter was the most significant contribution to economic theory, firmly establishing a bridge between education and work. It is a quite different chapter now. “Physical capital can always be repossessed and resold…. Human capital cannot be repossessed and resold” (Thurow, 1999). Ultimately, education is an investment in the development of skills leading to higher workplace productivity and to higher earnings on the labour market.

The literature on that specific subject tackled two aspects. One is the worker effect, that is, greater literacy and knowledge results in enhanced productivity (speed, quality, etc.) in the workplace. The second effect, which eventually also has an impact on productivity, refers to the improved judgment of workers regarding decisions on resource allocation and time management. Basically, the whole question has to do with the ability of humans to obtain access to information and to process it sensibly. This new skill enables workers to take up the participatory role required by the new organization of enterprises. The question here is that of a management requirement that is understood and accepted by the investor.

At the level of principles, the Learning and Work literature is more abundant and advanced than it is at the practical level of implementation. It stresses the need to overcome the inflexibility of the curricular and diploma systems. The individual with a diploma acknowledging his or her educational accomplishments finds him- or herself in a limbo at the threshold between education and work. The debate over the “Diploma Disease” reveals how imperfect this junction is.

An entire school of thought evolved from a book, bearing that title, written by Ronald Dore (1976). It acknowledged the historical importance of educational certificates that came into being at the beginning of the modernization process. But it also pointed to the inflation of qualifications, and it questioned both the causal relation between educational qualifications and earnings and the value of credentials as indicators of the ability of people to perform productively on the job.

No one denies that literacy is a precondition for modern work and that schooling yields social and private returns. Nevertheless, the enthusiastic thesis about the value of human capital comes into question when it becomes necessary to demonstrate that additional school­ing leads to productivity gains or that scholastic ability is relevant to the needs of modern sector jobs. It is, of course, a frustrating experience for those who have their experience and abilities in the workplace defied by a young graduate who, by virtue of some diploma, claims a better job, a higher salary, and rapid promotion.

As a reaction to the “human capital” school, which invests in education because it embraces its formative virtues, the practicist “screening” trend, based on skills and aptitudes, has developed more recently. It focuses on reducing the abundance of required reproductive ratings and on the substitution of tests for diplomas when processing applications for jobs.

To those looking for new and innovative solutions to the Learning and Work relationship, the content of that debate is just a symptom of an unsatisfactory state of affairs. Both sides of the debate are “right”: (i) The role of the school in the formation of the labour force is justified, and educational certificates must not be banished from the selection or promotion procedures. (ii) Although the school does not provide sufficient input in regard to relevant training, the practical value of graduation certificates should not be questioned.

The development of a modular system of credits accumulated with a view to meeting a certain target (e.g., a well-defined activity) would make the diploma debate pointless, even though the tensions between theoreticians and empiricists is likely to last forever.

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