The Double Helix of Learning and Work

3.7. Learning and Work Programmes in Full Swing
The conclusions to be drawn from the current phase of Learning and Work are well summed up in the following identified trends:

  • The emphasis has shifted away from preparation for work in schools toward the concept of lifelong learning that is work-related.
  • There is a realization that both technical and social and interpersonal skills are required in the workplace and that these need to be readily transferable.
  • The old dichotomies between liberal education and vocational education and between education and training are breaking down.
  • Preparation for a life of work has implications for curriculum content, pedagogy, and the organization of schooling.
  • Rapid technical and organizational changes in the world of work have profound implications for education.

All these trends are valid and evidence-based, starting with the acceptance of the idea that the old dichotomy. Education versus Work has a new chance to be resolved in the framework of lifelong education. The conclusions lead to a new series of innovations that the present trends make possible.

In order to review the emerging opportunities, we shall resort to the double helix metaphor as well as to that of the zipper that brings them together. The starting point is the fact that both halves have progressed a great deal and have initiated (not necessarily corresponding) changes. The question as to whether or not the acquisitions of Education include suggestions for Work, and the other way round, may lead us to the schema of a much more daring programme as compared to the current period of research and experimentation, no matter how intense they may have been.

  1. Lifelong learning through Education still has no clearly determined equivalent in the sphere of Work. A finite and closed segment of work seems to oppose lifelong education.
  2. Distance learning and teleworking already exist, thanks to the same technology. They open widows in a learning-work continuum, which allows transfers from one helix to another as well as the simultaneous performance of both activities.
  3. Part-time learning and part-time work exist owing to the evolution of the labour market. The growth of evening courses and distance learning systems indicate new trends in education. In France, the demand for part-time jobs is encouraged through measures such as the reduction of the social security contributions required of employers. A parallel evolution of part time activity is obvious in both Education and Work.
  4. Alternation is a current practice in education, but it has no equivalent in Work. It consists of the systematic inclusion, in educational programmes, of periods of work outside the institutions of learning. There are successful examples of alternation in education in Germany (the country that has kept and has modernized the apprenticeship tradition) and in the Netherlands. These are part of a series of efforts to bring secondary and higher education into a functional relationship with the labour market. Nevertheless, the worker is refused the opportunity of a similar attachment to the formal educational system, even though on-the-job training and other forms of professional recycling inside the company have considerably increased.
  5. Modularization is a method specific to the organization of knowledge. Its philosophy has long been applied in the production of parts and in assembly work as well as in flexible production and, more recently, in the manufacturing of tailor-made industrial goods. In education, it is used mainly in the sphere of vocational education, where its usefulness has been recognized. Vocational models are only a step away from practical training for machine handling. The technical know-how is still presented in the form of compact handbooks or operating manuals.
  6. Teamwork is much more frequently the object of experimentation by modern industrial managers than it is by educators. Nevertheless, successful projects have been tried out in elementary education (in Australia, for instance).
  7. The most interesting and advanced initiative for Learning and Work is recurrent education. It is the form of lifelong education which was once called “permanent education”. No international debate has ever come so close to the real solution to the Learning and Work relationship. In 1968, Olaf Palme (then Swedish Minister of Education) presented the idea at an OECD meeting. In 1973, the Center for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) of the OECD discussed a report on the implications of the new proposition. It sought mainly to promote the “complementarity between learning taking place in schools and learning occurring in other life situations. Such complementarity implies that degrees and certificates should not be looked upon as an ‘end result’ of an educational career but rather as steps in a process of lifelong education development across the life span” (Tuijnman, 1996). All the elements that are relevant today were foreshadowed in that study. At the end of an educational cycle, the student is provided with a curriculum giving him or her a real choice between further study and work. There is co-ordination between educational policy and public policy in general and labour market policy in particular. The system provides opportunities for adult education in universities, acknowledgment of the value of credits gained through non-traditional educational routes, abolition of terminal stages, so that all tracks lead to other programmes, alternation of education and work, possibility to pursue any career in an intermittent way, and alternative work and study.

Everything that is of concern to us today – unemployment, the social imperative of providing chances for success to the young, the aspiration for greater social equity and the fight against discrimination, the interest in the value of personal initiative – was also topical in 1968. Global conditions, however, changed in the decade of recessions. The innovative élan and the prosperity of the 1960s turned to bitter disappointment in the 1970s.

It would be interesting to review the obstacles that brought that remarkable initiative so close to utter failure. Besides the troubled and unfavourable historical environment, the following impediments can be listed:

  • The institutions at which the new approach was aimed (schools and companies) were not ready to move away from a piecemeal and ad hoc approach to a long-term view;
  • There was increasing reluctance to undertake new financial commitments out of fear of additional costs (applicable to both the state and to the private sector);
  • The persistently closed nature of university programmes left them completely unprepared for continuing education and unfriendly to outsiders;
  • Rigid legislation and an inertia-bound, traditionalist mentality opposed continuing education;
  • There was complete institutional inability to elaborate, co-ordinate, and manage a comprehensive social project designed to redistribute educational opportunities and resources over the whole life-span of the citizen;
  • A growing oppositionist trend glimpsed a conspiracy of the decision-making factors behind any new structure or technology.

Obviously, the original project cannot be taken literally and transplanted into the reality of today, given the considerable changes that have occurred in the past three decades. Still, the persistence of obstacles might provide an incentive for the development of a more effective strategy. The novelty of the more favourable global environment of today brings into play supplementary elements: a fresh emphasis on knowledge and human capital as crucial factors in the production of goods and services, falling school enrollments and declining birthrates, the advent of new technologies, increased competition in international trade, and the emergence of market models driven by private initiatives. Methodological maturity in the field of knowledge organization and teaching, also illustrated by modularization and the extensive use of ICT assistance, is a useful additional ingredient to the external factors.

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