The Double Helix of Learning and Work

Editors’ Note

The Double Helix of Learning and Workby 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 last chapter being published in Cadmus.

Chapter 5: “A Call to Action”

5.1. All the Ingredients are Available
The solution to the problem of Learning and Work is likely to emerge from the existing elements. It might be the following: the modularization of the curriculum with the aim of creating a personal choice system to be constructed by the individual along his or her active life, between the ages of 16 and 76, to consist of alternative sequences of work and learning. At the dawn of the Twenty-First Century, a vast number of experiments, debates, and initiatives are underway and are aimed at devising solutions to the problems of education and work. The problems in question are also being given priority on governmental agendas. International organizations are focusing on them. Both the pressure of public opinion and the rapid pace of technological and economic change are calling out for solutions. The relationship between education and work is being followed, with great concern, by private companies, and it is catalyzing the involvement of civil society. The main issues for reflection are listed in the table below:

Education and Work: The Principal Issues

Education Education and work Work
Curriculum reform Assessments Employment
Modularity Indicators Active knowledge
Shift to learning Financing Non-monetarized work
Optional and choice Education for work Non-monetized work
learning Job-oriented education Participatory work
Lifelong education and Public and private Inclusion in management
learning Knowledge Part-time work
Interdisciplinarity On the job learning
Formal, informal, non- IC Technology
formal Adult innovation
Imparting knowledge Recurrent education
Anticipatory learning
Participatory learning
Distance learning
Open institutions
Education for all

This list of themes regarding education and work is about as comprehensive as possible. The evolution of the concepts in question and the degree of their recognition are also important. Who would have guessed that the aspiration of humankind to permanent education would give rise to a concept that would become an official programme (i.e., lifelong education)? In the world of politics, bulky chapters are devoted to such items in the electoral platforms of various parties. National and international meetings are tackling these issues more extensively than ever before.

The relatively complete agenda of lifelong education and the energies dedicated to the analysis of its implications are aided by an additional fortuitous circumstance. The debate is not only theoretical, but also action-oriented. It has gradually embraced each and every component of the solution. All the ingredients are now present. Among the myriad experiments, there are some that asymptotically come close to the solution. The overall picture is still in a state of flux, waiting to be crystallized.

Either of the two parts of the helix have multiple exits and points of entry. Transit takes place within a common assessment system, based on cumulative credits and on a funding framework resulting from co-operation between the public and the private sectors. And yet, the solution is not there, and the coagulation point remains beyond reach; moreover, further progress is currently slowing down. The saturation of the mixture is leading to dysfunction.

Thus, the stated and acknowledged objectives tend to turn into empty rhetoric. The proponents of the idea sooth their consciences by delivering noble speeches. Experiments do not advance because of a lack of communication. They appear as isolated spots in an indifferent mass, held to ransom by traditional routines. The acquired expertise moves in closed circles, the case, for instance, with modularization in vocational and postgraduate education.

In almost all cases, experiments amount to ad hoc additions to the mainstream curriculum (a little bit of genetics in secondary education, more civic culture, visits to or practice in industrial enterprises). Teachers seem to treat these activities with condescension and tolerate them providing they do not interfere with the system of class-teacher one-stream curriculum.

Even when solutions meritoriously address previously neglected problems, they are mostly inefficient, if not downright wrong.

Let us take, for instance, the question of children with special needs. The old terms bearing a connotation of exclusion (e.g., handicapped or disabled) have been abandoned. A step forward was taken at a conference held in Salamanca in 1994. It stated a valid principle; those children have to be integrated into the regular system, considering that normality should be construed as recognition of human diversity, and that children with special needs should not be confined to institutions and marked as unable to live a normal life. Steps toward integration into the regular school system have already been taken, and the teachers have been instructed to extend adequate treatment to all children. Nevertheless, integration within a system with a single curriculum may give rise to greater problems than those encountered in special schools. Discrimination will, in fact, be eradicated only when each pupil is able to have an adequate curriculum adapted to his or her specific situation and needs. In the light of the personal curriculum solution, all children are special, and each one has special needs.

The integration of minorities has been and still is being seriously considered by sociologists and government agencies. To quote a representative of a minority group, “integration is another name for assimilation”. Even so, a personalized itinerary provides solutions such as choices of modules relevant to the community language, history, customs, and beliefs within the general framework of the educational offer.

In that perspective, the issue of non-discrimination finds a natural solution. The idea was tenaciously pursued at the end of the Twentieth Century through official programmes aimed at Education for All which simply implemented the provisions of existing interna­tional agreements starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since the notion of an individual itinerary applies to everybody, it eliminates any source of discrimination. The Education for All programme is not limited to the elimination of discrimination from the educational cycle; it also points to the inclusion of all age groups, at least through age 76. In this vision, curricula should be based on modules for all the periods of a person’s life. A possible, but yet unexplored, result could be an extension by twenty years of the productive life span of the adult generations.

The multiplication of optional subjects at all the levels of the educational system can be regarded as an encouraging early result in this process. It reveals the capacity of the educa­tional system to renew itself through cooperation with the community, with parents, and with interested companies. The decision-makers now have to catch up by drafting new laws and introducing systemic modifications into such areas as evaluation, diplomas, and financing schemes. We are witnessing the first signs of flexibility in an effort to come closer to the individual by enabling him or her to exercise his or her essential faculty, that of free choice. Enhanced flexibility is required when it becomes necessary to tackle the more sensitive areas of education.

Many reformist trends around the world have approached the issue of education for work. Special classes were allocated to visits, mostly passive ones, to workplaces in factories and service enterprises, to institutions of public administration, to hospitals, and even to the traffic police. As a result, students became more aware of, and more familiar with, the reality of work. At best, those visits awakened in them a certain interest or vocation. Entertainment and sports have, so far, been more successful in offering attractive heroic models for the young. So have other models of shortcuts to wealth, fame, and prestige, leaving behind the doubtful fascination of work.

A possible experiment could focus on the introduction of occupational modules for children aged 10 to 16, with more advanced levels for students over 16, focusing on such occupations as: electronic engineer, programmer, graphic designer, nurse, salesperson, tourist guide, gardener, farmer, etc. The list is endless, and it coincides with the standard record of professions. Why should recommended hobbies concentrate only on such activities as the breeding of birds or of rabbits? Should a greater degree of free choice not make a young person happy to have earned a professional diploma by the age of 15? Basically, the idea is to gradually assimilate amateurism and hobbies within the curriculum, thus providing a pleasant and attractive introduction to the sphere of work.

Non-formal education and informal education no longer need theoretical recognition, but they remain largely unexplored even though they are attainable with modest means. Where are the “Do-it-yourself” shops which would enable young people to get tremendous satisfaction and pride from having built, from detached parts, their own radio sets, portable sound recorders, home appliances, mosaic-covered tables, computers, etc.? Where are the modules for the organization and equipping of a personal science laboratory (physics, chemistry, natural sciences)? While the schema of modular education is bound to give rise to new industries, such as the module industry, the new concept calls for the establishment of an auxiliary industry producing the wherewithal for informal activities.

It should be noted that all the topics that are being explored by educational research today—formal, informal, and non-formal learning, open and distance learning, recurrent education, optional choice, and modular learning—are increasingly relevant for that area of lifelong education which addresses the adult person.

The promise that learning through experience holds for scientific knowledge is still being mostly ignored. Whereas experiments in the school laboratory under a teacher’s supervision are mandatory, according to the curriculum, the value of exercises in problem solving related to theoretical subjects is played down. In fact, the exercise book is not the auxiliary addendum to the theoretical textbook but rather the other way around. The winners of contests in mathematics, physics, or chemistry will confirm this reality.

However, the most intense and perceptible change of attitude is occurring with the coming generation. Something perceptible and significant has happened, directly linked to education and work, for the structural reform of which the young could be the main asset.

Scholars doing research on the impact of technology on the younger generation (the United States provided a most appropriate field of study) suggested that, following the baby boomers, the people born in the aftermath of the Second World War, the generation of the 1960s and 1970s, have their own particular characteristics. The former, the baby boomers, bear the imprint of television and of its confusing, non-interactive influence. That generation produced radical and revolutionary youth movements. It was followed by the Y (for “Yuppie”) generation (also called the “Millennials”), children of the Internet. Children turn their backs on traditional games because of the superior interaction and sheer fun that the new environment of the Web offers them. People of the new generation are displaying unusually strong new propensities: independence, skepticism about adults, a rich imagination, and an incredible innovative power. They love change and, above all, they are entrepreneurial.

Don Tapscott, the author of Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (1998), wrote: “For the first time in history, children are more comfortable and literate than their parents about an innovation central to society”.

What should be noted is the impatience of these young people with the pace and the protocol of the conventional curriculum. They want to learn faster and better by making use of available technology in a more focused and selective manner than is prescribed in the rigid curriculum. They already are the authors, avant la lettre, of personal curricula. They are also impatient to jump-start their involvement in the sphere of work as soon as possible. At a time when senior citizens learn how to use e-mail and to search the World Wide Web from their juniors, young people are no longer attracted to the defiant spirit of the 1970s. They simply wish to find out more about life during that period. The much-discussed “generation gap” is not widening. The contrary seems to be the case.

It is striking to see how much respect these young people have gained in the eyes of their seniors. Adults have started to imitate youth, to dress like them, and to listen to their music. Companies want them for their technical skills and their taste for change. Governments take them along with their delegations to the United Nations. City halls set up youth councils. Political parties increasingly depend on inputs from their youth branches. Students have an active presence in the management committees of secondary schools and universities.

Some might object that this picture is that of corporate America. Yet another young generation is turning to the symbols and myths of the past. From a ludic point of view, it is fair to say that the young play the games that are available to them, even the most sinister ones. By extension, in the new century, the name of the game is the computer, not the swastika. Despite obvious material obstacles, it is surprising how this trend is also gaining ground in the developing countries.

Let us examine the reasons why this dynamic young generation and the spirit of change that it is stimulating can be placed at the top of the list of present-day favourable factors. The experiments it is engaged in will likely decide the future of lifelong learning intertwined with work and accomplished through a variety of individual itineraries.

Orio Giarini: Director, The Risk Institute; Member, 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 Please refer to the original book for complete bibliography.

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