The Double Helix of Learning and Work

5.6. The Network of Experimental Points
Most statements on structural change stop, after a formulation of the best and most noble ideas, at the point of implementation. The nostalgia for action and innovation is mirrored in the frequent use of such terms as new, innovation, adaptation, anticipation, the requirements of reality, and the ideal desiderata. Although novelty appears like a pie growing in a greenhouse, it does not move rapidly enough, nor is it widely known.

The following are some topical issues for the coming years: the emergence of a new kind enterprise, the magnitude of which is given by the new map of knowledge and by the numerous combinable modules according to individual choices, learning spanning over the entire duration of life, the introduction of new technologies, continuous updating of information, and the joining together of learning and work. From the very start, we tend to favour horizontal experiments as opposed to the hierarchical fiat of the hierarchical systems. A pedagogical experiment takes a generation in order to be productive or assessable. Thirty-three years of waiting, i.e., three generations per century, means too much waiting. The pace of knowledge and of economic and social change may reduce the interval to twenty-five years.

The process can begin with the development of current experiments (ten years), followed by changing the funding of macro-systems (legislation, organization, funding) over another decade, and assembling the results in a coherent and operational schema of global scope (another five years). The intervals suggested for the implementation of the Learning and Work schema are not much longer than, say, those required for building a factory or designing the master plan for a city (5 years), nor are they fanciful.

There are no real conceptual difficulties in accomplishing the tasks of the first phase, considering the fact that further action will rely on current experiments. Emphasis is to be laid on their extension, maturation, acknowledgment, and confrontation. The key word is network, rather than a central authority, a global Areopagus, or a flow of vertical top-down instructions. The network is a question of experimental spots.

An outline of its topics emerges from the inventory of current experiments. Here is a tentative list:

  • gradual introduction of modularization, especially in the years preceding a predictable exit (vocational and at the ages of 14-16, 16-18; a college exit almost everywhere in higher, postgraduate, adult, and recurrent education);
  • opening of all elementary, secondary, and higher schools to persons returning to resume interrupted studies at various ages; adaptation of all methods of evaluation and teaching so as to fit the requirements of lifelong learning;
  • multiplication of forms and assimilation of training for work within the general system by means of modules that are equally valuable for the rest of the system (LW);
  • more free-choice or optional courses, which will be treated as equal to those required by either the compulsory system or by the demands of the chosen itinerary;
  • cultivation of the ability to choose through adequate courses describing various activities and professions; encouraging interest in the development of vocations and aptitudes;
  • steps towards the recognition of the forms of learning to be taken from the work sphere into the educational system and followed by their assimilation within lifelong learning;
  • retraining the trainers in order for them to move on from master courses to individual or small group tutoring; as teachers are recruited from the general university system, special modular programmes should be introduced for those choosing that profession (for instance, foreign language modules designed to meet distinct needs for translators, researchers, specialists in comparative literature, etc.);
  • a new approach to non-formal and informal education, with important resources for specific interests and attractiveness; also, because such courses have many elements that could be included in modules;
  • strengthening the basis for source references (well-equipped libraries, data bases) and practical activity (laboratories, workshops, computerized classrooms, etc.);
  • intensive use of computers to make modules more attractive and orientational through the use of multimedia techniques;
  • development of distance education;
  • encouragement of new forms of part-time work and learning;
  • establishment of joint councils (involving parents, communities, and the private sector) to provide assistance in the management of educational institutions;
  • creation of a favourable atmosphere for innovation through the mass media, special awareness sessions, and meetings (for example, alumni associations);
  • enactment of new educational laws and regulations designed to cut red tape and bureaucracy;
  • assurance of system maintenance by means of regular bulletins and constantly updated Websites on the Internet;
  • support for various professional associations, NGOs, CSOs (civil society organizations), foundations, and private funds that display a particular interest in education and work;
  • introduction of specific methods to stimulate participation and anticipation at all levels and to enhance the ability of learners to concentrate, which is currently at risk owing to the informational boom.

We have focused on a particular interval in a person’s life that is closest to the concerns of the Learning and Work relationship.

But the formative period of an individual begins much earlier, starting in kindergarten, nursery school, or even earlier. It would be unfair to overlook the interesting experiences in this domain. So would it also be to underestimate the endeavours to capitalize on the acquisitions resulting from advanced knowledge of cerebral functions or other psychological studies. Children display early on a fantastic ability to learn foreign languages (something that has fascinated Noam Chomsky), or to follow the logical steps in assimilating concepts such as space, time, measurement (something that inspired Jean Piaget). Important artificial intelligence centers, such as that at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, led by Patrick Winston, have created kindergartens in order to study the mechanisms underlying the recognition of formulae. Optional courses have crossed the threshold of elementary education. This huge learning potential that we read in children’s eyes, in their clever hands and creative talents, goes down in a descending curve once they enter the rigid and cold environment of formal education. The very fact that such an involution actually happens should be a cause for concern and a perpetual source of inspiration.

The progress of other large systems (the field of work, managerial innovations, entrepreneurial culture, R&D organization) may give rise to new developments of utmost significance for the double helix. It would make a great deal of sense to establish an early partnership with those who are interested in the classification of the sciences and in the global mapping of knowledge. These projects need time to mature and, no matter what happens in the experimental phase, the crop will be reaped later. It will also take at least ten years, and it will depend on the measures that the major decision-makers might choose to enforce at the level of macro-systems. While the classical institutions may have been favoured in this experimental phase, it is also clear that such innovations as the open and corporate universities, spurred on precisely by the inadequacies and narrow-mindedness of those institutions, are likely to lead to further interesting experiments inviting broader generalization.

If we have considered experience and its horizontal movement over the same ten years, it does not mean that measures toward more opening and reform cannot also be initiated from top down by central authorities. That is what the Japanese system is currently undertaking.

Here are some of the more plausible and feasible measures:

  • Development of a unitary system, based on the modularization of knowledge, individual itinerary, and lifelong learning by means of adequate legislation allowing for frequent switches between learning and work, with adequate funding provisions from public and private sources.
  • Encouraging existing governmental organizations and creating new ones to work together in support of the double helix of education and work with the business community and civil society (trade unions included).
  • Complete harmonization of education in the sphere of work with work in the sphere of education to be reflected in correlated evaluations and recurrent, interchangeable, activities.
  • Large scale introduction of the tutorial system based on individual guidance, which does not imply abandoning classical specializations (those of mathematician, biologist, social scientist, and humanist). On the contrary, the best sources for the modules on sciences are the specialists themselves, and they will also write the modules. The novelty lies in the time gained for scientific research, with universities and also the secondary schools as reliable pillars.
  • The implementation of the Learning and Work concept will trigger great changes in the institutional structures of states.
  • The most important innovation will be reform of the funding system for the two social systems of learning and work by means of a common methodology and a single chapter in the state budget taking care of both of them.
  • The major educational questions (interdisciplinarity, lifelong education, the combining of social demand with individual fulfillment) are likely to find answers that will turn around the obsessive present agenda to accommodate the changes occurring in the field of labour (employment mobility).
  • International organizations will become more active in supervising regional and global generalizations of mature solutions.
  • Statistics will be simpler once credits become the measure of one’s knowledge through social mobility and the number of switches on the double helix.

The historical trajectory also matters. If the Twenty-First Century continues to be haunted by identity crises and social or ethnic conflicts, if certain inner cities become battle grounds for urban warfare, if peace does not prevail, a rational effort toward radical change through Learning and Work will not be able to flourish and come to fruition.

If, however, conflicts are successfully prevented or peacefully resolved, this schema will be established within a favourable environment. More than that, the co-operation it invites, involving political decision-makers, executive authorities, and the material power of knowledge and money will eventually affect the substance and methods of local and global governance. No soil is more propitious for nurturing new methods of societal management in the era of knowledge.

The individual will benefit most from the effects of the macro-measures to be experienced in the next three decades. His or her dignity will rise as a result of the recognition of his or her statute and role. He or she will make choices that have traditionally been reserved to others. Briefly, he or she will become, more than ever before, the master of his or her own destiny, broadly mirrored in his or her Learning and Work trajectory, bearing the specificity of a personalized fingerprint. It is to be expected that cohesion and partnership, rather than contest and competition, will govern these parallel games. The United Nations will be entitled to say that an important correction has been made to alleviate the drawbacks of globalization. It may sound a bit like tempo di marchia, but the Twenty-First Century deserves it.

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