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Parkin Space: Dumbing Down our Education


Godfrey ParkinSchools in the US are criticised for turning out graduates that are not equipped with basic skills – sound familiar? Godfrey Parkin looks at how corporate training can learn from the mistakes being made in high schools.

American schools in general do not turn out high school “graduates” with a decent education. They do turn out people with almost belligerent assertiveness, and boundless (though unfounded) self-esteem that makes it difficult for them to perceive that they have anything more to learn. In an individual this is tragic; in a corporation, it’s dangerous; in a nation it’s disastrous.

Over recent years studies have shown that illiteracy, innumeracy, and inability to communicate are among the major workforce challenges facing American corporations. Schools no longer produce employable graduates, forcing companies to launch their own basic education programmes – or, more recently, simply set up shop in India. Last week a report titled “Stupid in America” was aired by a major television network in the US. Though its focus was the sad reality of American schools, it struck me that there were some important lessons for corporate training.

In essence, the piece described how 15-year-olds in the US have basic knowledge and ability levels lower than those of kids in two-dozen other nations, and argued that poor teaching is at fault. (This is all about averages, of course, and there is no denying that there is a positive side of the bell-curve where excellent schools do a superb job). American schools and teachers’ unions continue to resist any attempt to measure teaching performance. How odd it is that in corporate training we stress evaluation of impact against learning objectives, and are increasingly held accountable for ROI, yet that concept is scorned in school education, where the foundation for future growth is laid.

Educational authorities, in turn, blame the learning decline on lack of funding, but there is evidence to show that more money often leads to poorer performance – schools tend to spend budget increases on offices, sports facilities, computers, security systems and so on, rather than on better teachers and better educational processes. By contrast, smaller low-budget schools led by passionate educators who have no computers, gyms, or even janitors are producing exceptional results.

Does throwing more and more money into organisational training have any payback if it is primarily directed at hardware, computer systems, and more prestigious “corporate campuses”? And how does the recent trend toward having training run by technocrats rather than trainers affect our focus on the core mission – helping people perform better? Often the technology we adopt serves to further entrench legacy models of training rather than encourage new thinking. The more we standardise learning around enterprise technology systems, the more we suppress the individual passion of trainers and instructional designers.

I am a product of a number of colonial schooling systems that could all best be described as totalitarian, more “Brick in the Wall” than “Ridgemont High.” While my American peers were hanging loose, I was enduring daily beatings because my hair was a millimetre too long or my handwriting was too angular. So I am sympathetic to the libertarian laissez faire approach taken in many schools today. That freedom and concern for the individual choice is one of the great attractions of learning 2.0. But the needs of the individual employee and the needs of the organisation are often on divergent paths, so some structure and focus is called for.

I don’t buy the argument that the blame for the dumbing-down of America’s youth falls exclusively on the educational system. It seems clear to me that culture, particularly the culture in the family, has failed to instil a strong enough veneration for learning and corresponding intellectual curiosity. Parents abdicate responsibility for educating their kids, particularly when they get a little difficult in their early teens. It is easier to concoct a host of external reasons for a child’s learning problems than to acknowledge personal failure. But learning takes place within an evolving ecosystem, not in isolated instances.

Companies make the same mistake – they think that performance problems should be solved by training, and if that doesn’t work, training gets the blame. How many times do we hear trainers bemoan the fact that the environment that trainees return to almost guarantees that what was learned will never be reinforced or applied? It was only after I left school that I understood the real purpose of homework was not to keep me from going fishing, but to get my parents engaged in the education process. We should do more to integrate learning with the workplace and engage managers and the immediate “work family” in supporting the ongoing development of new skills. Blended learning should blend what happens in class or online with what happens back at work, and that means getting the learners immediate colleagues engaged as a support network.

Looking from the outside at the way schools perform can teach lessons and prompt questions about corporate training. Are issues of choice, teaching passion, learning culture, and budget echoed in corporate training? Is it not more important to build a culture within the organization that overtly values and rewards learning, rather than use it as a reward in itself? By outsourcing much of our training, particularly to vendors who are not held accountable for anything more than smile sheet scores, do we risk the same abdication of responsibility and dilution of influence to which American parents have succumbed?

* Read more of Godfrey Parkin's columns here.


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