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A Framework for Thinking and Learning

I recently spoke with Kai-ming Cheng, Professor and Chair of Education and Senior Advisor to the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Hong Kong in Hong Kong, China.  As a member of China's State Advisory Committee on Curriculum Reform and of the Hong Kong Education Commission, Kai-ming has been instrumental in the education reforms taking place in Hong Kong and mainland China.  He is a member of the Center on Intentional Education Benchmarking (CIEB) advisory board.  This is an edited version of the full interview, which can be found here.

Marc Tucker: In your essay, Learning and society in a post-industrial era, you describe the way the nature of work is changing in advanced industrial societies and how that is affecting the kinds of skills people now need.  How and when did that research begin?

Kai-ming Cheng: I started my study of the workplace about 12 or 13 years ago by looking at the way work was organized at investment banks like Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong.  I found that the investment bankers work in small task forces and teams, just a few people — a one-stop shop.  In other organizations, these task forces are often called a deal team, an account team, a project team and so on.  These teams function semi-autonomously, with great freedom to respond to the quickly changing environment in which they work.  The team members bring different skills, knowledge and experience to the work and are expected to draw on one another constantly to get the work of the team done.

This is very different from the typical pyramidal structure in the traditional industrial company where you usually find a whole army of front line workers all of whom look upward in the pyramid, looking for close direction from their superiors.   In that structure, the expertise is above each worker in the pyramid, each worker operates only in a narrow sphere and the autonomy of each worker is very limited.

The client is no longer expected to move around and be served by different department of the organization, nor is each department expected to face all clients.  Instead, the client is assigned a team whose job it is to meet that client's unique needs, needs that are constantly changing.  Those needs are often very complex and demand a holistic service by integrating all kinds of expertise on the part of the firm.  This is happening more and more and in many workplace situations.

MST: Tell us how this impacts the work that people do and what they have to know to do it.

KMC: In the pyramidal situation, typically the front line worker only needs to know how to follow instructions and what the procedures, rules or regulations are.  The workers don't have to design, run risks or face the clients directly, most of the time. They are protected by bureaucracy.  They are not liable for their mistakes as long as they follow procedures.  They are not at risk of facing any moral dilemmas or personality conflicts with clients.  But now, in small groups, even the frontline workers have to interact with clients, they have to solve problems and design, they have to run risks.

MST: How are the changes in the workplace leading to the types of skills workers must have today?

KMC: Everybody has to share the same responsibilities such as brainstorming, thinking of what to do next, working with others on a team, being creative all the time regardless of where you are and you have to constantly face ethical challenges and moral dilemmas, and you have to think outside the box, you have to run risks, you have to face changing networks and changing markets, and no one is doing the same thing all the time, you have to adapt to change on a daily basis.

MST: Your paper presents a picture of an increasing distance between what educators are doing and what people actually need to function well in this world.  

KMC: Let me first give you the other story about the changes now taking place. Today, individuals may not do what they learn.  In [the past, people were] bound to organizations and occupations, in much the same way their predecessors were bound to the land and nature.  But now, that is all coming unglued.  Individuals are increasingly less bound to either organizations or occupations, but now they fall into insecurity and uncertainty.  More and more people in Hong Kong are freelancing and serving several companies at one time, or working in home offices.  A ballet dancer I know performs, teaches, designs for other people, invests in real estate, and joined an NGO to work on rural China.  So what kind of occupation is she really in?  More and more people will be working outside organizations and more and more people will have to create their own work.

MST: What are the signs that the education system is still organized to produce people for a world that is actually disappearing before our eyes?

KMC: The education system is trying to turn human beings into human resources according to the labor market pyramid, which unfortunately no longer exists.  We have to turn a system that has been organized to sort students out and instead organize it to make sure that virtually all students are very well educated.  Because of that, educators who are trained in the 20th century are perhaps not the best candidates for reformers.  They only know education as assisting a few instead of everybody.  This is the challenge.  If we think different people should be allowed to learn differently, how do we do it?

MST: You evidently believe that if we are going to enable people to cope with changes, we should focus less on the structure of the system and the resources it requires, and more on learning and the kinds of learning experiences people deserve.  Why is this true?  What does it mean to you?

KMC: The system we have is based on credentials. What we do not focus on is what is actually learned at each stage of the structure, which brings about implications for life.  We need to move away from the focus on credentials.  It is certainly true that workers will have to have real expertise that is deep.  But that will no longer be enough.  There is no guarantee that what you have already learned will enable you to do well in the future.  At Morgan Stanley, they seldom appoint people in investment banking with financial, economic or accounting backgrounds.  Even the accounting companies like KPMG, are hiring people other than accountants.  Employers are looking at how well the candidates for their jobs will be able to cope with a very uncertain future, how fast they will be able to learn and what they will need to know.

MST: You have developed a framework for thinking about learning.  Would you share it?

KMC: I looked into the science of learning and realized there are five points that may summarize what learning is:

  • Learning is meaning-making, that is, making sense of the world around us;
  • Learning is about construction of knowledge, rather than transmission of knowledge;
  • Learning is about experience, hence "learning by doing"—real life experience is the best learning;
  • Learning is about understanding and using knowledge—you can't claim understanding before you can successfully apply it in practice; and
  • People learn in groups.

I use these as guidelines to understand the education system.  It really matters whether we are giving students the kinds of learning experiences they deserve, whether the pedagogy is helping the student to be an active learner, and whether the assessments are helping students understand, experience and apply the knowledge, or whether we are simply testing how much students have stored in their brains.  I use these guidelines to determine which reforms are moving in the right direction and which ones are not.

MST: What would schooling look like if it answered to that description?  What would a classroom look like?

KMC: Central to this question is whether or not they are having real-life experiences.  If you put learning in context and make experiences central in the learning process, things would be very different, and students would learn not only more, but much more efficiently.

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