Working While Learning: Does the Past Signal the Future?

Gathering knowledge isn’t as important as how well you use that knowledge to drive performance.

There seems to be general consensus among most education and economic experts that a different approach to learning is needed – an approach that guarantees successful student performance in work and life rather than just knowledge gathering.

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We need an approach that guarantees successful student performance in work and life.

There is also agreement that new learning models should enhance the performance of our students in such a way that they can apply those learnings to working and living. Should we look back to the past to help us prepare for the future of learning and working? Let’s do just that.

Driving performance

In the recent past, gathering knowledge was a big part of our lives and a defined activity. You would go to school to get knowledge, then use that knowledge to sell yourself to the highest bidder.

In the last couple of decades, we’ve witnessed a transition where the value placed on gathering knowledge isn’t as compelling as how well you use that knowledge to drive performance.

All around us today we see signals that point to the growing value society places on performance. Witness the growth of platforms like Trip Advisor for rating hotels and attractions or Yelp for rating restaurants.

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We’ve witnessed a transition where the value is placed on how well you use knowledge to drive performance.

These signals turn our attention to measures of performance, often displacing historical markers of brand and trust in where that knowledge came from.

Some of the most recent reports have concluded that working while learning decreases the effectiveness of learning. Case in point: A study by the ACT Center for Equity in Learning found that college students who work more than 15 hours a week experience major challenges toward completing their educational program of study.

We all know that it’s difficult to go to school full-time and work part-time – and virtually impossible to do both well full-time. Whether it’s to survive or to earn pocket money, wouldn’t it be better to have work-plus-learn models that braid the two together rather than putting them at odds with each other?

One popular work-plus-learn model, the federal work-study program, is more than 50 years old. Work-study programs were implemented to serve a dual purpose: to provide low-income students dollars while going to college and to help transition students to work.

The Brookings Institution argues that the concept of work-plus-learn is still relevant but needs to be modernized. So, what then, are viable alternatives? Can other work-plus-learn models fill the void? Or are we trying to solve for the wrong issue?

Measuring performance

Apprenticeships, which have been around much longer than work-study programs, have successfully evolved and matured with the times. Today there is great support for apprenticeships.

According to the Center for American Progress, apprenticeships are a “tried-and-true” method of educating and training workers across the globe. In practice since the Middle Ages, they continue to enhance worker productivity and boost earnings while bolstering in-demand skills.

John Dewey advocated for educational reforms to encourage experimental intelligence.

Apprenticeships, as well as career and technical education programs, are actively being funded and modernized with strong support from both ends of the political spectrum.

Innovative work-plus-learn models such as GetApprenticeship empower individuals and companies to bridge the gap between school and work by providing learning labs where apprentices have all the tools and compounds to run experiments. These are fertile breeding grounds for innovation and driving business growth.

So then, how can we intentionally connect learning and working in novel ways to increase performance?

Rather than worrying about only knowledge gathering markers like completion and time to completion, why not focus on making lasting connections between learning, working and life so more citizens can succeed? In other words, why not develop and use learning metrics that measure performance instead of knowledge gathering?

In 1916, John Dewey, a leader of social reform, warned us about the split between learning and working in democracy and education. One hundred years later, we have failed to heed his warning. So, in this case, the recent past doesn’t signal the future of education. However, the very far past does when working and learning went hand-in-hand.

This article first appeared on IFTF’s Future Now Blog and was republished with permission.

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Parminder K. Jassal leads the Learn + Work Futures Group at the Institute for the Future.

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