As I have written articles about the need for higher order thinking skills (cognitive enablers), I have stressed the need for a way to formally learn these skills. There is no argument that these advanced cognitive enablers are some of the skills that will remain, for the foreseeable future, exclusively human and highly valued in the world we now find ourselves in. The response to my writing has largely been that either there is no need for something different than what we already have to teach these skills or that these advanced cognitive enablers will just have to be learned in conjunction with work. I have trouble with agreeing with either view.
Firstly, the view that there doesn’t need to be something different is, largely (although not exclusively), a response from higher education. According to the current thinking in HE, these needs are already addressed and/or students somehow absorb these advanced cognitive enablers during their time at university. When I point out that the research clearly demonstrates that graduates are not emerging with these skills, the responses tend to place the blame on either the lazy, entitled students who are unwilling to work or the secondary schools for not properly preparing the incoming students with these skills.
Neither of these responses is based in reality. The students do exactly what we ask them to do in a world where the primary mission of higher education is not the development of young people but the publication of another paper. We also know that, although a foundation can be put in place for learning these enablers, brain development means that actually gaining proficiency in these skills cannot take place until later in life (very late teens to mid-twenties).
The idea that these skills can be learned while working without the need for intensive formal learning support is not grounded in reality. There are a few people who manage to figure these skills out on their own, but the number who figure this out is swamped by the hundreds of millions who never get it. Even if there is an expectation that these skills need to be developed, often the response is to learn to mimic the outcomes for what is expected and everyone is happy. No skills for thinking, just the appearance of something like that. Not something that will lead to prosperity when pushed.
The other weakness to the learning through work idea is the very real challenge in learning these cognitive enablers. When we think of reading as a foundational cognitive enabler, we have to realize that the time and energy that this takes, in that developmental period when the brain is primed and where the most learning that will ever happen in a person’s life is taking place, is immense. Learning to read, with no prior exposure to the concept as an adult, is a monumental task. Even for adults who are highly motivated and understand the concept of reading, the task is extremely difficult. The idea that someone could learn to read after a few weekend seminars or through a short, concentrated course is ridiculous. If a job required a person who cannot read, learn to read, I can’t think of any employer in the world that would put the resources into that person just so that they can keep them on the payroll. It is not feasible for anyone to expect an organization to invest the kind of resources needed for teaching cognitive enablers to employees who need them.
There is somehow an idea that the higher order cognitive enablers are easy to learn. Just because something is simple to teach (think reading), that does not mean that it is easy to learn. One of the reasons that there are so few people (<10%) who demonstrate proficiency in any of these cognitive enablers is that they are difficult to learn. Teaching them may be straightforward, but learning them is not.
Somehow, in this world of amazing technology, a misleading idea has arisen about the ability to learn. Technology has made life so much easier in so many domains that there is an expectation that technology will make learning easier. Just because 80 people working for 36 months can erect a big, beautiful building where it took 1500 men working for 25 years to do the same 500 years ago does not mean that the same thing has happened to learning. We learn in exactly the same manner that Socrates did 2400 years ago. We might be able to access information faster, but we don’t learn any faster.
In addition, as much as pure cognitive learning theorists might not want to admit it, learning these advanced cognitive enablers involves emotions. No matter how sophisticated our technology is, we are not to the point where we can adequately convey emotions to each other in a group forum at the speeds needed to really learn to think. I am not aware of any software that allows us to meet together in a discussion and have full access to the subtleties of facial cues and body language necessary to really understand each other. We may be almost able to do that one-on-one, although I don’t believe it is yet good enough for us to express meaning and understanding through the kind of interaction we experience in a face-to-face interaction.
Learning advanced cognitive enablers is difficult. In addition, because they are skills, they take time and practice. Imagine a job that required huge numbers of proficient bicycle riders. Three-weekend seminars in a row might give people the basics, but without a great deal of practice, proficiency isn’t going to just happen. The difference between bicycle riding and these cognitive enablers is that learning advanced cognitive enablers is infinitely harder, takes group interaction over a significant amount of time, and relies on support to overcome frustrations and reward successes. We are, after all, social beings. We thrive when we are working together to achieve something.
Employers, unsurprisingly, are not willing to invest the necessary resources into their people that allow them to gain proficiency in higher order cognitive enablers. With the added problem of contextual learning that makes it extremely difficult to transfer our learned skills from one context to another. We can do it but is really hard without explicit support.
For these reasons, I can’t see a future where we transition in and out of learning within our work without a foundation of higher order cognitive enablers to build on. We can make continual and seamless transitions between work and learning to acquire new task-based abilities, but not to learn the skills that make us valuable, in the long-term, in our cyber-enhanced world.
This new world may be just beginning, but there are already millions who are watching from the sidelines because their skill (or content knowledge) are unnecessary in today’s world. Just ask the 39% of 20 to 34 year-olds who are living with their parents – which would include the over 50% of college (or university) graduates over the past 10 years who are still under-employed.