Friday, 15 March 2013

Black and White

Have you ever tried to get a Macadamia out of its shell?  They are quite literally “a tough nut to crack”, having the hardest casing of all nuts, requiring 300 lbs per square inch to break them.  In addition to the actual kernel, the shells have a hidden surprise, once you finally get into them their inside is smooth and shiny and split into two distinct parts, one portion dark and the other light.  I thought of Macadamia nuts this week, when the Cardinals were locked in the Sistine Chapel during the papal conclave and the world waited for black or white smoke.
Macadamia nuts

Black smoke rising from the Vatican's Sistine Chapel papal chimney 
As the process for the election of a new Pope demonstrates, much of what we do is determined by customs and regulation.  Today I had the pleasure of attending a roundtable discussion hosted by the Training Journal in partnership with learndirect.  It was to consider the report Lord Leitch produced for the UK Government in 2006, outlining what (in his opinion) needed to be done to make the skills of the UK workforce among the best in the world by 2020.  This year marks the midpoint toward that goal and it was sobering to contemplate the progress to date.  In case you have forgotten (or never knew) his proposals, in essence they were for:
·         95% of adults to achieve functional literacy and numeracy

·         More than 90% of adults to be qualified to at least level 2 (i.e. competence that involves the application of knowledge in a significant range of varied work activities, performed in a variety of contexts. Collaboration with others, perhaps through membership of a work group or team, is often a requirement. At British comprehensive schools, Level 2 is equivalent to one GCSE at A*-C )

·         A raising of the average rank of intermediate skills in the adult population from level 2 to level 3

·         More than 40% of adults to be qualified to level 4 and above (level 4 translates as competence that involves the application of knowledge in a broad range of complex, technical or professional work activities performed in a variety of contexts and with a substantial degree of personal responsibility and autonomy. Responsibility for the work of others and the allocation of resources is often present.)

The world has changed a lot since 2006, not least because of the global banking and financial crisis.  Lord Leitch’s aspirations and recommendations in the Review remain admirable, for example for employers to voluntarily commit to train all eligible employees up to level 2 in the workplace.  However, the financial constraints on many UK businesses have meant that they have had other issues to focus on, such as remaining viable in challenging times.  Many organisations have been forced into being quite short-term in outlook over the past few years.

However, this time, when many are unable to commit time and resources to skills training, is perhaps an opportune moment for us to consider the actual skills we need.

The “skills” we are encouraged to develop within the work environment are dependent on rigidly defined stages of attainment, utilised in our education system and prescribed for vocational training purposes.  I do wonder whether some of the hoops we are making people leap through are actually giving them what they need.  When I was at school we were taught to use a slide rule in maths – I’m not sure I could easily solve a problem with one now, but I doubt if I will ever need to.  The advent of sophisticated calculators has made them redundant.  I studied for two years for my A Levels and then had a few hours in which to regurgitate some of the knowledge stored inside me, in response to questions in the exam.  Was my actual capability in applying the knowledge I had being assessed or my ability to remember things?  Google and other search engines mean that I can get information swiftly about almost any topic – my memory is less important than my capacity to find appropriate facts and to apply what I discover to solve actual problems and inform decisions.  In my current work environment I need to be able to plan strategically, budget against the plan, inspire others to work with me to achieve defined objectives and ensure that all that has to be done is attained in a timely and efficient manner.  Is my law degree an obvious indicator of my possessing these skills, except in the most simplistic form of demonstrating that I can devise answers to exam questions and write them down within the time prescribed?

The world moves on and we need to progress with it.  How can we best equip and assess individuals for the actual skills they will need in working life?  I do not dispute the value of literacy and numeracy, but the conventional command and control approach of, for example, reciting the dates of kings and queens by rote seems unnecessary and outdated.  We need to work with schools and educational establishments to explain the skills that are and will be valuable in the workplace.  Futurists say that the future is collaboration and project focused – where and how can we best foster and see these traits demonstrated?  

There isn’t one easy solution – life isn’t black and white and the way of training and assessing the skills required for the future remains, like the Macadamia, a hard nut to crack...
Mr John Waldron cracking Macadamia nuts in Australia 1957
(Photo: People Magazine, State Library of Queensland & John Oxley Library; #7719-0001-0003)
Cracking Macadamia nuts


  1. Oh how I feel conflicted on this...

    On the one hand application of learning is critical and we will learn that from teaching, support, experience, etc.

    On the other hand every bone in my body shudders at the thought of someone spending almost 20yrs of their early life gaining something (what is it?) that is then largely ignored or forgotten.

    We rightly value education but I wonder if its widespread formalisation has created an orthodoxy that misses both the purpose and the modern need. I wonder if the nut to be cracked first isn't the current immovable system...

    We already know and can clearly observe the difference in boys & girls innate learning preferences in early years curriculum. To differentiate engagement approaches up to the age of 6/7 would seem sensible. Yet we continue to ask boys to respond & perform in the same way as girls to a common teaching approach.

    We know there is a difference. We know that difference is meaningful. We know there could be better, differentiated ways to teaching boys & girls. Yet nothing changes.

    If we can't get the early years right, dealing with what we know, then how can do we expect the system to develop to accommodate the needs of the future?

    1. I appreciate your point, and agree with you on some points, but isn't there a danger of creating another, new orthodoxy which a lot of children don't fit in with? I feel it's not always opportune to divide pupils or children up between boys and girls.. Sport could be an example to illustrate.. not all boys like football or rugby. I feel a better approach, albeit a potentially very expensive one, would be to devise education around learning styles. Again, this may be a bit utopian though.

  2. I fear the education system also suffers from the short-termist issues of cost constraints. There is so much that could and should be done to enhance the learning experience (including differentiated ways of teaching to enable a greater number of learners to thrive; a better connection between employers and academics/educational establishments, in the broadest sense, to enable greater cohesion; and stronger encouragement/celebration of and links between learning and growth at all stages of age and employment) but we have entrenched legacy systems and the cost of change is daunting (whereas the cost of not changing is not really being considered...)

  3. Insightful as ever, Kate, and you make a deceptively simple yet powerful point Dave - what we already know but do little with. If I have a personal hero in this era, it's Sir Ken Robinson who articulates ways forward that align with my values.

    For me, it's a systemic challenge muddied by conflicting political agendas and exacerbated by the frightening rate of environmental change. Achieving consensus seems light years away, hence a lot of frustration.

    As individuals, we can take action within our spheres of influence and true leaders can make a significant difference. Collaborative action can also accelerate change as we have witnessed all over the world recently. Incremental v radical, idealism v pragmatism, and/and.

    Ever hear of Dr Fons Tompenaars? He advocates a way of reconciling dilemmas - if position A is opposed to position B, move beyond compromise through to a new place, C. For example, the Catholics in N Ireland called their city Derry and the Protestants called it Londonderry. Some people didn't want to offend others so would refer to it as Derry/Londonderry which was clumsy. A DJ started using the term Stroke City. Through/through - through A and B through to C. Let's find C.