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Executive Summary

The Double Helix of Education and the Economy

Sue E. Berryman & Thomas Bailey


Education and the Economy: A Dynamic Relationship

How the United States organizes its education—what we teach, to whom, when, and especially how—approximately matches how the country has organized economic activity for decades. The workplace, however, is gradually changing, and our traditional way of organizing education no longer meets the needs of our students. At the same time, a powerful research base, cognitive science, has revealed that traditional schooling, especially its pedagogy, is poorly organized for learning, whatever the economic environment students find themselves in. That same research base has also shown that the skill requirements of restructured workplaces and optimal ways of organizing learning fit one another. The Double Helix of Education and the Economy illuminates the complementarity between the changed workplace and what is now known about effective learning—two separate strands.

The First Strand: A Changing Workplace

The workplace is changing, and these changes are gradually rendering education as traditionally delivered more and more unconnected to what its graduates need to know and how they need to perform at work.

U.S. business rose to power on the basis of a mass production system designed to drive down the unit costs of long runs of standardized products. The emphasis was on narrowly defined jobs that could be filled by interchangeable, low-skilled workers, large inventories to make up for errors or poor quality, sophisticated quality control systems to catch defects at the end of production, and technologies designed to control or limit worker discretion. To make this system work, firms needed many layers of managers, supervisors, and technical personnel to control workers, handle non-routine events, and mop up mistakes at the end.

But external forces—intensified international competition, a proliferation of products, accelerating product cycles, a fast pace of change in production technologies, and a growing consumer interest in quality—are undermining industry's reliance on this traditional production system. Today, in an economic environment characterized by change, variety, and uncertainty, the keys to effective competition are flexibility, fast response to market shifts, and continuous innovation.

The old way of organizing production is so clogged with layers of management and supervision that companies can only respond to competitive threats clumsily and slowly. To reduce the time it takes to develop, produce, and distribute products, firms are (1) reducing the managerial/supervisory and technical support staff, (2) delegating these functions downward to previously regimented workers and broadening their job responsibilities, and (3) reducing the number of separate job categories. Flexible production multiplies the number of decisions, and the need to respond quickly means that decisions can no longer be bucked up supervisory lines but must be made on the shop floor.

These changes are transforming the workplace:

  • reducing the number of lower-skill jobs
  • requiring higher-level skills
  • changing what all workers need to know and how they need to use what they know
  • limiting the long-term value of any current stock of knowledge or skill

For example, in banking, increasing computerization has eliminated much of the repetitive, routine, manual processing of work that has long been the basis of many jobs. At the same time, the proliferation of services has brought about a shift toward better-educated workers who can understand the bank's services and its customers' needs.

In the textile market, customers are demanding faster delivery and more frequent style changes. To meet the competition, companies have had to integrate machine maintenance, inventory control, and record-keeping into the jobs of operators. Loom operators must now make judgments about the causes of machine problems, and machine maintenance workers now need a mathematics background. The result: Firms are forced to find higher-skilled, better-educated workers.

In the apparel industry, new production techniques are changing what workers do. In 1985, only one percent of production workers were involved in processes designed to reduce in-process inventory and speed throughput times. In the 1990s, 20 percent are involved in such processes. These processes put a premium on teamwork and an ability to cope, on the spot, with a growing number of unpredictable problems.

Evidence of these changing skill requirements can be seen in the following changes in relative wages and shifting occupational patterns.

  • In 1979, full-time 25- to 34-year-old male workers with college degrees earned 13 percent more than similar high school graduates. By 1987, male college graduates in this age group were earning 38 per cent more than high school graduates. For women in the same age group, the premium earned by college graduates rose from 23 percent in 1979 to 45 percent in 1987.
  • The employment of full-time 25- to 34-year-old college graduates rose by 10 percent between 1979 and 1987, while their earnings rose by 33 percent.
  • In contrast, the employment of high school graduates (in manufacturing) in the same age group rose by only 6 percent, while their earnings fell by 11 percent.
  • Since the mid-1970s, higher-level occupations (executive, administrative, managerial, sales, and marketing) have grown almost two-and-one-half times the rate of lower-skilled occupations. More than one-half of all net employment growth between 1975 and 1990 took place within the higher-skilled occupations, even though higher-level occupations accounted for only 40 percent of total employment even in 1990.
  • Jobs that are currently filled by workers with higher educational levels are expected to grow faster than those filled by workers with lower levels of educational attainment. Thirty percent of all new jobs expected to be created between 1990 and the year 2005 will go to college graduates. Today, 22 percent of current jobs are filled by college graduates.

In sum, industries find fewer opportunities for routinization and experience a greater need for the integration of traditionally separate functions (design, engineering, marketing), flatter organizational hierarchies, decentralization of responsibility, and greater employee involvement at all levels. These changes in the economy carry significant implications for our educational system since they fundamentally alter what workers at all skill levels need to know, how they need to use what they know, and when they need to learn it.

The Second Strand: A New Understanding of Effective Education

Our schools routinely and profoundly violate what we know about how people learn most effectively and the conditions under which they apply their knowledge appropriately to new situations. These practices permeate all levels and sectors of American education and training, from K-12 to corporate training.

What makes many learning situations so ineffective is that they reflect mistaken assumptions about how people learn. Most education and training is structured around the assumptions that

  • learners are passive receivers of wisdom
  • what is learned should be broken down into separate pieces
  • getting the right answer is the purpose of learning
  • skills and knowledge should be acquired independently of their context

These assumptions lead to an organization of learning that is characterized by: (1) a lecture mode of teaching, instead of active engagement with learning; (2) control over learning in the hands of the teacher, (3) a curriculum of disconnected items, tasks, and subtasks taught independently of the contexts in which the knowledge or skills will be used, and (4) a focus on "correct" responses rather than on the processes by which responses are generated.

This kind of education and training creates learners

  • who are overly dependent on their teachers, lack confidence in their ability to function independently, and lack the skills possessed by people who know how to learn;
  • who can come up with (or play back) correct answers but don't know how to approach problems, don't understand the principles involved in their answers, and revert to their own naive conceptions as soon as they are out of the classroom;
  • who are passive, bored, inattentive, and uninvolved in their learning.

This kind of education and training misses the point that human beings are inquisitive, sense-making animals who learn best when they are fully and actively engaged in solving problems that mean something to them. Because it violates the way that people learn most effectively, our current approach to education and training simply does not work. Extensive research demonstrates that students are very poor at transferring and applying what they learn from school to everyday situations—which should not surprise us. Knowledge and skills poorly learned or understood will not transfer effectively to new situations.

Fortunately, a century of thought, research, and actual trials blaze a path toward more effective learning. Based on how people learn most naturally and effectively, these ideas promise to make markedly more efficient use of students' learning time and involve the less-motivated more deeply and productively in learning.

The spectacular learning of very young children offers a clue to a more effective approach to learning. Children learn in context—in the midst of ongoing activities that give them immediate feedback on the success of their efforts. And their learning is guided by parents and peers, who serve as models and help them see the meaningful connections between different experiences.

Traditional apprenticeship learning offers further clues. Traditional apprenticeship is a way of life; there is almost no separation between the activities of daily living and the learning of work skills. The apprentice masters tasks in order to get the work done. Standards of performance are embedded in the work environment. Judgments about the learner's competence emerge naturally and continuously in the course of work. Whatever instruction the apprentice receives comes not from a teacher teaching, but from a worker doing work which the apprentice observes. In short, apprentices are inducted into a community of expert practice in which the master's (teacher's) performance constitutes the standard for the apprentice.

Drawing on what they have learned from observing young children and from studying traditional apprenticeships, cognitive scientists have developed principles of effective learning. These principles are modified for modern activities where the components and processes are not always visually observable (e.g., mathematics and computer-based inventory management). One application of these modified principles, called cognitive apprenticeship, is particularly promising. They result in very different classrooms and dramatically change the roles of teachers and students. The learning environment takes on the technological, social, and motivational characteristics of real-world situations. With the context for learning changed, students actively engage in solving real-world problems, use their own ideas and experiences, and test them against their peers and teachers. Teachers serve as role models, guides, and coaches.

The Two Strands Come Together

Strengthening the educational system so that it conforms to the ways that people learn best will also directly enhance its ability to prepare students for the transformed workplace.

The two strands—the broad skill requirements of the reorganized workplace and our knowledge of how people learn most effectively—are intertwined. They are the double helix. They both imply similar strategies for educational reform. The research and analysis of the past five years show that the changes that should be made for purposes of learning turn out to be consistent with and supportive of how individuals are expected to function in the restructured workplace.

In traditional workplaces, tasks are narrowly defined, and workers are not expected to be versatile. Educational practices that keep control over learning in the hands of teachers, who "pour knowledge" into their passive students, closely matches the hierarchical organization of the traditional workplace. Higher-level employees are expected to receive and pass on orders; lower-level workers to follow orders. Neither group is expected to bring their own ideas to work. This approach, which causes behavior problems in the classroom, produces turnover and absenteeism on the job.

Just as traditional learning emphasizes strengthening the bond between stimuli and correct responses, workers in the traditional workplace are expected to handle well-defined, nonambiguous situations. Workers are trained to have a limited number of responses to a limited number of possible circumstances; specialized support personnel and supervisors are expected to handle unusual events. In the context of the traditional workplace, increasing skill means simply increasing the number of stimuli for which an individual knows the correct responses.

Schools emphasize getting the right answer, with correspondingly less attention to learning from mistakes and developing alternative ways to solve problems. Similarly, the traditional workplace focuses on completing the task rather than understanding it and improving its subsequent performance. The traditional view of quality control matches the educational neglect of learning from mistakes. Since errors are repaired at the end of the production line, quality control does not get built into the way the work is done. As a result, workers do not learn from their mistakes, and the products and processes do not get improved.

Finally, traditional pedagogy assumes that knowledge should be learned independently of the context in which it will be used. Similarly, in the traditional workplace, workers are not expected to understand much about the broader context in which they work. Context is not important when tasks are well-defined and routinized.

Today, however, firms find it increasingly costly to hang on to production approaches that depend on low-cost, low-skilled workers who are waiting to be told what to do. Today's workers need a broad understanding of the systems in which they operate. Even more importantly, they need a conceptual understanding of what they are doing. Only that kind of understanding will allow them to carry out tasks or solve problems that they have not previously encountered.

Cognitive apprenticeship works with rather than against the natural learning system of human beings. It therefore offers a learning strategy that is consistent with how people need to function in restructured workplaces. Cognitive apprenticeships are designed so that students see the usefulness of what they are learning, actively solve real problems, test solutions, learn from their errors, and work together. Students learn the subject matter better and develop a broader understanding of how that subject matter connects to other things in the student's world. More importantly, they learn how to explore new fields, how to get more knowledge in a field they already know, and how to organize and reinterpret knowledge they already have—in short, they are equipped to continue learning.

What Does the Convergence of These Two Strands Mean for Policymakers?

As these marketplace and learning realities converge, we are challenged to rethink what we teach, to whom, how, and when. Our analysis of the research on schools and the economy leads us to three fundamental recommendations.

1. Change the mission of K-12 schools to take educational responsibility for the economic futures of all students.

For many years, the teaching methods, curriculum, and structure of K-12 schools were geared towards college preparation. Non-college-bound students were simply carried along, often in poor quality vocational programs or, worse, in the wasteland of general tracks. The costs of this way of organizing schools were less obvious when lower-skill jobs were more prevalent and when some share of these jobs paid middle-level wages.

Today's economy, however, is increasingly dominated by middle-skill and higher-skill jobs. Equally important, only these jobs pay wages that allow family formation and maintenance. Slowly but steadily, the economy is eliminating or restructuring lower-skill work. The educational implications of these economic realities are stark, fundamental, and unavoidable. All students, not just some, now need the knowledge and skills required for middle- and higher-skill jobs. Since most of these jobs will require post-K-12 training, K-12 should equip all students with the knowledge and skills needed to complete additional training and education.

2. Dissolve the dualism that perpetuates the deep division between academic and vocational education.

The mismatch between the current focus of K-12 schools and the needs of our students is deeply rooted in a dualism that distinguishes between

  • head and hand
  • academic and vocational education
  • knowing and doing
  • abstract and applied
  • education and training
  • school-based and work-based learning

This dualism manifests itself in both the curricular structure of schools and the way curricula are taught: academics taught out of context and academically debased vocational education. The dualism locks an increasing group of individuals out of the economic mainstream, either precluding their entry into it or making them marginal to the labor market.

At the heart of cognitive research is the observation that intelligence and expertise are built out of interaction with the environment, not in isolation from it. This research thus challenges these traditional distinctions and shows that effective learning engages both head and hand and requires both knowing and doing.

3. Organize learning around the principles of cognitive apprenticeship.

What cognitive science tells us about learning amounts to a slash across the canvas and requires a radical departure in how we organize learning. Cognitive apprenticeship works with, rather than against, the natural learning impulses of human beings—the desire to make sense out of our experiences, to solve problems, to interact with, explore, and gain mastery over our environment. It is thus an effective learning strategy for all students. For those more committed to school and learning, cognitive apprenticeships promise deeper and more disciplined learning that is better remembered and more appropriately used. For the less academically inclined, cognitive apprenticeships promise a motivating engagement with the learning process.

Cognitive apprenticeships stress subject-specific content and the learning strategies and skills required to operate effectively in, on, and with the content. Thus they emphasize the learning skills that employers in restructured workplaces need in all employees.

Cognitive apprenticeships integrate the dual principles of mind and matter, the theoretical and the applied, therefore systematically preserving and integrating the best of what today we call academic and vocational education into an approach that can be used to teach any subject, whether mathematics or interior design. In cognitive apprenticeships, the primary difference between academic and vocational education is the specific content that is taught.

Cognitive apprenticeship retains the option of postsecondary education for all students. It is education designed to create a well-prepared mind at ease with the demands of real-world tasks and equipped to continue learning. Thus, it eliminates the historic K-12 conflict between workplace preparation and preparation for postsecondary education.

Cognitive apprenticeship is generalizable to many learning situations. Its principles are appropriate for learners of different ages with different learning objectives—initial preparation, "second chance" learning, or retraining as experienced workers.

What Do Our Recommendations Imply for the Current Reform Debate?

The current reform discussion focuses on content. But the analysis in this book underscores equally critical problems with pedagogy. No matter which content areas are deemed to be basic, how content is taught makes all the difference in whether content is learned, retained, and appropriately used. If we want spectacular improvements in learning, we must expand the reform discussion to include pedagogic issues.

Because there is evidence that teachers and schools "teach to the test," current reform efforts want to replace input and process measures with student outcome standards. The theory is that if we get our performance measures right, we will get the skill and knowledge outcomes right. However, improved student outcome measures, although needed, will not automatically lead to improved teaching.

Current discussions of national tests entertain substantial changes in content, in the operations that students are expected to perform on content, and in the use of portfolios or projects for assessments. But the knowledge and skills needed by teachers to meet these changed standards are not widely available in our school systems. In some cases, experts are not even clear about the pedagogic and curricular approaches needed to generate the desired student competencies. These new standards need to be complemented with standards of best content and best pedagogic practice, and the standards must be professional and substantive, not bureaucratic or regulatory.

Implementing professionally based standards will require a systematic diffusion strategy—an aspect of school reform that is often ignored. How can local educators connect with externally established standards of best practice? An intriguing answer to that question can be found in the new corporate practice of "benchmarking." Benchmarking is inherently a comparative process, requiring the borrower, first, to ask itself such critical questions as: Which functions, if improved, would make the greatest contribution toward attaining the organization's goals? What are the key metrics that would reveal successful performance?

Second, they compare their own practices and processes against those of organizations identified as having "best-in-class" practices in various domains. Unlike education, where we think in terms of importing whole models, the benchmarking strategy requires that models be conceptualized in terms of their discrete pieces. Since no one organization is good at everything, the benchmarking company (or school) borrows discrete pieces of whole models. And although educators normally look only at other schools, benchmarking encourages looking both within and beyond the industry for best-in-class practices. Thus, the Xerox Corporation sent benchmarking teams to L.L. Bean to learn about efficient distribution of goods, to Federal Express for billing efficiency, and to Cummins Engine for production scheduling.

We need more and better resources for teacher retraining. Educational reform discussions involve changed curricula, new pedagogies, more powerful uses of multimedia, computer-based technologies, new ways of assessing student progress, and market-based rewards and punishments for success and failure. But insufficient attention is given to the question of how teachers are supposed to learn and be able to use the concepts and methods of all these new curricula and pedagogies. America 2000, for example, barely mentions the teacher retraining that would be required to achieve the curricular and other changes sought by that report. The retraining that educational reform implies will take more than the one or two days that teachers get during the school year. The proper amount of retraining will require not just better uses of old money but new money as well.

K-12 standards for student performance should be set to reflect the nature and level of the skills and knowledge needed for higher level jobs. Several national panels and councils are engaged in setting outcome standards for the K-12 system and for individual students. Yet generally, with the exception of the Secretary of Labor's efforts (SCANS), they are not talking about the connection to workplace requirements. Many of the ideas on the reform table have a relationship to workplace performance standards, but the reform panels make no argument to that effect; the nature of the relationship is not explored; and the competency levels needed are not specified.

Because the U.S. lacks a national system to move young people from school into the workplace, there has been an explosion of interest in apprenticeship. Initial efforts to create such a system have, for several reasons, conceived of it as work-based. The German, Austrian, and Swiss work-based apprenticeship systems are better-known in the U.S. than the school-based systems of Sweden, Denmark, or France. Further, it is generally acknowledged that many school-based programs in the U.S. are divorced from the needs of the workplace. A work-based system, therefore, has seemed a good solution, simultaneously eliminating the problem of coordinating work-oriented schooling with the workplace and reducing any school-to-work transition problems for youth.

However, we strongly recommend that the question of where youth should be prepared for the workplace—in school, at work, or with a mixture of the two—be thought through carefully. The latest research reveals that the key issues for learning in the workplace are the same as for school-based learning: How are the work or learning activities set up? What kind of learning do they encourage? A company that organizes work, or a school that organizes learning, as a set of segmented tasks isolated from their context will limit what its workers or students learn. Whether in the workplace or the schoolroom, what is emphasized or encouraged in the setting helps learners develop either a conceptual understanding or a highly routinized, inflexible set of responses. We argue, therefore, that the key issue is not where the learning is done, but how.

The learning situation needs to

  • be organized to deliver learning efficiently
  • reflect the knowledge demands of the workplace and the work contexts in which knowledge and skills have to be used
  • develop knowledge and skills that are broadly applicable
  • blur the division between academic and vocational

Using these criteria, which are based on research completed thus far, work-based apprenticeships and school-based cognitive apprenticeships have both pluses and minuses. Work-based apprenticeships are by no means clear winners.

One fundamental impetus for the idea of work-based apprenticeships is the realization that schools have done a poor job of preparing the non-college-bound. If the workplace turns out to be the best place for this group to learn, well and good. But we must be careful not to resort to work-based programs simply as a way to finesse problems with the schools. We are already paying for second-chance programs and remedial college programs to do what the K-12 system should have accomplished in the first place.

Concluding Thoughts

Any powerful educational reform should start from and build on (1) what people need to know and know how to do in non-school settings and (2) how they learn most naturally and effectively.

This aim of school reform is frequently lost, even key players sometimes forgetting the central objective. The core issue is learning: what do people need to learn and how do they best learn it. All reforms—the "new basics", choice, teacher retraining, assessment redesign, or whatever—matter only as they produce significant improvements in learning.

We believe that our economic and educational institutions face virtually the same challenge. That challenge is to organize their activities, whether learning or production, to capture the power of the fact that human beings are naturally sense-making, problem-solving, and environmentally interactive. This means that our educators and employers have to reconceptualize human potential, thought, and action.

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Institute on Education and the Economy, Teachers College, Columbia University
525 West 120th Street, Box 174, New York, NY 10027
Phone: (212) 678-3091 | Fax: (212) 678-3699 | iee@columbia.edu