Learning to think or to work?

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

A guest column by Edgar Wilson

Why are we learning this?

The anthem of disengaged students takes on new meaning when applied to America’s universities. It isn’t merely a question of individual lessons or trivial facts; when hyper-expensive degrees and all but unavoidable student loans are as much a rite of passage as walking the line at graduation, the meaning behind the mission deserves to be scrutinized.

Students today should be forgiven for feeling confused about just what they are supposed to be getting from school. In the classroom, lessons will often function to stimulate problem-solving, discussion, analysis—in short, getting students to think.

On the policy-making side, the goal is less abstract: school exists to prepare students to be productive workers. The message has become even more critical and urgent as the global economy proves that students around the world must all be competitive with one another. If our schools don’t create more productive workers, they will quickly find the jobs filled by immigrant labor, or face the prospect of the U.S. losing its status as an economic leader.

At the post-secondary level, the language still manages to distinguish between “trade schools” and universities; at every other level, the intersection of economic pragmatism and a more liberal arts-influence is less pronounced.

American healthcare makes for a powerful case study, as it is suffering from a similar polarity.

Primary care provider shortages mean that there is a demand for both bedside caregivers and administrators with overlapping occupational skills. Nursing is a trade, certainly: from administering medication to coordinating care, nurses are hands-on and highly skilled; yet administrators must also have the less tangible skill set of the entrepreneur, able to dissect complex organization systems and manage people effectively. They need the liberal arts training to think critically and creatively, as well as expertise in their trade.

Current continuing education requirements emphasize the tradecraft aspects of nursing, and it is up to individuals to find, finance, and complete the sort of advanced degrees that serve as a prerequisite for administrative careers. The needs are parallel, but the avenues for fulfillment have been segregated.

The answer to the compartmentalization of education—of learning hard or soft skills, of preparing for lifelong learning and lifelong doing—isn’t just a post-secondary consideration. Schools at all levels need to engage students on all levels—a model known in some sectors as kinaesthetic learning. This is more than a learning style; it is a pedagogical discipline that promotes learning by doing, activating curiosity as well as providing practical applications.

In a world (and an economy) where change is constant and disruptive, students and workers alike need the capacity to adapt quickly, apply knowledge constructively, and never treat the learning process as having a clear beginning and end.

The “why?” of academics cannot afford to be withheld; neither can soft skills be relegated to liberal arts instruction, while hard skills masquerade as cutting-edge STEM initiatives or high-demand trade fields. The artificial degree-to-career pipeline, and the accompanying price tag barring the way to higher earning through higher learning, obscures the reality that lifelong learning has become mandatory, not elective. All occupations—not just healthcare—need dynamic workers who both learn and do.


Edgar Wilson is an Oregon native with a passion for cooking, trivia, and politics. He studied conflict resolution and international relations and has worked in industries ranging from international marketing to broadcast journalism. He is currently working as an independent analytical consultant. He can be reached via email here or on Twitter @EdgarTwilson.

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