What Employers Know That Educators May Not

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One of the most significant "school reports'' of the last decade has garnered few headlines in either the general or educational media. Yet its findings provide us with some very clear directions for the re-invention of schools in a postindustrial society.

The report is "Workplace Basics: The Skills Employers Want.'' It describes the conclusions of a study conducted jointly by the American Society for Training and Development and the U.S. Labor Department. The report was first issued in 1988, to be followed by Workplace Basics: The Essential Skills Employers Want, a book-length explication of the study (Jossey-Bass, 1991).

Workplace Basics researchers interviewed hundreds of employers from all sizes and shapes of companies and organizations and identified seven groups of skills that employers sought from their new employees: reading, writing, and computation skills; listening and speaking skills; "learning to learn'' skills; problem-solving and creative-thinking skills; personal-management skills; teamwork skills; leadership skills and organizational effectiveness.

What is remarkable about this list, which is a powerful agenda of desired outcomes for schooling, becomes clear if we examine the history of schools in our culture during the 20th century. Throughout this time, two ideologies of education have dueled for control of the curricula and programs of American schools. One is a "social good and social control'' approach to schooling. In theory this ideology focuses on the role of schools in preparing children and youths to become productive adult workers and effective citizens. In reality, though, this approach to schooling has focused on the sorting of children to fit perceived adult work roles and subsequent training for such roles. To be specific, we've sorted about 25 percent of students to become leaders and about 75 percent to become followers. In addition, while educators within this ideology have always talked a good deal about citizenship education, we have focused much more on teaching obedience and compliance than on nurturing the critical thinking and personal empowerment required of citizens by genuine democratic institutions.

The second ideology is a "child-centered, developmental'' approach. Within this framework, the purpose of school is to encourage and support the development of each child's and youth's potential, recognizing that each child is a valuable and unique individual. This ideology tells us that as teachers we need to focus on the child's needs and capacities in the present. If we do so effectively, the child will mature into a responsible and effective adult. At the core of this ideology is a belief that we can best serve both individuals and society by helping each child and youth develop to her or his fullest potential.

For the most part, the "social good and social control'' ideology has dominated American schools in this century. John Dewey and the progressive-school movement began to define a "child-centered'' approach to schooling at the very same time that industrially based "social good, social control'' schools were created between 1895 and 1920. But the progressive model was always in the minority and eventually was driven into the private school arena. The 1960's brought a second powerful challenge to the "social good, social control'' ideology and led to the creation of thousands of alternative schools, both public and private, most of which lived only briefly. Now in 1993 we can look around at our schools and find that this same "social good, social control'' agenda still drives the work of most schools, particularly high schools. We are still sorting young people for an industrial economy that exists less and less each year; and we are still trying to teach young people to be obedient and not make trouble.

Workplace Basics tells us that many employers understand something that many educators are still struggling to grasp. It's not that our schools don't work for an industrial economy. It's that we don't have the industrial economy any longer that we had in 1918 or even in 1973. Workplace Basics also tells us something even more remarkable. We no longer need to be at war between these two competing ideologies, because what we--both as individuals and as a society--really need now demands a synthesis of them. Look at the categories of skills cited by this study, and you'll begin to get a feeling for the nature of this synthesis.

  • Reading, writing, and computation skills are the three R's. There's nothing new here, we're tempted to say, but that judgment is completely wrong. Let's take the language R's first. In a culture where children grow up interacting as much with electronic media as with people, let alone with print materials, developing young people's skills in these domains is, in a profound way, a brand-new task. We need to acknowledge this newness and stop condemning both children and their parents. The whole-language movement is working in the right directions for teaching these literacy skills, but we have a lot more to learn about how to accomplish this for all children when their experience of electronic media is so pervasive. As for the third, we also need to gain clarity and consensus about what mathematics is in an era of $1.98 calculators. All in all, the three R's fit both agendas: Young people need these skills for their own growth, and we need skilled young people for the good of society.
  • Speaking and listening skills are supposed to be elements of the language-arts curriculum. Yet how many teachers give as much weight to these communication skills as they do to reading and writing? Not many. We need to reframe the problem. Speaking and listening skills need to become elements of every learning situation, both in every subject area and in every interdisciplinary program. Speaking skills unify self-esteem, democratic skills, and employment skills. Listening skills are key learning skills that also unite child-centered and social-good agendas.
  • Learning-to-learn skills are at the core of learning skills. They include the ability to scope out a new situation or context, survey and organize new data and concepts, make sense of new data and concepts, and apply them to problems and concerns. Being a skilled learner also involves an understanding of one's own learning-style strengths and limitations. Learning-to-learn skills have always been a priority for child-centered educators. Now employers are telling us that young people also need these skills if they are to act successfully in the complexity of new jobs.
  • Problem-solving and creative-thinking skills are also key learning skills that 20 years ago would have been at the heart of every child-centered educator's agenda. Then "social good'' educators only wanted to teach these skills to children who would become the managers and leaders. Now employers are telling us that all students need to gain mastery of these skills.
  • Personal-management skills are another group of skills that have been taught to some students as study skills; for example, managing your time and using a schedule; organizing a study environment; and completing a project over a period of time. This kind of self-awareness and self-responsibility has always been at the heart of the child-centered ideology. As with problem-solving and creative-thinking skills, employers are telling us that all students need to develop effective personal-management skills.
  • The cooperative-learning movement has taken significant steps toward integrating the teaching and learning of teamwork skills into the school curriculum. Interestingly, this movement models the synthesis of ideologies that I am describing. Some cooperative-learning advocates emphasize the value of cooperative learning for teaching young people how to work together effectively, solve problems collaboratively, resolve conflicts peacefully, and increase one's respect for people who are different from you. Another group of advocates focuses on cooperative learning's efficiency for promoting the learning of subject material. A systemic understanding of cooperative learning reveals that its methods, used skillfully, synthesize these two ideologies of schooling. With effective cooperative-learning pedagogy, students learn to work together, and they learn more.
  • Leadership and organizational-effectiveness skills are a set of skills that have descended from John Dewey and from the free-school movement of the 1960's. Every child needs to learn to be able to be a leader and to work effectively with others within organizations.

Within these seven skill areas, we have much of the agenda of child-centered, developmentally based education. Much, but not all. The employers have left out the following key areas. Self-direction skills are implicit in learning to learn and personal management. We need to make them explicit. In the 1960's this was called relevance. It's a lot more than relevance. Learners of all ages need opportunities to express their interests and passions for learning by self-directing their learning process: not all of the time, but certainly a considerable part of it, and more and more as they grow older. It's precisely this self-direction of learning that leads to all the inventions and discoveries that we currently honor in schools but mostly prevent kids from emulating by filling their school lives with rules and data.

Another key area to be added is self-governance skills. If we want young people to participate in the democratic process, then we need to engage them in democratic processes that matter--in school! This means transforming schools from hierarchical places to places where young people can affect decisions through thoughtful democratic processes.

A third area involves self-awareness and self-knowledge. Although they don't say this directly, employers want to hire young people who know something about who they are and what they really want. Young people with these qualities of self-knowledge are much more likely to persist, to be productive, to defer gratification, and to be responsible. For the sake of society, we need to educate young people to embody these qualities. When we do, we'll have a lot less drug abuse and teenage pregnancy.

Finally, we need to include a focus on esthetics and the imagination. Esthetics and the arts support all other kinds of learning. They also bring richness and meaning to our lives. For both of these reasons, we need to bring the arts from the periphery into the center of the learning process in secondary schools.

The imagination plays a role both in the arts and in creative problem-solving. We need to make the role of imagination explicit and expand it greatly. Almost every young person can visualize, so almost every student can learn to use her or his imagery both as the workings of imagination in the conventional sense and as a learning skill and problem-solving tool.

As events of the last few years have demonstrated, profound historical change can and does take place when courageous, visionary individuals take advantage of profoundly new conditions. It's my belief that this can be the case in American education today. In 1993 no one wants us to turn out high school graduates--or dropouts--who will only do what they're told. What people who understand the emergent qualities of postindustrial society want schools to do is to truly educate all young people to be "the best they can be,'' both for their own good and for the good of society. This synthesis of the child-centered ideology with the "social good'' ideology, minus the social-control agenda in its old form, is a profoundly new condition. Now it is clear to more and more of us that as schools serve the immediate educational needs of our children and youths first and foremost, and as they reconceptualize children and youths from "receivers of information'' to active, empowered, meaning-making learners, schools also best serve the pressing psychological, economic, and ecological needs of society. Now is the time for educators, parents, and employers to seize this fertile moment and truly reinvent schools with this ideological synthesis as our guide.

Vol. 12, Issue 36, Pages 25, 28

Published in Print: June 2, 1993, as What Employers Know That Educators May Not
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