Educating for Good Work

Why is it so difficult to educate for good work? The old idea of education as a way of charging up our mental batteries, to be discharged when we start work, doesn’t work any more. This is what Paulo Friere called the banking model of education – building up our knowledge assets at school or college, and then spending them (the fancy word is “applying”) when we start working. This depends on our ability to memorize information and regurgitate it when needed. This way of learning is inefficient and ineffective.

Educating for wisdom

Wisdom – the source of good work – is something our educators cannot teach.  It is not captured in theories or models and cannot be found in a book in the library.  Colin Coles has described it as “the invisible heart of practice” – invisible because it leaves behind no empirical evidence, and the person who exercises it cannot explain what it is!  Wisdom grows in the soil of life experience as an individual brings the skills of inquiry into the situations they face, the decisions they make, and the consequences of those decisions.  Wisdom is embedded in our actions, not our minds. Learning wisdom, then, involves paying attention to the way we make decisions and how we put them into practice.

We all respect the expert, someone who, time after time, does good work.  We can all do good work when things are going well, when things are predictable and routine.  But when the unexpected happens, the expert shines.  He or she has the uncanny ability to manage the situation and do good work in the midst of chaos.  And to do it with grace.  Expertise comes from experience and the skill to make sense of experience, to act wisely time, after time, after time.

New Learning

This involves a new way of learning.  The new learning will not equip us with a “how to” manual, but it can help us become experts.  The new learning begins with questions – questions that arise in practice. The new learning isn’t about the answers to these questions but about the skills we need, in the moment, to know what to do next.  The focus is on the process of inquiry as well as the outcome.  We call this “action research” – generating new knowledge by developing new ways of doing things.

The new learning recognises that the best place and time to learn is where and when the questions arise – while we are in the heat of the moment. The workplace is the natural learning environment.  On-line, not off-line. The new classroom is the workplace.

The new learning is social, not individual.  We learn best with other people – peers, even those we serve. We talk today about “the learning organisation” but are not sure what it is.  Perhaps we can make a start by creating an environment that encourages people to ask questions and lets the questions linger in the air while others offer their experience into the process.

And the new learning should be fun – it needs to set the imagination free and allow the spirit to soar.  It invites us to be playful again.  No one can predict what gifts the human imagination might release when it is allowed its place in learning.  But perhaps, just perhaps, we might then begin to think creatively and act wisely.


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