The Double Helix of Learning and Work. Arguments for Vocational Contents in Higher Education

1. General premises of our common concerns

The crisis of present-day educational systems, of labour markets and of world political systems, is a real and worrying pressure of societies on the organisation and contents of higher education itself.
It is important to notice that concerns referred to the contents and organisation of present-day educational systems, exists all over European countries, in the spite of the fact that it is based on backgrounds of significantly different experiences and countries’ history. We can see for instance that, while governments are increasingly preoccupied with the chronic disease of unemployment, companies have recently become very actively involved in educational processes by recycling the workforce and sponsoring computer-aided education.
2. The Need for a reform of education

The present article — inspired by Orio Giarini and Mircea Malitza’s book entitled The Double Helix of Learning and Work (which is at the same time a Report to the Club of Rome) — is intended to offer several complementary arguments to the idea that especially in our knowledge society, deep modifications inside the educational systems (contents and structure) are really necessary, and how these modifications are to be concretely implemented.
But the key to an effective and useful reform of education, starts with the refusal to embrace any of the social, political or economic doctrines that continue to ‘colour’ the debate on learning and work, and to simply go for a problem-solving approach. Realistically, a structural reform of education will have to go through a more intense and coherent phase of experiment, with the support of the great decision-makers (governments, companies and civil society). The exercise of co-operation among these actors on a matter of highest importance could be beneficial even to the shaping of governance in the twenty-first century.
With regard to a reform of education, and especially the very concrete steps to be taken, we will refer to the project of a reform of education as proposed in the book entitled The Double Helix of Learning and Work.
This Double Helix Project is not about a simple answer to the challenges posed by present-day economy markets — markets which formulate essentially new kinds of requests — university outputs (meaning students’ professional skills). But it is also — or even mostly — about the internal evolution of higher education itself, about the accumulation of one’s own experience, and about one’s own initiatives in the constant quest for answers for which neither answers nor applications can be easily found.
Our paper is focused not on the external challenges to the higher education, but on the present-day internal logic of educational systems and its points of contact with the labour market — it is about the internal challenge to higher education. The labour market formulates requests to higher education, but what are the answers which higher educations really offers to the labour market? Facts speak for themselves: the most common case is the one in which graduate students find themselves almost completely misplaced in the labour market when the time comes for them to access it.

3. Lifelong learning, interdisciplinarity, vocation, or changing ‘learning-working view’

If we look at the evolution of higher education, we find that nowadays (more than ever before) two historical innovations have emerged: 1. the necessity for lifelong learning and 2. the relevance of interdisciplinarity.
Obviously, even those are a result of the evolution of human societies and of human knowledge; but the problem is that, since the need for lifelong learning and for interdisciplinarity was recognised, it has still remained, in fact, a purely theoretical one. Those two big conquests accepted by governments, organisations, charts, solemn declarations, have never been put into practice yet and certainly not in higher education. But the solution to such situation would consist precisely in what after all also the labour market itself mostly asks from individuals and from educational systems nowadays: an increase in the vocational dimension of higher education.
Lifelong learning, interdisciplinarity and vocational dimension are the subjects we would like to focus on in this section.
Two great achievements of the contemporary modern educational thinking — the imperatives of lifelong learning and of interdisciplinarity — can find their answers only when the still dominant, overwhelming, traditional way to organise and accumulate knowledge (the disciplinary approach, knowledge separated and split into single disciplines not obviously interrelated between them and even less with the labour market concrete demands) will give the floor to the new criterion — the vocational one — which would be by nature (or in line with the human mind itself and with the evolution of societies) a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary and lifelong one.
Consequently, together with interdisciplinarity and lifelong learning, the alleviation of unemployment may emerge.
Furthermore, starting from our duty to finally apply the principles of lifelong and interdisciplinary education, once we applied them, then what we reach would be a growing need for the those.
The thesis which we propose is therefore: an answer to the challenge of the labour market coincides with the answer we are looking for to the challenge of educational system in order to be able of interdisciplinarity and of applying the long term of life in higher education, or, in other words, is the cultivation of the vocational dimension in higher education.
To understand better the interaction between learning and work, which enables lifelong learning, interdisciplinarity in education and vocational training, see the following schemes and paragraphs:

Source: UNESCO.

Source : Orio Giarini, Club of Rome.

Both new approaches represent life (education and work) as a succession of temporary segments of compact activities (education or work) followed by interruptions and comebacks.
The main disadvantage of the higher education system conceived in the old manner, and making it unable to cultivate the individual’s vocation, consists in the separate treatment of learning (education) and practice (work), as if learning was exclusively the attribute of education and practice and the occasion to forget the learning ever brought by education, and as if working (meaning accumulating practical experience) damaged the human knowledge or was in opposition with the learning itself.
The main advantages to treat learning and work together, in conformity with the nature of everyday reality itself, are the following:
1. The empty spaces from one line (education — E) could be filled up by the full spaces from the other line (work — W) and vice versa. Such unifying-realistic vision of the two social systems of education and work, progressively reveals their affinities under the sign of the knowledge society.


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