Knowledge work

danpinkSeveral years ago I attended a conference where Daniel Pink was one of the keynote speakers.  I had never heard Pink speak before but I remember being impressed by his ideas and thinking.  Not long after that I read ‘A Whole New Mind‘ and to this day it remains one of the books in my professional canon.

It’s hard to believe Pink wrote A Whole New Mind in 2005.  So much in the world has changed in that seemingly short period of time and yet many organisations including schools still seem to operate within an industrial paradigm.  According to Pink (p50):

We’ve progressed from a society of farmers to a society of factory workers to a society of knowledge workers.  And now we’re progressing yet again – to a society of creators and empathizers, of pattern recognizers and meaning makers.

I’ve been reflecting lately on this notion of a knowledge age – are we a knowledge society? Have we really embraced new ways of thinking and working smarter?  If you read job ads for example, it doesn’t look like any significant shifts have been made in the way we recruit, hire and train people.  Using social media to advertise roles that are 20th century in their design is as futile as using iPads to teach a 20th century curriculum.  How many organisations in Australia are redesigning knowledge work but more importantly how many school systems are?  How long before we actually fulfill Pink’s prediction of a conceptual age?

One of the biggest problems as outlined in the article “Redesigning Knowledge Work” is there aren’t enough knowledge workers across the private, public and social sectors.  According to the authors, this is only going to get worse based on research by the McKinsey Global Institute which suggests that by 2020, “the worldwide shortage of highly skilled, college-educated workers could reach 38 million to 40 million.”

The article cites a number of organisations redefining the jobs of experts, transferring lower-skilled work to other people within the organisation.  Reading this article prompted me to think about schools in a knowledge age.  If principals are our most skilled, then what work could they transfer or outsource to enable more time to develop the talent of teachers? Do we see this as the most important task for principals?

Richard Elmore says, a knowledge based economy requires a knowledge based teaching profession.  The way to get there is to invest heavily in the knowledge and skill of all teachers.  And yet in the past, it has been the norm for lower-skilled people (ie teachers aides) to work with students who need the greatest intervention.  We know now that we need our most skilled teachers working with those students to ensure improved learning outcomes.

Historically, we have often begun with the staff and adopted the strategy rather than looking at what critical skills our strategy requires and identifying the best talent to deliver it within classrooms, schools and across systems.  Why can’t schools look beyond their communities for the most skilled teachers?  Shouldn’t we be deploying the best people to get the best results whether it is around a learning strategy or capacity building?

While most education systems want teachers to become knowledge workers, it is much harder to change industrial processes and cultures.  The authors suggest three points that would underpin new ways of working:

1. Excel at attracting, motivating and retaining specialists
2. Develop mechanisms for cultivating specialists who have the potential to take on leadership roles
3. Capture the knowledge so that others can benefit from it

In some ways, our system is working towards these but change doesn’t happen overnight.  The question many educators and systems need to ask is whether we want teachers to have a working knowledge or do we want teachers to be knowledge workers?  If the answer to the latter is yes, then what are we doing about it? Are we that afraid of the possible answers and the need to redefine what it is to be a teacher in today’s world

4 thoughts on “Knowledge work

  1. Interesting last comment there Greg about teachers working with knowledge or being knowledge workers. I’m wondering is part of being a knowledge worker also creating it?

    I acknowledged to teachers on the first two days of school before children started that one of their great skills was the capacity to create or adapt learning tasks for a class that met a range of conceptual and skill based needs. This was a creative skill.

    I then challenged them to think about their individual and the schools theory of action (you know the if we do ….. then we can expect …..).

    I myself have been thinking about how we as a leadership team have blended various models of learning, inquiry, leadership and instruction together to form our layered theory of action to point the direction forward for school improvement. It was in essence a creative act to link common or intersecting points from various models to both explain and then elaborate on our work.

    I think thats what we are asking of our school leaders and teachers to be able to do – articulate a theory of action about our work and always know thats its never going to be “perfect” for in the act of creating it we learn more and therefore want to adapt our thinking.

    Mark Walker

    1. Mark I definitely think teachers can create “knowledge”. They do this when they construct learning opportunities for their students. I’m not sure what you mean in the rest of your blog though. The starting point for a theory of action has to be good theory, good practice and evidence – not just consensus amongst staff. I’ve talked about what I call the shift from I think to we learn. This learning ties to your first point.

  2. Greg, I like the quote you’ve selected. I’ve also heard Daniel Pink speak, have listened to him online, and read his book. While there may not be strong, empirically supported research regarding some of his conclusions (much like Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences), Pink’s lasting contribution, like Gardner before him, was shifting the publics and educators limited, narrowly held views on human intelligence. We should certainly applaud this contribution. However, the questions posed about teacher education, recruitment and ongoing professional development, including the design of jobs, is truly the noteworthy ask here. Should we study the pros and cons of hiring, for instance, “content specialists”….historians to teach history, scientists to teach science, etc. because they’re enthusiastic and have the depth and breadth of knowledge. We might then supplement content expertise with targeted classes on child development, classroom management, peer collaboration, the use of technology, curricular design & assessment skills through on-site, apprentice-type training programs. I am not sure that a master’s in education is as necessary as a strong, targeted training program supported by school districts or individual schools. Certain schools could be OTJ training sites. This is somewhat how independent schools in the United States have operating for years…and with overall outstanding results. Whatever the final solution, there must be a better way of retooling the pipeline than simply repeating our past.

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