How to give our students what employers really want

Everyone involved in higher education should read this interesting piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education. 

The authors point out a serious mismatch between what employers say they want and what educators think employers want. According to the authors, most educators think that employers want students:

1. To have college majors that provide them with readily transferable job knowledge and skills. The more professional the major, the better.

2. Who have had access to top-quality means of knowledge transfer. In this view, perhaps MOOCs [massive open online courses] are hot because, in the ideal, the lectures would cost the students (and the colleges) next to nothing and be taught by the most famous scholars in the world.

3. Who have demonstrated, through grades and standardized-test scores, that they are high achievers. In addition, employers want evidence of knowledge acquired in college.

Instead, research shows that employers think the following:

“A demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major." 

It [is] important that job candidates "demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning. More than 75 percent of employers say they want more emphasis on five key areas, including critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.”

[They value] educational practices that involve students in active, effortful work—practices including collaborative problem-solving, internships, senior projects, and community engagements.

[They values] outcomes and practices that involve application of skills over acquisition of discrete bodies of knowledge.

In exploring the causes of the mismatch between what employers want and what we think they want, the authors turn to the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. You may know of Kahneman’s work. He is a psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. His 2012 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is a terrific summary of his research into underexamined influences upon our thought, judgment, and decision-making.

In the Chronicle article, the authors draw upon Kahneman’s work to suggest that “representativeness” is the cause of our focus upon the relationship between the major and the job, even though employers–especially executives–report not caring much what major a student has completed. The major represents, or stands in for, the job or job-preparedness. 

More convincing than representativeness is the force of “availability,” in which we become easily convinced that whatever readily comes to mind is the solution to our problems. Problem: “Students aren’t employable.” Solution: “Fix it through the major.” Likewise, with MOOCs on the brain, we immediately turn to them as possible solutions to our problems.

I’d like to challenge two minor points about this article:

  1. MOOCs aren’t rising to prominence and being misplaced in the higher education landscape because educators think that employers want them. And they aren’t primarily rising to prominence and being misplaced in the higher education landscape because they are “available” (though I was recently in a meeting in which a senior administrator suggested, perhaps partly influenced by “availability,” that online courses would solve a problem that they are unlikely to solve). Rather, MOOCs have risen to prominence and are being misplaced in the higher education landscape because some see them as ways to reduce costs and increase revenues. This is especially true during a slow recovery from our recent recession. This is why they threaten to replace more expensive core activities, rather than adding value on the margin. This departure from mission-driven thinking in favor of efficiency-as-conscience (reason about reason, or judgment about judgment) is the reason that MOOCs have risen to prominence. As the authors point out, though, employers want skills and dispositions that are not “optimally developed through passive learning in lecture settings, including MOOCs. Rather, they are skills developed through active learning in settings that encourage dialogue, give-and-take, real-world problem-solving, and active mentorship.”
  2. The authors leave unquestioned the presumption that educators should cater to what employers want. Thankfully, the employers surveyed want many of the outcomes that have characterized much of higher education, especially the liberal arts. But what if employers did not want such noble outcomes or if employment were not to demand such skills and dispositions? Should we still cater to them.
In any case, this is a very interesting article that, as I’ve said, everyone should read, not only in order to know the difference between what employers want and what we think they want, but in order to begin to question our approaches to these matters.
This leads me to a second must-read. I agree with a colleague of mine who says that every administrator should read Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and consider more carefully the underexamined influences upon their judgment.
We also need to be disciplined about creative problem-solving. For example, “availability” can be a nice shortcut to efficient solutions, but it can also lead us to inappropriate solutions and keep us from more creative solutions. We need to critically evaluate our decision-making processes and revise them in such a way as opens up possibilities beyond the efficient, but limiting, rubrics that Kahneman has pointed out.
Finally, our colleges and universities should try to become the sorts of communities in which students develop

creative, critical, practical, and wisdom-based decision-making and problem-solving skills, along with a mindset of lifelong learning and a strong work ethic….

These sorts of skills and dispositions may best be cultivated by focusing on enduring questions in new contexts, promoting experiential education, and providing students with opportunities for collaborative research. 

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