By Matt Franks
As an educator, I’ve noticed behavioral patterns with incoming graduate students that mirror patterns with clients, many of whom are seasoned mid-level managers and executives at Fortune 500 companies: they have no ‘map’ or mental model with which to deal with ill-defined problems. Consider the kinds of workplace challenges we face on a daily basis—they require a set of skills and abilities that are missing from today’s workplace theater, as they:
- Are often ill-defined.
- Have multiple correct and incorrect answers—each of which has its own set of positive/negative implications.
- Are solved in working groups/teams of varying skill sets, where externalization and artifact creation are paramount to creating a shared understanding and momentum.
If you’ve worked in any corporate job, you’ve probably experienced individuals who struggle to find their place in this type of environment. Sometimes it feels as if they are compensated for their ability to derail conversations or shout out ‘what’s wrong’ as quickly as possible. Their first inclination is to evaluate the correctness of any proposed solution—identifying as many holes in an idea as they can before the solution has an opportunity to be fully considered. They struggle to externalize their own thoughts in a manner beyond conversation, and they struggle to maintain multiple, often competing, hypothesis about how to satisfy the problem. My role, as a consultant, educator, and craftsman, is to help people build a scaffold around the problem space—so that through this mentor/apprentice relationship, they are able to see their idea come to life.
How Did We Get Here?
In many ways, I believe this phenomenon is relatively new in the grand scheme of the workplace—and it mirrors the way our students are prepared for these challenges in classrooms. The executives and grad students I work with on a daily basis grew up in an environment where the teacher acts as the governor of information. Where concepts are learned in a manner that ensures evaluation is easy and uniform, and where students aren’t encouraged to challenge the authority of the teacher or the textbook. This type of environment stands in stark contrast to the experiences an individual might have when learning a craft-based skill or trade—learning experiences that are often looked down upon or considered ‘second order’ to traditional education models/experiences.
In these environments:
- The teacher is a creative guide rather than an arbitrator of information or evaluator of uniformity.
- Expertise is demonstrated through the handling of the material rather than a list of qualifications.
- Students are expected to explore the problem space and craft unexpected/inventive solutions themselves, rather than recall the facts and axioms about what makes a good solution.
- Problems can be solved multiple ways, and each approach has its own benefits and challenges. Part of the student’s ‘craft’ becomes identifying the conditions that ultimately mean success and then taking the necessary steps to achieve the outcome.
This is the type of relationship I seek to facilitate with clients who are tasked with solving strategic business challenges on a daily basis. It mirrors the type of education experiences I had both in my own formal education (design school) as well as those provided by an expert craftsman (and family member).
The Path to Learning a Trade
I was lucky enough to grow up under the guidance of an exceptional woodworker—my grandfather—who modeled my educational experiences after his own, and I frequently reflect on how those experiences shaped my understanding of the value of craft, externalization, and iteration.
My grandfather grew up in Nazi-occupied Germany. At the age of 13, he left home to learn his trade as a cabinet maker. He spent 5 days per week in a shop, working 10 hours a day under the watchful eye of his teacher. On Saturdays, he went to the local trade school for technical classes and returned home on Sundays to help with the family farm. I often lamented hearing the same ‘when I was your age’ stories he seemed to tell every weekend—but now I will forever value the way he created experiences that facilitated learning, rather than just dictating the ‘correct’ answer.
Early on, I turned to him for help understanding how to work with materials like 2x4s, plywood, hammers, nails, chisels, and saws. I watched him handle the material and listened to him describe his technique before trying it myself. As I grew, this same dynamic played out over and over, but with more abstract subjects and materials—basic financial education, persuasive speaking, trading stocks, writing contracts, and more.
Only later did it occur to me that this type of interaction was the educational engine that underpinned one of the most successful trade education programs that exists today—the German Trade program—a style of education that helped my grandfather evolve from growing up in a rural, far-centric, home in Germany to one of the most successful real-estate developers and natural gas producers in southern Ohio.
In The Atlantic article “Why Germany Is So Much Better at Training its Workers,” Tamar Jacoby writes:
In my teens, vocational school was not a positive term. The ‘voc’ kids in high school were largely regarded as the ones that couldn’t cut it. They were the people who would probably never go to college, and per the wisdom of the day, would never have the level of success that someone with a college degree could achieve. So, like every other kid, I aspired to go to college. But unlike most of my peers, I went to art school. From an early age, I knew I didn’t want to find a job where I was tasked with achieving ‘the correct’ answer—I wanted a profession that allowed me to explore ambiguous problem spaces and craft solutions that could surprise and delight those who experienced them.
The Benefits of Learning by Example
The value of ‘learning by example” is coming back into focus and the trend of experiential learning has re-emerged—especially in the K-12 education space and alternative forms of secondary education (like Austin Center for Design). Some underlying patterns seem to be shifting the discourse in this direction:
The types of problems worth solving are changing.
The value individuals provide in the workplace increasingly pushes towards that person’s ability to frame and solve abstract problems—where there are typically many ‘correct’ answers and the only way to communicate something new is to craft a version of it for people to react to. People are uniquely qualified to solve these types problems because they can learn to act with incomplete information, carry multiple hypotheses in their heads, and build their own rubrics around what makes the qualitative aspects of a Solution A better than Solution B.
Mentor-style learning arenas are better suited to address the development of these skills because the student can observe the expert solve the problem (what they did), listen to the expert describe their thought process (how they came to this conclusion), and then participate directly (try it themselves).
In my experiences learning from my grandfather, and creating various strategy and design curriculum, this exchange was essential. In most cases, the expert isn’t aware of all of the decisions they make when approaching a problem. There are many concepts they wouldn’t think to write down because they are so intimately connected with the material, or because their wisdom comes from pattern recognition that is only triggered in the moment.
The role of craft has changed in the workplace.
Previously, the word craft was reserved for individuals who were manipulating raw materials with their hands, but increasingly one’s ability to craft a compelling product, a company vision, a compelling argument, or a representation of their role as an individual contributor, has become a staple of the workforce.
In the past we universally relied on a college degree as a proxy for capability, but the focus of the interview process is shifting to one’s ability to craft artifacts. Companies are looking for work samples or creating hiring challenges that require individual contributors to both demonstrate their craft and to articulate the thinking behind their decision making. Individuals who have learned in an apprenticeship environment are familiar with this format—it is how they were trained to solve the problem from the beginning.
Our cultural narratives around ‘work’ continue to evolve.
The narrative hammered into high school students today is as much about finding your calling as it is about making money. Through this lens an apprenticeship approach makes sense, because it allows students to see and experience what it would be like to do a particular job every day. They can answer the question “will I be fulfilled?” almost immediately—as opposed to discovering that they hate their college major after having spent 3+ years, and tens of thousands of dollars, in pursuit.
What Will the Future Look Like?
We expect to see education technology shift towards a space where it allows teachers, and digital systems, to broker a mentorship approach—even in a remote environment. Publicly presented Augmented and Mixed Reality (AR/MR) work shows the appetite for this type of education channel is vastly exceeding the ability for hardware to keep pace. There are demo experiences demonstrating how an AC technician might learn to repair an HVAC unit or how an engine mechanic might learn about the tasks required to maintain an aircraft, using an AR/MR headset that helps identify problems and shows various solutions. In some instances this includes connecting to an on-call technical expert when the machine is unable to help by simply remoting into the technician’s headset and guiding the instruction.
While trade-based learning adopting this type of technology first feels obvious, structures are in place for dramatic shifts in the K-12 space as well. More and more, teachers are using supplemental and intervention learning programs to address individual student needs. In these models, the lesson plan isn’t the result of the teacher’s careful consideration, rather, the system assesses the student’s ability and generates an automated lesson plan for interaction during the ‘individual learning’ portion of the classroom rotation. When a student gets stuck, the system flags the issue to the teacher who can swoop in and provide relevant instruction.
We also anticipate continued changes in the hiring and workplace practices of companies that are looking for individual contributor roles. It’s easy to understand why companies hiring a designer or developer require work examples, and we expect these patterns to extend into less obvious arenas like accounting or insurance underwriting. Hiring managers describe the first three to nine months of a new role as the period in which new candidates learn the things that aren’t taught in school—and this transition time is essential to success through hands-on learning and on-the-job mentorship. Companies like UPS are building an apprenticeship approach into the hiring model where new entrants are assigned a buddy that stays with them for the duration of their employment. A recent research participant mentioned that this relationship was so essential to her success, she’d engaged with it for over 15 years.
My Personal Takeaway
As I consider the messages and experiences I want my own children to have, I’m excited about this potential future. While I am taking steps to save for their college education, I see it as a secondary option. The guarantee of a better life through college education isn’t as believable as it once was. The return on the investment just isn’t there when compared to the learning and life experiences that can be put together with a little consideration and planning.
Instead, my focus for their education will be one that follows a trade-style engagement for whatever they are interested in pursuing. At the current moment, at the ages of three and five, I’m starting them off with the same set of materials that my grandfather gave me—hammer, nails, a hand saw, and enough scraps of wood to build whatever they can dream up. At the start of each project, we practice externalizing a plan (often through sketching) that describes what we are going to go build—before working the materials to the finished product. And at the end of each project, we look at what we made, evaluate what worked and what didn’t, and plan for the next iteration.
Ultimately, I want my kids to have experiences in the field—very early on—and to look at primary and secondary education as a small facet of their overall education journey. I want them to recognize that they can achieve anything they put their mind to when they consider a mix of traditional and mentor-based learning experiences. Finally, I want them to realize that there is no ‘right answer’—some answers are better than others, but telling this story is a journey that they ultimately control.