The skills gap is a learning gap

Continuous learning, lifelong learning, learning organizations, and constant learning – terms we hear every day about the changing nature of the workplace. We don’t even know what skills to prepare for, but most people agree that we all need to keep on learning if we wish to remain relevant at work, in our professions, or in life. Just watch how new technology is adopted by people of my age. It can be painful.

With technology accelerating change in the marketplace and automation replacing highly skilled workers with robots, the decision to invest in any particular set of skills is far from obvious.  Empty platitudes about “upgrading skills” and “investing in our people” will not suffice.  We need to start thinking seriously about viable strategies to manage the skills gap. – Digital Tonto


A significant change is needed in how we conduct instruction and support learning at school and at work. All people need to take ownership of their learning. But almost all of our practices and institutions work counter to this. Professors, teachers, and instructors rule, while students and learners do as they are told. Professors may complain when asked, “will this be on the test?”, but they are part of a system that reinforces a culture of dependence. The construct of dependent learning will not help any organization manage the constant skills gap that all organizations will be facing very soon.

Whether it be in public school, higher education, or the workplace, teachers and instructors should be there to help. They should also be far removed from those who design or administer tests. Any tests should be judged as to their validity and reliability, and those who teach should be able to voice any concerns about them.  When, or if, people are tested, teachers should be advocates not judges.

By removing the role of assessor, we can do a lot to advance learning. This will not be a panacea, but it could give a new sense of purpose to many teachers and instructors. It does not require a wholesale dismantling of the system but is a pragmatic start while existing hierarchies come to the realization that the world is changing faster than their structures can handle.

In the network era, where work is learning and the learning is the work, anyone who has the privilege of teaching should not be allowed to test. Anyone who designs any tests should be publicly answerable to those who learn and those who teach. This might break the culture of dependence that stems from early school years and is copied by many training and educational bodies.

The fifth lesson I teach is intellectual dependency.  Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do.  It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives.  The expert makes all the important choices; only I can determine what you must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions which I enforce. – John Taylor Gatto

Shifting from external to internal assessment reinforces what we already know about social learning.

“Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.” – Albert Bandura

Self-ownership of our learning, personal knowledge mastery, taking responsibility for our mistakes, all in a collaborative work environment that helps us learn socially – these are the hallmarks of a real learning organization. Even old dogs can learn new tricks.

6 Responses to “The skills gap is a learning gap”

  1. Hugh Aitken

    The challenge is not the will to change and apart but the pace of change. Research recently conducted across the New Zealand Defence Force has indicated that the assumed skills of youth (our digital natives) are not what we would assume. Those with the digital skill required in the workspace are the more senior who have the greatest need. Texting and navigating social media does not easily transfer to operational summaries that integrate word and excel. The key is not to assume but to explicit teach the skills necessary to effectively employ the tolls available across the digital environment. I would also contend that assessment supported by quality feedback is an essential element of any learning.

  2. Quentin Williams

    While Hugh has a point about the importance of feedback that should not distract from Harold’s original provocation (or rather the interpretation that tickles me): that summative assessment and teaching may not in fact be the natural bedfellows education history has led us to assume.
    In situations where assessment is executed by a central/third-party authority (eg most capstone secondary school qualifications), the role and typical behaviour of the teacher is different to situations where the teacher is also judge (and executioner). Having said that, I believe the two situations are still more similar than different because the capital fact of both is the looming assessment itself. “To the student the assessment is the curriculum” (and that makes them dependent learners).

    • Harold

      “To the student the assessment is the curriculum” (and that makes them dependent learners).

      Well said, Quentin!

      It’s interesting to watch anew as my wife, in her fifties, goes back to university. She has the perspective to take it all with a grain of salt.

  3. Quentin Williams

    Thank you but of course that statement was in speech marks for good reason. Unfortunately the author’s name escaped me and Google let me down so now I will just have to apologise publicly for my ignorance. If it is of any consolation: imitation really is, in this case, an entirely sincere form of flattery.


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