Tucker’s Lens: An Interview with Kai-ming Cheng

Marc Tucker recently interviewed Kai-ming Cheng, Professor and Chair of Education and Senior Advisor to the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Hong Kong, on the significance of his essay, Learning and society in a post-industrial era.

Marc Tucker: In your essay, Learning and society in a post-industrial era, you describe the way the nature of work is changing in advanced industrial societies and how that is affecting the kinds of skills people now need.  How and when did that research begin?

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Kai-ming Cheng: I started my study of the workplace about 12 or 13 years ago by looking at the way work was organized at investment banks like Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong.  I found that the investment bankers work in small task forces and teams, just a few people — a one-stop shop.  In other organizations, these task forces are often called a deal team, an account team, a project team and so on.  These teams function semi-autonomously, with great freedom to respond to the quickly changing environment in which they work.  The team members bring different skills, knowledge and experience to the work and are expected to draw on one another constantly to get the work of the team done.  They function like professionals.

This is very different from the typical pyramidal structure in the traditional industrial company where you usually find a whole army of front line workers each of whom reports to a supervisor who in turn reports to another supervisor, all culminating in a supervisor of supervisors, all of whom look upward in the pyramid, looking for close direction from their superiors.   In that structure, the expertise is above each worker in the pyramid, each worker operates only in a narrow sphere and the autonomy of each worker is very limited.  This organizational pyramid at the work place has been mirrored in the structure of whole societies and the structure of knowledge.

For a very long time, formal education has been designed to supply workers with the skills they would need in the traditional system of work organization.  But the industrial system seems to be moving slowly away from this pyramidal structure toward the kind of structure I saw at Morgan Stanley.

Now employers seem to be much less focused on turning out standardized products in large quantities and much more focused on producing high quality customized services and tailor made products.  So you have “less of more” — less quantity and more variety.  The Morgan Stanley case is a good example.  The client is no longer expected to move around and be served by different department of the organization, nor is each department expected to face all clients.  Instead, the client is assigned a team whose job it is to meet that client’s unique needs, needs that are constantly changing.  Those needs are often very complex and demand a holistic service by integrating all kinds of expertise on the part of the firm.  This is happening more and more and in many workplace situations.

MST: Tell us how this impacts the work that people do and what they have to know to do it.

KMC: In the pyramidal situation, typically the front line worker only needs to know how to follow instructions and what the procedures, rules or regulations are.  The workers don’t have to design, run risks or face the clients directly, most of the time. They are protected by bureaucracy.  They are not liable for their mistakes as long as they follow procedures.  They are not at risk of facing any moral dilemmas or personality conflicts with clients.  But now, in small groups, even the frontline workers have to interact with clients, they have to solve problems and design, they have to run risks.

MST: By contrast what did the people that were expected to lead in the mass industrial complex have to do and know?

KMC: The people on the top had to design all the procedures and think of the strategies for the whole company’s development.  They had to face the market and changing environments and changing clients.  They had to run risks and design the product or the services.  They were responsible for organizing the whole thing.

MST: How are the changes in the workplace leading to the types of skills workers must have today?

Co-workers in a Business MeetingKMC: Back to the case of Morgan Stanley.  When you are in a group of five or six people, apart from the group head or leader there is no layer, instead, there is integration of expertise.  Everybody has to share the same responsibilities such as brainstorming, thinking of what to do next, working with others on a team, being creative all the time regardless of where you are and you have to constantly face ethical challenges and moral dilemmas, and you have to think outside the box, you have to run risks, you have to face changing networks and changing markets, and no one is doing the same thing all the time, you have to adapt to change on a daily basis.

In the typical old organizations, everything had to be committed to writing.  People relied on minutes of meetings, directives and reports for their direction.  Old-style minutes, if you remember, often did not identify the speaker.  So nobody had to bear any personal responsibility, but now you can’t do that because you are held responsible right on the spot.  The skills that are needed are no longer about following rules.  Now you need communications, brainstorming, and presentation skills and to be able to use SMS, Whatsapp, Twitter and other technologies.  Communication becomes the central activity above all else.

MST: Your paper presents a picture of an increasing distance between what educators are doing and what people actually need to function well in this world.

KMC: Let me first give you the other story about the changes now taking place. Today, individuals may not do what they learn.  In the University of Hong Kong, 35 percent of engineering majors are not entering engineering at all.  In 2006, in the United Kingdom, the average citizen changed his or her job 13 times.  In America it was an average of 10.6 job changes.  People have to adapt to changing environments, changing clients, changing networks, changing expertise and so on.

This is a fundamental change in society.  In the agricultural society, for a very long time, people were bound to the land in an unchanging cycle of seasons and crops.  Then we had the mass-production industrial society in which many people worked for a long time in the same firm doing much the same job, simply following instructions.  They have been bound to organizations and occupations, in much the same way their predecessors were bound to the land and nature.  But now that is all coming unglued.  Individuals are increasingly less bound to either organizations or occupations, but now they fall into insecurity and uncertainty.

MST: Employers are getting less and less of their workforce from full time employees and more from individual contractors.

KMC: That’s right.  More and more people in Hong Kong are freelancing and serving several companies at one time, or working in home offices.  There is a new term I just learned for people in the performing arts, they call it “multiple portfolios.”  A ballet dancer I know performs, teaches, designs for other people, invests in real estate, and joined an NGO to work on rural China.  So what kind of occupation is she really in?  Also, I think with the collapse of middle management, jobs will become less and less.  More and more people will be working outside organizations and more and more people will have to create their own work.  Do you think this is happening in the United States?

MST: It is happening in the United States.  The leading edge of that is that people who would have ten years ago been employees in large and medium size firms and who are now working as independent contractors and working for more than one employer.  They are ipso facto entrepreneurs whether they want to be or not.

You describe our education systems as being organized in the pyramidal fashion that most businesses have now abandoned.  What are the signs that the education system is still organized to produce people for a world that is actually disappearing before our eyes?

KMC: The education system is trying to turn human beings into human resources according to the labor market pyramid, which unfortunately no longer exists. Every person is put into a compulsory education system and the mentality is sorting people, classifying people and ranking people.  So you have a pyramid with a large number of people with a primary education, less with a high school education and relatively few with college, university experiences.  Then you have corresponding places these people will go – those with high school education will become laborers; those with a technical education will become technicians, and those with higher degrees will become engineers, and so on and so forth.  In most countries that is the design, and it is not only the design but also the mentality.  At ten years old if you cannot meet the standards of Grade 3, you are seen to be a failure.  If you cannot pay attention for a long enough period of time then you have attention deficit disorder.  The system is basically set up to produce an army of students organized into schools with the same courses, same curriculum and same examinations.  Some will go farther than others and that is how we sort them out.  When this system was well matched to its environment, it was OK if a student dropped out of school, because the economy could easily absorb such students.  But now that is no longer possible.  Even in the services, workers now have to know other languages, work well with others and make decisions.  We have to turn a system that has been organized to sort students out and instead organize it to make sure that virtually all students are very well educated.  This trend is irreversible.  The mode of production has changed.  People’s lifestyles have changed.  Because of that, educators who are trained in the 20th century are perhaps not the best candidates for reformers.  They only know education as assisting a few instead of everybody.  This is the challenge.  If we think different people should be allowed to learn differently, how do we do it?

MST: You evidently believe that if we are going to enable people to cope with changes, we should focus less on the structure of the system and the resources it requires, and more on learning and the kinds of learning experiences people deserve.  Why is this true?  What does it mean to you?

KMC: The system we have is based on credentials.  The kindergartens that parents want their children in and teachers want to teach in are the ones that will get their graduates into the best primary schools, and those schools are designed to get their graduates into the best secondary schools, and those schools see their job as getting their graduates into the best colleges, and so on up the qualifications tree.  Everyone’s focus is on the credential, which unlocks the key to the next stage in the series.  What we do not focus on is what is actually learned at each stage of the structure, which brings about implications for life.  We need to move away from the focus on credentials.  How do we prepare young people to face such a future, one that is likely to be even more challenging, and ever more precarious?  It is certainly true that workers will have to have real expertise that is deep.  But that will no longer be enough.  There is no guarantee that what you have already learned will enable you to do well in the future.  At Morgan Stanley, they seldom appoint people in investment banking with financial, economic or accounting backgrounds.  Even the accounting companies like KPMG, are hiring people other than accountants.  Employers are looking at how well the candidates for their jobs will be able to cope with a very uncertain future, how fast they will be able to learn and what they will need to know.

The new curriculum reform we put together in Hong Kong in 2002 is called Learning to Learn.  Learning—continuous learning—has become fundamental.  Not just for the whole working life, but also for family life, cultural life, political life, religious life, life after retirement and so forth.

MST: You have developed a framework for thinking about learning.  Would you share it?

Studying togetherKMC: I looked into the science of learning and realized there are five points that may summarize what learning is:

•    Learning is meaning-making, that is, making sense of the world around us;
•    Learning is about construction of knowledge, rather than transmission of knowledge;
•    Learning is about experience, hence “learning by doing”—real life experience is the best learning;
•    Learning is about understanding and using knowledge—you can’t claim understanding before you can successfully apply it in practice; and
•    People learn in groups.

I use these as guidelines to understand the education system.  It really matters whether we are giving students the kinds of learning experiences they deserve, whether the pedagogy is helping the student to be an active learner, and whether the assessments are helping students understand, experience and apply the knowledge, or whether we are simply testing how much students have stored in their brains.  I use these guidelines to determine which reforms are moving in the right direction and which ones are not.

MST: What would schooling look like if it answered to that description?  What would a classroom look like?

KMC: Central to this question is whether or not they are having real-life experiences.  In medicine for a long time, students spent years learning basic science such as pathology and pharmacology.  Only after that were they allowed to practice as a resident.  Because, so the theory went, if you don’t have the theory, then how can you practice?  But that is not true anymore.  In problem-based learning, now medical students start out tackling medical problems, first on paper, then on videos, but soon doing grand rounds in hospitals under the supervision of medical doctors, seeing real patients.  They are asked to research the presenting symptoms and learn what they need to learn to interpret the data, come up with a diagnosis and propose a treatment.  They work in groups.  They have access to the classes in the subjects they used to have to take first, but those courses are shorter, and take much less time than they used to.  In the end, they have all the theoretical knowledge they need, but they are acquiring that knowledge in a context of practice. If you put learning in context and make experiences central in the learning process, things would be very different, and students would learn not only more, but much more efficiently.

In Hong Kong when we reformed the curriculum in 2002, we began with the question: What are the kinds of learning experiences that these 15- or 18-year old students deserve?  When we looked back at the existing curriculum at the time, the subjects were far too overwhelming and took up far too much of students’ time, leaving little room for other experiences that the students deserved.  So we compressed the formal curriculum and made more room for critical thinking, sports, workplace experiences, service learning, experiential learning, philosophy, etc.  So the learning cycle becomes very different—you are preparing humans beings for the future they will face.

MST: In the world you have painted, businesses face clients that want enormous variety and it’s impossible to predict what a student would need to know ten-years from now when they are well-established in the workforce.  So some would argue that it ought to be up to each teacher to decide what they think is appropriate to teach.  How do you balance between structure and variety in students’ experiences in designing a curriculum?  How would you think about what all students need to know versus what some students need to know?  How would you balance the need for choice and the need for a common curriculum in designing an education system?

KMC: I think that is exactly the right question.  How much should be fundamental and how much should be selective?  There are two schools of thought on this – those who argue for the basics and a higher proportion of fundamentals and those who argue for a higher proportion of selection by the student.  I don’t have a good answer to that.  In the debate that led the Harvard curriculum reform in 2005, there was equal attention to broad knowledge base and specialized learning in a particular discipline area.  One fundamental thing we have to resolve relates to assessment.  Assessments are meant to have a uniform expectation of everybody, which has become increasingly impossible.  But then how can you work in a system without assessments?

MST: We have concentrated on being able to measure what you have learned, not your capacity to learn.  It does strike me when you add up all the requirements that you have laid out for people to be competent in the environment you just described, it includes a whole long list of things that we can’t measure—morale capacity, social capacity, learning to learn, etc.  We are now measuring less and less of what we think is desirable for kids to acquire from their education.  This strikes me as a very serious problem.

KMC: I am not against measuring knowledge but more important is how students use that knowledge.  That is why I think PISA, although not perfect, is a good starting point.  It challenges the whole system of measurement.  Assessment people tend to think that if you have learned, it should be measured.  But do you really need to measure a whole person’s learning and the whole person’s knowledge or can you set a threshold and see what a person achieves?  We would have to think very hard about how to measure the threshold and what the threshold would be.  If we can assure that all can learn to a certain level, then the rest of the learning experience can be very healthy.

There is a kind of cult of assessment that is almost replacing improvement with testing.  We have an analogy of a pig farmer who is worried that the pig is not heavy enough.  He weighs the pig each and every minute, as if that will increase the pig’s weight.  That is happening in our education system.  Much that we care about cannot be measured, or is not measurable until long after the individual has left school.  We will have to trust our teachers to teach what we are interested in and not distort the learning process by incessantly testing the limited menu of things we can assess with formal instruments.