A recent article in the New York Times by David Segal about the mismatch between what law school teaches and what law firms need caught my eye. It’s a good read – and lays out a common problem for learners: the training environments they’re in may only have a glancing connection to the real work they’re interested in doing.
There are ways to more objectively disentangle what experts consciously and subsconsciously know and do – but history and culture get in the way, unfortunately.
It’s a tangled web: what is the purpose of learning/training as you get closer to job time? Is it to build a set of concepts, skills, and experience that allow you to do good work as you transition in to work? Is it to develop a deep appreciation of the history and underpinnings of the domain that you are never likely to see in practice? Is it to “learn to think” disconnected from “thinking about work?"
The article lays out a case that seems to indict legal education. (Of course I couldn’t resist the metaphor! ;-) ) Law firms remain frustrated by the gap between what law students are taught, and the work they have. They’re sharp students, have spent years gaining perspective on the underpinnings of the law and legal concepts – but usually almost no experience doing the work of a modern lawyer. In the words of one corporate general counsel quoted in the article
“They are lawyers in the sense that they have law degrees, but they aren’t ready to be a provider of services.”
It’s not just law firms that are frustrated. Their clients are balking at paying (at $200-$300+ per hour!) for the privilege of training these folks:
“Last year, a survey by American Lawyer found that 47 percent of law firms had a client say, in effect, ‘We don’t want to see the names of first- or second-year associates on our bills.’”
Law school faculty, brilliant people in their own right, fascinated by aspects of the law that they diligently write and research about, are not able to help students understand practical modern tasks:
“One 2010 study of hiring at top-tier law schools since 2000 found that the median amount of practical experience was one year, and that nearly half of faculty members had never practiced law for a single day.”
As a result:
“Here is what students will rarely encounter in [a course titled] Contracts: actual contracts, the sort that lawyers need to draft and file.”
This is fine for the few who go to law school and decide their passion is to become legal researchers matching what faculty in law school research. It's a much tougher transition for the majority who plan to put their passion to use for clients.
Law is not alone in a mismatch, great or small, between the focus of teaching compared with the needs of work, as Andy Rosen, CEO of Kaplan, Inc., points out in his recent book, Change.edu. Much evidence and a variety of causes for this:
- Many industries are finding they are spending a huge amount to retrain new entrants – with degrees. Most of that is in the lost productive time of employees who aren’t adding value while being trained.
- Many universities are distracted from focusing on learning as they compete in different ways for the younger students they are hoping to attract – climbing walls, dining halls, athletic facilities, and more take up cycles of thinking, planning, investment. (Where are the hundred million dollar alumni contribution campaigns for better learning?)
- Faculty in many universities are almost exclusively rewarded for domain research and publications. Important as this work is, it means that research and work on improving the career outcomes for students is not front-and-center.
- Research shows that even when experts train novices on work tasks they are expert in, they typically tell novices less than 30% of what’s needed to make good decisions and accomplish the task without errors. There’s real expertise needed, and focus, to get good at training folks – someone needs to make it their full-time work.
Indeed, there’s quite a lot of research, done mostly by cognitive psychologists, not folks within domains, showing how to improve the outcomes for learners:
- There’s both research and practice in a wide, but scattered, array of domains showing how to more carefully extract and document what the best experts in many field do when they make decisions in their domain. (Cognitive task analysis – note that you need a way to objectively determine expertise in a field to make these techniques really sing, so not every academic discipline is likely to benefit. ) Much of the decision-making turns out to be unconscious, so careful interviewing is key – and, again, it’s not a hobby activity, it takes time and practice to become good at this.
- Even with a better layout of what experts are doing, you still need to carefully architect a sequence of experiences for a mind to build up conscious and sub-conscious capacities to act in that way. There is, again, a body of knowledge about that (see, for example, E-Learning and the Science of Instruction), but again, applying this well is not exactly a hobby – requires time, information, and coaching to get good at this.
At Kaplan, we’re determined to apply this kind of research to help our students succeed within their programs – and to succeed once they enter the workplace. It requires setting up training programs for our own learning architects (more on that to come) and feedback loops based on student success data that stretch beyond a single lesson or course.
Indeed, we should be including partnerships with employers, learning from their data about new hires who've trained with us. With employers paying the cost of new, hopeful, but not-skilled-enough workers, we think we will find willing partners in this work.
Steve Jobs would be grumpy with us, I think, if we didn't do more to solve that fundamental learner's problem: success in a chosen career.