Dr Metusalem Nakale
AS I mentioned in my previous piece entitled Situating Harambee within Ubuntu Philosophy, (Confidente, 15-21 September 2016) our education and training system is dominated by cognitive theories of learning at the expense of social learning. These are theories that view learning as something that occurs in the human head. As such, they tend to emphasise the individual at the expense of the social or community. Further, they neglect the contextual dimensions of knowledge, i.e. its situatedness in communities of practice. In this piece, I will argue that our myopic reliance on such theories, among other things, negatively impact our labour market and are, in my opinion, part of the structures we need to complement in our quest to not only achieve social justice in the ‘Namibian House’, but also as we strive to transition to a knowledge economy. We need to rethink knowledge to accommodate newer perspectives such as the one that sees knowledge as situated in contexts of practice and to embrace action-oriented knowledge. This could not only reduce income disparities within our market economic framework, but also the exploitation of the working people who have uncertified action-oriented knowledge.
I need to clarify the main two types of knowledge at the centre of my argument, first. It is generally agreed that education and training systems in conjunction with other societal institutions determine which knowledge is valued in any society: explicit knowledge or tacit knowledge. The former is objective and can be found in academic articles and textbooks; it is the type of knowledge dominating our education and training institutions. Such knowledge is said to be decontextualised. As such, it requires further learning to facilitate application in contexts, as it has some dimension missing. It can be transferred through the classroom, a training setting or research articles. Explicit knowledge is also called know that. This is the type of knowledge that most of our graduates leave our classrooms with, mostly because of limited opportunities to acquire the other type of knowledge mentioned above in communities of practice.
The other type of knowledge is called tacit. This knowledge is embodied and action-oriented; it is said to be hard to express in any form. Tacit knowledge is often referred to as know-how and is well captured by Polanyi, the Hungarian philosopher with his now famous maxim: ‘We know more than we can tell.’ Tacit knowledge is acquired through doing, observation, imitation and interaction in communities of practice. It is the knowledge which underpins vocational practices. Its acquisition represents the manner in which people in different parts of the world learnt before the advent of the Fordist model of education that resembles assembly-lines and commoditises knowledge and skills, breaking them down into components for packaging and mass consumption purposes.
A growing body of research-based literature demonstrates that tacit knowledge is also generated in workplaces in communities of practice and not just in formal settings of learning. This has brought about changes in attitudes towards the workplace which for centuries was not considered a place for learning: learning was for many years, and even today in some quarters, seen as something that takes place only in the classroom or training setting, off the job. But new insights derived from scientific investigations show that relevant knowledge with economic value is generated in action at the points of application. This is in line with the perspective that sees knowledge as situated mentioned above.
That workplaces are platforms for knowledge generation is demonstrated by different studies. For example, a study conducted at a local company found that workers generated new knowledge while applying knowledge acquired from another organisation, including those employees who had received formal training. Most of the workers who had received such training also indicated that they did not learn everything from formal training as most of it was theoretical, explicit; they stated that they too learnt from those they found in the company, old-timers, who had no formal training. The majority of the workers without formal training, more than 80% of the total participants in the study, revealed that they had learnt their technical skills while working by doing and working alongside experienced colleagues.
As I indicated above, the dominant type of knowledge that is valued by our current system of education and training is explicit; this is knowledge that is found in books, codified, as pointed out earlier. However, although valued by our education system, explicit knowledge alone is not what is in reality driving the labour market and the economy. This is where what seems like a mismatch between supply and demand in our labour market stems from: the labour market requires both types of knowledge mentioned above to be brought into the equation, but our education and training system values the kind of knowledge which can be expressed and tested with pen more than know-how. And I am surprised that the nation is surprised that vocational training is negatively perceived in this country (New Era, 15 September 2016). As I have mentioned earlier, the education and training system and the labour market determine what knowledge type is valued.
To show you how the privileging of one type of knowledge affects the labour market, consider this. Most of the people who are building our high-rise buildings, our roads and those servicing our vehicles only a few of them have received formal training, theoretical knowledge. The majority, like in the study mentioned earlier, acquired their skills by doing. In other words, they possess tacit knowledge which underpins their skills. However, in a market economy where profit-making is why enterprises exist, these folks because they do not have formal qualifications, although they have tacit knowledge which creates value for the business and which we are told is critical for the survival of any business entity, they get a bare minimum to keep them alive. Yet, in some cases they even teach graduates with theoretical knowledge, how to do the work! But because they do not have qualifications they get peanuts while those who have papers, who are often in the minority, as the system is engineered to creating a huge reservoir of those who do not make it into our institutions, and the owners of firms, even those who know nothing about the work required, get the lion’s share of what is generated.
I know some people would say yes, but that problem has been addressed in recent years with the introduction of measures devised to tackle the plight of this segment of our society through recognition of prior learning. Some organizations even send their employees to take trade tests in order to be certified, you might say. But that is beside the point. The issue is not certification. The problem is the privileging of one type of knowledge and the resulting superior position that is granted to such knowledge. Nonaka, the Japanese knowledge guru, would view both types of knowledge as necessary and would argue that tacit knowledge provides resources for innovation.
What is more, by elevating one type of knowledge, employees who acquire knowledge by doing and imitating their colleagues in the workplace through social means, knowledge we now know through research has economic value, but do not have certificates get meagre salaries to enable the companies to make profit. Is our education and training system in league with the capitalist exploitative machinery?
But how can we address this and other similar issues? First off we need to think critically about the structures we have inherited, question their underlying beliefs as I indicated before in Confidente, get rid of those elements that are not aligned with our goals and reimagine the system if necessary by not just engaging what I see as superficial issues, but by asking questions that go to the foundation of the current systems. Lest we forget, the struggle is not over yet, and believe you me, it never will be. As the French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu would put it, these are arenas of struggle! I hope that this piece will act as a shot in the arm to spur on educators and education and training chiefs to critically examine the existing structures so that we do not perpetuate the status quo by creating more of the same.
Dr Metusalem Nakale holds a Doctorate of Social Sciences from the University of Leicester’s School of Management.
Confidente. Lifting the Lid. Copyright © 2015