Teaching to Think or Training to Do?

Julie Trivitt, Heartland Forward Senior Economist


Here at Heartland Forward we clearly believe in the value of thinking AND doing.  That’s why we describe ourselves as a THINK and DO tank where the thinking (research) drives what we do and the doing (programs) guides how we think. We are convinced the best approaches to solve our most challenging problems will emerge as thinkers and doers work together.

While hosting focus groups with stakeholders to prepare the Arkansas Economic Recovery Strategy, the  mismatch between employers’ expectations and the output from workforce development systems became obvious. The participants in the workforce focus groups were the least aware of what other entities in the state were doing and a disconnect between employers’ expectations and the skills of the labor force was brought up repeatedly. Employers expressed frustration that recent hires, even those who have graduated from reputable schools, lack basic skills they expect all graduates to possess

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a popular way of classifying how deeply learners are mastering material and may help explain employer’s observed shortage of practical skills in the labor market. The basic levels of knowledge and understanding are at the bottom and learners build upon that necessary knowledge to reach higher levels of understanding and critical thinking ability at the top of the pyramid. 

The first step in learning is remembering.  It shows the ability to link bits of related information together. Parents get excited when a two-year-old can repeat simple facts like their full name and birthdate or associate the word “orange” with the highest level in the table above, but they expect much more from a seven-year-old.  Someone who has mastered the first three levels, Remembering, Understanding and Applying the complex knowledge base of their chosen field will be well-equipped to be proficient in many occupations.  When you can remember, understand, and apply the alphabet and letter sounds you are well on your way to reading.  When you can remember, understand, and apply the knowledge base in an occupational field, you are ready to DO.  You can drive a truck, measure and record vital signs, operate machinery, complete reports, cut and style hair, enter orders, register guests, track merchandise and a myriad of other occupational tasks.  Those who are adept at DOING in their occupational tasks are frequently led to engage in tasks requiring higher order THINKING skills such as to Analyze and/or Evaluate information in dynamic environments and respond accordingly.  It may come in the form of more latitude to respond to customer concerns, responsibilities for ordering, scheduling, managing other employees, or being part of the quality control team in production.  Many career paths, particularly within the same firm, promote employees who develop their capacity to think critically and make decisions using more detailed and complex information.

Most educators are familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy and intentionally structure course material to help students build their knowledge base to be equipped for higher order thinking skills within the subject.  Schools, both at the K-12 level and most 4-year degree programs, list improved critical thinking as a goal of their curriculum for all students as they wish to produce well-rounded graduates who are equipped for a wide variety of future possibilities.

Education programs undertaken as preparation before entering the labor market vary from being highly applied and task oriented to almost exclusively thought or theory oriented.  The most applied training is firm-specific and happens as part of the orientation process after employees are hired.  Applied or technical education programs teach skills that will be valuable in a specific occupation such as carpentry, auto repair, bookkeeping, or culinary arts.  Some 4-year degrees such as accounting, education and engineering are more focused on teaching students how to create the reports and perform the tasks they will need in their profession as opposed to philosophy or history programs. Professional schools such as dentistry and physical therapy could also be considered specific skill training — giving students the skills needed to DO their job well.  

Other educational programs focus more on the theoretical background of the discipline or a liberal arts foundation, where students are taught how to THINK by analyzing, evaluating, and writing/creating about a wider range of general knowledge, some of it only tangentially related to their field of study.  A liberal arts education develops intellectual capacity and equips the student to continually evaluate and appropriately use new information in a dynamic and uncertain world with much less focus on occupation specific skills.  

What the liberal arts education lacks in applied skills it makes up with powerful critical thinking that may allow graduates to see how their discipline fits into the larger economy and more easily adapt as technology and markets evolve over their career.  These critical thinking skills are what allow employees to work confidently without supervision, become effective managers, and help companies navigate expertly through challenges.  These skills explain why college graduates (Bachelor’s degree) generate earnings an average of 55% higher than High School graduates over their working lives. Their ability to think critically about a wider set of topics may also help explain their lower rates of joblessness currently and consistently over time as they can move across fields more easily.

Our focus groups with employers revealed disappointment at the large amount of training needed to get new employees ready for entry level jobs and the lack of return on that training investment when employees resign shortly thereafter.  Some resign because they did not fully understand what the job entails, and it turns out to not be a good fit for them. Others resign to take those skills to work for another employer. Employers clearly want to hire workers who are equipped to DO more with less on-the-job training.  

While we can adapt the mix of applied skills and critical thinking in our educational curricula and training programs to better fit employer needs, it will take time and improved coordination.  Institutions such as school districts, community colleges, and universities are notoriously staunch defenders of the status quo. Fortunately, other entities are responding and several options to acquire and document skills and knowledge beyond the traditional educational institutions already exist. Employers are readily adapting to a labor market with a wider variety of reliable credential options and some employers are even creating their own training programs with industry recognized credentials.  

Arkansas has taken bold steps to help local labor markets work more efficiently by matching workers, jobs, and skills training with the launch of Ready for Life. The portal provides information to job seekers on jobs available, skills needed for those jobs, and in many cases, offers FREE TRAINING programs to help workers acquire and document their new skills. The training can be based on acquiring a specific skill or linked to a specific occupational certification.  There are training modules to help workers learn specific skills in a new industry to expand their ability to DO. There are other advanced training programs focused on the big picture and the ability to THINK through critical issues in the industry.  

How Ready for Life can benefit job seekers:

  • It can recommend specific jobs that utilize the skills and training you already have but may not have considered or realized were available. This is especially important for workers switching industries. 
  • It provides information on thousands of job titles and occupations so you can understand what the job entails before committing to a training program or job.
  • In addition to the usual electronic employment forums where you can upload your resume and apply to jobs easily, Ready for Life allows you to earn skills training badges and automatically attaches them to your profile.
  • It provides specific skill training including the soft skills or durable skills that employers love to see but are rarely fully covered in traditional training programs.
  • As the training programs offered in Ready for Life expand to encompass more of the LinkedIn Learning library, more challenging courses that allow users to document higher order thinking skills will provide a path for jobs with more responsibility and higher income.

How Ready for Life can benefit employers:

  • They can search profiles for local workers with the right skills.
  • They can curate a collection of training modules that already exist or create their own personalized training modules and have workers complete them via Ready for Life prior to or as part of the on-boarding process.
  • They no longer need to verify educational credentials as Ready for Life does so automatically.
  • To the degree that employees start better informed about the position, employers will waste fewer resources training employees who do not stay.

The Ready for Life platform is an innovative concept that addresses real issues by combining information that already exists into a one-stop portal.  It has the potential to provide the needed coordination between the skills employers desire and available training programs. Though it already has thousands of open jobs posted, it is still very much a work in progress.  We look forward to seeing it grow into a powerful tool that helps the labor force expand its ability to THINK and DO big things for the people of Arkansas.