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What Have We Learned About Academic Skills at Work?

The study results reported here (and documented in more detail in several NCRVE reports, including Stasz et al., 1996, and Stasz & Brewer, 1999) show that the relationship between academic knowledge and the work context is complex. Today's technical workers are expected to draw information from a range of academic disciplines and to use that knowledge to perform tasks and solve unique problems; often they must work proactively to identify potential trouble spots and design viable solutions without direct oversight or much advice. In short, technical workers are synthesizers of information, the exigencies of the task at hand, and work contexts; their jobs are as likely to demand creativity and intellectual dexterity as the ability to follow instructions or work precisely.

If we compare the traditional academic skill mix with the repertoire of abilities displayed by the technical workers interviewed in the study, it becomes apparent that few high school students graduate ready for the manifold demands of the workplace. Often, even strong vocational and academic programs overlook systems understanding or workplace dispositions. In addition, teaching students academic subjects in ways that help them use those skills later should be a key criterion of secondary curricula, since, as the researchers found, "knowledge transfer" is so critical to success. As one traffic signal technician explained, there is a big difference between classroom understanding and practical know-how:

There are people who have studied and can study well and can take tests well. They are very book knowledgeable, but they can't apply it practically. Some don't have book knowledge, but are more hands-on oriented. They can go and read on what needs to be done and they are able to apply it. Or you can tell them. But they are missing the technical understanding. They may know every component inside, but they won't know what it does. Knowing it and knowing what do with it are two different things.

More and more often, educators will be asked to teach both kinds of knowing. New instructional frameworks will help educators incorporate some of the findings of recent skills research into academic courses, technical courses, and work-based learning programs.


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