A ‘no-consequences’ education produces unemployable graduates

| November 5, 2014

Our modern education system seems to have become complicit in the business of manufacturing aspirations, no matter how delusional. Rachael Sharman says we need a shift in attitude from educational organisations, students and parents.

A research centre in the UK recently found that lavishing praise on students, particularly low-attaining students, may be counter-productive. By providing a no-fail, no-consequences environment in which the top priority is to make everybody feel good about themselves, we are doing little more than setting young people up to fail.

It would appear our modern education systems have delivered us not only a backslide of Australian student rankings, but also our highest youth unemployment rate in decades. Research suggests that basic employability skills, where worker can arrive on time, take instruction and get on with others, are wanting in this generation of young people.

An ad for an apprentice recently posted on a job site perfectly summarised the difficulty faced by employers trying to give a young person a go. It listed only two selection criteria:

1) Not afraid to work

2) Can turn up Monday to Friday.

Following an article I recently wrote on this topic, I was contacted by an extraordinary range of people sharing their frustration in finding themselves saddled with the kind of employee I described as having “the correct bit of paper, but a total inability to effectively apply it”.

The stories that came my way shared a common history. Early on in the training path of some young people, there can be a total disconnect between the individual’s assessment of their strengths and weaknesses compared to everyone else’s.

This is nothing new. Typically coined “poor insight”, there’s a raft of research including the aptly named Why the Unskilled are Unaware that demonstrates the cognitive mechanisms at fault here – or, more simply put, why stupid people don’t know they’re stupid.

But what happens when this person hits your training environment? What is the education system’s role, responsibility and duty of care (and to whom) in this situation?

Can education fix this?

Sadly, our modern education system has become complicit in the business of manufacturing aspirations, no matter how delusional. This is facilitated by the ever-present fear of litigation if little Johnny/Sally becomes in any way upset by honest feedback about their performance.

This has left teaching staff too terrified to have conversations with students as to whether they are suited to their chosen career path, or at genuine risk of being found guilty of discrimination if they apply consequences for poor progress or dysfunctional behaviours that wouldn’t be tolerated in a workplace.

Here are some examples that were sent my way:

TAFE trainee X was capable of doing the tasks required of him. However, he had a habit of proffering potentially dangerous advice to clients outside his training – despite being been told not to do this. His placement took to hiding the phone from him. He also overshared gruesome details of his chaotic personal life to stunned clients. Trainee X was convinced he would be offered employment at the end of his stint, although his placement told him not to expect this, privately labelling him “a disaster” and “unemployable”.

University student Y committed a serious, immoral (un)professional foul during a work placement that raised serious concerns regarding her character and fitness to practice. Against her supervisors’ recommendation, her university rewarded her behaviour with a second chance to complete her placement, inflicting her upon another (unwitting) workplace.

Consider also the impact of the various get-out-of-jail-free cards (exam re-sits, extensions, appeals, supplementary assessments) available to students in the case of poor performance, shambolic time-management or concerning interpersonal behaviours such as poor team skills, lack of initiative, unadaptable to change and poorly developed ethics. Would these be available in the work place?

While there is an interesting and nuanced debate to be had about if and how educators could teach personal attributes and employability skills, the most basic understanding of how consequences shape human behaviour would suggest that rewarding such conduct by making excuses and allowing endless chances will only groom future unemployables.

It’s for their own good

Has it occurred to anyone else that providing a fantasy training environment, that in no way reflects the expectations of a real workplace, actually isn’t fair to students?

When educators are prevented from providing genuine feedback and applying realistic consequences, we deny students the opportunity to recognise and play to their strengths while reflecting upon their weaknesses, to change any counter-productive attitudes/behaviours, or redirect their efforts into a more suitable career course.

The solution requires a shift in attitude from educational organisations, students – and their parents – with clear legal protections in place for educators who, rather than setting students up to fail, actually want them to learn how to succeed.

This blog first appeared in The Conversation and is republished with the kind permission of the author.

Rachael Sharman
Dr Rachael Sharman is a lecturer and researcher in psychology, specialising in child/adolescent development. Rachael's research is focused on the optimal and healthy development of the paediatric brain, and has covered the psychological and cognitive impacts of: dietary practices of parents and their children; physical activity; obesity; autism; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; phenylketonuria; depression; concussion; acquired brain injury; childhood trauma. Rachael has a long history in working in child-related fields including child protection, juvenile justice, disability, advocacy and genetic research. A high point was meeting personally with the Queensland Health Minister in 2002 to successfully lobby the government to invest in expanded newborn screening. The result of that meeting ensured that every baby born in Queensland is now screened via the 'heel prick test' for an additional 30 rare genetic disorders. This has prevented the unnecessary death or disability caused by these disorders if left undetected and untreated. Rachael remains committed to research that ensures children have the best possible chance to meet their full potential.

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