Working, Learning and LIfe: Artificial Schisms

In horse racing, we place bets on the horse we think is going to cross the finish line first. There are several factors that we weigh when making our pick, but most valuable to our decision are the results of the horse's past performances. Although we take into consideration the horse's age, jockey, trainer and breeding, we don't put money on those factors alone. Whether or not a horse is progeny of Secretariat, at the end of the day, all that matters is how well the horse can run. In horse racing, performance outweighs pedigree.

This premium on performance is used in the stock market, venture capitalism and sports. We select and invest in the teams, players and businesses that can perform. So, why don't we use this same approach in the way we educate and hire? We live in a working world that overly emphasizes factors that are often not correlated with successful performance. We care too much about where people have gained their skills, what degree or credential they have, and even who they know. We put the focus on everything else but the central issue of performance. This has resulted in a worsening skills gap, a disconnect between educational output and the human capital demands of industry, and a culture focused on getting kids into college rather than providing learners with what they need to be successful in their careers and lives. We need to focus more on how to facilitate successful learning that leads to successful performance.

We also need to focus on how we learn. No horse trainer trains every horse exactly the same way. Horses have specific conditions under which they perform optimally. A good trainer understands the uniqueness and circumstances of the horse, and learns from each race how to improve upon the horse's performance. Not all horses run a race the same way: some hang back in the rear and surge to the finish in the final moments of the race. Others run with the pack, and some -- like the great Man O' War -- stay out front. There are multiple approaches, speeds, and routes to the finish line.

Many people today do not take the "traditional" route to the proverbial finish line: pursuing education, entering the workforce and then staying in one or two jobs during their lifetime. Instead, many people function as working learners, weaving together learning opportunities from diverse environments, resources and experiences while juggling the demands of life and work. Working learners change jobs and careers many times to meet the demands of a rapidly shifting labor market, and continually seek out advanced skills as work becomes increasingly more complex, technology-driven, and collaborative. The reality of our world demands that all of us are able to pursue learning opportunities when and where we need them to succeed in careers and in our personal lives.

Another reality is that learning is not simply a moment in time or a package we receive. It is not just a diploma we hang on our wall, a degree we list on our resume, or a title with which we adorn our name. Learning happens everywhere, all the time, and in many forms. Therefore, we have to be smarter about the way we deliver and provide access to learning that matters. Valuable learning does not just happen in the classroom or on the job. It can happen through a diverse array of experiences we have in team environments, hands-on projects, internships, competitions, volunteering and many other social experiences. Through these inter-related experiences, we learn the most life and career-relevant skills of problem-solving, collaboration, adaptability, and critical thinking.

Working learners are the new consumer of education and our most important asset in an economy driven by innovation and performance. There are millions of working learners out there with passions, skills, and the readiness to learn. Some have degrees and credentials --what we have typically used to identify candidates -- but many do not, and have thus been held back because the usual path of a degree or credential does not fit their individual needs, financial capabilities, or life circumstances. Many working learners have important experiences that make them prime candidates for the most in-demand jobs, but we simply overlook them because they lack a pedigree on paper -- not qualifications. Instead of looking only for a piece of paper or for the pedigree, why don't we look at how working learners perform? Is it because we don't have the instruments to quantify "experiences" or adequate assessments to "test" performance? Or, is it because we focus on or assume knowledge from documents such as transcripts?

The question at hand is: how do we better align the worlds of work, learning and life to result in connected experiences that help each of us realize our goals -- be they educational, career-driven, or personal. ACT Foundation launched this week in Austin, Texas, with a vision for a National Learning Economy in which every person is highly valued for their knowledge, skills and ability to perform as rewarded by life and career success. Let's place a new bet on working learners. Let's place a new bet on our nation's ability to learn and perform.

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This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the "Close It" Summit, in conjunction with the upcoming "Close It" Summit (Nov. 5-7, 2013, in Washington, D.C.). The summit will address the U.S. job-market skills gap. For more information on the conference, please visit