On repeated occasions, surveys in Australia and elsewhere report business leaders complaining about graduates without appropriate skills.
Recently I wrote about one factor that could explain this: the implicit privileging of writing about all other forms of communication throughout our education system. Graduates, therefore, tend to have weak skills in listening, seeing and reading, even drawing and visual communication, all of which are critical for engineering and most other professions.
This helps to explain why the reputation of graduates is so low, particularly in the minds of business employers. And it is not just engineers, apparently, that are said to have terrible communication skills.
My research on engineers provides some novel answers that lie deep within the structure of our education systems. There are some other factors that have emerged from this research affecting not just engineers, but all graduates.
In this post I will describe the second of these factors: the implicit relegation of collaboration.
Our education system, and I suspect almost all formal education around the world, is based on individual assessment.
Yes, your grades indicated your success (or otherwise) at school. No one else’s grades mattered very much.
How many of us even thought that maybe our grades also reflected our teachers’ successes? Or even our parents? Of course, the effort you put into your learning at school made a difference. Yet classroom learning is influenced as much by parents, teachers and even our peers, the others who were seated all around you.
However, in real life, as an engineer, your success depends more on what others do that what you do yourself. As one senior engineer explained it to me in my research: “No amount of calculation or analysis is of any value until somebody uses their tools in a different way in response to your suggestions.” Engineers only achieve success through the collaborative efforts of so many other people – financiers, business leaders, technicians, contractors, labourers, safety inspectors, environmental regulators, suppliers: so many other people.
Yes, this idea of collaboration is contradicted by the reward system we emphasize, right through our education. This contradiction shows up when I place students in situations where their marks depend on how well they collaborate with other student. When I set assessments for my students in which the performance of their peers affects their marks, some students complain bitterly. “Why should my grades be affected by other students’ laziness? That’s totally unfair!”
So, like writing, individual performance is implicitly privileged by our education system, from primary school to postgraduate classes.
Collaboration is implicitly and explicitly trashed. Individual grades provide the implicit signal that collaboration is not valued, even though everyone around us, particularly our peers, influence and contribute to our classroom successes. At the explicit level, collaboration is often seen as cheating. Students collaborate of course. Otherwise many would never get those assignments completed at all. But it happens “behind the teacher’s back”, out of class, because getting other students to help you is often seen as an individual failure. “Aren’t you supposed to be able to do it yourself? I thought that’s the point of learning how to do it in school.” So many students have asked me this question when I discuss collaboration.
Those of you who have read my book will realise that collaboration is the essence of engineering, both as a general skill and also using many specialised methods adapted for situations where special technical knowledge is critical for success. Yet we don’t teach this in engineering schools beyond assigning students to “teams” and expecting them to practice “teamwork” without any substantive instruction or assessment that rewards learning effective techniques.
Many students, though not all, resent having to work in collaborative groups and it is not hard to see why, given that collaboration is implicitly devalued through individual assessment. It is contrary to the fundamental value system represented by individual grades.
In most businesses, collaboration is the key to success so it is no wonder that when I observe young engineers in the work place, I notice that most have little understanding of effective collaboration techniques and don’t practice them.
Even though there are opportunities to learn effective collaboration skills in our universities and schools, the implicit devaluing of collaboration makes it unlikely that students will acquire these skills.
Many employers criticise graduates’ communication skills. This is puzzling for graduates because most think they can write well: they had to write to pass their courses. Yet, my research suggests that employers are actually thinking about collaboration skills which are much more complex than the simple forms of communication emphasised in university courses. Without necessarily understanding that collaboration skills are distinct from the prerequisite communication skills, business leaders simply label graduates as having ‘poor communication skills’.
In a later post on this blog, I will describe more factors that contribute to the difficulties graduates encounter that frustrate them and their employers.