Learning and society in a post-industrial era


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SOCIETY has changed significantly, however, the changes in social institutions, more so in education, are much less significant. Though there is no shortage of education reforms, few of them seem to have responded to and matched the changes in the larger context. This essay attempts to discuss the changes in society and their implications for education.

My understanding of contemporary society starts with the workplace. I became interested in how people work in contemporary organisations and what is expected of them – hence the implications for education. However, I am not advancing an economic analysis of employment, nor of people’s employability, but attempt an anthropological understanding of how people live in the contemporary workplace.

In June 2005, there were 291,000 Registered Companies in Hong Kong. Of these, over 99.3% had less than 100 members, what are known as SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises); 94% of such companies have less than 20 members, and 86% of them have fewer than 10 members.1 This is certainly different from a typical industrial society with many more large organisations which host the majority of the working population. Although Hong Kong is a small city and may not be representative of all societies, the pattern is nonetheless echoed in the United States, a much larger society. In 2002, 98% of the business enterprises had fewer than 100 people, and 86% under 20.


This is not the place to explain why organisations have decreased in size. It perhaps suffices to mention the general trend of moving away from scale production towards customised products and services with quality replacing quantity as the focus of economic activities. As such, only few organisations maintain the so-called Fordian mode of operation where a massive number of task-specific labourers at the frontline work according to a master plan handed down from the top. In such a mode, workers are coordinated through layers of middle management and separate departments, and hence the pyramidal structure, what Max Weber called bureaucracy in the neutral sense of the term.3 

The trend of customisation and small-scale production has rendered bureaucracy and hierarchy rather unnecessary, if not a burden. Even large organisations engaged in contemporary businesses operate with fluid and client-specific task forces, variedly called production teams, project units, account groups and so on, which are small in size. Overall, organisations are becoming smaller, flatter and looser.

In other words, the distinctive features of an industrial organisation – fine division of labour, rigorous structure, clear lines of command, and so forth – are being increasingly weakened in contemporary organisations. The tendency seems unmistakable. Re-engineering of organisations continues with downsizing, de-layering, outsourcing… all moving in the same direction.4 They all challenge Max Weber’s notion of ‘rational-legality’ which captures the crux of the work-place in industrial society.

It might not be accurate to say that all large organisations have moved into such a mode. Many of them have structured themselves into various modes of ‘matrices’ that serve as intermediate steps in moving away from a conventional bureaucracy. The trend is, however, unmistakable and irreversible.


My attention, however, is on the people who work in organisations. In a typical task force of an investment bank, for example, the unit is small, there is only blurred division of labour, and there are almost no layers. People do not work as specialists, but have to contribute through integration of different talents, expertise and experiences. People do not work as separate individuals; they have to collaborate through teamwork. They are not mere implementers who abide by strict job descriptions, meticulous procedures and detailed rules and regulations. They are designers of the product who bear total responsibility for delivery.

It is interesting to note that what happens in a task force is not very different from what goes on in a small enterprise. The latter also shares the characteristics of a small, flat and loose organisation, blurred division of labour and teamwork, integration of expertise and talent, downplay of rules and regulations, and the merger of design and production.

If our attention is on people, then we cannot ignore the increasing number of freelancers, who work at the other extreme when compared with a typical Fordian mode. Task forces in large organisations, small and medium enterprises and freelancers form the spectrum of organisations in contemporary post-industrial societies.


Individual lives are now also different. People in the industrial era are classified into specialist occupations. Apart from the grassroots ‘raw’ labourers, most people are given occupational identities, and are therefore classified rather permanently. The ‘raw’ or ‘unskilled’ labourers are not classified because they are not seen to possess specific skills. People are also ranked according to their roles in the organisational hierarchy, and expect to change their rank by climbing the ladder. People work in relatively large and stable organisations and are engaged in long-term employment in return for long-term loyalty. They work in disparate parts of the huge production machinery, their performance appraised according to how well they fulfil assigned specific tasks and follow procedures, rules and regulations. They work with people mostly in a superior-subordinate relationship, most often with the same partners, facing the same clients and same social networks.

With changes in the workplace, individuals lead a different working life. Most of them work in small organisations or small independent units in large organisations which are volatile. The work organisations may be changed, restructured, merged or dismantled in relatively short periods of time. Accordingly, individuals take on varying tasks, change jobs and move across careers.

Moreover, working in small units is different from working in large organisations. Products or services are taken care of by the entire unit as a ‘total solution’ for clients. Design and production are intertwined. Frontline workers are no longer mere routine labourers. Rather than work according to given designs and prescribed tasks, they have to devise their own tasks, paths and pace according to the needs of specific projects or clients. More than working according to individual and separate job assignments, teamwork prevails, and individuals are expected to engage in intense human interaction and collaboration.

Rather than working as specialists, individuals are expected to integrate their expertise and to contribute personal ideas. Rather than following rules and regulations handed down from above, they have rather flexible work patterns and have to bear personal responsibility throughout. Rather than carrying out plans designed at the top, everyone is expected to have a creative and enquiring mind.


As a consequence, expectations of individuals are now different. Most surveys on workplace requirements converge to the same list of personal attributes, such as: Ability to communicate, adaptability to change, ability to work in teams with flexible human relations, preparedness to solve problems, ability to analyse and conceptualise, to assume personal responsibility, reflect on oneself, to manage oneself, ability to create, innovate and criticise, to engage in learning new things anywhere and anytime, to cross specialist borders, and to move across cultures.

I would hasten to add that, as individuals, they also have to prepare themselves for uncertainty and insecurity,5 attributes that are often not on the workplace agenda. Such attributes are expected of most people in increasing sectors of society. One may notice that these characteristics were once expected of leaders, but now apply to all frontline workers. Such attributes were the markers of intellectuals who are the few, but now are expected of the majority of the population.


My question then is: Is our education preparing young people for such work lives? Education plays a socialisation role that supports the social fabric. Classification and ranking in an industrial society are largely facilitated by education. Most education systems have been designed as a pyramid so that they match the pyramid in the workplace. Most education systems, like a sieve, perform a screening function. People exit at different levels of the education system with different educational attainments in anticipation of different positions in the social hierarchy.

People’s occupational identity often comes as a consequence of their respective educational qualifications. Universities produce degree-holders who typically become engineers who work at the apex of the organisational pyramid. Technical institutions or other sub-degree institutions produce technicians or their equivalents. Vocational schools produce skilled workers or ‘craftsmen’. Those who barely finish basic education are meant to work as raw labourers.

With changes in the workplace, there are largely four types of people in a society like Hong Kong: the majority who work in small and medium enterprises, the second largest group who work in contemporary large organisations, the freelancers, and those who work in the remaining traditional pyramidal organisations. Apart from the last category, which is shrinking in number, most of them work in a small-unit environment described earlier. One result is the shrinking sector of blue-collars, and a declining number of purely manual labourers in the workplace.

This is significantly reflected in youth unemployment and re-unemployment of the middle-aged. In Hong Kong, for example, the unemployment rate has stayed between 5%-8%, rather independent of the economic situation. Youth unemployment once reached 36% in 2003.6 There is the now well-known phenomenon of ‘double disengaged’ young people, where around 19% of those aged 15-20 are not engaged in either study or work.7 In educational terms, our education system does not equip them with the required capacity to survive in society.

Thirty years ago, those who failed in the education system were the ideal candidates for the vast army of routine frontline labourers in manufacturing industries. Today, such industries have become only a small sector in the economy. The education system still produces ‘rejects’ that society cannot absorb. Indeed, employment forecasts consistently indicate a shortage of people with post-secondary education attainment, and a surplus of people with only secondary education. Yet, what the education system is doing is to sustain both the shortage and the surplus. The crisis is serious. And Hong Kong is not alone.

Moreover, there are also a large number of people (unfortunately there are no accurate statistics) who have lost their jobs in their 40s and 50s because their capacity can no longer match the new expectations of the changed workplace. The education that they received some 20 or 30 years ago has not prepared them for new requirements in today’s workplace.

As an institution, our education system is severely challenged. It is expected to prepare people for life, but it does not.


The subtler crisis lies in the expectation of generic capacity in the workplace. In one sense, individuals have to face a changing working life and have to move across tasks, jobs and careers. What is essential is for them to be equipped with a generic capacity that would be useful across tasks, jobs and careers. In another sense, the small-unit working environment anticipates the integration of expertise and collaboration among people, and the need to face ever changing projects specific to the needs of the market or clients. Again, generic capacity is essential.

This challenges the specialised nature of our conventional education system. Education tends to focus on specialised disciplines, and this has filtered down from higher education to secondary and primary education. There is an implicit notion that knowledge is more specialised when it is at higher levels. Accordingly, people are expected to be more specialised when they are more educated.

The specialised nature of our education has channelled people into narrow occupational categories. The education system does not acknowledge the reality that many young people have to face multiple careers in their lives. It does not acknowledge the significant mismatch between what people study and what they do as a career. It does not respond to the fact that many contemporary organisations appoint individuals because of the person, not their expertise. Education has also failed to realise that what the society is interested in among our young people is what they could do in the future, rather than what they know at the moment.


In the contemporary workplace, human interactions have become much more intensive. At one time, people believed that the contemporary workplace would become more inhuman because of the development of technology. Against such a belief, teamwork, collaboration and integration have become the common mode of work. Communication, brainstorming, presentation and negotiation have become the most common activities in the workplace. Moreover, individuals have to face ever changing partners, teammates, clients and social networks. There is therefore an unprecedented requirement for people’s social competency, a notion used in Europe to cover people’s attitudes, emotions, values, principles, ethics and other moral and social dimensions of one’s personality. The notion may also extend to realms such as self-management, self-confidence and self-reflection.

Conventional education in the industrial era concentrates on academic knowledge, or ‘study’. Although there is no dearth of debate about the moral or pastoral dimensions of education, often it is academic achievement, typically represented by examination scores, that counts most. There are also plenty of student activities outside classrooms, but they are seen as extras, as is reflected in the term ‘extra-curricular activities’. Apart from religious schools and elite private schools (which are often of religious heritage), public schools in many systems do not have serious support for activities beyond academic study.

The moral, ethical and social dimensions of students’ development are therefore left to the individual, sometimes to the family or the church, or to be moulded in the workplace. However, such dimensions often see the most significant development during school age.


As mentioned earlier, many leading business firms recruit people because of the person, rather than the academic qualifications. In most cases, a qualification is still regarded as the threshold requirement for entry into any organisation. However, the specific substance of the qualification has often become secondary. This is perhaps justifiable when one perceives of qualifications as no more than an indication of what one has learnt and what is known.

Qualifications may indicate knowledge that could easily become obsolete. Qualifications could indicate only how well one learnt in the past in the school or institutional setting, but not how one would apply such knowledge, nor how one would learn in the workplace. Qualifications may ‘qualify’ an individual to work in a certain occupation or profession at the juncture of graduation, but do not take account of the subsequent careers one might undertake in life. Qualifications are often ‘terminal’ in nature, awarded at the end of an academic career. They do not always provide a license for lifelong learning.

After all, academic qualifications are testimonies of individual capacity according to a knowledge framework that is based on academic disciplines. They do not necessarily reflect the individual’s capacities realised in an alternative framework more appropriate to the workplace. In a nutshell, what is required in the workplace is not always reflected in one’s academic credentials.

These are only the more obvious dimensions where there is a mismatch between what is expected from the workplace and what is offered by education. We then face a more fundamental question: Why is it that our education is not offering what is expected by society? In other words, the whole notion of education is being questioned.


If we keep a clear mind and try to subject education to critical analysis, we can see that many of the thoughts and practices of today’s education are deep-rooted in paradigms that have seldom been challenged.


The selection paradigm: This pertains to the aim of education. The pyramidal structure of industrial society is so deep-rooted in the minds of educators, and sometimes even members of the community at large, that it is expected that education should also be a pyramid. Therefore, selection and screening is a legitimate function of education.

In this paradigm, there is a basic assumption: ‘There are smart kids and dumb kids.’ This is raised by Peter Senge8 as one of the fundamental assumptions of education in the industrial era. This is not so much a psychological assumption about students’ innate ability. It is, rather, about whether or not everybody can learn. A single yardstick created by the education system often defines the smart-dumb dichotomy. It is often, without being challenged, reduced to simplistic indicators confined to academic study, or ‘reading, writing and science’, as some political leaders would advocate.

If we adopt Howard Gardner’s framework of ‘multiple intelligences’, then the selection paradigm often attends to only the linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences which are typically valued in schools.9 Educators often conveniently further reduce the measure of human beings to a single numerical indicator such as IQ, or the more sophisticated version of it, such as the SAT in the US10 or the AAT11 in Hong Kong.

People who use IQ tend to think it is a scientific measurement and hence a legitimate instrument for selection or screening. However, people tend to forget that even if the measurement is scientific and free of social bias (which is nonetheless controversial12 ), the cut-off on the ‘Bell Curve’ is a matter of human judgement. In an honest analysis, in the industrial society, the match of the education pyramid with the workplace pyramid is artificial. It is difficult to conceive that the distribution of human innate abilities should exactly coincide with the distribution of manpower, which is due to social-economic development.13 

Now that the societal pyramid is disappearing, the idea of using innate ability for social selection is facing a fundamental challenge. Educators are also facing challenges. They are used to perceiving the failures from the education system as obvious candidates for manual labour or blue-collar jobs. It is difficult for them to comprehend how those who fail in academic tests should survive in a society with only few blue collars. In this paradigm, one may think that these failures from the education system deserve ‘double disengagement’ as mentioned earlier.


However, recent developments in the expansion of tertiary education have provided some breakthrough. According to OECD figures, one third of youths were admitted into all types of tertiary education in 1996.14 In 1999, three years later, 40% of youths are admitted to Type A tertiary education (full-time degree-bearing programmes).15 In 2003, the Type A enrolment further rose to 53%.16 There are no significant outcries for student failure in the expanded tertiary sector. The same is happening in major systems in Asia.

In Korea and Taiwan, there is a basic over-supply of higher education places. In major Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the enrolment ratios in tertiary education are over 75%. Yet, in all these cases, there is no significant decline in the quality of tertiary education. In Hong Kong, there has been a leap from 30% to 68% enrolment in tertiary education from 2001 to 2006. Yet, the community colleges, which contribute most significantly to such an expansion, are seen to be providing a real second-route for those who are failed by the conventional school system. All these situations have broken through the paradigm that only the selected few could do education beyond secondary schooling.

In this aspect, there is a need to revisit the local culture of education. For example, education in Chinese and East Asian communities is known for its emphasis on examinations, the cult of competition and detachment from reality. All these are perhaps aspects to be overcome. However, there is also a tradition of belief in effort over innate ability,17 which is supported by folklore in Chinese culture. Hence there is an alternative way of looking at motivation and environment for student learning.18 Such a belief should be revisited and analysed, so that its favourable spirit could be revived to fit the needs of the changed society.


The teaching paradigm: This pertains to the process of education. It is safe to assume that there is only one core business in the institution of education: Learning! Hence, a fundamental understanding of learning should underpin our revisit of education.

As a non-expert in learning, my understanding of learning could be summarised as the following, obviously influenced by the now prevalent constructivist school of thought:19 

* Learning is construction of knowledge by the learner. It is not transmission of knowledge. The learner is an active agent rather than a passive recipient.

* Learning occurs only when there is interaction between the human being and the external world. Hence learning occurs only through activities, or learning experiences.

* As a consequence, different individuals may learn differently with the same learning experience.

* As a corollary, understanding and application are necessarily intertwined, and not separate stages, of the learning process.

* As another corollary, learning is effective through the integration of prior knowledge in solving real life problems.

* Human beings learn more effectively in a social setting, i.e. in groups, rather than as individuals. People ‘learn to learn’ from other members or from more experienced members in a community.

It is clear that such a framework about learning is no foreigner to learners in the workplace. Learning in the contemporary workplace is basically on the job, on demand, just in time. The mode is learning by doing, learning through application, learning through integration and learning through teamwork. Only a small part of learning in the workplace is achieved through off-job and pre-practice training programmes.

Such a paradigm of learning, unfortunately, is only vaguely known to educators, or is known as a theory, but is seen as too ideal to be practical. If this general understanding of learning is used to review our present education system, then some fundamental questions emerge. Let us concentrate on primary and secondary schools.


What kind of learning experiences have we offered to our students? In conventional schools, the major learning experiences are listening, reading and writing. In slightly more progressive schools, students also experience questioning and answering. As mentioned earlier, some schools, church schools and private schools in particular, also provide other alternative learning experiences outside classrooms or outside campuses. Students will not learn when they are not given the experience. Students who are not exposed to music will not learn music. Students who are not given the experience to organise themselves will never learn organisational leadership.

To what extent do we allow students to learn differently? In conventional education systems, students are expected to learn the same curriculum, to learn at the same pace and in the same mode, and expected to achieve the same when they are examined. Basically, they are not expected to develop their own respective paths, speed or content. Proponents would argue that what is learnt in schools is basic, and hence should be attained by all. The reality is that because of uniform yardsticks, only students whose learning fits the yardstick survive, and others seen as failures. Meanwhile, the school curriculum is only a narrow portion of human knowledge, and students are deprived of the vast bodies of knowledge that they could learn and use in the future.


To what extent do we regard the application of knowledge as part of learning? Traditionally, understanding and application are two separate sequential stages of learning. The students’ task in schools is understanding, and before they understand, they are not supposed to apply and use it. Practising before understanding is often identified as rote learning and is negatively perceived. Under that assumption, students’ learning is largely detached from real-life applications. In many Asian schools, students learn English just to satisfy examination requirements, but are unable to use English in real life. They may learn biology without the experience of planting a plant or raising an animal.

To what extent do students learn to integrate the knowledge they learn in different disciplines? Learning in schools takes place mainly in subjects. Subjects have rather solid boundaries to make sure that learning in that subject is done within the same regime. A typical example is that there is hardly any knowledge of chemistry in the physics curriculum. As such, students are seldom given opportunities to move across subject boundaries and learn to integrate the knowledge they acquire in different subjects. This phenomenon is exacerbated by the public examinations which further confine students to subject boundaries, and even more by university admissions that, in many Asian systems, are based on subject scores. Little is done to test students’ ability of integration.


To what extent do we create environments for collaborative learning? Students in schools seldom learn in groups. They might be encouraged to do group projects at some point, but either these projects are rare, or the students will eventually be assessed as isolated individuals. Collaboration entails tolerance of diversity and ‘complementarity’, so that different members in the group contribute in different ways; they learn from each other, and complement each other. This is seldom the case in schools. In our part of the world, where there is a strong tradition for rigorous examinations, collaboration among students could easily be perceived as dishonesty, cheating or plagiarism. The culture of competition, which is also a strong tradition in many Asian communities, has also encouraged individual competition at the expense of collaboration.

Nonetheless, there are emerging changes in education that are encouraging. There is, for example, a visible move in higher education towards a broadening of learning experiences. Among others, journalism undergraduate curricula have moved to reduce the ‘major’ component to only around 30% of the total credits,20 thus challenging the entire notion of a major. Indeed, most business undergraduate programmes in North America have given around 50% of the curriculum to non-business studies. Even in engineering, there is a move to leave a space of 30% of the undergraduate curriculum to studies outside engineering.21 


Moreover, there is also a move in many universities around the world to introduce a common core to the undergraduate curriculum, or to delay specialisation to later years of the undergraduate programme, or even to the second degree. In Europe, for example, in an effort to achieve mutual recognition of university degrees, the Bologna Declaration (1999),22 among others, expects all systems within the European community to conform to a three-year generic degree (‘first cycle’), and allow specialisation to take place in the second degree (‘second cycle’). In the UK, where higher education is known for its specialisation, there has been a call from the government to introduce two-year foundation degrees23 which are generic in nature, and leave specialisation to the second degree. In Mainland China, many major universities have started a first year common programme followed by a generic core in the second year.

Likewise, there are changes in the secondary school curriculum in many systems. As a matter of reform, Singapore has reduced its secondary school curriculum by 30% in anticipation of more room for alternative learning experiences. Along the same line of thinking, Japan plans to reduce its secondary school curriculum by 33%. The other approach is to reduce the subjects required by public examinations, in the hope of reducing the time spent on ‘subjects’. Mainland China, since 1999, has introduced a 3 + X scheme to the national University Entrance Examination, where students are required to choose at least one integrated paper.

There is also a visible move in many systems to pay more attention to the social aspects of learning. There is discussion and practice about tacit knowledge, civic education, value education, character education in western societies, and a revisiting of ‘moral education’ as a tradition in Mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore. Meanwhile, there are efforts to strengthen learning experiences beyond classrooms, even in systems where activities beyond classroom learning were highly optional. One typical example is the significant attention paid to and resources invested in After School Education in the US.24 


The most encouraging change in the process of education is perhaps the practice of Problem-based Learning (PBL). Started in McMaster University almost twenty years back, PBL has become the major mode of learning in most medical schools around the world. Instead of organising learning through lectures in academic disciplines, medical students are required to tackle real-life medical cases. They are required to integrate different bodies of medical knowledge and apply them to solving real problems. Typically, PBL is organised in small groups which allow intensive collaboration, multiple perspectives, plural solutions and critical debates, with students playing an active role. Moreover, because of the real-life nature, learners have to take into consideration social as well as ethical issues during their deliberations. PBL is now spreading to other sectors of higher education. It is also being extended to learning in primary and secondary education.

All these reforms, though difficult, nonetheless are encouraging steps towards a school life for genuine learning.


The rational-legal paradigm: This pertains to the organisation of education. As mentioned earlier, organisations are necessarily large, bureaucratic and hierarchical in the industrial era where scale is the general mode of production. This has also shaped people’s general methodology of thinking, which tends to favour ways that are analytic, regulated, structured, clear-cut, uniform, convergent, normative, neat, assertive and reducible to parameters. These are perhaps necessary ways of thinking in dealing with large-scale phenomena. They tend to support the modernist’s view of the world. In Hofstede’s terms, this is a rather masculine culture.25 

As we move towards a post-industrial or knowledge society, organisations have become smaller, loose and flatter. People’s general methodology of thinking seems also to have taken a turn towards more post-modern and feminine paradigms, favouring ways that are holistic, flexible, fuzzy, plural, divergent, liberal, complex, speculative and tolerant of multiplex concepts.

This is already significantly visible in the workplace, where fluid organizations have replaced rigid structures, regulation of the process has given way to holistic control of the output, people are appraised as comprehensive human beings rather than as composite entities of indicators, and so forth.

Such a paradigm shift has yet to occur in education. Today’s education system, as is realised in schools and educational institutions, mirrors that of an industrial organisation. Schools as a national system did not exist until the mid-nineteenth century. The school system is different from individual schools, and even more so from learner groups in ancient times. School systems cater for mass populations; they are systems for mass production.

As such, there is the issue of efficiency and hence economies of scale. The largest school in Mainland China hosts over 8,000 students. The standard school in Hong Kong caters for 1,200 students. In western developed countries, where neighbourhood attendance is practised, school size is tailored to the population of the neighbourhood. The size of schools is often determined by optimisation of resources, rather than optimisation of learning environments.


By the same token, students in schools are divided into classes, which are organised as an optimal group a single teacher can handle at one time. Educational planners are keen on teacher-student and teacher-class ratios, and try to achieve the most economically viable model. They have not noticed that class size differs in systems specific to the respective local cultures. People will hardly tolerate a class of over 23 in the US, whereas classes over 60 are common in Korea. Obviously, the difference in class size is not only a matter of resources. The class is not just a number of students; it is a learning community, and the size matters. The notion of a class and the way of organising a class are seldom subject to examination.

Schools are physically structured basically by way of walled classrooms, which are built within campuses. Their activities are confined to classrooms and the campus. Activities that occur outside classrooms are considered extra (extra-curricular activities, as mentioned earlier). Activities outside campus are uncontrollable and hence unfavourable.


Students are ‘processed’ in schools by standard procedures. Students are expected to work (i.e. learn) according to a pre-designed uniform plan (i.e. the curriculum) along uniform paths. They are required to consume a menu of specific pieces of knowledge in separate disciplines (i.e. the subjects). In many Asian schools in particular, students are given planned doses of ‘knowledge’ according to small slots in the timetable. These are taught by teachers who teach according to a division of labour as subject specialists. Teachers’ concerns are therefore more focused on subjects rather than on students. There is little trace of total solutions for students’ personal development.

Students study in grades that are organised according to age, but the yearly grading is not supported by any theory of developmental psychology and with little reference to other personal characteristics. Students are controlled for quality through examinations which are applied uniformly across all students. Those who pass the quality control go to the next stage of processing. Those who fail the quality test are either re-processed in the same grade, or dismissed and abandoned. Few of these practices are based on considerations of learning. Indeed, many of the practices in today’s schools are designed against the principles of students’ genuine learning.

There is yet to be a paradigm shift in school education. Subject specialisation and departmental boundaries are still difficult to break. The output of education is anyway difficult to measure, and is often apparent long after students’ graduation. Hence attention is very much on the process: the process of learning, the process of teaching, and the process of managing teaching. Things have developed to such a stage that in most education systems, the number of administrators of all types may be greater than the number of frontline teachers. Education systems basically remain bureaucratic.


The way schools view students is no different. They tend to see students as uniform beings with expected uniform achievements and uniform behaviour. They are subject to structured learning environments and rigid compartments of activities. Schools tend to treat students again as composite entities of indicators. Students are appraised by scores or composite scores, with little attention to their comprehensive development. There is even a tendency, particularly in East Asia, where any unquantifiable information about students is seen to be unreliable or unfair.

However, there are emerging breakthroughs in the paradigm. I have witnessed several examples that are illustrative of fundamental changes in the organisation of the education system.

The first example is the use of student portfolios in place of scorecards. Student portfolios by definition look at multiple performances within a comprehensive framework. They are, by design, a track record of the students’ learning activities rather than the end results in a one-off examination. Meanwhile, with the use of technology, the portfolio can also be used to analyse students’ development over time. The portfolio concept also allows student participation in self-evaluation.

The second example is the notion of learning community as an alternative to classes. Typically in a learning community, an equivalent of four classes26 (say 120 students) forms a learning community, with the original teachers (say six) forming a team to take care of the whole learning community. Hence, instead of the teachers each regarding themselves as divided labourers in specific subject teaching, their attention is now on the students as persons, and they provide total solutions for each child. This is perhaps the first step towards breaking away from the industrial division of labour in schools.

The third example is the participation of the community in facilitating student learning in schools. This is rather widespread in some systems, urban schools in particular, where artists, sportspersons, parents and all kinds of talent have come to the school to facilitate learning. Mentors may also help students outside schools. They have penetrated the school wall and become part of the students’ learning environments. By doing so, the school is no longer a closed capsule of educators. Students may learn from a large variety of people who work in the community.

These are nonetheless only emerging examples on a small scale. It will take a rather long journey for schools to move away from the rather mechanistic industrial paradigm.


The knowledge control paradigm: This pertains to the institution of education. There is a subtle but strong assumption that schools, universities and other knowledge institutions have the control of knowledge. This could be the case in industrial society when technology was confined to less advanced means of communications.27 With the advancement of information technology, knowledge has transcended geographic and political boundaries. Knowledge has also transcended organisational boundaries, and technology has contributed to the collapse of bureaucracies and hierarchies in organisations. Technology has shortened the time cycle of operations, and led to the intensification of human interactions mentioned earlier.

Under these circumstances, educational institutions, including schools, universities and other tertiary institutions, libraries and museums have to readjust their own role and position vis-à-vis student learning. While professors and teachers used to be almost the sole sources of knowledge, students can now obtain information and knowledge from multiple sources, and much can be obtained through the Internet via the web.


When teachers and professors assumed the role of the source and transmitter of knowledge, they could rightly dictate the content and paths of learning. They could define the benchmarks for learning, and students had to abide by such benchmarks. Therefore, teachers and professors possessed paramount authority over the students. Overall, educators had almost full control over students’ learning.

Such control is now collapsing, partly because educators no longer monopolise the source of information and knowledge, partly because what students learn from educators is no longer sufficient to face the challenges of knowledge explosion and rapid changes in the workplace. Moreover, the needs of the learners are so varied and diverse that they are no longer satisfied with the ‘set-menu’ programmes designed by institutions. This is even more so among working learners in the realm of adult education or continuing education.

In 1999, Korea pioneered a ‘Credit Unit Bank’ scheme, where students who have obtained an aggregate of 140 credits from any accredited institution are granted a degree or a diploma by the government.28 This is perhaps a precedent where degree-awarding power is taken away from institutions. This is also a typical example of how education services could be customised to the learners. Likewise, starting in 1999, in Taiwan, a ‘lifelong learning passport’ scheme has been established, where learners can customise their learning experience by attending programmes in different institutions and be awarded a diploma upon the accumulation of 150 learning hours.29 

The institutional control of knowledge has also been challenged by international competition, very much accelerated by the accession to WTO by most countries.30 For example, since 1995, there has been a dramatic growth of trade in education services among the Southeast Asian countries.31 In addition to the traditional flux of students studying abroad, there is a mushrooming of offshore campuses of foreign institutions in the region, as well as the tremendous spread of e-learning opportunities offered by foreign institutions. All these are challenging local institutions and conventional institutions. This trend will continue.


When the institutional control of knowledge collapses, educators will be relieved from the rather mechanistic tasks of traditional teaching, but will immediately face readjustments in their role. The functions of storage and transmission of information and factual knowledge are now replaceable by machines and the Internet. Educators will find themselves serving the function of ‘scaffolding’ where they provide the students with the ‘scaffold’ so that the students do not have to repeat all the learning experiences of their ancestors. Teachers will also play the ‘experienced learner’ in schools or institutions, where they are role models of learning in learning communities.

Similarly, educators are now more willing to engage in intimate and intense collaboration with people in the workplace, such that school campuses are no longer isolated areas for learning. There is a strong trend for students to be given workplace experience during their school years. Mushrooming mentorship and internship programmes are a good illustration of such a need and the possibilities that exist.32 


In the 1960s and 1970s, policy studies focused on the education system. Under the banner of educational planning,33 policy research in education looked at the demography, the economics and the structure. Education policies were basically systemic considerations of the number of students and the number of dollars. The basic objective was to make sure that more young people could have formal education. Indeed, most countries demonstrated significant improvement in the growth of the student population. In the meantime, however, the education institution was also established as a large bureaucracy.

During the 1980s, people began to realise that when most young people are in school, it is the quality of schooling that matters. There was therefore an upsurge movement of school effectiveness where attention was concentrated on school management. This movement has led to various policies of quality assurance, either at the systems level or school-based. In a way, the bureaucracy of the education institution has been tightened.

Seen in this light, the recent attention to learning since the mid-1990s, as a policy concern, is perhaps a natural consequence of earlier developments. People who are genuinely concerned about education are actually concerned about learning. However, policy deliberations are often overwhelmed by concerns about the bureaucracy of education, where the direct implications for learning are often forgotten. People begin to doubt: Is learning improved by perfecting the bureaucracy, or by loosening the bureaucracy?

My effort here has been to paint a picture of the larger context in which education systems operate. We are at a juncture where bureaucracies in the larger environment are collapsing. There is a totally different way of organising work. Society has changed; social institutions should also change.34 Hence, education, as an institution, should be questioned.


I have found it difficult to understand our education from within. I tried to look at the society which education is supposed to serve. However, when I moved out of the education regime, I found myself in a world so foreign to educators, yet so commonsensical to everybody else. What I have attempted in the past few years is to bridge society and education, and use the workplace as an entry point. I do not think education is preparing young people solely for the workplace. Rather, I would argue that it is no longer valid to regard education as a means for preparation young people for specific positions in the job-market. Education should prepare young people for their future as comprehensive and autonomous human beings; only then will they be equipped to face the precarious future ahead of them.

Education, as it is, does not fulfil its function of preparing our young people for the future. It is not playing the facilitator for learning. Our mission here is perhaps not so much doing more of or doing better what we are doing, but rethinking the entire process of young people’s learning, and designing education in ways that match that process. I have also found that the many reforms occurring in education seem to echo societal changes in one way or another, but unless we have captured the whole picture of societal change, the reforms may not come together to challenge the fundamentals, and many of them would fail, as they already have.

We are facing a fundamental societal change from an industrial society to a knowledge society. The change is so fundamental that it is perhaps paralleled only by the Industrial Revolution where agricultural societies were transformed into industrial societies. The challenge to education is therefore also fundamental.


* Originally delivered as the Professorial Inaugural Lecture at the University of Hong Kong, also as opening Keynote of the Annual Conference of Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration and Management, 20 October 2004, Hong Kong. Here modified for Seminar.

** The ideas in this paper have come from a large number of people who have inspired me during the numerous lectures and keynotes I have delivered in various places on the same theme. Without their input, my thinking would not have developed.

I am grateful to Mr Yip Hak-kwong, Policy 21, who has continuously kept me abreast of Hong Kong’s employment statistics. I am also grateful to Dr Carol K.K. Chan, who has given me valuable advice on the part on learning theories. I would also like to thank Dr Greg Fairbrother, for reading the draft of the text.



1. Census and Statistics Department (2005), Quarterly Survey of Employment and Vacancies. Hong Kong, Hong Kong Government.

2. U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2001 Table No 723, p 483.

3. See M. Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Translated by A.M. Henderson and T. Parsons (1947), New York: Oxford University Press; or a brief version in M. Weber, ‘Bureaucracy’, in M. Weber (1922), Essays in Sociology, edited and translated by H.H. Gerth and C.W. Mills (eds)(1973) Oxford University Press. Collected in J.M. Shafritz and J.S. Ott (eds) (1996) Classics of Organization Theory (4th Ed). Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, pp. 80-85.

4. See, for example, T.E. Deal and A.A. Kennedy, (1999) The New Corporate Cultures: Revitalizing the Workplace After Downsizing, Mergers, and Reengineering. New York: Perseus.

5. Charles Handy’s writings may serve as a good reminder. See, for example, the collection in C. Handy, Beyond Certainty: The Changing World of Organizations. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1996.

6. Census and Statistics Department (various years), Quarterly Survey of Employment and Vacancies. Hong Kong, Hong Kong Government.

7. Commission on Youth (2003) Continuing Development and Employment Opportunities for Youth. Hong Kong Government.

8. P. Senge, (2000) Schools that Learn. London: Nicholas Brealey, p. 42.

9. H. Gardner, (1999) Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century. New York: Basic Books, p. 41.

10. H. Gardner, (1993) Multiple intelligences: The Theory in Practice. New York: Basic Books, p. 6.

11. Academic Aptitude Test, which was used for allocation of primary school leavers to secondary schools. It was abolished in year 2001.

12. See the use of IQ to explain social problems in R.J. Herrnstein and C. Murray, (1994) The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press; and the subsequent debate in R. Jacoby and N. Glauberman, (eds) (1995) The Bell Curve Debate: History, Documents, Opinions. New York: Times Books.

13. See the critical analyses in S.J. Gould, (1996, 1981) The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

14. OECD (1998) Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 1998. Paris: OECD, p. 174.

15. OECD (2001) Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators: Education and Skills. Paris: OECD, p. 148.

16. OECD (2005) Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 2005. Paris: OECD, p. 245.

17. See comparative study in H.W. Stevenson and J.W. Stigler, (1992) The Learning Gap. New York: Summit Books.

18. See rich discussions in J. Biggs and D. Watkins, (eds.) (1996) The Chinese Learner: Cultural Psychology and Contextual Influences. Hong Kong: CERC and Melbourne: ACER.

19. A most succinct yet comprehensive presentation of the theories could be found in National Research Council (2000) How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

20. This is happening in the Journalism School in Columbia University, US, as well as with the journalism undergraduate programme at the University of Hong Kong and Shantou University in Mainland China.

21. This is among the basic recommendations in the Washington Accord where eight major institutes of engineers came to consensus in 1999.

22. http://www.coe.int/T/E/Cultural_Co-ope-ration/education/Higher_education/Activities/Bologna_Process/default.asp

23. Annoucement by David Blunkett, Minister of Education and Science, 15 February 2000.

24. There is a very good summary of the recent developments in G.G Noam, G. Biancarosa and N. Dechausay, (2003) Afterschool Education: Approaches to an Emerging Field. Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard Education Press. The monograph also includes valuable commentaries from a number of leading educators.

25. G. Hofstede, (1997) Culture and Organizations: Software of the Mind. New York: McGraw-Hill, pp. 79-107.

26. As is the case of new schools in Joondalup, Western Australia.

27. Malone has attributed the changes in organisations to the change in the means of communications. See T.W. Malone, The Future of Work. Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2003.

28. See ‘Credit Unit Bank in South Korea’ (Chinese translation)(1999) in Review of Foreign Higher Education Teaching and Research (Beijing) 2(2).

29. See examples in the Civil Services http://host.cc.ntu.edu.tw/sec/All_Law/5/5-68.html and in the city of Taipai http://www.tatung.org.tw/17.htm.

30. In the past two years, there have been rather intensive discussions about Trade of Educational Services due to the accession to WTO by many countries. Education is now seen as one of the major modes of trade of services. There are four modes of trade in the WTO convention: cross-border payment (e.g. mainly overseas students), commercial presence (e.g. off-shore campuses), cross-border consumption (e.g. e-learning, distance learning programmes), presence of natural persons (e.g. visiting academics).

31. See A. S. Sadiman, (2004) ‘Trade in Educational Services in Southeast Asia: Opportunities and Challenges.’ Plenary paper presented at the Beijing Forum on Trade and Cooperation in Education Services in Asia, 23 August 2004.

32. A very good exposition of the trend could be found in L. Olson, The School to Work Revolution. Reading, M.A.: Perseus, 1997.

33. The era of educational planning in the modern sense of the term is attributable to Philip Coombs, the Founding Director of the International Institute for Educational Planning in Paris. His monograph, What is Educational Planning? (1970, Paris: IIEP) started the entire discourse of macro-planning of education as a system. However, one may argue that systemic planning of education started much earlier in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

34. On challenges to social institutions, see M. Carnoy, Sustaining the New Economy: Work, Family, and Community in the Information Age. New York: Russell Sage Foundation and Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.