Why are learning and working so often treated as mutually exclusive? As if to do one, or do it well, we must make a trade-off with the other?

That formulation suggests that learning happens in a vacuum. In reality, we work, but we also want to enrich our organizations, knowledge, leadership, and practice through learning. We aspire to a culture in which education and work complement one another. A culture in which a paired, intentional learning environment could help us address major projects or challenges in our fields and organizations, without requiring that we suspend our work commitments or professional standing.

Today’s graduate programs in education need to marry work and learning. Ideally, they will be geared towards those who believe that one’s creative, intellectual, and professional lives can coexist and strengthen one another. Your work and life experience become the center of your learning, the very engine of it. The educational institution should help professionals use solution frameworks, though they may be rooted in academic theory. As educators, we need to support our students, who are already out in the world, to come up with solutions that are more than “spinning their wheels.” What do I mean by that? In most competitive work environments, you’re expected to come up with big answers immediately, with little room given to assessing the problem, researching and understanding various solution paradigms, and then executing on the best available one. Speed of resolution becomes the dominant virtue under time and resource constraints, not necessarily depth.

But this approach does not always breed stable and successful long-term solutions to enduring programmatic and organizational challenges.

To come up with the most enduring, cutting-edge solutions requires time, a network of motivated and informed people, and the tools to truly examine the questions before you – questions like, Where has a similar problem cropped up before? For whom? What were the obstacles to a good solution? What kind of knowledge management was developed to solve it? Who solved it best? What methodologies did they use? How were their circumstances different from ours? etc. That’s an environment where long-term solutions are possible. Without access to time, perspective, institutional memory, and voices from outside one’s organization or industry, it is much harder to arrive at a solution that will work.

That’s exactly what excites me about where we are today, the resources available, and the possibility of “working” students learning precisely what they need to address real-world problems. At NYU Steinhardt, for example, our students spend time thinking deeply on their change-management case study – their capstone requirement, in lieu of a dissertation. Whether it’s a school administrator looking to better include parents in school leadership and decision making, or a private sector leader examining innovative ways to develop a talent pipeline into their company’s workforce, our doctoral candidates explore case studies inside and outside their sectors, avail themselves of the world-class resources of a top-tier institution, and chart the path forward.

I should be clear: I am not objecting to the study of theory, or learning for learning’s sake. Those are laudable aspirations and not small reasons that many academics pursue what they do. At Steinhardt, we simply want to see theory and learning relentlessly applied. Education is inherently an applied subject, and our students will always apply their learning, because learning goes hand in hand with working. They are not mutually exclusive pursuits.

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