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Comparing Good Jobs to Good Classrooms: Essential Elements for Supporting People to Learn, Persist, and Succeed

Recently, I read an employer profile for the Kentucky-based materials manufacturer Universal Woods, written by Steven Dawson. Universal Woods is a manufacturer of hard surface panels and flooring headquartered in Louisville, KY, with 200 employees, and operations in Ohio, Australia, and Belgium. To many, Universal Woods embodies the idea of a  “good employer” – the type of employer that sees the worker as a trusted partner and creator of value for the business – and Dawson describes the work environment as one that nurtures the practice of learning from mistakes and working collaboratively, and gives workers voice, support and professional development opportunities. As I read the profile, I mentally started connecting the elements of a “good” workplace he described to how JFF describes a personalized, student-centered learning environment for a young person.

Jobs for the Future defines the principles of student-centered approaches to teaching and learning as personalized, competency-based, anytime/anywhere, and empowering to learners. Effective, student-centered learning propels learners towards “deeper learning” – that is, mastering core academic content; thinking critically and solving complex problems; working collaboratively; communicating effectively; learning how to learn; and developing academic mindsets.

It’s clear in reading about the culture at Universal Woods that both learning and work environments can support, and encourage learners to build skills that are transferrable, empowering, and can – in turn – improve  learning or work environments. There are several ways we can draw parallels from  Universal’s work environment to a student-centered learning environment.

A Culture of Trust and Autonomy

Universal Woods Production Manager, Paul Wilson, is quoted as saying, “Since we trust the vast majority of our employees to do the right thing at the right time – given the right support, training, and information – it wouldn’t make economic sense to hobble everyone with inefficient oversight and top-down directives, just to manage the occasional few.” Mr. Wilson is describing a work culture of trust and autonomy, and according to the Harvard Business Review, it is in these environments that employees thrive. Much of the same can be said for schools and programs that emphasize student ownership over learning, and enable students (with the right supports) to learn at their own paces. Within a more traditional, or “sage on the stage”, model of learning, educators can risk hobbling student engagement and interest. Tools like the Spectrum of Student Voice and stories highlighting the experiences of schools focused on fostering a culture of trust and autonomy, can provide valuable insight into the positive results of trusting students to “do the right thing at the right time.”

A Culture of Collaboration

Universal Woods employs a strategy called “team-managed teams,” a framework that supports employees to “collaborate and hold each other accountable.” By empowering workers to collaborate, problems get solved more quickly, and without top-down barriers to production – providing strong benefits to both the company and the employees. In schools and education programs, collaboration plays a key role in both student-centered teaching and learning for deeper learning. For an educator to engage with “deeper teaching,” teachers must encourage students to collaborate on working through problems and develop solutions together. Collaboration done well is an intentional exercise. Just like a work place, each person in the group should have a defined role and understand how their input contributes to the greater whole of the solution or project.

A Culture of Learning

According to Universal Woods Director of Human Resources, Tim Holt, the company is committed to empowering employees to expand their skill sets and recognizing workers’ achievements. A “growth mindset” is baked into the company culture to encourage all employees across the organization that everyone can – and should – be professionally developed and engage in what interests and “stretches” them. Like the “good” workplaces exemplified by Universal Woods, researchers have found that learning environments that support students in developing a growth mindset and help them understand mechanisms of learning can lead to deeper education, and improved engagement.

Both learning and work environments thrive when people feel valued, part of a team, and are not put “in a box.” We must remember that students are people. Workers are people. Whether it be improving learning outcomes or the bottom line, trust, collaboration, and learning are key ingredients.

The Universal Woods narrative was commissioned by the National Fund for Workforce Solutions.