Workplace Learning

It is generally assumed that intelligence in the broadest sense is closely associated with formal education—the longer you have been in school and the more varied your studies, the more intelligent you will be. In the latest issue of the American Scholar (Summer 2009) Mike Rose, author of The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, takes a hard look at this assumption.

He begins by describing the multiple tasks that his mother undertook in the many years she worked as a waitress in a restaurant. He spent hours observing what she did and came to appreciate how much her work, as well as the working habits of other blue-collar workers, involves both body and brains.

His mother learned to “work smart and make every move count.” Rose says, “Her tip depended on how well she responded to these needs, and so she became adept at reading social cues and managing feelings, both the customers’ and her own.” And while she quit school in the seventh grade and never returned, Rose gradually began to see that in those mundane and repetitive tasks, she was always learning something new.

He reached the same conclusion in watching one of his mother’s brothers, who also left school early, supervising a factory paint-and-body department. “The floor was loud—in some places deafening—and when I turned a corner or opened a door, the smell of chemicals knocked my head off. The work was repetitive and taxing, and the pace was inhumane.”

Still Rose says the factory work provided his uncle a setting wasn’t a school, but rather a factory where he was constantly learning. It came from a flurry of tasks that demanded his attention and both mental and physical resources, “keeping a number of ongoing events in his mind, returning to whatever task had been interrupted, and maintaining a cool head under the pressure of grueling production schedules.”

As a result, Rose claims his uncle was learning other more general elements of the automobile industry, “the technological and social dynamics of the shop floor, the machinery and production processes, and the basis of paint chemistry and of plating and baking.” And while he was becoming skillful in different ways of thinking and analyzing than one usually acquires in a classroom, the fundamental learning process was much the same.

Rose describes other blue collar and service jobs that require equally varied skills. The use of tools by a plumber, for example, “requires the studied refinement of stance, grip, balance, and fine-motor skills. But manipulating tools is intimately tired to knowledge of what a particular instrument can do in a particular situation and do better than other similar tools.”

They also require knowledge of mathematics (“numbers are rife in most workplaces”), planning, and problem solving. Everyday jobs may look mindless to an observer but they are so for the performer. Rose persuasively argues that we are wrong to think of everyday work as a task carried out without abstract thinking or diverse forms of intelligence.

His fine grain study of the components of so-called routine tasks reveals they are anything but routine. When looked at closely it they are cognitively complex and demand diverse intelligences. Rose concludes that our biases and stereotypes about workplace activities have blinded us to the “remarkable coordination of words, numbers, and drawings required to initiate and direct action.”