— Cultural Sources of Newness

Do Ford-Werke still know what Ford-Werke knew in 1980s?

While listening to the choir rehearse before the morning service today, I read a book published in 1985 and was transported back into the days we used basic typewriters. It is a slim little volume that reports on the experimental use of art-based learning in Ford Germany. The trigger for trying out new approaches to training young people in the company at the time was the recognition that the new work processes increasingly required employees not just to follow instructions but to be capable of “independently recognizing and resolving problems” (selbständiger Problementdeckung und Problemlösung fähig sein” p. 1).

Such experiments were not rare in the 1980s: the authors mention activities in other companies like Voith in Heidenheim, BEA in Düsseldorf, BSH in Krefeld; Barthels-Feldhoff in Wuppertal, Wulf & Co in Bramsche; Philips in Wetzlar. (footnote 7, p. 5). This particular project was supported by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Science and accompanied by the Bundesinstitut für Berufsbildung.

Ford decided to dedicate half a day a week during a year-long program to working with different artistic media. There were 60 participants (16-18 years of age, of which 25 were non-German) who were organized in groups of 12. Each of the five groups was accompanied by an arts teacher and a trainee (who also took notes on the experiment as a participant observer).

After introducing the rationale in the first section, the second section of the report describes how each artistic medium was introduced and how the young people responded to the experience. The text comes alive with excerpts from the field notes of the observers and quotations from the young people themselves throughout the text. There are a few illustrations with some good quality color plates—which are a fascinating contrast to the very simple typescript (remember: those typewriters could not produce cursive or boldface type, so emphasis was created by spacing out the letters in words)!

The third section provides an assessment of the learning effects of each art medium and a reflection on the learning over time for the group as a whole. The authors stress that “proving” effects is very difficult in learning processes, but they observe the following kinds of development:

a)      A dramatic change over time in the willingness of the participants to engage in what first appeared to be “irrelevant” activities. They observed that most participants in all the groups initially resisted following instructions either because they resented any kind of instruction or because they were insecure and afraid of failing. Over time they discovered the pleasure of engaging and also learned to deal with the challenge of developing their own solutions to tasks for which there is no single right answer.

b)      The ability of the young people to take responsibility for a task and for developing their own approaches to dealing with it grew significantly over the course of the year.

c)      The participants developed an ability to look attentively at their work and at their environment, including simply taking aesthetic pleasure in their creation.

d)     The changes in social behavior were also significant, shifting towards spontaneous cooperation after an initial period of aggression and negative competition.

e)      The capacity for self-managed work grew visibly during the program.

Recognizing that the learning process differs from person to person, the authors provide interesting thumbnail sketches of the development of 10 individuals.

The study included a questionnaire to the young people to get their assessment of the value of the experience. They emphasize the value of getting to know different materials, strengthening their powers of concentration and persistence in a task, their heightened confidence in learning and independence, self-control and patience.

Do the Ford-Werke know today what they knew back then? How much of what was learned in this experimental year was later transferred into the normal training for apprentices or trainees in the company? Was/is feedback available from others who could observe the effects back at the workplace. In the coming weeks I will get in touch with Ford and see if the authors of this report know any more about follow-up activities. Any suggestions or contacts in this direction are welcome!

ps: I was struck when reading about the initial difficulties the young people had in responding to the challenges this program is designed to address, namely dealing with new situations, developing original approaches when there is not a single clear answer, progressing from doing the minimum to seeking ways of getting the most out of a learning opportunity: how similar they are to the elite MBA students I have encountered in various business schools! Leaving me to wonder: Would dedicating half a day per week to this kind of learning be conceivable in the business school curriculum—and would it be enough for these kinds of students?