April 05, 2023

Sanjay Sarma, Professor at MIT, Author of “Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn” + “Workforce Education: A New Roadmap”

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #98

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Sanjay Sarma, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT and former Vice President of MIT Open Learning. Sarma has also wrote several books, including Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn, and Workforce Education: A New Roadmap

On this episode of Bring It In season four, Sanjay sat down with Sam and discussed the difference between learning and training, correct learning models, and standardizing credentials and skills. 

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights Sarma shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Education is the oxygen of work.”
  • “If you make someone curious, they will absorb it.”
  • “If you have a thousand standards, you don’t have a standard”

Sam: There’s obviously a lot that we could ask you out of the gate, but I wanted to ask, you wrote the book Grasp. Starting with the first book Grasp, what was the reason you wrote it and why do you feel it’s so important in this moment as we think about work?

Sanjay: Education is the oxygen of work. That’s basically what’s changed. It’s like breathing air. You can’t work without breathing air, you can’t work without learning. That’s point number one. Point number two, work is changing very rapidly. And point number three, if you don’t apply the principles of learning judiciously and the science of learning, we’re gonna be really bad at it. 

I wish we did as good a job with education and learning as we did with athletes. Interval training, various drills, we don’t do that with learning, and I felt it was very, very important that we got into that phase. I wrote this book, obviously we wrote this book before Covid, but it became very relevant during Covid. 

Sam: You know, it feels like in America today, but I don’t think this is just a problem here, although we’ve, in your other book, Workforce Education, you point out why it is very different here. Why is it that the role of training, learning and development, HR around talent development, Why aren’t those roles required or expected to have classic backgrounds and topics like you talk about in Grasp? I feel like the science of learning should be a fundamental requirement to be in roles that are responsible for people development.

Sanjay: I think we take people development for granted. Now as we see talent shortages, it’s becoming a strategic issue, but we’ve always taken it for a given, and what do you do? You just told people to do this and they’ll learn it. Right? 

We also don’t distinguish when training and learning. Training is when you teach someone to do something mechanical, right? When I say mechanical, it could be something abstractly mechanical, like doing a spreadsheet. But education is when you get people to think abstractly. When they do something creative, make exercise choices. And we’ve always given it a short shrift, even in the way we pay our teachers. It is something that really runs deep in American society that I think needs to be fixed. 

Sam: In the book you talk about a guy named Herman Ebbinghaus. He talked about something called the Forgetting Curve, which seems to look at the fact that most of what you learn, you forget if it’s introduced in a certain fashion.

I guess what other research or data points would you point to in attempting to convince a person responsible for people development to think differently about how they function in today’s workplace if upskilling, re-skilling, or cross-skilling is truly something that they wanna make happen?

Sanjay: We have our techniques all wrong. It’s as simple as that. Very simply, we have this model of education and training in which the student’s head is a sheet of paper. They bring us a sheet of paper, and the teacher has a pen and all they need to do is write on that sheet of paper and declare victory, and that is wrong.

The real model is that the student is forming a model of the world, and it’s like a tree growing and you give the tree sunlight when the tree wants sunlight, not when it’s convenient for you to expose it to sun. You don’t just take a little sapling and give it all the sunlight it needs, all the potassium, all the nitrogen on day one and then declare victory. Right? You don’t do that.

But anyway, the point is that you have to give it when it needs it. And so, there are lots of tricks. For example, it turns out forgetting is a very essential part of learning. But we actually treat forgetting like a sin. In fact, the human brain requires us to forget things, otherwise our heads would explode with too much information.

And so rather than applying techniques that recognize these realities of our humanity, we sort of have this really false assumption and we sort of plow through assuming we are gonna get good results and we don’t. And so we assume that therefore our techniques, we just think that we sort of dismiss training as useless, because we do it wrong. Sort of a bizarre cycle of events that we are trapped in. 

Sam: One of my favorite parts of the book was, as you talk about discovery learning and the power of failure, curiosity, struggling through the process. I guess, can you tell us, why does that work?

Sanjay: You know, it again comes down to this business of writing on a sheet of paper, which is the student’s head, that sort of misunderstanding. The student is formulating a model. We are animals, and animals like to seek. We discover, right? And that is the instinct that drives us. The equivalent to saliva for hunger is dopamine for curiosity.

So when we are hungry, the body generates saliva. When we are curious, the body generates dopamine. It turns out dopamine activates a circuit in the brains. The dopamine, a jerk circuit that facilitates learning. And if you skip the step of making someone hungry and shove food down their throat, you know what’s gonna happen. They’re gonna forget it. Except in a hot dog eating contest, there’s something else involved the next day, you throw up, right? 

And that’s the same thing with learning. If you make someone curious, they will absorb it. If you just shove it down their throat, they will regurgitate it in the exam and it’s gone. It will not stay. 

Sam: So if I was an HR director for a restaurant brand and I just built hour-long training videos and made you click through them every 30 seconds to show me you’re still there, and then give you a quiz at the end, what’s created when you do that? 

Sanjay: No. You just created all sorts of bad habits that result in no learning. And they’ll pass the test, but you haven’t achieved anything. But if you, on the other hand, broke it up into 10 videos where you reminded them on day one, day three, day five, just 10 minutes, you would have much better results. 

Sam: What was your favorite part of the book to write? 

Sanjay: My biographical bits about how I went to work and suddenly everything came into context.

Sam: I was talking about your second book, Workforce Education this morning. I’m in the city of Newark and I sit on the Workforce Development Board and we just kicked off a tech task force. The focus is on how do we create more opportunities for Newarkers and Newark, and out of the gate, I held your book up to start the meeting and said, everybody should buy this book, because I as we figure out how do we create more opportunities for more people, this is, I think, a great framework to start our discussion. 

Same question from Grasp, I guess. What led you to write this book about workforce education? 

Sanjay: You know, it’s interesting. We have primary education, we have secondary education, we have tertiary education, so people go to community college or to university.

We don’t have quaternary education. And in a gig economy, when people are changing jobs and technology’s changing, if you wanna learn something, what do you do? You’re really gonna take a year off and go get a master’s? Or two years? It’s not defined. And so really we wrote this book to point out, it isn’t defined.

There are models, but we haven’t formalized them. There are no incentives. Companies sort of make stuff up because they don’t have options. Right? And we need to systematize it. So this vacuum is what drove us to writing this book. 

Sam: You say in the book that there’s a training problem? You said that a strong system of workforce skills training could make up for our college education divide, but US labor markets generally invest in suboptimal levels of broad skills training because after one company trains people, competitors often acquire those employees and thus the first company failed to recapture its training investment. 

I thought again, if you went to a Shrum conference or if you went to any one of the trade association events you would believe the opposite of what you had to say in your book around training. It seems like all companies care about is people when you hear them on stage. I guess where’s the disconnect? 

Sanjay: The disconnect is this. I’ll start by describing the Northern European models. So you’re in high school in Northern Europe, by the way. We have VO TECH schools in Massachusetts, vocational tech. Most of the rest of the countries shut them down. Massachusetts, there’s 27 of them. It’s quite amazing. You’re getting your high school diploma, but you’re also learning to be a mechanic. 

In Germany, what would happen is you then go work at BMW, get a certificate, BMW, the master or the expert machinist there tells you how you do machining, and machining is often historically been a male machinist, and then you learn and then you get a certificate and you go to Mercedes or to some other company, Volkswagen, they accept it and it’s not seen as a loss. It’s not seen as trying to get them back. The certification is accepted across, and the person doing the training really appreciates it. The school supports it. The system supports it because they’re getting this training initially in school, right? Maybe they get advanced training afterwards and it’s highly systematized just as a bachelor’s degree, systematized. We don’t have the same system here, really. I mean, we have it sort of in ad hoc ways across small industry groups in certain areas. We don’t have a systematized approach. 

If you don’t have a degree, how do you sort of mix and match? And that apprenticeship system is really transformed. And in fact, it’s a central part of the German manufacturing Bama when it comes to precision manufacturing, for example. So we don’t have that. Now, you can always say we have it if you take very ad hoc solutions, but it’s ad hoc. That’s a problem. 

Sam: I guess the question I have is, why does it work there and why does it feel like in many ways when you look around, whether it’s workforce, the one stop federal workforce centers inside of different US cities, why does it feel like nobody’s working together? I guess, back to the question, are they just working together better? 

Sanjay: Yeah, they’re working together. There’s a sense of identity. You know, if you go to Stuttgart, right, you go to Swabia, there is a sense of, ‘we are the manufacturing, hardcore, metalworking, half of the world. We take pride in this. The tide lifts all boats. We are trying to create a workforce, so when we need to hire them back, we’ll hire them back. But it doesn’t matter if they leave my company and go somewhere else.’ The mentors and the teachers really take pride in their task. It’s not just punching a number and saying, oh, I got an ROI.

It’s a sense of community. I think our system has many good things about it, but one of them is that we are much more transactional, and the transaction approach and things like this mitigates against creating this sort of apprenticeship system, in which case the government and educational institutions need to step in, and that hasn’t happened either. Not on the scale we need. 

Sam: I think the other thing that’s scary is, again, I was reading through this, the declining rate of investment in training as a community to rank 29 of 31 countries according to the OECD. You also mentioned the declining rate of investment by companies, but it seems like when you double click on that, the type of training that’s being invested in isn’t necessarily skill building. 

Sanjay: It’s not skill building, it’s to do the next job. I mean, look what it is, these should be company towns, things were highly vertically integrated, et cetera, et cetera. Then we went to the other extreme, just do what we need, damnit. That’s it. That’s just this job, right? And so we disintegrated, the company disintegrated. You have a lot of contractors and then it becomes transactional. And if you hire someone to do a job, you want to train as little as possible so they can do the job.

But what you don’t do, you don’t give them longer skills or deeper skills that will pay back in the long term. It’s a very transactional thing. And that leads to this disintegration to some extent, or the lack of integration. 

Sam: There’s this credentialing, it’s a big topic. There’s 700,000 plus credentials now. Some say there’s credential inflation. If you were talking to the frontline worker again, the one in two American workers who are a $400 parking ticket away from poverty that are trying to figure out how they put themselves in a position to be a successful wall at the same time, is dealing with all the challenges you mentioned in the book, transportation, childcare, the, the wraparound programs that maybe are absent.

What can we do at a community level to create a space where frontline workers and every worker get the same shot?

Sanjay: You know, the problem with standards, and I still do work in standards. If you have a thousand standards, you don’t have a standard, right? If you have a thousand different pipe threads, you don’t have a standard because they’ll never fit together. The odds of getting what you want are a screw thread, or a bolt sizing. 

The problem with so many credentials, the reason we have so many credentials is we actually don’t have credentials. It’s all very ad hoc, right? The point is, we need to as a society agree and standardize them, and someone needs to step in industry groups, government and sort of reduce them and make them interoperable, and that’s the problem we’re stuck in right now. 

And then the other thing is if companies do do it, it could be selfish. It could be, ‘you are certified in my product as opposed to you’re certified in a deeper skill’, right? And if the government wants to do it, good news is you can do a lot of stuff online, but not everything, right?

So the stuff that you can do online, you should do online. You should have weekend workshops. You need to give tax incentives or other sorts of incentives so people can gather those certificates. We’ve gotta also give prospective students an advanced sense of where the market is. Why should they make these bets about I want to do this, but maybe the market won’t be there.

So if you need a navigator, tell them how to navigate their careers. This is what it’s gonna take. And when you have an apprenticeship with the Boeings, with the BMWs, the Mercedes Benzs of the world, that sort of gets baked in because the companies are participating. But here, if the companies don’t do it, they don’t standardize, and the government does it, the government needs to sort of look ahead and be very mindful of where the jobs are so people don’t jump into blind alleys.

Sam: Yeah. I think the point you make about companies is a big one. They’re not always seated around the table with, again, speaking from a workforce development program perspective, the biggest organizations inside most cities may not involve themselves in a lot of the grassroot initiatives, whether it’s for programs for reentry or it’s programs for out of work workers or homeless youth, these critical ground floor programs. And I don’t know, I hear it all the time from, as I travel with workforce centers, who constantly come back to this point of not knowing what companies want, like this conversation around skills. I don’t know why it seems like we still haven’t… is there a skills gap or is it something else?

Sanjay: There’s a quick mismatch. There’s a mismatch. Well, there is a bit of a gap as well, but it’s really almost always a mismatch, which is a mismatch between what companies want and the systems in place, what they deliver, and a lack of connection between the two. That’s really what it comes down to.

The other thing is there’s also always going to be a tension that companies want someone to do the job that they have right now, and institutions need to prepare people for life a little bit. So that’s an understandable mismatch, but it can be that it’s like digging the tunnel from the British Islands to France. It can be that we dig the two tunnels and they don’t connect to each other. That’s sort of what’s happening right now. 

Sam: Yeah. It’s wild. Sanjay, I really appreciate you taking the time. I have one final question for you, and I’m gonna try to lead you into it. So don’t let me take you down the wrong path.

But you say in your book Grasp, it says, “give a man fish. He’ll eat for a day. Teach a man fish, eat for a lifetime. And you say it makes a degree of sense, but that’s assuming the way that you teach him how to fish stays relevant for the rest of his life.” You know, you’re quoting Max Vantia in that.

What is your hope for the future of work? 

Sanjay: Look, work is going to be dynamic. It’s gonna be short gigs. Your next gig will depend on how you did, how well you did in your last gig, and between gigs, you’re gonna have to learn something new. That’s why I say learning is oxygen in the workforce.

I think that we need to really think through the shape of the economy 10, 20 years from now and leave the bread in some ways, right? The jobs, the gigs with educational opportunities. And we need to have a whole bunch of new educational learning opportunities and credentials so that they can prove that they learned so that interleaving can work, and we don’t have that right now. 

Between your bones, you have cartilages. Learning is that cartilage. We don’t have that, and we have to figure that out. 

Sam: Sanjay, thanks for taking time. 

Sanjay: Thanks a lot. Lovely to talk to you, Sam.

Topics Discussed: Education, Learning, Skill Building, Skills Gaps

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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