Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The Point of Skills Training: Enabling Identities

I have done various things in my career, from selling to teaching, from developing products and campaigns to designing courses and raising money. But, then, all of it was really around one thing - helping people develop skills and get jobs! My exposure has been various - I have spent time in the world's largest independent IT skills training company as well as a big name English training provider, a company providing technology to Europe's largest e-learning project, an Irish recruitment company embarking on global expansion and now an American start-up looking to bridge the Education-to-Employment gap - but the point of my work was always the same. 

This claim may seem odd to some, as we tend to box skills training into one skill or another, and indeed cut this adrift from Higher Education (which I have also indulged in, in a private Higher Ed institution in London) - there is nothing common between a business degree programme, IT training and English language for work, we would tend to think! I shall claim, however, a common thread, that I observed through the variety of my exposure, indeed because of the variety of my exposure: All skills training is about enabling the identity of the learner as a professional.

Our overt obsession with technical aspects, curriculum, certification, learning hours, and the all-encompassing word, Pedagogy, obscure this quest for identity, which defines both the enterprises of teaching as well as learning. The bureaucratic mantra of the education trade - Quality - forces the attention back to the input, rather than something as immeasurable as identity! The government metrics, that would rather measure time spent and a vaguely specified outcome, a job, as yardsticks of good skills training, make us build expensive systems to track them, and allow us to take our eyes off the person of the learner (whose names we forget, whose personal stories do not matter anymore and who we want to mould into the iron-cast of our process) safely and without consequence.

But, this makes all the difference between the good and the bad of skills training. The point of good IT training (and, good Welding training, for that matter) is not about mastering the syntax (or the machinery and processes, in case of Welding), that is just the minimum, just as learning the alphabet and grammar in a language class. The point of good IT training is about thinking like a programmer and being proud of it. The aha! moment of a good IT training should be that when a learner spends thinking about the code and can write it elegantly, frugally and beautifully (if you do not think code can be elegant, explore the C language and study Dennis Ritchie)! That care, commitment to doing things well, that essential craftsman identity, I used to say in my IT Training days, was what mattered: The students - and I can name some of them and tell their personal stories - who thought like this did well no matter what technological change they had to grapple with. It is the same for those learning English language, perhaps it is too obvious to try give an example, and would be the difference between a good and a bad plumber, and a good and a dead electrician.

However, crucial as it may be, this development of identity is seldom a goal actively pursued in skills training. We may all know this at heart - I do not expect people to react to this post saying it is nonsense, but rather to say that I am stating the obvious - and yet, we build systems, processes, metrics, cultures and ideas around an endless series of proxies. We believe that if grades are alright, identities will form. This, despite knowing that if we measure the grades, we get the grades - and nothing else. Therefore, we send out this vast army of students clutching their grades out in the wider world, hoping that they would find an identity themselves. Some indeed do, and become successful, and thank us: Most do not, and they blame themselves - so we go Scot-free!

It is time to change the conversation, I shall argue. The point of Skills training is to enable identities, and the technical parts, though indispensable, are only building blocks, not an end in itself. I shall claim that this is true for all kinds of skills training - the colours of the collar do not really matter - and makes all the difference between good and bad training. One of the first things I learnt when I started working in education is that I must know all my learners by name and know their personal stories: A message lost in the scramble for scale, but the most valuable that I have ever learnt.

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