Thursday, January 26, 2012

Education or Experience?

There is an argument taking place on linked in Construction Management group:
Experience or Education. Choose One ? (and I know you want to say both, or depends on situation. Just choose one)
It is about as meaningful as:

 Which is bluer : blue or blue?
The contract says supply blue, you contracted to supply blue, so supply blue. We did supply blue! No you didn't? Yes we did? No you didn't? If its not blue, then what colour is it? I don't know but its not blue, supply blue!
And on and on its goes.

Obviously there must be a difference between education and experience, else the question is stupid, and our language otherwise plagued with surplus words. The difference between the two words is subtle and the refined meanings of which have not been clarified within the context of the question. Not clarifying is like relying on something as meaningless and inconsistent as "industry standard practice".

As I mentioned earlier there is a global debate on the purpose of education taking place as government after government cuts back on funding. Most of the educators generally of the view that education is not about schools, teachers, examinations or parchments. Education is about learning, and with increasing access to the internet, self learning is going to increase.

There is a saying that:
 wisdom comes with observation not age.

I think their focus on the importance of the internet and access to information is relatively narrow. Any child who has access to books, workshops and an appropriate and interesting environment to observe, has the potential to learn faster than the slow pace of the national curriculum. A child with access to history books, can be way ahead of the child restricted to the slow pace of information presented by a teacher on a blackboard. A child surrounded by stone arch bridges built by ancient Romans, may learn little about history, and little about construction, unless they have enquiring minds, and take an interest in going beyond what they can actually see.

It is not necessary to go to a university to learn, such is only necessary to obtain a parchment of evidence of such learning. There appears confusion in the community that people have to be taught, like the teacher does everything and the pupil doesn't do anything. If the pupil fails its the teachers fault. Teachers do not and cannot impart knowledge or competence.

The teachers role, is to assist the pupils and students to learn: the pupils and students do the learning. To me the difference between pupils and students is that pupils are asked questions and students ask the questions. Students have enquiring minds, pupils do not. So teachers first task is to turn pupil into a student. When I was at school, if I asked a teacher a question, the usual response was, you will learn that next year. My response was to go to the library and learn it straight away: I wanted to learn not follow a schedule. The teacher cannot answer the question, because the pupil is not considered to have adequate prior learning to understand the answer. But that is not a problem for the self learning student, it simply raises more questions to seek answers for: it drives further learning.

Words in a dictionary are defined with more words. Thus the meaning of a word is not clarified until the meanings of all words used to define one word are also equally defined within the context of the learners experience. A dictionary cannot really define hot or cold water, nor can it describe blue. Thus a first dictionary tends to be a picture dictionary. But the illustrations in the dictionary are still symbolic like the words, and thus symbols still have to be given some real world context: and not all words are dependent on the sense of vision. Ultimately the words start representing entirely abstract ideas, like democracy, and the dictionary cannot clarify meanings, entire libraries of books on the concept cannot clarify the meaning. Every individual has a subtle variation in their understanding: permitting greater or lesser freedoms than another. Similarly the words education and experience have subtly different meanings to each individual, and such perceptions and meanings also change with the passage of time. The word "experience", in particular is highly emotive.

The argument between education and experience could be equated to the ancient Greek argument between the theoretical and the empirical. Those in favour of theory contended the senses could be tricked and therefore not relied upon (education). Those in favour of the empirical contended that theory could be highly fanciful and bare no relationship to reality (experience). But not altogether. Increased education typically infers increased learning, and acquiring more competencies. Increased experience does not infer more competencies, nor more learning. Increased experience more typically infers more time on the job, more repetitions of the task, and increased proficiency at the task. Rarely does more experience relate to greater diversity of experiences. More experience is more likely to indicate stuck with an habitual way of doing things, and otherwise resistant to change.

Arguing education versus experience is unhelpful. The Australian Qualification Framework (AQF) is built around the concept of competencies and evidence of attainment. Whilst the most common way to obtain certification of competencies is to attend an educational institution or registered training organisation (RTO), it is possible to obtain certification by presenting evidence in recognition of prior learning (RPL). The learning is focused on the attainment of competencies: competencies that need to be certified to assist industry/society in appointing the right people to the job.

Education or Experience is a silly debate! Left or Right arm,  Left or Right leg: you can only keep one: make a choice. Which is actually the kind of attitude held by many at the contracting end of the construction industry. The characteristics required are typically hard nosed, uncompromising bully, to have won many rounds in the boxing ring. As the character Shark put it in the TV series of same name:
Find me a truth that works.
Contracting is highly adversarial, the truth doesn't altogether matter, its a question of who is going to pay for a variation: the buyer or the contractor. Each side trying to make the other responsible. Largely a matter of wearing the opposition down. The traditional bully tactics however are on the way out, have been so for many years now. Technical competence is of increasing importance, for increasingly we are dealing with established technologies: hence diminishing acceptable excuses for running over budget and over schedule. Not only can the project be planned, but the plan has been executed many times before. Consequently the bulk of the potential variations should be understood at the start: that is understood that is not a direct copy of previous. Such knowledge can be obtained by education, training and/or experience. It is largely a matter of observing and learning.

Some 100 years ago, engineering design was largely dependent on the scientific method, to investigate and develop predictive models for the behaviour of technologies. Today the predictive models have largely been developed, and the technologies established. Today's so called engineer, is largely dealing with minor parametric variations of established technologies, and why as a community we have high expectations of the performance of such systems. New technologies we expect to have been thoroughly tested before release to the environment. Though when it comes to the very large, each and everyone becomes a real world experiment, placing the community at risk.

Whilst mistakes are an important part of learning, there are some mistakes that we do not want to be made on the job. Hence as I indicated earlier in the debate, Engineers Australia classes the formal academic awards as evidence of attaining stage one competencies: the enabling competencies. It is not necessary to have such formal awards, but that is the preferred and easiest pathway. Providing evidence of attaining stage one competencies without formal studies and included examination is more difficult, and not fully catered for.

As I also pointed out, the institutions of engineers were also the original qualifying and examining bodies in the UK and Australia. But when industry starts requiring MICE, MIMechE, MIStructE or MIEAust before they will provide a job, then problems arise. For the only way to gain such membership was to have been employed in the practice of engineering. Hence there was, and is a need for some acknowledgement and evidence of enabling competencies, just to get started.

The problem is that now many see the degree as the only requirement, that is the institutions are of diminishing importance: universities are of more importance for fulfilling learned society functions. Part of that is because the stage 2 competencies are highly irrelevant to the needs of industry, society and the individual. The stage 2 competencies concern joining a profession. Also in terms of Engineers Australia the stage 2 competencies are so generic, they could apply to any one doing any job: train driver, plumber, shop assistant. Generic competencies may be beneficial if the reference to engineering discipline was removed, and additional competencies were required for such, and still further competencies for specific areas of practice. Put simply I wouldn't give a B.Eng MIEAust CPEng. NPER(struct) the job designing the structure of a singular dog kennel, let alone a multi-storey building or highway bridge. This is because I do not believe the work practice report is a reliable indicator of having achieved necessary competencies for a specific area of practice. It is far to dependent on whether the supervisor has adequate competence, or exercises adequate duty of care.

From South Australian practice where we require independent technical check, I am aware that, that one state with registration of engineers: Queensland, has far too many RPEQ's who self certify rubbish. If going to have a registration system and restrict who can and cannot practice engineering, then better have a system in place which properly assesses necessary competences. I say necessary, because the required competences are already in place and not adequate.

Neither education nor experience is developing necessary competencies. There is an additional system of training and assessment required: something far better than the engineers graduate development programme, and superior than masters degree in engineering practice. Something more akin, to military training and the way fire fighters train. Not just developing competence, but proficiency and appropriate habitual response.

There is learning simply because the world is an interesting place. Then there is learning to fulfil necessary functions within society, to provide cogs for the machinery of industrial society. The characteristics of these cogs need to be more clearly defined, and the quality of the cogs supplied significantly higher than we are currently getting. But people don't like being treated as cogs, so this has to be reconciled against peoples desire for quality of supply and desire for freedom.

We have a problem in that people do not want to pay the monetary cost of the training required to sustain the technological systems which meet their daily needs. Hence technological systems are designed to remove the need for advanced skills, and then production moved to areas of low labour costs.

A corporation is a collective, so is a city, a town and a village. A new participatory democracy is required at the local level. Education, experience and appropriate competencies for all is important to the function of democracy. Education of the ruling minority fine for a republic.

It being Australia day, no doubt there are those who will raise the republic issue, and ousting the monarchy. I have little issue with freedom from rule of a monarchy, I just oppose a republic. Rightly or wrongly, to me a republic has a ruling elite, and is not a democracy: USSR, Republic of China, etc... It also appears to me that it is the Australia government that has the more parental attitude, making this and that compulsory for all: which in many instances is just to create a market: RCD's, smoke alarms, bicycle helmets.

Population needs to get more involved: water security, food security, competition watchdog, supermarkets pushing local family business out, pressures on farmers, environmental pollution, manufacturing moving over seas, cost of formal education increasing, health care systems, aging population, housing supply, carbon tax, and energy security. No fuel to generate electricity, then pumps don't work and have no water.

Education may not provide all competencies. But it is not experience that is important it is learning. Both education and experience without learning and the development of competencies are worthless. People have to be viewing a bigger picture than simply their job, and move beyond apparent perception that employers have a responsibility to employ. They are not employers they are businesses, they do not need to employ anyone. It is people who have to convince business owners that people are better able to meet the needs of people, that people are an essential and integral part of technological systems.

I diverge. Well I diverged several paragraphs back. But hey the world is complex. To get focus I'd probably need to get a lobotomy to stop me from questioning and connecting everything.

  1. Original
PS: I know I don't have comments switched on, as explained in "About", this blog is largely about catharsis. If I wanted to continue the debate I would have posted yet another comment on the construction management forum. But there is no real debate going on, it is simply a war of attrition. Those with experience only, are not happy, since unable to get a job in current economy because they don't have a degree. Those with a degree, but not the experience, otherwise want to know how they can get experience, if they cannot get a job. Neither of the two groups have the required competencies or appropriate evidence of attained competences. Persons who do not have the competences to design work processes, or properly define jobs, are to a large extent simply insulting each other, trying to shout each other down. 

Such bickering is a distraction to my current priorities, such as required performance of aluminium balustrade. If not distracted I would have wrote about that instead. The regulations are not clear, and have lots of people running around saying this illegal and that is illegal, without really understanding the issues. One issue is clearly identifying the difference between, a wall, a partition, a barrier, guard railing, a balustrade and a hand rail: not clearly defined in the codes.

Also have one project, concerning a full height glass panel, adjacent glass balustrade. It has been certified as compliant with the glazing code by the glaziers  . Problem is the current glazing code is a design code, no longer just prescriptive, and dependent on the loading code: the design load is not mentioned on the certificate. First impression is that the glazing should be designed for crowd loading, in which case it is not compliant with the building code of Australia (BCA). But if replaced with a timber framed wall covered in plaster board, no one would probably be concerned: and yet a crowd probably more likely to knock a hole through the plaster board wall and fall to floor below.

Names of objects is important. Most South Australian pergola companies for instance do not know what  a pergola is: pergola's typically do not require development approval. The result is a significant amount of time spent assessing construction of all kinds, classified as illegal until development approval has been sought and granted. All caused largely because of misunderstanding of what the construction is, which name should be assigned?

Even so. I don't believe we should have more legislation restricting who can or cannot be in business, rather it  is necessary to further develop competencies, and learning of both suppliers and buyers. If the buyers are better informed, then they are more likely to buy from a more competent supplier: unless they want to play silly games in hopes of getting a lower price.