Motivation for Learning

When looking for qualified staff for open positions, employers began to look beyond educational achievements  such as high school diploma or college degrees.  While these accomplishments may mean something, they were not adequate to demonstrate a candidate’s readiness for a particular type of job, especially in the knowledge-worker careers.

The response was a increased appreciation for existing specialized certifications (previously rarely required or even obscure) and promotion of developing new certification standards.  The standards consist of a set body of knowledge that is regulated by a governing body with qualified practitioners typically spanning large territories (usually these are international standards).   Earning a certification typically involves a globally standardized testing program that rigorously tests the candidate’s command of the body of knowledge.  In addition, a certification typically involves years of prior related experience and a recommendation by an existing certified member.  Typically the certification requires evidence of rigorous continuing education to keep current with the body of knowledge or else the certificate will expire and the candidate will have to pass the initial exam again.  The governing body is constantly updating the body of knowledge and the exams to keep current.

The resulting certified candidate satisfies a critical need of employers for assurance that the candidate has command of the relevant body of knowledge and how it may apply to the employer’s specific needs.

Often these certifications involve the learning of a large and diverse body of knowledge.  A solid education in terms of a college degree (or in some cases a high school diploma) is a good preparation for tackling the study for a particular certification.   However, it is actually not required.  A certification is available to any person would can pass the standardized exam for the specialized body of knowledge, document prior relevant experience, and gain the recommendation of someone already certified.

An industry of training emerged to prepare the candidate for the test.  The industry is motivated by high proportions of their classes passing the exam.  They work to build their courses to succeed with minimum prerequisite education.   Although some certifications may explicitly require a college degree in a particular set of fields, this education is not required for a student to be taught the specific material covered in the exam.

There is a boom of jobs requiring specific certifications.   These jobs cannot be filled unless the candidate can present the authentic document from the governing body proving he possesses the certification.   The balance has shifted so that jobs that once required a certain level of general education now will accept candidates without that education so long as they have the certification.

Also, there is a boom of creating new certifications to cover even more job categories.

The trend is for employers to shift their focus from general education such as college degrees toward certifications.  Certifications are rigorous, have consistent standards (usually internationally), and the certified candidate will posses the current understanding of the body of knowledge.

These jobs are highly specialized.  The needs for the specialty may come and go.  If the job is no longer needed, the certified employee must either find another employer or possess a different certification for a job that is open.

People have an incentive to obtain multiple certifications, each with its own rigorous training and continuing education requirements.  Often a person employed in one certified area (and busy applying himself to that job) will be pursuing a new certification to prepare for future marketability.    Many employers will encourage this pursuit but only in terms of reimbursing expenses: the very significant number of hours to study the material is on the employee’s free time.

For employment, this model seems to be working well.   But the employee faces a substantial investment in study time to obtain and to maintain multiple certifications.   The overall effect is to reduce the potential of a return (in terms of higher future earnings) on the investment (cost and time) of general education degrees.  The general education degrees are no longer sufficient to get a job, and the job requires additional costly investment for the certification.  The student needs to recoup from future earnings the costs both of preparing for a certification and of the general education degree.  If the general education degree isn’t needed, then why invest in obtaining it?

In general, a general education degree or diploma does prepare the student with good study practices and test-taking skills.  These practices and skills do make it easier to earn the certification.  However, most of the time and money spent in general education is on covering a defined curriculum covering material that meets the standards for that degree but is not applicable for a particular job.

There may be more cost-effective ways to train people to become good at studying for and passing standardized tests of the nature demanded by certifications.

Certifications do require motivation.  It takes a lot of effort to learn all of the material.  Often the training is very intense with the material covered in short periods of time (often called boot-camps).  This requires a lot of discipline from the student to devote essentially all his waking hours to the study of the material.   Even though the payoff may be clear, it still takes a certain quality of student to succeed.  For many people this quality does not come naturally, or natural forces discourage rather then encourage this quality.

What concerns me is that this certification and standardized testing is being misused by general education.  General education (colleges, high-schools, and even grade schools) appear to be learning a lesson that certificate-like training and standardized testing is what employers want.   They are revising their approaches to education to follow the same model.   The idea of education is being redefined from whatever it was before to a certification of passing a standardized test.

The adult certification process works because the adults are disciplined learners.  They learned earlier how to be motivated for learning.   Certification is working now because of the adults earlier experience with non-certification learning of their past.

I think it is a mistake that a person is motivated by the achievement of passing a standardized test with anonymously authored questions and automated grading.   Such tests might be self-motivating if they gain entry to highly exclusive communities (such as the case of some professional certificates).  But what is the motivation of a new-learner to gain a common certification that society expects the entire population to achieve?

What is the motivation of the early learner for common knowledge, common skills, common learning-discipline?   It is certainly not passing some exam.

It seems that it where we are at with elementary school common core.   It is virtually indistinguishable from a professional certification except for the simpler material and the lack of exclusivity.

This is not a complaint about the content of common core.   We have always had expectations of common skills that everyone (or at least the vast majority) should master in reading, writing, math, history, geography, etc.  However, we are changing swapping the older form of motivation with one that emphasizes getting a high score on a standardized test.

What kind of motivation is more appropriate for a young person to pursue learning of a common body of knowledge?

I think what we are dismissing is the motivation of the human relationship between the student and the teacher.  In particular, a very human motivation to convince an older or more qualified human that the student has mastered the material.  The student is motivated by the teacher’s direct expression of his personal recognition of the student’s ability to match the teacher’s expectations or even match the teacher’s capability.   The student is motivated by the prospect of the teacher welcoming the student as the teacher’s peer.

This motivation is extremely strong. We are making this particular inter-personal achievement basically irrelevant.  In addition, it appears that the intense boot-camp approach to learning makes the inter-personal student-teacher relationship nearly impossible.   For someone who is being introduced to learning, and especially for the goal of commonly expected achievement, there is no self-motivation to engage with the teacher.

Something has to replace this natural self-motivation.  That something appears to be coercive motivation from threats of punishment by parents, teachers, and peers ranging from public embarrassment to private punishments.

I doubt the coercive motivation has as much potential of motivating the broadest population when compared with self-motivation.  The youngest children recognize coercion and a substantial number will reasonably rebel against it.  The ability to recognize and rebel against coercion only increases as they approach adulthood.

Even if coercive motivation does meet the goals of maximizing the population that masters a common base of knowledge, we are preparing a population who sees coercion as acceptable.  We will end up with a population who will increasing dismiss the value of inter-personal respect, if they recognize that concept at all.

Without inter-personal respect, there can not be a democratic government.


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