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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Technical Job Training vs. Training to Think – Why Am I Really In College?

Why are you, as a student, in college? Take a moment to really think about your answer, because you may be surprised to know that your expectation for what college does for you does not match what college is designed to do.

If you said, “Well, I am in college to get the training I need to get a good job,” then I hope you are in a degree program that is technical in nature – nursing, medical assisting, graphic design, etc. This is because most degree programs are designed to give you background information about a particular field while providing a pathway for you to develop critical thinking skills. They are not, however, designed to give you direct job training so that you can begin your first “real” job with all the intricate details that go into completing the projects or tasks for that job.

If you said, “Well, I am in college to learn more about a particular field while I become an independent learner who can think critically about my field of expertise,” then you are much closer to what most degree programs at 4-year institutions offer you. This is particularly the case for degrees for the more “traditional” programs – biology, psychology, history, sociology, etc. In fact, any program labeled “pre-“ is going to be designed to give you that basic level of content while pushing you to develop critical thinking skills that will be important once you move on to more specific training (pre-med, pre-law, pre-vet medicine are just a few).

The distinction between job training and training to think is a very important one for students to understand. Job training involves teaching you how to use equipment that you will use every day in a particular job setting; training to think involves teaching you how to use one particular piece of equipment – your brain – in any job setting. Thus job training gives you lots of content knowledge for a very specific job, while training to think gives you the skills you need to apply a critical eye to many areas of study.

Only a handful of college programs are true job training programs (most of them I listed above), mainly because in the past, most of those job areas were filled with people who did not go to college, but were trained on the job. For example, it has only been in the last decade or two that we have seen a surge in veterinary technology degrees offered at colleges (these lead to veterinary assistant positions at animal hospitals, not to a direct route to become a veterinarian – that requires a traditional biology degree or equivalent). Before the recent development of these programs, all the training you were required to have occurred on the job – you were hired for the position, they trained you on site, and as long as you became proficient at your position, you kept your job. No college degree was required, because the skills you needed could be learned on site and were specific to the job at hand (you don’t need to be able to write a persuasive essay to give a dog a shot).

Most college programs are training-to-think programs – they require courses that have basic content information for any particular subject, but they also require courses that expand your critical thinking and communication skills, which often go hand-in-hand. It is presumed (and research with employers backs this up) that most companies and graduate/medical/dental/pharmacy schools are more interested in hiring or accepting graduates who are capable of critically evaluating information given to them, developing creative but realistic solutions to problems, and communicating their critiques and solutions to co-workers and superiors in an effective manner. Regardless of field, these three activities are the nuts-and-bolts of critical thinking, and they are typically the goals of most college programs.

This means that for most of your college classes, the ultimate goal is not to have you memorize a bunch of random information. The ultimate goal is to push you to think critically about that information. Let’s take a basic Introduction to Psychology class as an example. Yes, you need to learn some basic core content in that PSYC101 course, such as what areas of the brain are important for which behaviors and how the number of people in a room impact your willingness to follow the majority decision. But you also, based on the assignments and classroom discussions, are required to think critically about what that knowledge means for you and your family, place of employment, state, etc. If you have this knowledge about conformity in group settings, then you can critically evaluate the appropriateness of voting by show of hands vs. anonymous answers on paper when choosing a team leader for a project, or communicate by memo to your superior why company-approved nap time may increase productivity levels. Training you in critical thinking skills (evaluating information, developing creative but sound solutions, communicating information effectively) provides you with a skill set that can be taken to a wide variety of jobs, unlike job training that is specific to one place of employment.

As you move through your college career, you may occasionally ask yourself, “Why do I need this class? What is it going to do for me?” As a psychology professor, most of my students ask me that when it comes to the math requirements – lo and behold, taking math produces critical thinking skills in analyzing the results of research studies, a key component of being a good psychologist (clinical or research). Taking English composition allows you to develop persuasive writing techniques that are valuable from making that suggestion about nap times in a Fortune 500 company to winning a case in front of the Supreme Court.

These skills transfer across multiple positions at a variety of places of employment, which means the stronger your core critical thinking skills are, the more valuable you appear to potential employers. Once you can appreciate the value of the “training to think” approach, the more likely it is that you will come to enjoy those required classes your college makes you take and consider how you will use your new critical thinking skill set in the future.

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