What does learning mean to you? | Alan Montgomery, Forth Valley College

What does learning mean to you? | Alan Montgomery, Forth Valley College

Alan Montgomery, Commercial Training/Assessor (Electrical Safety) at Forth Valley College, looks at why individuals need to take personal responsibility and understand more about their own learning preferences if they’re to improve their career prospects.

By way of introduction, my name is Alan Montgomery and I have over 30 years’ experience working in the electrical industry. Having started out as an apprentice to become a qualified tradesman, then stepping out as a self-employed contractor, I’m now employed as an Instructor/Assessor & Verifier at Forth Valley College in Scotland.

In my current role I feel privileged to be a position where I can support others in the area of electrical safety learning and development and to be in a place to give something back to the industry that has served me well for most of my working life. Personally, I’m more determined than ever to make a difference and to increase awareness of electrical safety across all industries and environments.

Common experiences

Since being involved in supporting a large number of individuals, and having seen just about every reaction to training and development over the last few years whilst delivering regulatory training, I’ve heard a number of common responses to a few questions:

“So, why have you come to this training?”

‘My company or boss told me I had to come’, ‘It ticks a box’, or even ‘I don’t know – and I’m not even sure it applies to me…’

“What are you hoping to get out of it?”

‘A certificate’, ‘another job’, or even ‘I’m not sure’.

Another statement I regularly hear is: ‘I’ve undertaken an apprenticeship and am still working in the same industry; do I really need this training?’

The scary part about this last statement is that the apprenticeship that the individual has mentioned could have been achieved 20 or 30 years beforehand, and they may not have participated in further training or ongoing competency assessment since.

I’ve challenged many participants with the following question:“Are you learning and developing yourself because you HAVE to or because you WANT to?”

This has always drawn parallels for me between what achievement actually means individually, once you complete a target or a milestone in your career. Would you describe your achievements as ‘Occupational (Workplace Required) Competence’ or ‘Personal Competence’, in other words ‘self-preservation’ or ‘self-improvement’?

This then got me thinking: what is an ‘electrician’? And how wide does the scope cover?

Honestly, ask yourself whether you’ve ever been in a job, or taken on a contract, where you’ve felt a little out of your comfort zone. Then afterwards, consider whether you went ahead and did it anyway!

Think about the potential implications if something had gone wrong, and what that may mean for you, or your reputation, or your client’s needs. How often do you personally measure your skills, knowledge, or understanding?

Hypothetically, if you’ve completed an apprenticeship, and have only worked on domestic installations (no greater than 230V apparatus) throughout your career, does this mean that you can go and get a job tomorrow working in a major manufacturing plant maintaining high voltage equipment (440V and above), because they’re looking for an ‘electrician’?

Of course, I’m not saying you can’t, but for each different type of electrical role in industry, there are many differences in the skills and knowledge you require. A large number of recruiters also look for ‘experience’ in candidates.

For some positions, this may obviously create a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario, whereby you can’t get the experience because you haven’t undertaken that type of work before, and you most likely won’t get offered the post because you may not have the desired skills and knowledge.

This is better described by a word most of you will know as ‘Competence’ or ‘Competency’ and although there are a number of variations to this approach in different industries, the basic principle remains the same.

Competence(1) – having suitable or sufficient skill, knowledge, experience, etc., for some purpose; properly qualified.

Competency(2) – an important skill that is needed to do a job.

This is defined perfectly in the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989 (regulation 16) as: ‘No person shall be engaged in any work activity where knowledge and experience is required to avoid danger’

Put simply, by carrying out a task you haven’t done before, or are not qualified to do, it will likely mean you’re introducing an element of ‘danger’!

Each employer should have their own interpretation of what ‘Competency’ means to them. There are many aspects of learning (studying, gaining qualifications, training courses, CPD etc.), not to forget ‘on the job’ training or shadowing.

All of this learning should be recorded by your employer and/or yourself individually, and should relate to the post you currently hold, in addition to the role-specific responsibilities you have within the scope of your job description.

If you’ve lost sight or focus of what your learning should look like, then take back ownership of your personal development in your career and you’ll flourish in your current role. You’ll also be more attractive for any future roles.

What type of learner are you?

Speaking from personal experience, sometimes an individual may want to learn, but can’t find a way to get into the subject matter. For example, you may not be able to engage with the tutor, or don’t like reading books, or perhaps you’re the type who will learn more by actually doing things rather than just listening.

How can we get better at understanding what type of learner we are and applying ourselves accordingly? Are we programmed like this, or can we change it? Could not knowing your learning style be a barrier to learning?

There’s a fundamental part to learning called ‘Retrieval Practice(3)’ and if you understand this principle it will make you a much more effective learner. It works by bringing information you need there and then to the conscious (working) memory, and looks at how best we can retain new information to be able to apply it to a work setting.

The working memory generally allows us only to focus on a relatively small amount of information, for a short space of time. But, the more you do something the more it becomes familiar – much like driving a car. I find when teaching a new subject, that memory retention is fundamental to how much is taken in by the learner. If a student has to work hard to remember something, they’re more likely to give up.

The ‘Forgetting Curve(4)’ gives an example of a decrease in the ability of the brain to retain memory over time. After 20 minutes you only retain about 60% of information, after one day about 45% and after 30 days around 25%. This point alone clearly evidences the need to refresh or update your skills on a regular basis.

I’d also strongly encourage you to find out what type of learner you are(5), and how best you’re able to process and retain information. By knowing this important information, it may alter your approach to learning.

Key references:

  1. Definition of competence from Dictionary.com
  2. Definition of competency from the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus © Cambridge University Press
  3. Source: Pedagogy Matters podcast
  4. Source: https://elearningindustry.com/forgetting-curve-combat
  5. https://arden.ac.uk/what-type-learner-are-you


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