Teach a man to fish – On Learning to Learn and Certification

In October 2008 I wrote Certification Matters, Experience Less So. I have been considering how to justify this view further and a cheesy quote, that I have often said out loud, made more sense than it usually did.

old Chinese proverb “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”

Learning Something

Many people take the view that school is about “learning something”. That is, sometone will show me how to hold a hammer and hit a nail. With this skill, I will now be able to build a house.

Yeah, right. In fact, what you have learned is how to hold a hammer. But not the purpose of a hammer or what a nail is used for. Or, indeed, whether a screw is the better solution to a problem.

If you only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail – Abraham Maslow.

The shortcoming of this technique is that you only ever “know” what you have been taught.

Learning to Learn

The other method of learning at school, is to learn how to learn. That is, how to read a book, how to research a topic in the library or on the Internet. How to interpret the data and think logically through any problem.

Then when you are presented with a hammer, you can use a learning process to determine what is the correct thing to do. You make a judgement about your problem, a decision to use nails or whether some other tool would be better for the job.

Relevance to Technology

There are many people who criticise vendor certifications as irrelevant or impractical. I wonder if these people are those only know “learning something”. They learn “on the job” and “from practice” or “from experience”. They will say “I can get it from the Internet” if I need it.

When they look at a certification exam, they perceive it to be irrelevant, because it isn’t learning something.

Learning to Learn is Certification

For most vendors (not all), certification is about the following:

  1. giving you enough basics to ask intelligent questions. If you don’t know basic knowledge and theory, you won’t be able to communicate. (this is also Learning Something, which makes the argument confusing).
  2. explaining first principles or fundamentals so that the student can comprehend more advanced topics
  3. Demonstrating access to resources and knowledges so that the student can find more answers

So when you are studying that textbook, and scratching your head about how this is relevant to real life, stop yourself. The purpose is NOT necessarily to understand a practical application, but to enable you to learn how to learn. The next time you are presented with a problem or technology that you don’t understand, you will have the ability to work out what to do.

You will have learned how to ask an intelligent question. And to understand the intelligent answer.

It doesn’t matter whether that’s research on the Internet, raising a vendor support request, reading the manuals, or whatever. Your learned experience will help to determine a path to working out the solution.

That’s the purpose of certification and passing exams. To prove that you learned how to learn.

Related Links

The Certification Matters – Knowledge or Experience articles are in four parts. Here are the others.
Certification Matters – Knowledge or Experience Which is more valuable ? Part 2

Certification Matters – Only you can do the Study Part 3

Certification Matters – Exams are not relevant to Real Life – Part 4

About Greg Ferro

Greg Ferro is a Network Engineer/Architect, mostly focussed on Data Centre, Security Infrastructure, and recently Virtualization. He has over 20 years in IT, in wide range of employers working as a freelance consultant including Finance, Service Providers and Online Companies. He is CCIE#6920 and has a few ideas about the world, but not enough to really count.

He is a host on the Packet Pushers Podcast, blogger at EtherealMind.com and on Twitter @etherealmind and Google Plus

You can contact Greg via the site contact page.

  • http://globalconfig.net Brandon Carroll

    Greg- This is a great take on learning and I totally agree with you.

  • http://www.networkingexamacademy.com Blake Erickson

    Thanks for this post about getting your certifications. Exactly what I needed to hear after barely failing my ICND2 exam. Don’t worry I’m going to take it again this week, but thanks for the extra motivation to keep at it.
    I think you are absolutely right about the importance of learning. Most of the time its just about going through the process. Just the fact that getting your CCNA is not an easy feat really proves not that you know everything a CCNA should know, but also that you have the work ethic and the ability to set goals and achieve them.

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