Monday, 29 October 2012

Learning for learning vs. learning for earning

I was just looking at the results from the annual From Learning to Work survey for 2012, which is a survey of post-secondary students from across Canada. Over 28,000 students responded to the 2012 survey and, consistent with past surveys, the top two responses to the question 'Why did you choose to go to college/university?' were to 'get a good job' and 'prepare for a specific career.'

Now, some people within academia will cringe at these results. They will argue that the purpose of post-secondary education, or more precisely university education, should not be so instrumental. Rather, students should go to university to broaden their mind and develop their moral character. They should pursue learning for the sake of learning. Given that I work in a university career centre - and have since I completed my BA - it may surprise some people that I don't disagree with this perspective. I started off at the U of A in the Faculty of Education with the goal of becoming a teacher. I soon realized teaching was not the career for me. At that point I could have taken some time off to figure out what I wanted to do career-wise with the rest of my life but, to be honest, I really liked being a student. Yes, the end of term was stressful with exams and papers to write but I really did feel like I was learning and growing a lot as a person.

Fast forward 13 years. I'd been working at CAPS since I completed my BA. I decided to start a master's degree education. A number of people asked me why. How was it going to help me in my career? Was I planning to look for a different job when I was done? That was not my motivation at all! I had become interested in adult learning - work-related learning, in particular - and it was an interest I wanted to pursue. I completed my MEd in 2005 - and I am still working at CAPS! And while my reasons for doing graduate work were driven by my interests, one of the unintended outcomes was that much of what I learned has helped me in my work (as well as other areas of my life). For example, assessment of learning, program evaluation and project ethics have been, and will continue to be, areas of focus for me. Through my graduate work I learned about research and evaluation methods, as well as honed important skills (especially critical thinking), which help me with this work.

Now having said all this, I believe that 'learning for learning versus learning for earning' is a false dichotomy. We shouldn't balk at integrating some career education into the curriculum. Certainly degree programs that prepare students for specific professions do this (e.g. nursing, engineering) but it can be done in other programs through things like internships and community service learning. Universities should also provide co-curricular programs and services that provide opportunities for students to explore careers, build skills and make connections. The reality is that most students will enter the world of work after they complete their degree. We can and should help to make that transition a successful one.

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