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What's More Important: Credentials or Experience?

What's More Important: Credentials or Experience?

What best prepares a firefighter for the job? Classroom lectures? Experience through on-the-job training? Both? Neither? Each option has its proponents and its opponents. There have been discussions (and at times, heated debates) about experience versus credentials at firehouse kitchen tables all over the country for years.

What we are really talking about is training. What training method works best? What training method works best for you? Before you answer, think about the last time you learned something. For decades, people have been studying the ways, the means, and the methods that we humans learn “stuff”. After all this research, they came up with a blinding flash of the obvious: It depends.

In this “Kitchen Table Debrief” I will talk about the various methods we use to learn new things, and how we can best ensure our organizations implement the principles and methods to help everyone continue to learn and grow.

Credentials Versus Experience

This subject was the topic of a FIRELINK forum I participated in a couple of years ago, however, it is still just as relevant today.

According to studies done on how humans best learn , there are four principles that should be implemented for the best learning experience: Thinking, Watching, Doing, and Feeling. Think of spokes on a wheel. The more spokes that are used, the smoother the ride becomes. Think of these principles as those spokes on a wheel. The more of these principles that are used, the smoother the training becomes.

Not every learning experience requires each of these training principles, but the fastest and most thorough learning comes from applying all of these principles.

This is not rocket science. Let’s take a couple of basic firefighter skills; the placement of ground ladders and tying a figure of eight on a bight knot.

Try to remember back when you first learned these skills. Someone probably told you the benefit of placing ground ladders. They did this because someone in the crowd probably asked, “Why do we need to know this?” Then, the instructor explained about placing, extending, and footing the ladder. He or she explained the correct way to determine if the angle of pitch is correct or not, and where to place the top of the ladder for easiest access to use as egress or rescue. Then, they showed you how to place the ladder. Next you tried it, and received feedback on how you did it.

It was probably the same with the knots. Maybe the technique was shown to you first, and then you tried it yourself. Maybe you got it wrong, and you were corrected, or maybe you got it right from the get-go and received kudos. At some point, you were probably told why you need that particular knot, and what would be the best application of it.

In both these examples, the four training principles were used. The thinking part; having the theory of ground ladder placement explained and the appropriate use of the knot, the watching part; having the proper technique performed for you to observe, the doing part; you actually perform the skill under the observation of a mentor, and finally the feeling part; receiving feedback to either encourage or correct your technique.

Guess what: you don’t ALWAYS go through all four principles. But to truly learn a new skill; for the best learning experience, you should go through more than one of these principles. The order of the steps doesn’t matter, usually.

Can you learn ladder placement just by observing? Yes, but you will undoubtedly feel better about your mastery of the skill if you have done it yourself, and received feedback on how you did. Understanding the WHY of a new skill is also critical to retaining the steps. If you learn why something is done a particular way, you are more inclined to recall the proper steps.

Does receiving a certificate for your new skill make you better at throwing up a ladder at the next structure fire? Obviously, the answer is “no.”

There is a difference between being trained and being certified, though. Being certified usually includes meeting some performance criteria to show proficiency. Depending on how much someone applies himself/herself, this could be a BIG difference.

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