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The road to doctorate


One of the most misunderstood concepts in the field of leather education is the difference between educational level and depth. Tanners will often say that they require that their production staff need a greater technical ability. It is believed that to do this the student needs to move up through ever higher education level and will eventually will reach the ability to solve all the problems.


To overcome this misunderstanding I need to introduce a few concepts:


· the first is Bloom’s taxonomy;

· the second, the difference between fundamental and experiential learning;

· and the last, the concept of educational depth.


Blooms taxonomy

Bloom’s taxonomy was coined by Benjamin Bloom in 1956 and it was introduced as a concept to allow educators to describe how a learner moves from basic understanding to higher skill. Starting off with the basic knowledge (facts and figures, like chromium is used for wet-blue) and then passes through levels like understanding and analysing to the higher levels like synthesis (assembling of other concepts with the one you are thinking of or evaluation (e.g., if a tanner uses recycled chromium how will it impact on the leather). Bloom’s taxonomy separates basic operators from technologists who solve problems.


Education strategies focus on the progression of learners through basic jargon, facts and figures about tanning at the lower levels, through to deep understanding and the ability to think critically at PhD level. PhD students do not know facts, they just have a large tool box on how to find information fast and how to use them to solve problems in ways that lower learners are unable to do. Simply put, PhD students know fewer facts than certificate holders, but they can find information and understand it faster than lower learners.


Fundamental and Experimental learning

At whatever cognitive level, the other thing that needs to be considered is the method by which the abilities were obtained. You often hear people describe how they got to know something as: “This is what I learnt through the University of Life.” This learning is described as experiential learning, the knowledge and skills obtained through “look, see and do” style experience. This method of understanding is obtained through trial and error and hard practice. Experiential learning is very powerful and is shown to have the deepest effect on long-term memory. Humans are designed to learn like this and are very unlikely to forget it if hard learned through experience, particularly if mistakes were made.


Fundamental learning is the educational approach that universities and colleges take to allow learners to start with a foundation and then build layers upon layers till they have a cognitive level that is as high as the student is prepared to go. Fundamental learning is structured, descriptive (reductionist – things are broken into smaller parts), and is designed to be as comprehensive as possible without the learner getting bogged down in detail. So instead of the university teaching a student all 10,000 odd retanning chemical company names, the lecturer teaches them the classes of chemicals and describes the common properties these chemicals have and how they influence the leather.


Concept of educational depth

The final consideration in terms of learning is the concept of technical depth. Here the learner is progressing up the cognitive level from certificate to PhD. Then, at a certain level, the learner decides to move horizontally and obtain more facts, figures and understanding of something technical. For example, unsatisfied to know that vegetable tannins could be used for something, the technologist decides to learn all the names of the chemical companies supply and then proceeds to do trials that allow the tanner to learn the impacts that these different chemicals will have on the final leather.



What’s the best method of learning?

So what is the best the best system? Trial, error and practice, i.e. experimental learning, is the slowest option. So experiential learning where you are trying to get 20 years’ experience is going to take, well, 20 years. To get a basic knowledge as fast as possible it is best to go through a structured fundamental learning structure that can deliver maximum content in the shortest possible time. Do not expect people on a short course to have detail on tap. The detail will come when the learner has been given a chance to add experience on to the foundation that they have received through fundamental learning.


The most knowledgeable people in our leather industry are the people who typically have had traditional training through a formal education system and have taken their cognitive level as high as their aspirations have allowed. Bolted onto that, someone who has used experiential learning to increase their technical depth by making mistakes and increased the diversity of the information through constant learning (reading, practicing, and through conversation). It is important not to expect too much of new learners as they have been given the technical ability, but still haven’t learnt how and when to use it.


Learning, knowledge and technical ability are important. But also equally important is the ability to use what has been learnt is a practical way to solve problems, be innovative and to break new ground. Problem-solving in our industry comes from three abilities:

· technical confidence;

· technical knowledge;

· and through a suite of technical tools.


You cannot underestimate the value of confidence in this. A very knowledgeable and able person may not be able to solve big problems if they do not feel capable of doing so. This will have about the same value as a confident walking Wikipedia who doesn’t have the tools to solve the problem. The top certified people in the industry who have all the papers under the sun, but those who have not increased their technical depth will feel very unconfident when being asked to solve certain problems. These people need to boost their confidence by being allowed a bit of space to enable their technical toolbox to open and wherein they can rummage around till they find the nuggets of information that will solve the problem.


Thinking back to when we were young and just starting out. Oh yes we were keen and eager: ready to take on the world as we thought that we knew everything. But that was just youthful bravado and a certain naivety. The University of Life has showed us that this isn’t the case and we need to use what we have learnt to develop our “toolkit” for experimenting, problem solving and innovation. It is our responsivity to allow the current learners across the world to allow them the same. We need to share our collective knowledge, give them space to apply what they have learnt and allow their confidence to grow.

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