The Value of Licensing

January 26, 2012

Ham Radio, Skills, Training

what is the value of learning

Would you want to go to a doctor who passed his classes by reading Cliff Notes? Of course not.

What about SCUBA diving? Would you feel comfortable learning to SCUBA dive by reading a pamphlet and without actually getting in the water? Probably not.

These may be extreme examples but they illustrate a point by taking the concept to its logical end. What is the value of certifications if you can game the system, passing the exam without really mastering the subject? Does a license really mean anything if you can cram for the test, pass it, and then immediately forget what you memorized?

Many say no.

The Value of Exams

The government and other organizations create proficiency standards as a way to control or limit access to certain privileges. To carry a handgun, to drive a car, or to teach a classroom full of students, you must first demonstrate your knowledge of the subject.

But no system is perfect.

A short and relatively straightforward process makes it easy for those who have mastered the subject to obtain the license, but it’s also easier to game the system. A more protracted licensing process helps to ensure that those who eventually pass the requirements actually know what they are doing. But it’s also more cumbersome and costly.

Consider a drivers license. In most states, to drive you must first pass a written exam followed by a short road test. If you can answer the questions in a way that the DMV considers correct, and you can stay out of the ditch during a short test drive, you will be awarded a license to operate the vehicle. Does that make you a good driver? Hardly.

But to enhance the process would require a much more rigorous examination and trial period on the road – greatly increasing the cost and hassle. The same is true for technical and other certifications.

Case in Point

ham radio reviewI was recently doing some online research before buying a Ham Radio. I was scouring the internet looking for reviews of different manufacturers and models. I stumbled across a YouTube video that was supposed to be a review of a model I was considering.

The creator of the video introduced himself and said that he was going to review the radio. This was his first radio so he didn’t have a whole lot to which to compare it. That’s ok; I was still interested in his take on it since I’m in a similar situation.

He then drifted into a short recap of the certification process. He said that the exam was easy. He simply went to a web site where you could repeatedly take practice exams with actual exam questions. He said that he’d taken the test scores of times. He didn’t buy a book to study. He didn’t find someone to share their knowledge. He didn’t have a radio to listen to the other hammers. Yet on the night of his real exam, he pass with flying colors.


Next he got on with the review.

The more he talked, the more I realized that he had no clue about Ham Radio. He called components by incorrect names. He made statements that were inaccurate at best and dangerous at worst. He offered insight into things that he obviously didn’t know anything about.

Was he licensed? Sure. Did he know the subject? No way.

It’s the Journey that’s Important

The true value doesn’t lie in receiving the license. The true value is the skills and knowledge learned in the process.

If your only goal is to pass an exam, to obtain a license, or to get a certification, you’ve missed the point. The value is in what you’ll learn while studying for the exam, not in receiving the piece of paper that says you’ve arrived.

It’s the journey that’s important, not the destination.

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14 Comments on “The Value of Licensing”

  1. Practical Parsimony Says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with most of what you said. However, to get my teacher certification, I did not have to prove I mastered the subject matter I taught. I attained the goal–an education degree. The subject matter was not taught, per se. Education classes give you an idea of how to teach, not what to teach. The certification was a process whereby the good character of the teacher candidate was researched…state and FBI checks for a record of bad behavior.

    Did you know I have heard teachers of the subject I am certified to teach (English/Language Arts) who did not know about the author they were teaching to the students? Your experience with an “expert” or someone “certified” is all too common in this world. The end is the piece of paper, not the acquisition of knowledge.

    I have a friend who has an education degree and cannot spell well enough for google to guess what he is trying spell. He also has a degree in computer science, so he knows how to find anything except how to spell words. He also has a degree in electronics. He never intended to teach, so he has never felt the need to get the license/certification.

    Unfortunately, the internet and youtube offer a platform for anyone who can make a video and figure out how to upload it.

    Now,if this English teacher cannot spell, punctuate, or form a sentence, can we chalk it up to my fever I have at the moment?

    Great post.


    • Laura Says:

      That is interesting, Practical Parsimony.

      In order to get my teaching license, I did have to pass a standardized test. In fact, I remember having to drive to a neighboring state where I wanted to apply to take that state’s test too. I wonder if those rules are regional or whether they have been phased in and out over the years. It would have been about 20 years ago for me.

      There is still lots of debate about who is and should be teaching. As far as I know, the maths and sciences continue to struggle to find and keep qualified teachers. When I was in college, there was a fairly new program called Teach for America that tried to woo professionals in other fields into teaching for at least a few years. Teachers then fell into two camps- those that had a great deal of subject matter knowledge and no teaching background and those that had a lot of educational theory and practice, but less subject matter expertise. There were pros and cons to both.

      Those with more subject matter training and real world experience were great with upper level math and so on, but some didn’t have the faintest idea about classroom management with unruly freshman. On the flip side, especially for high school, some education majors would have been better prepared for teaching upper level math if more of their college credits had been set aside for those classes instead of Physical Education, of which I seemed to have a ridiculous number of requirements.

      Thanks for commenting.


  2. Laura Says:

    I think the guy whose video you watched is a perfect example of the American education model. Practical Parsimony may want to weigh in on this too.

    I was very frustrated as a student and as a classroom teacher to realize that our style of education rewards performance on tests at the expense of true learning.

    I took several AP courses in high school and quickly learned how to work the systems of the two teachers. One (a history course) used the standardized multiple choice tests that came with the textbook series. After the first two tests, I learned to pick out the exact sentences in the text that would be on the test and memorized them. The other course (Biology) involved a lot of essay questions and required demonstration that I had mastered the material.

    I realized later that I learned nearly nothing from that history course (and most other courses like it) because I had only memorized “facts” for brief periods of time to achieve A’s on the tests.

    This is one of many reasons we now homeschool. The learning is the point!


  3. Practical Parsimony Says:

    If I took a standardized test for the certification, it has totally passed from my mind. lol…right now, I have a fever, but am sure I would have remembered that because I was naively surprised that the certification was just paying money and being fingerprinted.

    I agree that so much of the education system is learning facts just for the test. When I taught GED, our college had a meeting and someone from the state came and wasted our time telling us how to teach. We were not to teach to the test…lol. All the teachers agreed after she left that there is no other way to teach GED.

    One girl came to me when she turned 16. She was ready for the GED test in two weeks. But, a student cannot take the test until she is 17…or so state told me. I did not know that there was a process to get this pushed through. So, the girl stayed with me and actually learned because I taught her lots of vocabulary and assigned literature books that we actually discussed. We talked lots and she learned some philosophy theories, biology concepts, history analysis….all from informal discussions.

    She wanted to go to college but lost a year, her virginity, and a chance because of rules. Three years later, I met her and her two children in a store. I apologized for not knowing all the rules. She said she learned more that year than she had ever learned. That was not true, but she did learn to have a rational discussion, use critical thinking and not be defensive when someone disagreed.

    It seemed to work. She was the only student that I ever got to teach important skills to in the classroom. Oh, well, I taught lots of reading skills and math that was useful.


  4. Jeff Says:

    You failed to mention one other group.

    Those that truely are experts in a given field, but are not licenced.



    • Laura Says:

      Jeff, it may vary state to state, but I know in some places that are really hard pressed for subject matter teachers, especially in low performing areas, otherwise qualified people can get a year’s waiver to teach.

      If you have an interest, you may want to look into it. I hear this mostly about upper level math and science.


  5. Laura Says:

    Joe and I have often talked about how foolish it is of public high schools to be phasing out rather than ramping up alternate programs for those not likely to go to college. At the very minimum, EVERY student, by age 16 should have had a math class that included making a budget (income cannot exceed outgo!), how to pay bills, and so on. Beyond that, too many students either leave or graduate high school with no useful skills. Why aren’t there more work-study programs for medical assistants or retail management or whatever? Back when Joe and I were in high school, there were still cosmetology, food service, welding classes, and so on. We know that the majority of students do not go on to complete a 4 year degree- shouldn’t we (as a nation) be providing more practical job training?

    Anyway, I hope you are feeling better. We are passing a bad bug around (doc called it adenovirus) that comes with sinus drainage, cough, body aches, pinkeye, and the occasional upset stomach/belly ache. And it really digs its claws in. The first one to get it a week ago is on the mend finally, but is obviously still contagious. So far, four of us have it (including me now). I’m going to go ahead and hold out hope that the rest can get a pass or we could be coughing and sneezing at Valentine’s Day still!

    Take care!


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