How Did You Learn To Do What You Do?

Professional courses in Management, Accountancy and Law, among others, lay solid emphasis on practical work experience in their admission process and thereafter. How is it an integral part of the learning process? Or wait, is it even important?

A friend and I were talking yesterday about our experiences during our studies. We are both Chartered Accountants (CAs) and a very big element of CA curriculum is article-ship or professional training. Historically, it has been 3–3.5 years of actual on-the-job training done alongside studies and one can’t appear for some levels of CA examination without completing a particular duration of the training. Leaving the details beyond this as they’re immaterial to the essence of this article.

Now, and I speak about the practice while we were students around 10 years ago and things have changed quite a lot now, a malpractice was quite prevalent during those times. Several students used to do what is called a “dummy article-ship”. This essentially meant that they got credit for doing article-ship without having to set foot in office for a single day. This was an upper hand for these students as they got time for studies, coaching, etc. apart from several other things while their counterparts slogged in office doing their article-ship and spent whatever time they could get outside of it on studies and coaching.

During those times, students were allowed to do CA studies together with their graduation, a path I also chose. But which was like a double whammy, one too many. I would spend the first half of the day in college, the second half in office and whatever semblance of time was left after doing both these (~12 hours of the day already) doing college assignments and studies, CA studies and other human things you need to do to live. And mind you, this was six days a week for an eighteen-year-old for what was the start of their professional life as well as college life. I don’t intend to paint a bleak picture of that time but that’s how it was for at least two-thirds of my college life. This would be the story of several of my friends as well.

But on the other side was this group of students who were doing graduation either normally or through distance learning and had a dummy article-ship. These were the students who had a normal college life, time to do everything that a college life entails, participate in all societies and events, study, spend time with friends and family, attend every college fest and meet everybody, in addition to getting time to attend coaching for CA exams and self-study.

Why I paint this picture is very important and here’s why…

The designers of the course were very thoughtful about why they were including elements of actual professional training in the curriculum. You can read and learn all the taxation laws by rote but till the time you have worked on a few actual assignments involving those very laws, you won’t have the clarity required to call yourself the expert a CA qualification allows you to call yourself. You can recite, have on your fingertips, all the nuances of accounting but until you’ve actually made a set of financial statements from scratch, the intricacies will present themselves to you when your balance sheet doesn’t match at the eleventh hour in your final exam.

That brings us back to my friend’s and my discussion yesterday. We recounted stories of how a guy we knew wasn’t able to clear his CA exam since four attempts because taxation laws change every year and he wasn’t able to cope up. Every time, he would learn the laws for one upcoming attempt at exams by rote, attempt the exam, fail, since his knowledge was superficial and then the syllabus for the next attempt would have new amended laws for the new assessment year. And this was a guy who had still done article-ship for some part of his curriculum. Another example we remembered was of people who joined CA firms after completing their CA and knew zilch about anything since they had never set foot in office. For their employers, they brought no benefits of employing a qualified CA because in terms of actual work experience they were equivalent to new articled assistants. They knew nothing. They were the Jon Snow of this Game.

And, if this was the case, had their dummy article-ship done them any good or actually wasted their time? Their peers who had diligently worked while studying were now adept at marrying book concepts with real life examples while their education was mostly bookish, fortified at best by concepts learned in coaching classes.

A thing that strikes me then is how do you learn to do what you do?

Is it by reading and learning in a classroom? Or is it by practical experience?

Is one enough by itself or are both required together?

The thing that I have come to understand from my experience is that learning is complete when theoretical and practical move in tandem. For a CA curriculum, it is when you read about HRA exemption law in your book, and then go to office and apply that in making some income tax returns. For a law student, it is when you read about a particular section in a book and then assist on an actual case which involves that law.

It is for this reason that MBA students who have prior work experience get the most out of their lectures. They can relate what they’re learning in a lecture to actual work scenarios that happened in their work environment. This is also the reason why classrooms which have such experienced people as students also learn more collectively. They enhance the class discussion with tidbits from their experience whenever a point comes up which ties back with something they experienced while working.

So then, we do learn what we do by first understanding the concept and then applying it in a real-life situation.

What are your views on this? Have you seen any examples of this?

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