Friday, January 25, 2013

Education and Industry–Friends or Foes?

Industry and education should be the best of friends. They should both be working towards some common goals. Mutually supportive allies. These days  that doesn’t seem to be the case. And yet industry wants, needs really, an educated workforce. Schools want to produce a well educated civil population. An apparent disconnect already but is it really? I think not. While most educators think first about creating a population that can function in society and live full lives they are also deeply aware that students need preparation for work. While industry has some ideas about what education people need to do a good job they are also aware that a wider education is necessary for a fully functional and stable society. Industry needs stability to some degree. So there is some commonality there.

These days I hear teachers say they want to produce students who are creative, critical thinkers, team players who are able to not just “do math” and read and write but who are able to use those tools in new and creative ways. Cool! And what does industry want? Workers who are creative, critical thinkers, team players who are able to not just “do math” and read and write but who are able to use those tools in new and creative ways. What? You thought industry wanted mindless automatons who know little more than to follow carefully set out directions without  variation? Sorry but if so you are in the wrong century.

This is the information age and problem solving and creativity are the big need. People also need to be able to communicate well and work in teams. Whoa! So what is with industry pushing for standardized tests that are mostly multiple choice? Don’t they know that such tests stifle creativity and are the worst, least reliable tests possible? Ah, no they don’t. Industry is desperately in need of objective numbers to judge everything. Never mind that while this works well for machines it works generally pretty poorly for measuring people – its at least objective!

So what is going on here? Industry by and large (especially among knowledge worker companies) doesn’t feel that it is getting people with the sort of education they need. They are getting people who when asked to figure out a 10% discount on a $12.50 item reach for a calculator (real example). Or who can’t write a readable report let alone present a conclusion at a meeting. So they don’t trust the educational system. By the way universities are starting to distrust K-12 systems as well. They are offering way too many remedial courses these days.

This means that industry is looking for ways to ensure that a diploma or a degree means something that they can rely on. Since they don’t trust report cards they start looking for independent validation. Without educators being able (willing?) to provide a reliable measure they look to companies and education non-profits to come up with some measure that they can insist upon. Politicians who get more money from industry than from teachers (even Democrats) are only too happy to oblige. This causes teaching to the test and worse results leading to a vicious cycle. Reminds one of the rowing team with 8 coxswain and one rower. After they lost the race they fired the rower.

Far too many of these bad results are not the teacher’s fault either. Children who come to school hungry and stay that way all day can’t learn. People whose parents regard school as a free babysitter raise children who see not value in education. Students who live in fear for their lives in their neighborhoods have more immediately important things than school. On the higher income end students who’s lives revolve around sports or shopping or being cool tend not to take school that seriously either. Many of the problems we have are cultural and/or environmental not educational.

No one asked me but I think that if industry really wanted to help they would help on the input side not focus so much on the output. Schools, especially public schools, take who comes. They have no control (for the most part) on the “raw materials” to use industry speak that enter their schools. Industry would never put up with this. They would demand better raw materials or find a new supplier. This is hardly an option for any but the most selective admission schools. Fortunately people can be improved. Smile

Rather than trying to save money on teacher’s pay and benefits and increasing spending on tests that don’t help industry should look towards helping with other problems. They should insist of good lunch (and often breakfast) programs that make sure no student starts the day hungry or finishes it without a good lunch. Don’t think of it as welfare – think of it as an investment in quality. Industry should reward (you get what you reward) employees who volunteer in schools. Especially those who volunteer in lower income schools where students don’t have well-off highly educated role models at home.

Industry should invest in mentor programs. I’m a big fan of FIRST Robotics but there are others. Programs like this give students not just interactions with professionals but an eye towards being something other than what they see at home or in their limited neighborhoods. BTW I have heard from senior executives that having young professionals mentor students makes for better employees.

I’m also a fan of programs that but professionals in the classroom working with teachers on a long term basis. TEALS puts computer science professionals in classrooms that would not other wise be able to offer computer science courses at all.

Long term though I think we need more dialogue between educators and industry leaders. Too often I have heard people from industry lecture educators about “all the things they are doing wrong” and how “easy” it would be for them to do a better job. This is never helpful. Generally this is not helpful because the people from industry suggest (demand) things that educators know from experience just don’t work. Unfortunately too often educators don’t understand the vocabulary and points of view of industry people and so use words that, well, that just confuse the issue rather than clarifying it. Both sides are often so convinced that they have the answers that they don’t want to listen to the other. There is a lot of selective hearing on both sides.

In the long run I think industry and education do have common goals and aspirations for students. The problem is finding a route that gets more students there. That is going to take better cooperation then we are seeing these days. For the benefit of us all we need to fix that.

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