Education

Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Can education be saved?

The future of IT depends on it...
Education is getting worse and worse in the West, particularly for scientific and technical fields such as IT. Peter Cochrane explains what this means for the future - and what can be done to improve the situation.

Over the past 30 years, and in particular over the past 10, the apparent decline in education standards across the Western world has been very evident. Roughly speaking many of the standards attained by children at the age of 11 in 1946 were not being achieved by children at 18 years old in 1996. How come?

We have now reached a situation where the linking of money to student placements and employment of academic staff seems to have bastardised many basic principles of modern education. It is no longer detached from the harsh realities of the commercial world but tightly linked, with concepts high on the agenda including the education marketplace, customer demand, the needs of industry and demands of the nation.

To meet these requirements we see a number of opposing forces: academic, commercial and political. Unfortunately the lead role in the decline of education can mostly be attributed to the least educated and capable people in society - the politicians. They seem to decide on the basis of dogma and past personal experiences the policies applied to national education on what seems to be a weekly basis. This results in targets being set and promises being made and, worse, penalties being imposed should targets and objectives not be met.

Thus we see teachers under an increasing administration load, tightly constrained in what they can teach and when, obliquely encouraged to adjust figures and bend results. The reasons why are simple - the attainment of the students, the numbers passing, the grades awarded, the reports of the various government audits and committees, inspections and regulation have a direct impact on the funds allocated to the school, college or university.

Some countries report a remarkable three to five per cent improvement in student grades year on year. Unfortunately, whilst attainting 'grade A' status has become more and more universal, so has the inability to read, write and perform the most basic of mathematical manipulations. This is not good. One outcome is that many universities have had to implement remedial courses to bring students up to the point they would have achieved had their earlier schooling been of higher quality.

Quite perversely one of the most worrying and damaging trends is the emerging philosophy in education that anything that is hard and difficult, that requires real tenacity and persistence, should probably be avoided in favour of something that is easy and enjoyable. No surprise, then, to see students turning away from the sciences in droves. Complete university departments in chemistry, physics and engineering are being closed down and no doubt more will follow.

In some countries the output of technical positions such as power engineers has fallen to such low levels they can no longer sustain their national need and have to recruit from abroad. The same is true in software, electronic and other engineering and scientific disciplines. It is not an accident that outsourcing and offshoring are growing exponentially; it is now an essential in many industrial nations because the national provision of skilled IT workers is falling far short of demand.

Where does all this lead? One result is the reduced likelihood of being able to find good teachers capable of providing real value-add for students wishing to study the subjects. Produce less qualified scientists and you have a much smaller pool to attract into teaching.

As a result of this scientific skills crunch, much of the West is now looking towards the service industries for their future. The big question is: how do you sustain service industries well into the future when you have a rapidly decreasing knowledge and experience base of the embedded and supporting technologies?

Banking and insurance ride on a fundamental knowledge of risk. Without that knowledge, without an understanding of the technological change afoot, I can only see a further gradual decline in that and other sectors.

If we are not careful the future will see more and more of our valued graduates asking that most important of questions: would you like more ketchup on that?

Can the situation be saved? I think so but it needs a new approach, a revolution in the way we deliver and support the education needs of the young. First, we have to recognise that we have a very rare and limited resource - engaging and enthusiastic teachers of mathematics, science, engineering and technology. To use them to best effect means getting them in front of the entire student body. This can be achieved using a combination of videoconferencing and live guest appearances. This depressurises the situation for those not up to par and allows them to assume the roll of the 'guide at the side' - the one-on-one mentor.

I'm afraid it also means weeding out the students who have no interest, are intentionally disruptive or have a negative influence in some way. It does not mean, by the way, that the teaching body is in some way diluted - quite the reverse. Role models, champions and agents of change always bring on a good percentage of the rest, ultimately lifting abilities and spirits.

A further and far less drastic action would be to recruit teachers from the many professionals in industry who are approaching retirement age. They could bring their extensive skills and experience to the profession and help regenerate the flagging brigades. This would require a lessening of mandated teacher qualifications but could hardly be any worst than having teachers who never experience professional life outside of education.

Will this all happen? I suspect not. But if not, we will ultimately see a new cycle in the redistribution of wealth from West to East, North to South. Perhaps that is the grand design - demographic change through ignorance?

Conceived and composed at a global education conference in San Francisco after listening to the woes and joys of education professionals from across the planet. Despatched to silicon.com from my bedroom in the Westin St Francis via a wired LAN.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.