Education and the future of high-tech

There have been a whole slew of articles recently about the current ‘Reverse Brain Drain', particularly with regards to high-tech skills. When I came to this country in 1980, the ‘Brain Drain' had been in full swing for some decades, but no longer are we ‘the place to be'. Foreign students are coming to our universities (still among the very best in the world), but instead of staying, they are now returning in droves to their original countries, taking their expertise with them to help nurture the increasing technical competition from overseas. Couple that with the ‘outsourcing' trend that we blindly initiated in the 2000s, and we are losing what was once a significant technical lead in the world. We need, now more than ever, to rely on our ‘home-grown' technical talent to maintain our still existing, but slight, edge over increasing and innovative foreign challenges in both hardware and software arenas.

Which brings me to the topic for this week's rant, our education system! In a triennial study, the results announced in 2010 were that the United States was 14th out of 34 OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics. One might call these figures ‘disappointing' at best, so how do we fix the system? I have come up with seven areas of change that I think would revolutionize the education levels of our teenagers as well as having immense long term benefits on the structure and behavior of our society in the 21st century ... and have positive effects on our industry (see italics for these resultant effects!)

Multiple choice questions

I have three degrees and have NEVER taken an exam with ‘multiple choice' questions in my life. I realize that this type of exam makes life easier for the teacher's marking, but ‘guesswork' isn't going to get you very far in the real world. Posing questions that require descriptive responses also encourages the expansion of vocabulary, the application of grammar and the all round mastery of the written and spoken word, and then we'll have more ‘DO...loops' and less ‘IF...THEN...ELSE' statements in our code.

Use of English

On all the exams I ever took, the instructions at the top of almost every one stressed that the exam would be graded on correct spelling, correct grammar and correct use of English. Nowadays though, the sensitive little darlings are told that the teachers don't want to ‘squash their creativity' by making them worry about how to spell or how to write their thoughts down in a form of English that requires a knowledge of multisyllabic words and simple sentence structure. I'll show you how to ‘squash their creativity', and make sure that we have websites in the future where the English is actually readable.

Long summer holidays

We are no longer an agrarian society. Education's love affair with the total waste of time that has become known as the ‘summer vacation' may well have been relevant a hundred years ago when the sensitive little darlings were needed to work in the fields (hmmm, ‘work'. Now THAT is a novel idea for today's idiot-teenagers). Since we have turned our fields over to combine harvesters and turned our manufacturing over to foreign countries, why exactly are we wasting weeks when we could at least be trying to get our children on an educational par with the rest of the world and, in the future, make sure they are willing to work weekends to finish that new software release that's due on Monday.

Uniforms

30 minutes every morning wasted on ‘deciding what to wear'. Hours wasted every day worrying whether they chose the right outfit/color/brand name. 8 hours wasted every weekend wandering around a brain-numbing mall trying on the latest designer-fad outfit. Just think how much more studying could be done if all they had to do was put on the same gray pants/skirt and the same white shirt/blouse every day. No decisions, no peer pressure, just more learning. Those parents who worry that uniforms will squash their little darling's personality and individuality need to realize that standing in line for unemployment will squash them even more. Get used to it, as a software engineer you HAVE to wear jeans and a T-shirt every day, anyhow.

Single sex schools

From the age of 12 onwards, boys spend most of their time looking at girls and girls spend most of their time daydreaming about boys. Now, I realize that single sex schools will not completely eliminate this ‘thought process', but it sure the heck will significantly reduce it. Perhaps, but probably not, we can reduce the number of porn sites all over the web.

Streaming

With apologies to all who feel otherwise, I think that ‘no child left behind' has turned into ‘no child gets ahead'. No matter how you look at it, everyone is NOT equal when it comes to mental acuity and suitability for higher education. Lumping everyone together holds back the brighter student to such an extent that our bright 12th graders are probably 2 grades behind their equivalent in other countries, and we try to stretch the less-bright students too much so that they eventually lose interest, burn out from frustration and become a disruptive influence on the class, causing everyone to suffer. We are soon going to be the outsourcing-country-of-choice for the rest of the world, so let's at least be able to offer our best and brightest as programmers at $5 an hour.

Corporal punishment

All I knew about my teachers was their surname. They all wore black master's gowns, everyone stood up when they entered a room and they were always called ‘sir'. They were there to TEACH us, not to be our friend, and they demanded attention, respect, obedience and discipline - pretty much like the ‘real world'. They tolerated NO disrespect, and if they enforced it with the occasional slap round the back of the head as they walked past the desk of a distractively gossiping student, or with the occasional ‘caning' for a more serious infraction, they were simply preparing us well for the environment outside school. If you keep playing on your phone apps at work (unless you're programming one) , you may not get a slap from the boss (shame actually), but you WILL soon be looking for a new job.

And so, there are my seven suggestions and their resultant effects on high-tech. My thanks to my teachers and my environment, for all my years at King Edward VI School which gave this old curmudgeon the privileged benefits of a classical education. Essay questions in every exam, 5 points off for each spelling or grammatical error, 5-6 weeks summer vacation, gray pants and a dark blue blazer every day, boys only, ‘streaming' from the age of 11 onwards and "Meek, you will be beaten for this" all seem to have done pretty well for this aging high-techie.

Glyn Meek, with 40 years of experience in the technology industry, has earned his curmudgeonly outlook.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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