Examining Lessons (Not) Learnt

I was somewhat surprised to read about Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, condemning the British education system at the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. Not, though, that this is unwarranted; in fact, he made some very good points that should not be forgotten or ignored.

Schmidt’s main point seemed to be on our historical record of innovation in science and engineering and how we have failed (on many occasions) to capitalise on these achievements. He makes some great points – you can see/hear his comments here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/aug/26/eric-schmidt-chairman-google-education

In his comments, he also said how he had been flabbergasted to learn that computer science was not taught as standard in UK schools, despite what he called the “fabulous initiative” in the 1980s when the BBC not only broadcast programmes for children about coding, but shipped over a million BBC Micro computers into schools and homes.

I would have to agree with his comments. I can remember this initiative and how this worked in tandem with the home computer market at the time. In that era, home computers were not just about playing games – and the internet did not even exist. Children (and parents) of that time could also learn how to write and code computer programs – all from the comfort of their homes. This was, at that time, new, fun and exciting – and the only education programme of its kind in the world.

There was significance and real inherent value of having this in schools. One not only learnt about writing computer programs but also the history of computing, which is important. As Eric Schmidt noted, the British invented computers in both concept and practice. He went on to say, “It’s not widely known, but the world’s first office computer was built in 1951 by Lyons’ chain of tea shops. Yet today, none of the world’s leading exponents in these fields are from the UK.”

The course that ran with this schools’ programme was usually a GCSE called ‘Computer Studies’. Schmidt is right; where is this course in our schools today?

This was a course where you learnt how computers worked; how the microprocessor worked; how to design software programs properly; how to analyze problems and use technical diagrams and flowcharts; how computers are used in business and industry; how they affect society and much more.

The initiative successfully brought together schools, education, television and business on a national scale. Together with Acorn Computers Ltd, over a million computers were shipped to schools and homes. The BBC Microcomputer was quite expensive to buy and Acorn reacted to this (plus due to competition from home computer rival Sinclair) by selling a ‘cut-down’ version, called the Electron. The Electron was cheaper but, significantly, came with the same computer programming language that children up and down the country were learning. This initiative was exciting, inspiring and opened otherwise locked doors for many children.

Acorn also developed the ARM processor, which was the first RISC processor available in a low-cost PC. ARM was then founded as a spin-off from Acorn and Apple, after the two companies started collaborating on the ARM processor as part of the development of Apple’s Newton computer system. The ARM processor, though, is a computer chip that is more important than most realize. Did you know : about 98% of the more than 1bn mobile phones sold each year use at least one ARM processor?

Yet, why does it feel as if the Brits have had little to do with this? Where is our global presence? Where is our stamp on this? How could we have dropped the ball?

In 2008, the 10 billionth processor chip based on ARM’s designs was shipped. This year (2011), Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, announced plans to base the next generation of Microsoft’s Windows operating system on microchips designed by ARM. Until now, Microsoft’s PC software had been based on chips designed by Intel in the U.S.

It seems that we started something great in our schools, something that grew global; yet, we failed to reap the benefits or sustain this as a British invention and export.

Schmidt also commented: “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made. That is just throwing away your great computing heritage,” he said.

On this, I have to agree also. The courses “these days” have such ambiguous and cryptic names, such as “ICT” – names where it is as clear as dishwater what has actually been taught and what someone who holds such a qualification knows and can do.

Of course, learning how to use common and office software (such as Microsoft Word, Excel, Access, Powerpoint etc) is also very important. I wonder, though, how deep these courses are and then, in turn, how useful an average school leaver could be to an employer. From what I have seen, I do not believe they are deep enough and should include some more advanced areas, as well as the basics. I do not think we set our sights high enough; we should raise our expectations and provide more inspiration to school pupils – that they deserve better; that they can do better and better themselves.

I completely agree with Eric Schmidt; computer science should be taught in schools by default – and that does not mean learning how to do a mail-merge in Microsoft Word or set up the most basic of databases using Microsoft Access.

Computer science is an area we used to treat as significant and influential in the education of our children and future of our nation; we must return to that position again.

It is astounding that this is not a fundamental key part of the standard curriculum. With the advent of the internet, global e-commerce, websites and social networking, it should go without saying that children are not only taught how to use software but also how it is designed and made, and how the underlying technologies work. In the very least, if not a subject taught in its own right, Computer Science should be an integral part of the Science curriculum.

Schmidt made reference to a comment made by Lord Sugar in an episode of the BBC’s The Apprentice show – Lord Sugar’s comment was something along the lines of “engineers are no good for business”.

Schmidt’s own success flies in the face of this notion. However, it does not stop there. Consider other successful businessmen who began as ‘engineers’. For example, Bill Gates. He didn’t do too badly for himself. There are many more examples.

The irony is that, whilst Lord Sugar has been successful in business, his own accomplishments in the world of computers would not have been possible but for the fact that other people, such as Bill Gates, were businessmen as well as engineers and programmers.

I do not think these irresponsible and brash comments that Lord Sugar made are helpful. Such comments are negative and do not inspire young people. In fact, it may well deter people and only adds to the negative, false assumption that, if you have a scientific or engineer’s mind, you will not be successful in business. This is rubbish and history has shown this. The reality is, we need more of these minds in business. (As I recall, Lord Sugar also contradicted himself on The Apprentice, by making such comments and then going into business with Tom, himself more an inventor/designer/engineer than natural businessman).

Currently, I feel a real sense of negativity when it comes to the education of the next generation in the UK. The current government is out-of-touch. We are in desperate need of some passion, positivity and inspiration in our education system.

I fear that many your families feel a sense of disillusionment over the future, especially for their children. We have all seen what has happened to economies around the globe and, by and large, I think we all know that in the UK, the gap between the richest and poorest is huge.

It is hard for young people to be or remain positive with the few choices many face. On the one hand, they know it is very hard (if not impossible for many) to get a good job at 16. GCSEs are simply not enough anymore for many jobs, careers or employers. Yet, many young people are now faced with the prospect of not being able to go to college to take ‘A’-levels or vocational courses, simply due to the costs.

The next dilemma after that is whether to try to go to university or look for a job at 18. It is very hard – we have seen this from the sheer number of unemployed graduates. If one does decide to go to university, there is also the huge debt; for many people, just the prospect of this debt is enough to deter them.

This is a terrible situation and does nothing to encourage children or help our children reach their potential. It also does not help in narrowing the gap between the richest and poorest. We may be excluding some of the best minds from the education they deserve, denying them the education and future to which they should be entitled.

The lack of the courses we need and the standard of education we need at GCSE and ‘A’ level both need to be addressed. We should expect and command more from the British education system. The current situation is intolerable.

There has been some talk (hardly debate, though) about recent ‘A’-level papers being diluted in comparison to older ones. It is hard for me to be certain on this – though they are obviously different because of changes over the years. However, personally, I can recall taking my ‘A’-levels and I would be lying if I said that the questions in the sample ‘A’-level paper I saw from a couple of years ago were as difficult as those in the exams I sat.

I have some serious doubts over the modular GCSE courses that pupils now sit in many schools. While the principle of breaking the subject down into modules and tackling them in units is sound, it strikes me that there is not enough time or depth given to each unit. For example, when it comes to Algebra, some pupils may find this harder than others, and therefore require more teaching and learning time than allocated. The current systems does not allow for this, which means that some pupils may potentially not get the grades that they could achieve.

Another serious issue I have with the modular courses is that exams occur in Year 10 without sufficient prior preparation. This is at a critical age, especially for boys, as they mature later than girls. The difference between a 13/14 and 15/16-year-old pupil can be quite important. If your birthday is at the end of August, that make you the youngest in the school year; however, it your birthday is in September, you are the oldest. At that age, that difference of a year can also make a big difference. I think the structure of modular GCSE exams needs to be refined and should be preceded by a primer.

One last point on this relates to homework. I do not think there is enough emphasis on homework and on educating pupils on their responsibilities. I believe we need to also educate more on such things as the ‘work ethic’, self-confidence, communication skills and on why it is important to be self-motivated. I think, sometimes, it is easy to blame teachers or parents when in fact there are other aspects – the children, the government, political will, money, resources, the curriculum, teaching methods and the education system itself.

In the fast-paced modern world, where children grow up surrounded by consumerism, material possessions and the expectation of instant gratification, there is a need for people, society and our systems to adapt to this and keep up. As part of this, we have to adapt our understanding and see life and the world as our children do; their perspective and perceptions are much different to ours.

However, understanding this does not mean, for example, making exams too easy or trying to let one’s children grow up in a naive bubble. If children are not prepared for real life and the real world of work, they are bound to find it much harder. For example, not having to work or do chores at home in order to earn pocket-money could lead to an expectation of getting something for nothing.

One of the things I have noticed is that some people simply do not want to make an effort. I do not believe this is a global problem – and I think it is something prevalent more so in the UK than anywhere. Whether it’s through laziness, a sense of hopelessness or something else, we must work to improve matters. Children should not grow up believing they cannot change or shape their future; too many people seem to think ‘effort’ = ‘hassle’.

In his comments, Schmidt also said the UK needed to bring art and science back together, as it had in the “glory days of the Victorian era” when Lewis Carroll wrote one of the classic fairy tales, Alice in Wonderland, and was also a mathematics tutor at Oxford.

I cannot help but agree strongly yet again. Our education system seems fragmented, multi-tiered, with options not open to everyone. The system has become dull, basic, motionless and too focussed on education for vocation. We need education that is panoptic, exciting and inspiring, with pervasive and innovative school programmes like the computer studies course mentioned above from the 1980s.

I would ask that readers look/listen to the comments Schmidt made, as all of his comments are backed up by facts and I feel he hit the nail on the head with his analysis and advice.

I believe, at the moment, that our education system (not teachers) is failing our children. It is not poor but we need innovative improvements if we are to enable people to reach their potential.

We cannot permit the education system to deteriorate, let down our children and jeopardise their future.

Just as Britain’s technology innovators have to learn lessons from dropping the ball in the past, so too our children need lessons to learn for the future.

Related Links:

Guardian Story : http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/aug/26/eric-schmidt-chairman-google-education
Acorn Computers Ltd : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acorn_Computers
Micro Men : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micro_Men
ARM : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ARM_Holdings
BBC Piece : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14683133

Male. Married. 3 Children. No Pets. Concerned about the changes the new Conservative Government are introducing. Very concerned about changes that adversely affect the vulnerable and disabled people. Commenting on current affairs, music and life in general.

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