Thursday, September 13, 2007

Education and business

I find it entertaining that people worldwide think they have the right to discredit Americans and make fun of them. If you are not American, you do NOT have this right. However, since I'm an American, I'm allowed to make fun of my own people and nation as a whole.

It is pretty well known that education in America, as a whole, stinks. This video is well worth watching because I believe it paints a pretty accurate picture of the state of the nation:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfRUMmTs0ZA

The video is from a show called 20/20 and it is over a year old but please return when you finish watching.

I was brought up in a family that cared deeply about proper education. I had learned to speed read by the time I entered school. I also remember at least four different forms of corporal punishment used on my behind/legs as a child. Boy grandma sure loved finding that freshly-cut switch. But it made me into a fine, upstandin', law-abidin' citizen who cares about the world around us. And history and math were rammed down my throat (actually, I enjoy history* and math). Fun is NOT what school is about - people are there to learn. Those that cause trouble and hinder the learning process should be publicly humiliated and, should it continue, be kicked out**. The same goes for teachers and administrators who don't know the first thing about education.

* Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it.
** There are plenty of ways to learn. For instance, I taught myself everything I know about Software Development through hard work and perseverance. (And, just to clarify, I was never expelled but did cause some trouble mostly because school was not challenging enough - I got A's in my sleep - another reason to have a fast-track program for brilliant individuals...most of them stagnate under the current system).

One of my biggest gripes about education in America is that it is NOT tailored for the individual. Everyone takes the same exact classes regardless of what industry they want to be in. Really smart people are kept together with the average people and those who constantly struggle. Let's take math - considered by most Americans to be one of the "hardest" subjects. The reason people find it hard is because they don't see any use for it. Our daily lives are not The Matrix and we aren't Neo. When someone has that mindset, you can't teach and they can't learn. Might as well be talking to a wall. Which, ironically, is almost always based on math.

The unruliness you see in the video is not too far off from the truth of most schools. Granted the kids in the video knew there was a camcorder in the vicinity, so their behavior was perhaps slightly more outlandish than usual, but it is pretty accurate overall (i.e. they did a decent piece of journalism). I know a bunch of teachers (and even one principal) who constantly complain about unruliness of their students and how their hands are tied. The nation is shocked when a teacher "snaps" (e.g. spanks a misbehaving student)...I'm not surprised. Teachers everywhere here are frustrated and how they manage to maintain a semblance of composure is absolutely amazing.

So what am I saying? Well, part of the problem lies in grades. I'm not talking about A, B, C, D, E, and F--. Nope. I'm talking about 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. The system restricts really brilliant individuals from proceeding ahead and forces people who aren't ready to continue to do so. It is important to study math, English, history, etc. But by the time educators finish allocating the basics to a specific grade, there is no room for customized/individualized education. Particularly those of a technical nature. Few people learn to write computer programs until college - as if to say "Well, college is the place to learn that stuff". Not true. Elementary school is the age to start programming if that is going to be your target career.

Here is what I propose: Drop the idea of grade levels entirely. Students take types of classes in some order relevant to interest and closest industry. If they don't pass, they retake the class. Some people are "prodigies/savants" though - so they might ace every math class but continually struggle through everything else. This is where colleges/universities and lower education have to agree to combine forces. Why have two separate institutions? It doesn't make any sense.

Part of the problem is also discipline. Teachers have no way to enforce it. I therefore propose to reinstate corporal punishment. As far as I can tell, nothing is stopping schools from writing up a legal document that parents have to sign to let their kids attend the school. In that document, simply have checkboxes as to what types of corporal punishment are allowed by the parent to be executed by the school teachers in the event of unruly behavior. If the parent won't allow any punishment, simply send a rejection letter (Thank you for applying to [Name of School] school. Unfortunately, we cannot accept your child at our humble institution as we have determined he/she is not a good fit for our organization. We hope you have success in your search). This unties the hands of the [currently very frustrated] teachers to actually do their job. And it has the side benefits of creating a more stable, honorable, and well-educated society. And it won't cost anything...the necessary material for switches is generally located around the outside of almost any building.

The last problem is relevance. Why separate and segment education from the work force? That doesn't make any sense either. When I was in school, I constantly heard the phrase "real world" in reference to the work force. What does that mean? We're already in the real world. Phrases like that say to me, "We in education have created a bubble for ourselves such that we instantly and purposely obsolete ourselves." In terms of technology, education is always lagging behind by at least 5-6 years (some schools don't even teach technology and just admit that it is "out there in the 'real world'"). Education is pointless if it doesn't keep up to date. Students today are bright enough to realize this...hence they have no desire to learn. And why should they? They are learning about and using outdated technology and methods. Businesses have already realized this and provide on-the-job training to compensate.

Proposal: If businesses and corporations cared anything about education, they would get involved instead of shuttling money into a generic fund (e.g. Bill Gates' Foundation). That could mean, for example, employees taking a day off here or there and stepping in to provide a history or math lesson to students. It would be designed and prepared by the teacher, presented by the employee (failure could mean they get the pink slip). It says "knowledge about the world around you is important to your future" to those students. The end result is they will pay closer attention to their teachers. Get enough businesses involved (who are there to teach the current lesson plan and not advertise their products) and teachers can take a much more sideline approach to learning (focusing a lot more on lesson planning and helping students achieve more).

Or maybe getting involved would just be an addendum to the teacher's lesson plan (e.g. 5 minutes at the end of every class). The business person would show actual source code that used a math concept the students learned about from a real software product their company uses.

Now: Why should a business even consider this? Well, the youth of tomorrow are generally creative and have plenty of ideas. Some students will be more than eager to share their ideas with you. Most businesses stagnate or get in a rut when their first cash cow happens. They just lose the drive to innovate because of the risks involved with innovation. Doing this also has the bonus benefit of keeping the employee's minds sharp. You will also be aware of what today's youth experience and desire. And then there is the cliche and obligatory: 'Helping to shape tomorrow's work force, today!' Or something like that.

Just a few thoughts that I have thought about for a long time.
(In general, I'm pretty well-behaved. Only saying things I regret later when I lack sufficient sleep.)

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