Monday, November 30, 2015

Let's Talk About Education!

Education. The portfolio that sees MP's in hot water more often than not. The election promise that gets people salivating. The "thing" that we're all passionate about!

Lately I've been finding myself highly sceptical about IT training in general. Particularly for kids. On the electronics side of it, we get:

"Here's a robot kit! Build a robot"

And computers? Let's learn pointers everyone! It's a.... Wait.... what? What problem do they solve?!?

Here's the problem. They're prescriptive. If we think education hasn't changed since the 60's (how often do education presentations start off with a photo of a classroom from the 50's and a photo of a classroom now?), go into, ironically, one of the fastest moving fields and see how it's taught.

It's appalling.

The problem with kits? They're prescriptive. You attach the wheel here, you plug this bit in here and away you go! You've just made yourself a robot? How does it work? you ask. Well... shut up and play with your robot! Look! You can program it!

The net effect is that you get quite particular character types striving in the field. The real valuable people are those who can hear/see it prescriptively, apply it exploratory (apply it to a problem) and think creatively (taking what they know and apply it in novel ways). BUT the ones who succeed only need hear the words "industry standard" or "best practise" and that is the solution.

There's another problem that comes with this: Gender inequality. Yep. That old chestnut. The way that IT is taught encourages a gender inequality. That's the way things have always been done.

Going back to my programming example above, it could be taught in the following way:
Say we need to store similar information (we'll call these "blocks" of information). Like a database. Only we don't want to keep going back to the database. We're not sure how much information we're going to store. It depends on the data. Dealing with arrays is hard work. The stupid things want to be a size and stay that size in which case we have to create an all new array with added information.
How would you handle this problem?

And then bring it back to a solution. Okay, so some really clever folk came up with this idea of "pointers". At the end of the blocks of similar information, what if you could "point" to the next block of similar information? That way, if you need to add another block, you just get the pointer on the end of the last block to point to it.
Easy. Instead of the time spent having to reexplain pointers because there's no real understanding of why you'd use them, a deeper understanding is created because it's applied to a real problem. It allows time for a few novel ideas. It describes "linked lists" which is awesome for moving into Python. It encourages discussion.

If you don't know what a pointer is, don't worry. They're not used terribly much; most modern programming languages have gotten rid of them all together.

And electronics? What if you could put a bunch of stuff on a table, ask the kids what they want to build (elaborate. If it's a robot, what do they want the robot to be able to do?), and facilitate it in terms of learning how to find the information to do what they want. This is generally what we (makers) do as adults anyway. I've been regaled with pictures of food a friend of mine made in his homemade sous vide. AND IT'S AWESOME!!!

Confident learners, not ones who can recite what has been said to them, but rather, those who are confident to not only learn but also apply their knowledge, creates confident people. When my monitor blew up a few days ago, while my first reaction was a curse at the heavens, my second was to pick up a screwdriver to have a look. A few forums later, I identified the capacitor that was likely blown (I had missed the leak on my visual inspection), and ordered the parts needed (a fuse and a capacitor - well less than $10 worth of parts to get my 10 year old, still worth around $400 monitor working). While I was thinking about it that day, I asked myself "What do people normally do in this situation?". The privilege of empowerment struck me. Most people would throw the monitor out and go out looking for a new one. I want other people to have the empowerment to be able to solve the problem.

In other words... if the education isn't empowering... is it really education?

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