Teaching or discovering? | Brussels Blog

Teaching or discovering?

posted by on 9th Jul 2014

This was originally posted on 7th December 2014 as “Ben said never hire the graduate”. It is being reposted for technical reasons

Recently (13th November) I listened to the BBC’s program about computer technology, Click with Gareth Mitchell and Bill Thompson. It was about an experiment in using tablet computers to enable illiterate children to learn.

Children in two remote villages Ethiopia were given tablet computers by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. The children could not read and did not go to school. The solar powered computers were delivered in boxes with no instructions. They were pre-loaded with a small range applications.

The children switched on the computers, powered up the applications and started teaching themselves English. They managed to change the system settings.

OLPC wanted to know if children could learn in the absence teachers and teach themselves how to read. The children learnt quickly and taught each other with no adult intervention.

Ed McMearney from OLPC described how they had “fixed” the setting system on the computers so the children would not make the applications unusable. The settings were also fixed to disable the cameras on the computers so that photographs would not fill up the computer memory. The children managed to work out how to change the system setting and were able to take photographs.

Bill Thomson, resident commentator on Click, whose views I often respect, was sceptical.

This was a set of “anecdotal data” he said and a starting point for “much greater research”.

He didn’t say the children could not have done this without the help of an educator but because Bill has a good foothold in education I suspect that he is reluctant to reduce the importance of educators in education. He may have a credentialist tendency typical of those with credentials and Bill has top quality credentials.

This has led me to raid some of my old websites, mostly www.faxfn.org, in the cause of debunking the role of credentialism – at least a bit. Let me start with a succinct example with a quote from 2003. One lecturer in politics, from who naturally insisted on anonymity said:

The expansion of higher education has meant that we have many more students from leafy suburbs who have straight ‘A’s at A-level. They are socially confident, forceful but dim.

And the following quote from a Lecturer at Strathclyde says:

The problem of dim students from the leafy suburbs does not impact us. They all go to the University of Glasgow.

This is much more anecdotal than the Namibia example but this too should should be a spur to “much greater research”. Can we expect the researchers at University of Glasgow to put in a grant application soon?

The Namibia example echoes a blog entry from faxfn.org’s IT in education section (1999) , Golden rule for IT managers: “Never hire the graduate.” by Ben Daglish:

I’m lucky enough to be part of the ‘lost boys’ – the children who got the first generation microcomputers in their Christmas stockings. Once Uncle Clive had shown us the way with the ZX80, and before the market polarised into Playstations for the kids and PC’s for the moms and dads, we were the proud owners of these marvellous machines – VIC 20s, Spectrums, Dragons, MSX’s, et al. – that were just designed to be big programmable calculators that plugged into the television. You could play games, run spreadsheets, the whole caboodle – but the point was that you HAD to know exactly what the machine was doing in order to operate the damm thing at all. And if you wanted it to do anything other than run the five examples that came with the box, you had to program it yourself.

Suddenly magazines full of BASIC listings came flooding onto the market, and a new breed of programmer was born – the hacker. The country was full of 12 year olds in their bedrooms writing assembly code, dissasembling ROMs and doing things with the machine that the manufacturers thought were impossible. Up until this point (approx 1980), computer programmers were maths graduates who got to actually touch a terminal only after ten years of training. Computers were million-dollar boxes that were to be treated with respect.

While in the fourth year, I formed a company with a few friends and a teacher, and we started writing educational software. Afer sixth form, I went off to University to study computing. I lasted a year. Not only was the standard of programming primitive compared to the standard of the software we had been writing, but I realised that I had probably written more programs in 4 years at school than any of the lecturers had in their lives – and I owned my own computer, rather than a timeshare teminal.

So I left and joined the games industry, which was chock full of people like me. The sad thing is that 15 years later, those lecturers are still there, up and down the country. Of course they have progressed, but unfortunately the IT revolution has progressed faster. One of my golden rules, and certainly one that still holds true for many IT managers, is “Never hire the graduate”. Three years away from the real world gives one a handicap that is very difficult to overcome. Not only that, but the additional handicap of ‘computing’ being adopted as part of the mainstream school curriculum means that todays ‘creme-de-la-creme’ are leaving campus not knowing how many bits are in a byte. Just think. Who imparted the ‘necessary information’ to the school teachers about what should be in the National Curriculum Computer Studies?

There actually was an ‘A’ level computer studies course at our local college when I was in the sixth form. I took the exam without going to any of the lessons, and got an ‘A’. It was a joke – questions about hardware that was already extinct and programming problems that could have been solved by a chimpanzee. (In fact, I subsequently wrote a letter of complaint to the examining board. One of the requirements of the exam was to use a GOTO statement – a practice frowned upon by the cogniscenti.) The point is I, and everybody who owned one of the mighty micros, had learnt the subject by ourselves. We knew who George Boole was, because we had to know how to perform Boolean algebra just to try to fit “Death Invaders” into 16K.

Nowadays though, George is up there with William the Conqueror and Samuel Pepys – just another boring Dead White Male that the teachers drone on about. Boolean algebra is something you get lectures on in stuffy schoolrooms while you’d rather be outside playing football. And whereas my mighty micro used to boot up in 2 seconds and be READY>, Bill’s machines take 3 minutes to boot and a degree in Computer Science to operate. Now that’s progress.

faxfn Note 1: Ben Daglish was one of the early staff at Gremlin Graphics – a company which specialised in computer games started in Sheffield some ten years ago. It was recently reported as being sold for just over £22m.

faxfn Note 2: Computer Weekly has run several pieces on IT graduates. The issue of 18th March 1999 has three articles on its front page about the “serious mismatch between the skills taught to IT graduates in universities and the skills business needs”. The Alliance for Information System Skills is reported as saying “IT graduates are not getting into IT jobs and non-IT graduates are”.

Ben and friends didn’t seem to need teachers. He says the taught themselves. Could to much teaching be a problem compared to self-learning and experience.

As someone who has employed graduates as software engineers over the decades, I would not subscribe to Ben’s “never hire the graduate” but the best software engineer my company has ever employed failed his degree in linguistics. Computer science graduates have not been the best (the best one of these got a third class degree) – but it is a long time since we have employed a computer science graduate.

Bill, perhaps it is time for some research to test the reliability and of the Nambia results.

Would you also support research to test the “straight As, forceful but dim” hypothesis and it’s wider implications for university education that Ben raises?

This has been a long-standing issue. Again from www. faxfn.org in 1999, Competencies or MBAs?: “You can teach a turkey to climb a tree, but it’s easier to hire a squirrel.”:

An interesting booklet published by Hay/McBer Research Press in 1994 has come the notice of faxfn. “Competency Assessment Methods” by Lyle Spencer, David McClelland and Singe Spencer. Quotes:

“… an increasing number of studies were published which showed that traditional aptitude and knowledge content tests, as well as school grades and credentials:

1. did not predict job performance or success in life (see McClelland, 1973, for a review of this literature); and

2. were often biased against minorities, women, and persons from lower socioeconomic strata (Fallows 1985).”


“While changing motives and traits is possible (McClelland and Winter, 1971), the process is lengthy, expensive and difficult. From a cost-effectiveness standpoint, the rule is ‘hire for core motivation and trait characteristics, and develop knowledge and skills.’ Most organisations do the reverse: they hire on the basis of educational credentials (MBAs from good schools) and assume the candidates can be indoctrinated with the appropriate motives and traits… in the words of one personnel manager, ‘You can teach a turkey to climb a tree, but it’s easier to hire a squirrel.'”

You may like to order your copy from Hay/McBurr Research Press, 0207 730 0833.

Shall I apply for funding from the The Economic and Social Research Council ?

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