Saturday, 16 February 2013

Employability or Freedom to Think Differently

It is over twelve months since I last blogged but that doesn't mean my thinking hasn't been developing or that I have given up on blogging. If anything, I have felt more trapped within a system that I increasingly find pushes me toward conformity, depression and frustration. I have just completed another frustrating week working with students who lack motivation even at the masters level. It seems that if I don't tell them something then it isn't important to learn. As a lecturer, increasingly, I am told this is my fault. I should do more to motivate the students. Increasingly, I feel that I am working in a system that works against motivating students and simply forces people to conform and not to challenge them to think outside the current boundaries of the system. The objective is to gain the highest grade possible.

Some students ask me what I did to learn to program. When I got hooked on computer science, I wrote lots of programs and explored problems that I was interested in. These weren't things asked for by my course. These were problems that I was interested in solving. So am I a typical student? Even now, the things I spend time on are the things that really interest me and not necessarily those that are expected of me.

I went to university to do Mechanical Engineering but it wasn't because I had a burning desire for engineering or designing anything mechanical. I enjoyed what was called applied maths at school (i.e. solving problems that related to real world problems). What is more, I was good at it. My brother built and raced front engined sports cars and it seemed logical that I should use my mathematical skills to design cars but it wasn't what inspired me. It was simply what seemed a logical choice. Not surprisingly, I went riding my motorbike rather than studying and didn't do well in my first year and failed to get the grades to do engineering. I was frustrated as I did quite enjoy playing around with engineering laves and building things but academically, engineering topics never inspired me.

In my second year, I turned to what I was allowed to progress in. Subjects that required maths. Computer science was one of these topics. I had never used a computer and was not that interested in electronics but I was interested in logic and became interested in the way computers worked.

I wrote a program to simulate the operation of car suspension, reverse assembled the machine code for the compiler being used at the university, designed logic diagrams for digital clocks, and explored a range of other computational problems. These weren't problems set by my lecturers. These were things that I was interested to solve with my new learning. My real interest in applied maths was more the computational thinking it fostered and not the problems that I was solving. Computing gave me a tool to express that computational thinking and to explore problems in a new way.

When I graduated, I was offered my first job not because I was a good programmer or knew the programming language being used by the company that I was going to work for. I was given the job because it was assumed as a graduate, I had learnt to think, developed skills to explore problems, and an ability to go on learning. That was what I enjoyed doing and it is that desire to explore problems and to learn that has kept me going back to learn more and explore more.

In society as it currently exists, I wonder whether I am really employable. I don't enjoy the drudgery of repeating what I have already done. I learnt that after being a systems programmer at Canterbury Savings Bank in Christchurch, New Zealand. I went on to another Systems Programming job to repeat the same process and I got bored. I was soon looking for a new challenge.

Now as teaching fellow, I am expected to make minimal changes to what I teach and yet teach it with enthusiasm. But my enthusiasm comes from experimenting and trying new ideas. It doesn't come from repeating what I have done before. But I am also conscious that I cannot just teach any subject that is pushed my way. There needs to be some repetition but to keep it alive, I need to be making changes and challenging myself as well as my students.

Employability is one of the measures used to rank universities here in the UK. It sounds reasonable that we want graduates that end up in jobs related to what they have learnt. However, as I again reflect on my past, I realise that in my first job, I worked alongside people with Arts degrees who had little understanding of computer science. They learnt to program on the job and they came to programming solutions in different ways to me. The company employed them for the same reason that they employed me. They saw these people as able to think and generate new ideas. The subject matter was of less relevance. So I ask the question of what employability really means and whether it should simply mean that they ended up in a job that is related to the degree they obtained.

I also ask this because I have a final year project student who admits that computing isn't what they wanted to do. They ended up doing computing because they were advised at school that they didn't have the academic background or grades to do what they were interested in. The student is likely to pass their degree programme with a reasonable grade although admits that they cannot program. With a student debt, the student is now forced to find a job or incur more debt in pursuing what they are really interested in. Has the student become a slave to the system? I want to encourage the student to pursue their interests but I am conscious of what this will mean in terms of debt should they achieve their dream. However, I fear that if they are not encouraged to pursue their dream then they will become another slave to the system who does not enjoy what they do but sees no way out.

When we talk employability and talk of students not wasting their learning opportunity, are we seeking to make them conform to the existing system or satisfy what we think is important? Are we losing the training of people to think, to explore, and to challenge the way that things are done? Albert Einstein said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” We need creative thinkers and not people who can just parrot back solutions already given them.

As I work more with groups who seek to challenge the way economics works, I realise how important this is. It isn't just economic graduates who should be involved in the push to reform the system. Often these are the people who are conformed to it and cannot see the alternatives. It seems that the most important thing that I can do for a student is to help them find their passion in life and to develop their ability to think throwing aside the constraints of the very theories and concepts that we teach.