Industry meet Education

Published: 11 July, 2016

My career, my vocation if you will, began with web design when one of my Design Studies tutors at the University of Otago said "oh, and there's this web thing we should look at". I got so excited about it that I worked for free for three months in one of New Zealand's first web design companies and went on to start my own company after being bought and sold a few times. I eventually discovered teaching, secondary teaching to be specific, and got all excited about teaching young people about digital technologies and all that goes with it, business and how simple it can be, and generally how to get excited about life and find opportunities.

I am a big fan of the New Zealand Curriculum and in particular the Technology learning area. The overarching themes in the NZ Curriculum are excellent and focused on creating people who are excited about learning and able to operate in our World. I am also a big fan of business. Operating my own company was one of the biggest learning opportunities of my life and also one of the most fulfilling. My understanding of money and its use has changed and the business now changes to support my life and my family's needs. Our young people should be shown that the barrier to business is now very low and that often the difference between them and a successful business person is simply time.

Technology and Digital Technologies

Digital Technologies has been part of the Technology curriculum as an assessment strand for a number of years now and both primary and secondary teachers have been making progress. This has been seen as slow going by comparison to the rapid growth seen in industry over the last 20 years, predominantly driven by the growth of the internet and related technologies. There is some fairness in the call from industry that schools have taken too long to get up to speed. We still have professional development focused on the use of online learning management systems and often e-learning means "putting your worksheets online as PDFs". Schools have also tended to create Technology subjects by simply renaming the old individual subjects: woodwork, metalwork, technical drawing, sewing, and cooking (home economics). The Technology curriculum, if read as a whole document, is about allowing students to use a range of skills to produce final solutions ... or to use an older more precise word, Design. It is not intended to be a collection of skill-driven subject areas.

A recent announcement from the Ministry of Education puts Digital Technologies as a separate and distinct strand of the Technology Curriculum effectively giving it specific achievement objectives and assessment. There has been some discussion following this announcement and only time will tell what that actually means for schools. A number of industry players have argued that the move does not go far enough to address the industry's immediate needs for staff or to produce the sort of technical people we will need in the future. It is this argument that I am responding to.

Industry meet Education, Education meet Industry.

A notable feature of moving between business and education a number of times has been how invisibile the areas are to each other. When operating in either it feels very visible, schools do a lot of community communication, businesses are constantly advertising, talking and going to conferences (sometimes education conferences) but after a few jumps between each it became apparent, to me at least, that none of this actually makes them visible to each other in any meaningful way. The barriers between the students and business are numerous and robust including but not limited to: the timetable, school policies on employment, school policies on money, school policies on student safety, and the energy of the classroom teacher.

Having been in a number of roles on both sides my sympathies fall squarely on the side of the classroom teacher, especially the Technology teachers. It is currently an impossible job that has to contend with the following:

  • project-based learning in a structured (read industrial) timetable
  • teaching design process alongside the technical skills required to produce final solutions with minimal available time
  • designing courses for individualised learning (real individualised learning ... not that strange teacher-led individualised learning)
  • assessing against a range of standards across a range of projects and students

... and that is just in the classroom. The meetings, extra-curricular expectations, and wider school support work is higher than I have ever experienced in my business roles. By 9am most teachers in this country have been at work for a few hours and have likely dealt with a form class and finished or almost finished their first teaching class of the day. In most of my business roles I might have finished with my daily planning and emails and would likely have been enjoying a decent coffee along the way.

That said, schools are very difficult to get into when you are not actively employed in one and the timing around meeting with teachers and students is very complicated and limiting. Sometimes the engagement is there and sometimes it is not depending on the time of year, the teachers, the students, and the others activities that are on in the school. Having run a number of initiatives for students and teachers I believe the onus is on the industry people to make the change happen

Make the change happen

Talking about change is not the same as actively making change happen.

As industry people we usually have a flexible day, busy to be sure, but flexible. We can usually move meetings and responsibilities around and in many I.T. companies we go on about flexible work arrangements all the time. We also have the benefit of flexible financial systems, maybe not large financial reserves in cases of smaller businesses, but flexible and, as an industry we do go on about our [supposedly] high incomes a lot. These are things that schools and classroom teachers do not have but they do have the students and the futures you so desperately want and need.

To make the change happen I suggest starting with the following:

  1. Get into your local Primary and Secondary school (local to your business) and start building a real working relationship with a Digital Technologies teacher (or whoever is leading that charge)
  2. Identify the areas they are struggling with. It may be physical equipment needs, technical skills or simply the need for a wider perspective and contact.
  3. Actively help fulfill those needs or, to put it bluntly, put your money where you mouth is but put it into the most effective places.
  4. Actively maintain contact with the teachers you are supporting. They are nice people and know important things about their students. Buy them a decent coffee occasionally.
  5. If you are a large business with large requirements, give back proportionately.
  6. Hire interns from secondary schools. You will know which ones are available because you have a teacher contact. Get them into your business in the school holidays and pay them more than they would get at a supermarket. If they are good, pay them more.
  7. Actively engage with and mentor students who are working on Technology projects. Teachers will help here.
  8. Stop attempting to influence the New Zealand curriculum to serve specific industry needs. Read it, it says the right things. Those are the people you want now and in the future.
  9. Promote what you are doing, develop it further and repeat it until you see a real change.

Stop being invisible industries of New Zealand, support schools and teachers who want to make changes and really help make the change happen.