Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Schools and Companies: Who's Listening?

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to speak to 150 arts teachers, ICT heads, administrators and a handful of industry specialists at the AQA Creative Education Conference in Birmingham, UK. We were 3 key-note speakers: Tim Lindsay, the CEO of D&AD -- an education charity that promotes excellence in design and advertising; Andrea Robertson, Director of Customer Operations at UCAS -- the organization responsible for managing applications to higher education courses in the UK; and me, a researcher on the Digital Education Team at Nesta -- the UK's innovation charity. Tim gave a great industry perspective about what professionals are looking for in potential hires, and Andrea shared statistics on student interest and qualifications in arts offerings, so I decided to focus on digital tools (websites and activities) teachers can incorporate in their classes to bring together the arts and technology. I was hoping attendees would tweet to share ideas with their networks, but after a full day of speeches, panels, round table discussions, and Q&As, there were only 6 tweets, 3 of which were retweets of the 2 I contributed. To me, this represents a huge gap between the digital tech we think teachers are using, (it's thought that teachers use Twitter a lot), and what's really going on. When I kicked off my speech with a short online poll using socrative.com, only 34 of the 150 attendees participated; if this were just because they didn't want to answer my question, that would be fine, but I heard some people saying they'd left their phones in the coat closet so as not to be distracted. That cell-phones -- especially smartphones -- are still being viewed as distractions is worrying indeed.

More importantly, it became quite clear that there is a huge gap between what the creative industries are looking for in candidates, and the skills on which schools and exam boards are focusing. Tim talked about how the creative industries in the UK earn £36 billion a year, making up 10.6% of exports, and yet they're constantly under threat from the government in terms of cuts and tax hikes. Andrea shared numbers on how interest in arts courses (represented through applications for the GCSEs and other exams) has been declining, while applications for STEM courses has increased, no doubt due to the worldwide importance placed on math and sciences. She spoke critically of coming curricular changes, saying that major reforms were being made without any piloting program or evidence to support the shift, and the declining interest in the creative and artistic subjects was sure to negatively influence the future of the creative industries.

A large part of the problem, I believe, is that while industries are integrating, education is becoming more siloed. We continue to measure a country's education standards by looking at individual math and literacy exams, like the TIMSS and PISA, and not at how students are able to apply these studies to future jobs. Both the US and UK are heavily pushing for intense STEM programs while cutting back on the arts and even taking away recess. We're no longer cultivating well-rounded people, but rather raising generations of slow-computers; instead of encouraging the skills that separate us from the technological tools we use, we want kids to do mental math faster. The danger is that there are more jobs that require excellence in math and physics, as well as in art; we're doing a disservice to many of our kids by narrowing their future prospects through concentrating so hard on a few topics.

So the question is, how do we better communicate the professional industries' needs to the education sector, and vice versa? There was a gentleman at the conference who shared his complaints about how the incessant need for accreditation by the education sector was shrinking the pool of usable products, when in reality there is a plethora of fantastic tools. One can understand this man's perspective, but industries must also understand the very real need for ensuring high standards for what students are exposed to. This doesn't mean that the existing process is the best, but we must provide a viable alternative rather than complaining. Susan Bowen, Hewlett-Packard's Chief of Staff in the UK and Ireland, talked about how there is a lack of people who have the skills to fill the jobs available today. To mitigate this, HP employees are now volunteering a few hours a month at schools, helping students and teachers gain a better grasp of the technology side of things. This focus on the "Employability Ecosystem," their term for bringing together educators and industry professionals, is an honest start, but should we rely on a few hours a month to change the relationship between schools and companies? The good news is that things can only get better. I think attitudes on all sides of the equation have to change; industries shouldn't wait until university to approach young people, and school shouldn't be satisfied with a career day, when parents talk about what they do at work, to expose students to the world beyond school. Both industries and schools should strive to be more porous, and build a creative way to get kids excited about contributing to society. We should encourage young people to create and share -- I love those YouTube tutorials, which are sadly behind firewalls at schools -- and focus less on using and consuming.

I found the mix of speakers and audience quite perplexing; it seemed that the teachers were interested in what was being shared, but only superficially. Even though I tried to share ideas about activities that could be used in the classroom, I got the feeling that the audience thought, "that's cool, but it's not for me." Finding the right streams for conversation will be a challenge.