Don’t be deterred by contractual obligations

Employers – Are you thinking about starting a placement scheme? Great! Are you worrying about the long-term commitment? Don’t!

Organisations considering running a program of undergraduate placements sometimes worry that it will be a long-term commitment. Such fear can completely destroy any prospect of creating a placement scheme. It’s good to remember that these things don’t have to last forever.

Man Signing Contract

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Got a round hole? Find a round peg.

As I wrote last year, mentors do an important job. Many organisations have excellent schemes for apprentices or graduate trainees and they deliver tremendous results. They have carefully planned development programmes, run by the best people. And they make adjustments when things change, as they surely do, over the years.

But some organisations don’t enjoy the same success despite their best intentions. It isn’t always immediately obvious why they under-deliver. The long timescales inherent in personal and professional development programmes don’t help. But one of the reasons is that the wrong people are involved.

Helping others isn’t for everyone. Some don’t enjoy it; they don’t see the value; or they don’t have the patience. Whatever the reason, some just aren’t cut out for it.

Square Peg Round Hole

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Great news for the UK – another BBC repeat

When I visited a secondary school last week and asked about how much work they do with computers, I was disappointed with the replies. All students up to Year 11 (aged 11-16) do several hours a week, but it is limited to using applications – creating posters, monitoring costs, writing newspaper articles. They use computers, but they don’t do any programming at all.

I was even a little surprised to hear that all pupils are taught how to type, since I would have expected that by the age of 11 most, if not all, would have proficient typing skills.

But only the next day Tony Hall, the director general of the BBC made a major announcement which is set to change all this.

BBC_Plans to get the nation coding Continue reading

Stop fighting progress; address the unintended consequences

Surely we’ve learnt from history that it is utterly futile to resist advances in technology? Once something has been invented, it can’t be “un-invented”. Luddites haven’t historically delivered many long-term successes; they haven’t typically been a good investment.

Advances in technology often create new problems – sometimes unintended consequences; other times very much intended. Ultimately, it is the consequences which have to be addressed, rather than the technology itself. It therefore seems odd to me that so much energy is being expended in fighting the adoption of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) – which have been in the news again recently following the publication of an Open Letter to Professor Michael Sandel from the Philosophy Department at San Jose State University.Borsig_steam_locomotive

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New concepts – how difficult can they be to understand?

I recently found myself having to explain something which would have been straightforward enough, had I been talking to another adult. But I was talking to my eight-year-old daughter, and it was more complicated than I could have imagined.

She wanted to take a camera with her on a school trip. She has only ever seen me taking pictures with a Nikon D80 SLR, or with a multitude of different mobile phones – most recently the hugely impressive 41 megapixel Nokia 808 PureView or the Nokia Lumia 900. She hasn’t ever seen photos taken on anything other than a D-SLR or a mobile phone. Indeed, she’s never used anything else herself, but as the rules expressly forbade even old mobile phones without a SIM, she was left wondering what the alternatives were.

The solution I proposed was a disposable camera.

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How do we convince the teachers?

Engineering UK has published its excellent Engineering UK 2012 report, and as is usually the case with these thoroughly comprehensive reports, there is some really good news and some not-so-good news.

Careers advice
89% of STEM teachers see the provision of careers advice as part of their role, but research finds that if they did give careers advice, 21% of STEM teachers saw engineering careers as undesirable. Note – that’s 21% of STEM teachers! Clearly there’s a whole lot of work to be done here to convince them of the desirability of engineering careers.

Employer engagement is now commonplace during education. The overwhelming majority of pupils undertake work placements – usually 2 weeks around the age of 15. This delivers knowledge, access to networks and also guides them in terms of what they can expect in their careers.

Apprenticeships are recognised as being critical to even small businesses

The National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) are preparing a strategy to increase the number of STEM apprenticeships in order to:

  • encourage more employers to engage with apprenticeships
  • ensure there is an appropriate framework to meet current and future demand
  • understand and stimulate the system to deliver STEM apprenticeships
  • work with STEM employers and related parties to increase the number of STEM apprenticeships for SMEs
  • promote career opportunities in STEM-based occupations

And especially good news is that the NAS vision is that by 2020, every employer will value an apprenticeship as the key route to equipping them with the skills they need for their business. And spend on apprenticeships continues to rise. Continue reading

There are no rules

I’ve told you a million times already – that’s not what it’s for.  Climb up on the steps and slide down on the slide“.
These were the words from a mother to her 5-year old son in the playground today after she watched him happily (and harmlessly) climbing the hard way up the slide.  The child continued playing on the slide, but obediently using the steps to go up and the slide to come down (“conventionally”, as an adult would see it but “restrictively” in the eyes of a child).

Who says that’s what it’s there for?  It’s there for fun; for enjoyment; for imagination.  How confusing must it be for a child to be constrained in this way?  After all, wasn’t the mother (albeit unintentionally) stopping him from having fun?  He wasn’t doing anyone any harm – and for him it was more fun to go up the slide and down the steps!

Children already have so many constraints imposed by parents, many for good reason, that it seems unreasonably harsh to impose yet more without good reason.  The great thing about play is that there are no rules.

When is a good time to stop listening?

“Never! It’s always good to listen”, is probably the reflex answer to this.  There are always people around who have experienced things for themselves, and who are happy to share the benefit of their experience.  In the work environment, it makes sense to listen to those who can tell you how to do something, or how not to.  At home, it makes sense for children to listen to parents or elders – after all, they’re almost certainly explaining something for the benefit of the child rather than themselves.

Parents will have noticed this with children.  A parent can tell a child something “a million times”, and the child will still stick his/ her hand in the fire, or touch the wet paint, or fall in the water.  At the time, it feels as though the child is being deliberately disobedient but I ought to be more charitable… it may have simply “decided” that this is a good time to learn by doing rather than by being told.

I’ve no idea how a child would determine when is a good time to be selectively disobedient and to learn by doing – it might just be random.  But either way, the child should be applauded for this approach since the resultant learning will invariably be more valuable.  However in the worst case examples, the natural reaction of a parent might be to scold a child, thereby reducing the likelihood of the child learning the next time, and perpetuating the problem.  Exactly the same logic applies to adults.

If we want to encourage real learning, we need to encourage failure – “we should be making more mistakes”.  But that inevitably means we should stop listening – sometimes.

It’s a bit like carrying an organ donor card

Stats from the NHS suggest that whilst more than 94% of us would expect to benefit from a donor organ should the need arise, only 29% of us carry an organ donor card.  Similarly, only 4% of the UK population give blood – a staggeringly low proportion given the personal “cost”.

When unleaded fuel was first introduced to the UK in the late 1980’s, the takeup was very slow.  This was partly owing to the engine-tuning changes which were needed, but even when new cars were compatible with unleaded, the takeup remained stubbornly slow.  It was only when unleaded became significantly cheaper than the alternative, that it began to change, and unleaded sales overtook leaded and diesel.  Drivers could directly feel the benefit for themselves, immediately.

We all understood then, that it was a good idea to switch to unleaded, just like we all understand now, that it’s a good idea to carry a donor card.  So what are we waiting for?  It seems we need to feel the effects of the gain personally before believing it, and deciding how to behave.  The debate in the UK over whether or not we should have an opt-out system (rather than the current opt-in) will no doubt continue whilst we consider civil liberties, rights, information security and such.  But I’m fairly sure that if you told someone who was suddenly critically in need of a donor organ, that they could only receive the organ if they themselves held a donor card, they would sign up instantly.  In this case it’s easy to feel the gain personally, and the resultant behaviour is easy to predict.

Is this why we have so few placements available for students?  Employers aren’t actually feeling any real pain, so they don’t do anything about it?  Can we make it more painful for them unless they create places?  Or, better, is there something we could do which makes them feel the benefits as soon as they create places?  Doing something might be more effective than waiting and hoping for the best.

Gosh, it must be so hard for those at the NHS who encourage us to donate blood or organs – they must encounter so much apathy!  I feel for them.

Footnote – as a result of this, my immediate personal action is to register with both services.  Doesn’t take much thinking about really, does it?