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Back to School
A bi-weekly column with timely, relevant and possibly irreverent insight into the BC technology industry.


Something Ventured:
September 1, 2000

By Brent Holliday

Back To School

“They’re old and wise,

Don’t criticize,

Do what they tell you to,

Don’t want the devil to

Come and poke out your eyes.” – Supertramp, School

As I was writing the column on Brain Currency last time, where I argued that the value of your company increases at a slope greater than one for every really smart person you hire, I had a nagging thought.  And that thought was - how do we cultivate really, really smart people?  I mean, it’s great to say, go out and get them.  But how can we ensure that we create enough of them? 

In other columns/rants of the past, I have obliquely referred to the education system and fixes that need to be made.  It’s about time I ventured a few suggestions about exactly why need to fix education and what we need to do to get there.  This is surely going to stir some debate and I invite it.  I’d like to see how passionate people are about education and especially how it relates to a thriving technology industry in Canada.

A couple of reasons that I might be qualified to ramble on the subject of education:

1.  My wife is a teacher (and she finds discussing my work VERY boring… so guess what we talk about instead.)

2.  I helped start The Brainium while at Multiactive, which found me attending learning resource conferences, discussing IT in learning, and selling educators on the merits of licensing our web site.

3.  My son (and eldest child) is going to kindergarten on Tuesday.  All of a sudden, this public education thing is a high priority.  It’s my son’s brain that they will be playing with for the next 18-20 years.  A hundred questions pop to mind when I think about what is best for him.  How will they properly arm him with knowledge and experience for the rest of his life?  I’m serious when I say that it is frightening.

I have argued in the past the education may be more important than health care to the well-being of our country.  Educated people will be healthier because they know how to be proactive and prevent many types of illness. If we are more educated (“smarter”) than other locales, then we can create opportunities that bring other smart people to us.  I know its sounds a bit utopian and/or egalitarian, but the reality is that society, as a whole, will be better off if the people, as a whole, are more educated.  So how do we start to cultivate more smart people through education?  This is the 30,000 foot view of education and the ability to make sure that we all benefit.  The 1,000 foot level of education as it applies to our technology industry is more about how do we ensure that smart kids get even smarter and aren’t held back.

I read recently that a profound shift happened in education in the 1950’s.  Up until that point, education for children was basically memorization.  The teaching methods were oriented around making sure that kids knew their multiplication tables, the capital cities of all 50 states and how to speak Latin.  In the latter half of the century, educators started to emphasize fundamental building blocks of knowledge that could be applied to solving problems.  More than Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic, the new form of education was teaching kids how to learn, not what to learn.  In general, this was a good thing and it has lead to more enlightened teaching styles.

Lately, there has been discussion about how to teach kids to be prepared for the New Economy, or knowledge based jobs.  This implies that kids are taught trades or get job training in school.  In the West, we have stuck to the general theory that kids learn general subjects and not specific trades, at least not until well into high school.  Eastern cultures have tried different techniques, specifically the practice of streaming kids from a young age towards certain fields.  I’m not sure that our society will ever allow the practice of reviewing a six year old’s capabilities and then deciding their future career path.  In practice, it probably works nine times out of ten.  But the lack of self-determination in that practice and pursuit of liberty and happiness in our culture prevents it.   I bring this up because the current discussions about “preparing” kids for new economy jobs starts to sound a little like streaming.  Should kids be learning basic computing skills at a young age?  Definitely.  Should we start teaching software development or web publishing to elementary school kids? Hmmmmm.  Tougher one to answer.  Should all high school kids understand basic physics, biochemistry and electronics in order to prepare them to be engineers?  Ummmm, sounds a little less libertarian.  Should we de-emphasize the Arts more than is already happening?  Since I am speaking to a tech crowd here, this might not get as many people howling, but…

Rather than imposing streaming on young kids, our education system needs to change to allow kids that are excelling in a certain area the ability to learn far more.  It is self-selected streaming, where the child chooses to explore a subject area more and gets the resources and the teaching to go further.  And they pay no penalty for falling behind in other areas, as long as they have basic skills.  Imagine a 9 year old that develops a keen interest in electronics.  In the current education system, they are forced to learn about many other subject areas that do not hold their interest.  Can this 9 year old be self-streamed into learning math, physics and chemistry to better understand how electronics work?

Another thing that has to change is the full embracing of the collaborative environment of the Internet.  It is likely that a child can find other kids and teachers around the world that share similar interests and learn from communicating with them.  Little Jodi may not have anyone in her class that really likes acoustics, but she might find Dr. John Ford on the Internet and get involved in the acoustics of marine mammals with he and his staff.  Unfortunately, the educators today are still being taught that they are the oracle of education and not the facilitators of education.  Teachers will always need to engage students face to face to get them motivated to learn.  But the tools emerging today will fundamentally change how kids learn.

Can we change the education system?  Can we adapt some of these concepts?

What we have all come to understand about education is that despite the best intentions of a society and the planning of a government, the education you receive is far more dependent on who is teaching it to you than any other factor.  If the teacher sucks, you don’t learn as much.  If the teacher is amazing, the students soar.  Change in the system begins with the teachers.  If they are unwilling to look at new ways of teaching, possibly even throwing out old models, then we won’t get far.  In B.C., the unions are too strong.  The teachers are too comfortable with the status quo. Teachers that stink are not thrown out in a system that values years of service over quality. This will be tough to change.

It’s not just the teachers that need to change.  The government needs to be smarter with how they fund education.  There is severe bloat in the school boards.  There are not nearly enough learning resources, especially if we are to let kids self-stream into different areas.  Computers and the Internet are not pervasive as collaborative tools.  Clearly, the system needs some prioritization.  Which means that the unions will have to be bent a bit.  Who has the political will to do that?

Finally, the parents need to change.  We need to be able to recognize what are kids are really excited about and have the resources to act.  Where do parents turn when they feel that their little genius needs more challenging learning?  How can that be made reasonably fair and equitable across income levels?

I would be very interested in a healthy debate about the future of our education.  I don’t want to wait until my children have passed through the system.  As a parent, I want them to have the best shot at succeeding in a world 20 years from now that is completely different than the one today.

Random Thoughts –

- Techno Charity – Seeing Abatis CEO John Seminerio on the cover of the Province this week, thoughtfully donating a computer to a little girl with brain cancer made me think of two things.  1) John better get an unlisted number, because everyone with a sad story will be calling him now and 2) we have more and more people around here with money and therefore, potential for a great deal of philanthropy.  There is a new group called Social Venture Partners that was born in Seattle and has more and more chapters around the world.  A Vancouver chapter is just getting started.  What Social Venture Partners does is use the venture capital approach to committing time, money and expertise to not-for-profits.  The fund raises money from individuals and business and then looks to achieve positive social change through its “investments”, as opposed to financial returns.  If you want to learn more, email Rich Osborn, one of the organizers of the local chapter at rosborn@greenstonevc.com.

What Do You Think? Talk Back To Brent Holliday


Something Ventured
is a bi-weekly column designed to supplement the T-Net British Columbia web site with some timely, relevant and possibly irreverent insight into the industry. I hope to share some of the perspective and trends that I see in my role as a VC. The column is always followed by feedback (if its positive or constructive. I'll keep the flames to myself, thanks).

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