Those who can, should teach

“He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”

George Bernard Shaw

Man and Superman (1903) “Maxims for Revolutionists”

Both of my parents were teachers and I was privileged enough to actually enjoy most of my schooling thanks to lucky placement within the UK comprehensive system and some dedicated and top class teachers. As such, I’ve always considered the above maxim to be somewhat unfair but at the same time could understand the underlying point especially when taken in the context of the more vocational subjects where the true subject matter experts tend towards actual work in their chosen sphere.

Since graduating university I threw myself into an industry that requires a massive amount of Continual Professional Development. There are few verticals in which the underlying skill set required to make a meaningful contribution shifts as rapidly as the technology sector. The industry itself is growing rapidly and show no signs of slowing and each month (a year is too long a unit of time use when considering technological advancement) brings new techniques, tools, and thinking which we humble workers must review, absorb and incorporate into an already massively wide range of knowledge in order to remain effective.

This pace is daunting when applied to the existing workforce but the technology industry is also facing challenges in sourcing and tapping new pools of talent. The STEM crisis has been well documented elsewhere but fundamentally boils down to a need for large numbers of tech graduates to support the ongoing growth of a sector that has become central to most aspects of modern life.

“In the U.K., the Royal Academy of Engineering reported last year that the nation will have to graduate 100 000 STEM majors every year until 2020 just to stay even with demand.”

Royal Academy of Engineering Report

Part of the challenge in meeting this requirement is the sheer pace of change. New, world changing technologies are emerging on a near annual basis and the speed of their impact in terms of disruption is phenomenal. For most in the western world, the concept of a smart phone is as ingrained as home plumbing and yet, the first iPhone only arrived on shelves a little over 10 years ago.

The sheer degree of pace presents issues for businesses in terms of simply working out what emerging trend could be the next opportunity or threat, to governments needing to anticipate what regulatory changes might be required, and to workers needing to maintain their skills and ensuring ongoing professional relevance.

“The essence of [technology] disruption is how difficult it is to perceive, let alone measure.”

David Rejeski, Woodrow Wilson International Center

When considered with reference to eduction, all of the above are contributory factors to the skills shortages currently facing the industry and are further compounded by the gulf of difference between the emergence of new concepts and the time needed to develop and deliver solid educational strategy for them. The traditional educational model moves far too slowly to service the needs of the STEM sector requiring subject matter experts to spend months developing and refining a curriculum and assessment criteria which is then effectively frozen before being delivered to schools for implementation over a 2 year period. No where in this process is the need for ongoing or iterative evolution of the subject matter catered for and, while the teachers are busy delivering what was already out of date when they started the landscape has, inevitably shifted course again and new concepts will have been introduced, stabilized, iterated and possibly forked.

And let’s not forget that, to be of economic value as a working professional, workers need to be trained to a high level and the sheer complexity of the subject requires that higher education be built on a solid foundation of at least six years of structured technology learning, with an obvious benefit to extending this window much further. In short, good tech workers need to be taught the relevant skills from day one of their eduction to ensure they’re equipped to operate in the modern digital work place and to ensure they remain competitive when considered alongside graduates from other countries.

Finally what of those who’ve already passed out of the educational system and are looking to re-skill or up-skill in their own time? The much vaunted UK “Digital Inclusion Strategy” aims to address the needs of those trapped in the technology blackhole – itself created by years of failure within technology education – but to date it has been fraught with issues and has failed to deliver on any proposed targets.

So how can we possibly align modern education and technological change?

Understandably the answer is massively complex and requires buy in from government, educators, and industry. Why industry? Well one of the primary challenges facing the educators at this time is a lack of prior investment in their own skills. Teachers who are trained to a high level to deliver modern education lack the additional level of training in specialized technology education. In short, the teachers aren’t equipped to teach tech and that results in a negative impact on the children which in turn leads to a negative impact on the industry.

“all children should have the opportunity to learn to code, no matter who they are or where they come from”

This is were we as professional technologists can help. I’m currently involved in three separate initiatives locally which aim to assist in the closing of the digital divide. One is with adults, two are with children. Two are informal (i.e. are not associated with a certified education standard), one is formalised (delivery of GCSE Computer Science at a local high school). One is volunteer, the other two are paid. All are relatively low impact in terms of demand on my time and sit alongside my full time work schedule.

As technology workers, we’re already used to the concept of knowledge sharing amongst our peers, face to face in local user groups, at conferences, online via eLearning, forums or stack overflow. We share knowledge almost implicitly as part of our day to day work and as such we should all consider the positive impact of expanding that sharing to a wider audience.

So consider this my call to arms for techies everywhere, while the government is busy sorting out their strategy and schools are struggling with curriculum selection and maintenance we can help!

We can get involved in a local code club for children – helping them to develop the skills they currently aren’t getting at school. We can run adult education sessions to up skill those who missed out on solid formal education. We can approach schools & colleges and offer to partner with them, delivering our knowledge as part of structured or semi structured classes. Almost any contribution is likely to be worthwhile but we need to start doing this now. The timeline for development through digital education is 6 – 9 years long. If we start now, we’ll likely start to see the benefit of this commitment in around 2022. That may seem to too long a time frame to be worth the hassle but consider that the “maturation date” only shifts further and further away the longer we fail to address the educational requirements of our society.

If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.

Chinese proverb

Why would you bother? It’s in our own best interest as an industry to ensure we have new, capable workers coming up the pipeline. Whether you’re considering your own progressing in terms of potential management, or you’re looking to develop your own business, we will all need fresh starters to work with us and to keep our sector alive. don’t think for a second that my own contributions in this area are altruistic, as a business owner my motives are entirely selfish – I need to be able to hire solid employees for the next decade and what better way to ensure they’re available than by helping to create them?

So we have a choice, we can either do nothing and face a risky and uncertain future as the needed skills dry up, demand for a shrinking pool increases and we start to compete on a global level for workers, or we can dismiss Mr Shaw’s missive as no longer relevant and start teaching the next generation ourselves.

Because no one is going to do it for us.

(Image Credit: Dev Bootcamp by Anne Spalding)