Jamie's Blog

Lessons from a life of startups, coding, countryside, and kids

What’s the point of education?

Today is the day that thousands of school students receive their Leaving Cert results (that’s their last exams before university, so translate it accordingly for your country). It inevitably prompts the same news stories each year (X students got 600 points! Exams are getting easier! Maths/English/whatever pass rates are dropping!) but it also makes me recall my own education, particularly as my daughter will be starting school in September. This tweet

Of course, my education navel gazing can only come from a privileged position of someone who, frankly, has has every educational opportunity thrown at him. I went to good schools (my parents even sent me to a school 15miles away rather than the local ‘institution’ — I’ll forgive the fact it was a Catholic school), I went to a very good university (University of Sheffield, Dept of Computer Science) and I even had a misguided attempt at a PhD at another internationally-recognised university (University of Southampton, Electronics and Computer Science). But, I often wonder what all this education actually got me?

At School

Looking back at my school years, the things that stand out in my memory are the individual projects and the out-of-hours learning I did. I designed and built a radio-controlled glider for my GCSE Design project and I can still remember many of the aerodynamic lessons I learnt then. I designed a car for my A-level Design project which taught me that a) I’m not an graphic artist; b) there isn’t a great career path for car designers and c) even the most high-profile designers can be approachable. To this day, I still have the responses from the 50letters I sent out, including a treasured one from Dick Powell of Seymour & Powell (and, at the time, Channel4 TV) fame. I remember finishing a project on volcanoes before I was allowed to go out to play in the evening (I guess I was 7 or 8). I remember studying alone for my AS Computer Studies because I was the only one in the school doing the subject. I built an GUI address book, in C, for RISC OS at a time when their was no Internet for help and all I had was a very worn book on C (with pages missing) and two API reference manuals. I never took sports very seriously at school but I understand now that not everyone had the varied experience that we had. It was only when watching all the Olympic events that I realised I had tried quite a lot of sports: the obvious football/rugby/cricket (actually, I still don’t understand that one) plus basketball, netball, volleyball, hockey, tennis, badminton, Australian football (exchange teachers FTW!), and the many forms of athletics including hurdles, discus, shot-put, javelin, long-jump, triple-jump. It was a shock to discover that many Irish school children don’t have the same experience.

I’ll tell you what I don’t remember from school though: any passages of Shakespeare, any sentences of French or German, any stories from the Bible, how to solve a quadratic equation, the periodic table, the various sub-atomic elements, important historical dates, the kings of England, or any of the formulas for angles, momentum, electrical resistance etc. These are the things which are considered important at school, and on which most of my grades have been based, but they’re just a vague (and often painful) memory to me now. I can’t even recall my GCSE or A-Level grades off the top of my head.

Outside School

As a kid I read a lot of books, though I can’t say it was any great literature. I also read the computer magazines that my Dad got and copied in the programs which probably did have a pretty strong influence on my current career. If nothing else, the process of debugging those programs to find the typos was probably an early start in the methodical means of tracking down defects.

I learnt a ridiculous amount of practical skills from the Air Training Corps: aerodynamics, how engines (jet, combustion, etc) work, map reading (air and land), camping, camouflage, escape & evasion, shooting, flying, first aid, leadership, traversing the ever-present crocodile-filled ravine, how to iron trousers and shirts properly, reading body language, polishing parade shoes into a mirror finish, identifying Soviet-era aircraft (ok, some not so useful skills too). I’m still perplexed at what teenagers do without the same activities available to them and it bothers me that there’s nothing like that available in Ireland. As much as I dislike the idea of national service, a school year spent learning this stuff would be incredibly powerful.

The only sport that has stuck with me to this day is swimming (that rubber-coated brick on the floor of the pool still haunts me). I went to a swimming club for several years until I’d earned my 1 mile badge and then, frankly, I got bored. I played badminton for about 5yrs and should have kept playing but I went to University and the Malaysians kinda took all the fun out of it (they are waaayyyy too fast!).

I also learnt to drive. I think I was reluctant at the time because I had no use for the skill (and I’d have preferred to be flying) but I’m grateful that I learnt then. It’s a life skill which I consider important, regardless of whether you ever want to own a car.

At University

In fairness, I’ve learnt quite a bit from my BSc and attempted PhD. My BSc taught Lisp and Modula-2 in our first few weeks on the course — both of which were useful for teaching the concepts of functional and imperative languages. Then came C, C++, Prolog, Pascal, HTML, and even Java. And there was databases and set theory and algorithms which I do still make use of. Other stuff is less useful on a day-to-day basis but all went to being a fairly well-rounded course. I even finally learnt what nouns & verbs were by writing a Part-of-Speech parser in Natural Language Processing 1. Incidentally, Parallel Processing 1 taught me more about back-propagation neural networks than the Neural Networks course because I actually had to write the code to implement one.

I gained some good experience out of the PhD too (RDF, R, Python etc) but probably the most useful thing was an ability to write. I can’t remember what grade I got at GCSE English but it probably wasn’t very good. I didn’t enjoy writing and I certainly didn’t enjoy “literature”. But a PhD requires an awful lot of writing so you get plenty of practice, and plenty of editors to correct you. I’m no masterful wordsmith but I like to think that I’ve achieved a level where I can comfortably express myself. And, yes, I know I start my sentences with conjunctions but this is me talking to you, not some a formal research paper.

And the point is…?

So, what has all this education got me?

Well, some of the topics from my degree are in use every day for my career as a software engineer (even though I’ve built on them considerably in the past 14yrs). But, even with this vocational-training, there’s much of my university which has, and never will be, used (I’m looking at you Z-notation). And there’s other things (like driving or swimming) which I remember because it’s something I still do.

The things that I learnt the most from are the things that I did, not the things I was taught. That’s my learning style. I learn by doing. I learn by trying. I don’t learn things which don’t interest me. I pay no attention to details which have no relevance to me (I recall finally remembering the middle bits of the alphabet when I was about 12 or 13). I only finally grasped the structure of English when I had to write a Part-of-Speech parser. I only understood the theory behind neural networks once I’d implemented one. I only really understood the delicate balance of aerodynamic forces once I’d trimmed the massive tailfin off my glider so the puny rudder could have some effect. I learnt about camouflage but crawling around a field and getting spotted, over and over and over again. I learnt leadership by leading small teams over an imaginary ravine, demarcated by ropes in a field, filled with imaginary crocodiles while they bickered and argued and sat around idly. I learnt to swim by sinking. I learnt to dive by splashing about uselessly on the surface. I learnt to shoot by missing the target (a lot! My eyesight isn’t 20/20 so I couldn’t use my eyes to group shots together — instead I learnt to keep the rifle still and control my breathing). I learnt to program in C by getting segmentation faults and memory errors. I finally learnt to write by doing it over and over again, and having a supervisor or editor (or myself, eventually) reject it. I taught myself how to take decent photographs by taking a lot of boring, blurry, ill-conceived shots.

School education isn’t about this method of learning. It’s not about the freedom to invent and discover and fail. It’s a transfer of data from teacher A to pupil B, and a test to see how effective they were imprinted. There’s definitely some value in this approach, and students that succeed are probably smarter and/or more hard-working than the others. It’s a measure. Not a perfect measure but it’s one that we’ve got. It doesn’t mean the 600-point students are destined for greatness. It doesn’t mean that those who struggled are stupid. Perhaps they’re just not interested in learning about the intricacies of royal marriages from hundreds of years ago. Those leaving cert points don’t define you or your future, though they may unfortunately open or close some doors for you.

We can’t lose sight that this type of rote-learning is only one form of education. I doubt that I’m unique in how I learn; I may even be in the majority. So, what’s the point in education? The point is to learn. For some that might be facts and figures and equations. For others, it’s about having the time to practice and explore and fail… until they find something they’re really really good at. I’d like to go one step further and say that the point of education is to learn something useful… but it’s often only years later that you can reflect on the useful and useless parts and not so easily to predict which is which. And sometimes you need to learn the useless parts to jump the hurdles before you can start learning the useful stuff.