SAN JOSE – Steve Wozniak, one of the original co-founders of Apple, turned a “fireside chat” at the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) here Tuesday (May 3) into a spontaneous – and sometimes contradictory – critique of education, particularly math, science and engineering education, even suggesting that the American public schools have outgrown their usefulness.
Wozniak, now chief scientist at Fusion-io, described American education as stagnant, obsessed with testing and destructive of creativity. He said children in American schools, crowded into large classes, where they are pressured to complete each inflexible unit in a prescribed time and measured by statewide and national standardized tests. “They’re not allowed different ways to think” and kids grow swiftly discouraged.
Wozniak, who confessed that he spent some eight years in mid-career “secretly” teaching at the middle and high schools levels, said, “By third grade, teachers can pretty much spot the kids who’ve given up on education, for life.”
Although Wozniak noted that his children had attended public schools, he said, “I actually think home-schooling is very, very good as an alternative.” He encouraged middle-class parents – an accurate characterization of his standing-room audience at ESC – to send their children to private schools because “every year, it seems like it’s getting worse.”
Ironically, Wozniak later heaped praise on a popular engineering competition for high school students – public and private – called FIRST Robotics, in which students compete for an eventual national championship in robot design. Wozniak has served as a judge for FIRST Robotics competition.
“Building something for yourself -- that’s the way the mind develops among engineers,” said Wozniak. “If they have it inside of them, that’s the one [idea] that’s going to last.”
In essence, Wozniak’s educational views tend to reflect his own experience as a lifelong autodidact, who couldn’t really wait to be taught according to any format designed by schools, teachers or even his father, who was a Lockheed engineer.
His father, said Wozniak, pitched in and helped when Wozniak threw himself into building, for example, a crystal radio, or winning a science fair. But it was young Wozniak who launched every project on his own, only turning to others for help when his “dream” exceeded his knowledge level.
“You’ve got to be motivated, and the best reasons are internal,” said Wozniak, adding a tongue-in-cheek thumbnail of himself. “It’s better if you’re not into partying and you don’t have much chance of having a girlfriend or a wife.”
A self-described “nerd” treated as an “outsider” in school, Wozniak told EE Times’ interviewer Brian Fuller that he embraced the independence that his oddball status conferred on him. “That independence made me think I can have very strange dreams, and start to believe that I could achieve some of them.”
Indeed, he did just that, serving in the creation of Apple as the nerdy partner to a more outgoing and marketing-oriented Steve Jobs. “I wanted to do engineering, nothing else,” said Wozniak, while Jobs wanted to become “the world’s most important person someday.”
“I did my best work late at night, alone,” added Wozniak.
This streak of iconoclasm clearly colors Wozniak’s view of education and embraces his view of management in technology companies. Too often, he said, “creativity gets tamped down” by production deadlines and quarterly earnings goals. He distinguished, in his discussion at ESC, between engineers who essentially follow orders and repeat patterns and the “inventors” who sneak off on their own to do projects that strike their fancy.
Ideally, said Wozniak, “A large company can have little outposts of people” working independently or in small teams, whose imaginations are allowed to run free. “They’ve got to be isolated from the rest of the company… Let them work on a project of their own. That’s a lot more motivating.”
Wozniak cited the example of Hewlett-Packard, where – before joining Jobs to start Apple -- he helped engineer that company’s hugely successful family of calculators. There, he said, HP’s respect for engineers’ individuality made the job “the best of my life.”
“Everyone who works for a company should be valued,” he said. He pointed out that, when HP fell on hard times, the prevailing corporate ethic dictated that the company keep its workforce intact. Hence, rather than layoffs, HP asked its workers – and got their permission – to accept a temporary across-the-board ten-percent wage reduction and a four-day workweek.
“Call it socialism,” said Wozniak. “But I just wish every company could be that way… We all did a little less work and kept everybody in.”
It’s just as accurate to call Wozniak a socialist or an iconoclast. But the overarching philosophy that shone through Steve Wozniak’s ESC fireside chat can be applied equally, and loosely, to public education and private management. Show a little more respect for individual creativity, says “Woz,” and apply a lot less emphasis to standardized measurements.