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.
It is entirely unnecessary to scrap the current embodiment of public education and "start over".
There will never, ever, EVER, be enough money to meet the demands of human creativity and ambition. NO ONE likes paying taxes, and there will ALWAYS be some amount of waste in any organization, whether it be governmental, corporate, small business, or family unit. Arguing about these points is a waste of time, and accusing public schools in particular of inefficiency is baseless unless you have specific hard evidence and are willing to approach the school board and demand a change. Both large and small corporations try new business practices, training, and research to try to make improvements. Only a fraction of these efforts are successful- was all the rest a waste?
The US has both healthy and unhealthy schools. Unhealthy schools need more resources to improve; this is just common sense. Sometimes this means literally tearing down a failing school and starting over (recently done here in Denver). No one is out to “punish” healthy schools. The long term benefits to the community of having thriving, safe, healthy public schools is lower crime, better employment, better health, better jobs, better tax base, better everything. In fact, I can't think of a single reason I wouldn't want healthy public schools.
If you're a conservative capatalist, with a LONG TERM view of the world, you will instantly recognize that healthy public schools bring more opportunity for profits from the market at large. To lobby against good public education is a short term, self-centered, self-defeating position that actually harms the market.
This is pretty funny. It's flame bait, right? "Reinvent" education? A terminology that sets the reader up well for the diagnosis to follow: conservatives and the religious are to blame. Exactly my thought. I am both conservative and Christian, and there's nothing I enjoy more than working to undermine my kids' education. After all, I have my education, to the devil with everyone else, no? It's sort of like drilling holes in the boat we are all in to best ensure that the liberals get their feet wet. I take special pride in the fact that the tax money I fork over for education is poorly spent in many cases. Doesn't matter to me at all that we'll all be fish food when the supply of educated adults sinks to the bottom.
Here's a different take on standardized testing: the pressure it puts on students who score in the 99th percentile. They already know they're smart and doing very well in school, but do they really need the pressure of a nationwide exam that tells them they're smarter than almost everybody else? It imparts an expectation of greater future academic success, and kids already have enough stressors and expectations of high achievement these days.
How much more money does school systems need to satisfy teachers union officials? Per pupil average the US spends more on public education than any other Westernized country. I say pay for performance like engineers in the private sector are paid. If schools produce morons, then their budgets should be cut.
Hmmm: how about "Standardized task, standardized student, standardized test." That covers the various areas (such as pilot training) where standardized testing will work. Of course, when you get to the edge of the flying skills envelope, a Bob Hoover for example, no amount of testing would qualify anyone: that sort of skill is just plain old rare. But that's not the issue in public schooling, where a reasonable educational outcome for a reasonable range of students is what is desired. And agreed, testing is of moot value. It won't tell you that you are succeeding fantastically: that sort of test would kill off the average student. Instead, it tells you that you've made a mess out of things, and incidentally, it tells you rather late in the game.
I was just trying to put standardized testing into terms that engineers could relate to. I'm all for standardized tests for standard students. For non-standard students teachers need more flexibility, and the standardized tests should be limited to no more than one per year.
I agree that there is a place for standardized tests, but the results are being misused and the value is grossly overestimated when applied to public schools.
The amount of time spent preparing for and conducting standardized tests is interfering with actual teaching. If we were to limit them to one test per year we might derive some value from them while still allowing for variations in teaching methods and ideologies.
None of the value that I got from my years of schooling came from standardized tests. All of it came from a mix of teachers who presented the material and devised their own tests to evaluate their students.
Cute, but… even if we were to devise and implement a functional synthesis at the highest levels of abstraction in a formally airtight language of the problem space at hand we would still have a moving target as to the physical platform, or parts thereof, for implementation.
The problem of teaching human beings from the beginnings of their lives to meaningfully contribute to a rapidly developing society with all its cultural immenseness is far more difficult. The problem itself is the subject of much debate and not all interests of all layers of society are the same. Some are downright contradictory.
Carno, your point is taken. However, standardized testing is appropriate in some cases. For example, FAA flight instruction is basically "teach to the test". Flight instruction becomes a repetition of maneuvers and techniques designed to pass the flight test. In the process, the basic skill sets are reinforced; responses to common contingencies are learned; and a consistent new pilot "product" is turned out in anywhere from 40 to 80 hours. But this technique only works when the subject matter is cut and dried: you really don't want innovative and curious pilots trying out new landing techniques at whim.
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