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Is our education system failing our future entrepreneurs?

GUEST POST

Pop quiz! Is the education system failing our future entrepreneurs, and is fixing it really the answer?

Every month,the Moxie Sessions bring together a small group of Auckland business thinkers to discuss ways New Zealand can take advantage of the internet and boost its competitiveness. For more, see themoxiesessions.co.nz. This month we looked at education and asked: What’s going on at school that is relevant to the future of our tech economy? Are children really born digital or do we need to teach them technology and entrepreneurship, that is, pretty much like everyone else?

As always, the discussion was kicked off by three invited guests with something to say on the subject. 

Andy Schick is marketing manager at the Crown company building a managed network and portal for schools, Network for Learning.  Luke Nola is the creator and presenter of kids’ TV series Let’s Get Inventin’. Frances Valintine is founder and chief executive of Auckland specialist digital technologies lab for 4-14 year olds, The Mind Lab. Before that, she co-founded, grew and recently sold Media Design School.

Government-funded Network for Learning has been in operation for about a year, working to put a managed network into every school in New Zealand by 2016. 

In November, it connected its first school (Massey Primary). As Andy describes it, N4L offers a network service tailored to what schools need, rather than a commoditised internet experience. 

Not just fibre, but content

As well as the fibre-based infrastructure, N4L is in the content business, and is about to launch a portal (working name: “The Portal”) aimed to bring together resources for students and teachers in one easy-to-use place. 

In addition to making great teaching and learning resources easy to find, the portal will reduce duplication (teachers can re-use or modify each others’ material rather than always creating their own) and amplify content created or curated by “rockstar” teachers so more students can benefit from it. 

Another advantage the portal delivers is that it gives direct access into content usually protected by passwords or paywalls, saving schools cost and hassle.

Ex ad-guy and long time TV programme-maker Luke Nola spends most of his time working with children through his globally-distributed show, Let’s Get Inventin’. Each year, he reviews hundreds of submissions from schoolkids, looking for 10 to feature on the show. Each young inventor is teamed with designers, engineers and technicians to turn their idea into reality, with many of the inventions also receiving patents. Although Mr Nola’s company has just launched an app as a way to spread the idea beyond the TV screen, he’s not a big fan of the current obsession with all things digital but remains in awe of kids’ innate creativity. “They just don’t know what can’t be done. It’s only a matter of time before one of them suggests we make a poo-powered milkshake machine.” 

Some of the kids’ inventions have been almost as surreal, with an idea for a rat-powered bicycle needing only an increase in the number of rats (from one to 20) before the prototype worked. Check an episode out here

As a long-time classic car enthusiast and grandson of an inventor, Nola is a big believer in getting your hands dirty and sees getting under the hood of any technology as an important step – one reason, he thinks, why some of the best ideas he sees comes from kids from farming backgrounds.

The Mind Lab’s Frances Valintine is another fan of tinkering, and sees the way we use technology in education as a major barrier to actual learning. “One-button devices” such as iPads, she says, get in the way of kids learning about technology. At The Mind Lab, kids get to pull things apart, put them together and use computer and robotic technology to solve problems. 

Addictive computer games like Minecraft are also a problem, Valintine says. “Kids can benefit from an hour or so at a time, but beyond that, they’re just wasting time they could be using to do other things.” The other obstacles are a little more controversial: “mothers who don’t or won’t encourage their kids to use technology in a creative way” and “teachers without the ability to change.”

The ability of teachers to change – or more fundamentally the whole education system to change – was a bit of a theme in the discussion that followed. Teachers teach what they know and how they know. The school day only has so many hours in it. Parents want to know how their kids compare to other kids. Governments want to drive international scores in core skills such as reading, writing and maths. And so on.

Can entrepreneurship be taught?

It seems to me, though (and this is where, as Moxie scribe, I get to editorialise a bit), that trying to change the school system might not be the best or only approach. There are just so many barriers, and so much politics at play. 

We began by asking if we need to teach children technology and entrepreneurship. The consensus is that we do (although the group split somewhat between those who see technology as writing code and those who see it as welding stuff together). The opportunity for me, though, is to reframe the problem, and not just focus on the 12 years we happen to be at school. 

The remaining seven decades between leaving the school gates and driving through the cemetery ones are where the real opportunity lies. Let the education system focus on whatever the parents, teachers and politicians decide are the basics. Then as businesses, possibly with government support, provide the technology, creativity and entrepreneurship training many adults want and this country certainly needs. 

Schools may or may not have a role to play in this. As Associate Education Minister Nikki Kaye has pointed out, we collectively own a huge underused resource that’s perfect for all sorts of training after the 3pm bell rings. And with adult community education funding slashed and participation plummeting, there is no shortage of after-hours space.

Wherever it happens, I believe there’s a real business opportunity to provide commercially focused, practical training that meets adults’ needs for growth and reinvention.  Whitney Houston may have sung that “the children are our future” but I believe she’s only partly right. Adults are too, and if we can find a way to connect them with the skills the creative technology economy needs, that future will look even rosier than it does now. 

Moxie sessions convener and former Y&R creative director Vaughn Davis is principal at social media and advertising agency The Goat Farm.