Stages in the Learning Journey

Speaking with friends who are educators of the young one, thing has become apparent. The idea that learning is achieved by building foundations or layers of knowledge is passe. The MTV generation want their learning pre-packaged and easily digested. No more learning the basics and practising them to become expert and then moving on to the next stage. The idea that one commences by becoming an apprentice and then progressing to journeyman and on to a master is no longer in favour.

In fact, our educational institutions are loathe to say that some people are cleverer or more highly skilled than others. Heaven forbid we should damage a fragile ego by telling a person the truth about their capabilities! Students are no longer assessed objectively against their peers. Instead, all students are held to be equal, in spite of manifest differences in outcomes and abilities. This reduction of all to the level of mediocrity means that it is harder than ever to find people who excel in technical areas.

One friend who teaches computer science in high school noted recently that students think that just because they know how to build a web page or load some photos on a web site that they know a lot about technology. But he argues, they do not know how a computer works, they do not know how to write programs, they do not understand the fundamentals of computing. In effect, they are users of a utility in the same way I am when I turn on a light. I do not know how it happens, the light just works when I flick the switch. Now this is not a bad thing. Not everyone in the world needs to know about how the utility of electrical lighting is made and delivered. It is just important that one understands the limits of one’s own knowledge and capabilities.

To attain mastery in technical domains requires many years of learning the craft, not just book knowledge but also hands on experience. As noted recently in a computer magazine:

“Here is the message to all aspiring security experts out there: You must first master the craft in the area that inspires you, whether that’s networks, operating systems, databases, languages, whatever. Do your apprenticeship, get to journeyman level, and be excellent. This may take a few years. Along the way, read the security books, grasp the concepts. But there are no shortcuts if you want the credibility that is so necessary to make a positive difference in this world.”

(Peter H. Gregory, Computerworld 22 Sep 2004)

This advice is not only appropriate for security practitioners, but for all technologists. You need to live and breathe the technology for quite a while to attain the kind of tacit knowledge required to become expert.

In my experience, during times of crisis the gut feeling of of an ‘expert’ is worth 100-times the book learning of the less experienced. We need to respect the wisdom and knowledge of those technologists who have invested the effort (not just time served) to master their knowledge domain.

The coming integration of IT and biotechnology …

I just saw Susan Greenfield – a.k.a. Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield – on a television chat show. She is a pioneering scientist, entrepreneur, communicator of science, policy adviser, and an extremely interesting presenter of complex ideas. She seems to be intelligent, vivacious and wears makeup and nice clothes. All of this must really annoy many of her peers amongst the male scientists in the UK (especially the grumpy older ones).

Her most recent book is Tomorrow’s People (ISBN: 0713996315 ), and in it she warns that the coming integration of IT and biotechnology will have such a profound effect on the way we think and live that “we are standing on the brink of a mind makeover more cataclysmic that anything in our history.”

This is an area that will confront each of us in the near future. The technology to integrate bio-technology into human beings already exists and is near to commercialisation. We are already microchipping our pets, how long until someone says we should do it for children? It will seem like a good idea at the time. But it really is the thin end of the wedge. Prof. Greenfield is right, we do need to give serious consideration to how we want to use this technology. Otherwise it will change our lives profoundly in ways we may not like.

Only 26 more sleeps until the election is over!

It is with a grateful heart that I realise that it is only 26 more sleeps until the Australian election is over. Perhaps to liven things up during the campaign they should make the contenders put on sumo wrestling suits & fight instead of the extremely dull debate they had last night. The sheer tedium of the media presence of John Howard and Mark Latham have been unrelieved by any such comic relief.

As Barry Cassidy over at the ABC has pointed out the “Worm [on the televised debate] surprises but ‘Dicko’ may have final say”. The people the contenders want and need to engage are actually all watching Australian Idol. And the fact is you can vote on that without having to leave home. The voter participation rates would be much higher if we could just SMS our votes in.

One thing is for certain John Howard is looking old and tired – and his messages are all sounding a little repetitive. I’m still not sure that Mark Latham is the answer either. One thing is certain, now that they know officially about the surplus they will be handing out the bribes to any swinging voter they can find (unfortunately this group never seems to include me).

It will be interesting to see how it all pans out. There is good coverage of the election on the ABC Election 2004 site.

Liberal V. Conservative in Oz

Ally often has an amusing turn of phrase, recently she said that another blog she had read “reminds you of the time the light went on for you and you realized that conservatism was not as dorky as it originally sounded – hell, maybe even those dumb conservatives had a point”.

It got me thinking about this same political divide here in Australia for those who might be coming to a similar realisation. Here our conservatives are called “Liberals” (which only confuses things slightly), our “Democrats” are a tiny faction without any real bite, our democratic socialists are called “Labor”, and the real growing force in left wing politics is the “Greens” (who sound more like a family than a party – with that name & all the squabbling).

The trouble is no one party suits my beliefs. The original basis on which the Liberal Party was formed is actually closer to my beliefs. The trouble is that they’ve become more like the Labor Party. The trouble with the Labor Party is they’ve become more like the Liberals. So who do you follow? The Democrats who could not find a policy if you mailed it to them at home? The Greens whose radical agenda should scare anyone who can think?

It’s hurting my brain to think about it – there are no real libertarian conservative parties here. I might have a nice cup of tea and lie down with a nice Trollope instead.

Bullies @ work

I am getting really tired of bullying in the workplace. I’ve worked in many places – being in info tech I change jobs every two years – and the bullies are mainly babyboomer men (there do not seem to be many women bullies where I’ve worked).

At the moment there is someone who is in a hierarchically superior position in the workplace and who screams at people for real or imagined infractions, and calls them stupid in front of the entire office. The strange thing is everyone is letting this person continue acting like this! I seem to be the only person who thinks this is wrong behaviour that must be stopped.

One thing I know is that a lot of people are thinking about leaving their jobs because of this one person. Strangely enough all it takes is this bully’s own manager to speak up that this behaviour is not acceptable.

Why is it that management can be simultaneously running programs to make this a better place to work but still let this guy abuse and emotionally destroy people, tearing them apart verbally. They do not seem to perceive that their rhetoric is not balanced with action.

In short, people in this company are not modeling the behaviours they are articulating in their values. We can see what is happening and it is undermining all the good work. What good are corporate values if staff are crying in the toilets due to a workplace bully who is part of the management?

Olympics – two sides of the same coin …

Picture two different women competing in the Australian team at the recent Athens Olympics.

The first had the misfortune to injure herself a few weeks prior to competition. She had surgery & vowed to compete in the games. Jan Pitman ran in the 400m hurdles at the Games, but she came 5th largely due to her recent knee surgery. Her response to the disappointment? ”

“I don’t need to make any excuses,” she said. “Those girls were great out there today and they were better than me on the day, so I can only say I’ll have to come back hungry for next year.” (See smiggens)

Contrast this with another woman, young and talented and part of a team of eight. She had been allowed to join the team in spite of curious incidents in her past. She was apparently in good form and excellent fitness going into the race. Her main job was to keep rowing until the race finished. Instead, Sally Robins lay back with a quarter of the race to go and dropped her oar about 100m from the finish line.

As noted in the living room “Robbins was exhausted, not ill or injured, and an Australian official quoted Jarhling as saying he had not seen anything like it in his 35-year coaching career.”

The most interesting difference between these two women is in their minds. The first almost won a medal against massive odds. The second lost a medal against almost no odds at all. The main difference seems to have been internal to each of them, and the determination to finish the differentiator.

Sally Robbins might not have heard that famous quote from Winston Churchill:

“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never–in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

To have gone that far and to lay down is an interesting choice to make.