Sean Bennett Diesel engines, trucks, and off-road equipment

January 28, 2019

On Education

Filed under: — techrite @ 5:43 pm

Education fails industry

The theme of Snap-on CEO Nicholas Pinchuk’s lunchtime address at a past TMC Fall meeting  was how technical education is downgraded by our educators.  It’s undeniable that in the subculture of high schools, careers in technology are regarded as consolation prizes for those who fail to qualify for callings ranked higher in the mindsets of high school teachers and guidance counsellors. Pinchuk attributed the failure to a PR problem of our industry.  Yes, there’s no doubt we fail to attract the best mechanical and technical minds into our industry, but I believe this has less to do with PR than with the way children are educated … and who we entrust with the responsibility to do this, the teachers. This is not a crisis confined to high schools. It begins at Kindergarten extends through the entire thirteen years of a child’s education.

Education of our children prior to college falls solidly within the realm of females. Nationwide, well under one in five primary school teachers is male … and if your child’s primary school has a male on staff, how often is that person either the principal, vice principal, or the physical education teacher?  Although the gender balance improves a little at the high school level, the overall stats come nowhere close to gender equity: Oregon (33%) and Kansas (31%) report the highest percentages of male teachers overall (primary and secondary) while Mississippi and Arkansas check in with just 18% (www.edutopia.org).

Traditionally, in the family and in the tribe, females with their genetic predisposition to nurture provided the emotional support to children, the mother was the social hub of the family. The male role was that of material provision, physical protection and leadership. Within the family as children aged, girls learned from mothers, boys learned from fathers. As society matured into the age we live in, the roles of gender in both parenting and society became muddled. Can a couple of generations of feminism radically alter human nature?  Whether we like it or not, the trucking industry relies primarily on male labor … continuous efforts to change this over two generations have failed, so a problem in the education of boys impacts heavily on us.

Schools are social environments. Never kid yourself that academics are foremost in anyone’s minds, pupils or teachers. The female dominated society of the school sets its own social and evaluation standards. It seems that almost every day, a television or newspaper report surfaces of some 1st Grade boy being suspended from school for mimicking shooting one of his classmates with a gun fashioned from his fingers … or recently another, whose father was serving in Afghanistan, for miming the throwing of a hand grenade. When I was growing up such acts were regarded as boyish behavior and no one gave it a moment’s thought.  Today, this type of rowdiness is interpreted differently by school disciplinary systems who ratchet up its severity … and another confused youngster is victimized for the crime of merely being boyish. According to Christina Hoff Sommers in her thoughtful book War against Boys, female teachers confuse the rough and tumble of boyish play with pathological behavior.

Yes, schools may be primarily social environments, but teaching and learning do play a role. In this regard it should be noted that girls have always substantially outperformed boys in non-cognitive skills. Non-cognitive skills are primarily concerned with socialization and the top three would be eagerness, attentiveness, and the ability to strategize.  Not coincidentally, it happens that those are the skills held in the highest regard by the corps of female teachers entrusted with evaluating academic performance. For two generations, boys have under-functioned academically at every level in both primary and secondary schools despite the fact that IQ testing consistently places them on par with their female coevals. In addition, it is of interest to note that when children are given non-teacher-based standardized tests, boys again score on par with girls. So how is it that educators are not asking themselves why such an alarming percentage of boys fail in our education system?

There is no doubt that many boys disengage from the classroom experience at an early age. Parents of kids of both genders will observe that boys and girls tend to learn in a different ways from birth. Girls will more often want to understand a concept before setting a strategy for achieving a goal, whereas boys tend to be more apt to explore and experiment … and strive to understand the concept after. Perhaps in recognition of this fact, schools have established specialty programs that cater to very specific outcomes.  But sadly in the U.S. and Canada, almost every specialty school program has a female gender-bias, a fact that can only be explained by the corresponding bias for female teachers. Programs in modern dance and theater arts may fast-track a pathway to yet another liberal arts degree … but do little to service the workforce requirements of the 21st century. And please don’t counter with the shop class elective still offered by many high schools … I have written articles on this subject in the past and I don’t want to extend the discussion here other than to say nine out of ten shop class programs function as holding stations for disruptive and dysfunctional male students. Once relegated to shop class, these students have already failed and cede their plight to a male shop teacher whose primary objective is to maintain control.

Feminists intent on promoting yet more gender-driven affirmative action often propose the argument that almost all Fortune 500 CEOs are male. This is really a non-issue. The fact is that boys finish the education process at the polar extremes of success: a handful of the highest achievers at one end versus millions of the worst failures at the other. These millions occupy a strata of our society that are perennially unemployed, imprisoned, or performing the most basic level jobs.

According to Malcolm Gladwell in his book David and Goliath, the perception of functional level in the academic pecking order of the class plays a major role in student success. For instance, a student that achieves an initial B-grade average in a class populated by students with average C-grades more often than not excels and raises his/her level of attainment – while that same student placed in a class of high-level A-grade achievers becomes discouraged and at risk of dropout. This is significant because in our current school system, girls occupy the center ground of academic attainment and consequently do better at every level of education, no doubt aided by the fact that many of their male peers are shorted out of higher education by the failure of their primary and secondary school experience.

I’m not suggesting that the gender bias in education can be corrected, there are economic and social reasons for this, but it would be an improvement if it were properly identified and accommodated.  Using syllabi that was more boy-friendly (ever take a look at your kid’s required-reading lists?) and an appreciation that males and females behave differently whether they are dogs, lion cubs, or humans, would be a good start. Most school teachers are hard-working and expected to perform under difficult conditions.  Politicians curry popularity by hitting on education budgets meaning that teachers are commonly underpaid and confronted with stretched resources and overcrowded classrooms. 

If we truly want to fix our schools and produce some graduates that target careers in technical education as a first choice rather than resign to them as a consolation, industry must become more involved with what happens in our schools at every level. Leaving change to those already employed in education will not work, educators are not required to see the big picture and there are no objective benchmarks (political ones are meaningless) to measure accountability. It is up to persons like Pinchuk and other industry leaders to articulate the blunt fact that schools are not providing the graduates required for the 21st century workforce and demand a different approach. Change is especially crucial for the trucking industry because of our reliance on the male gender to repair, maintain, and manage equipment and personnel … given a different approach to schooling, the female barista with a liberal arts degree who pours your morning coffee, could have been the technician you send to SuperTech. The bottom line is that a failure to change, will cede our world technical leadership to those countries who better value, invest in, and manage education.  

Some facts:

·         U.S.  world ranking (OECD) in Reading: 14th

·         U.S.  world ranking (OECD) in Science: 17th

·         U.S.  world ranking (OECD) in Math: 25th

·         Estimated value to U.S. economy if all three rankings rose to the level of Finland the top rated county:  $103 trillion

Sean Bennett

(research references: U.S.A. Today, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Malcolm Gladwell, Christina Hoff Sommers, and www.edutopia.org.

How to rescue vocational education

Vocational schools are facing a crisis of credibility when it comes to educating technicians. At the recent Association of Diesel Specialists (ADS) annual conference, a friend of mine from industry wanted someone to vent some of his opinions on the ‘lousy’ job colleges were doing today in preparing technicians for the real world of the shop floor. I attempted to tell my friend that I agreed with him … to a certain extent anyway … but that the problems went way beyond being the sole responsibility of vocational schools. He informed me that during the seventies, he hired grads from vo-tech schools who could hit the shop floor with both feet running … this was not so today, his new employees had unreasonably high expectations, learned more slowly, were more error prone, and worst of all, were more likely to leave on a whim. Welcome to the world of millenials!

Things were a little different in 1980. For one thing, what you learned in college was back then thought to be enough to get you through an entire career. For another, for the better part of the past 40 years, boomeronics have prevailed sustaining an employer’s market for even the most highly skilled labor. Evaluating shop floor performance was also a little less scientific. There was no productivity monitoring software back then. Things have changed and are likely to change a lot more in the coming decade.

While I agreed with my friend that colleges should bear some of the blame, I also believe that the problems of the technical labor market of today are more complex. Some of these problems are systemic, others directly attributable to industry leaders who are entrenched in an outdated mindset and confused as to how they can develop effective employees. I am not a social scientist, but I have taught diesel technicians for a few years so I have observed a thing or two in that time … and recently it has often struck me as bizarre how a large percentage of students entering my courses understand almost nothing about computer technology. How is it that these children of the computer age have come to think of computers exclusively as tools? Tools for networking, tools for playing games, tools for ripping music and video. Why are so few of them tempted to take a computer apart, to repair a non-functional computer, or to build one up from scratch? Almost none have any idea of the hardware functionality let alone the complexities of software design. In earlier generations, kids took things apart and attempted to put them back together again. The truth is, society does a lousy job of preparing our children for living with technology.

Failure at the nursery level

The problems begin at the nursery level. When mid-career I adopted a teaching profession, I discovered the writings of Dr. Benjamin Bloom.  Among studying many other things in education, Bloom observed how humans learned. He determined that between the age of zero and 4 years old, a child has developed 50% of its ability to “comprehend, apprehend, and coordinate” its world. Put another way, by the age of four a child has developed 50% of its ability to learn. An additional 30% of that capacity has kicked in by the time the child arrives at its 7th birthday. Then things slow down. By puberty, just 12% more is added with the final 8% coming into play by age 17. Bloom also identified trust as a fundamental precondition enabling children to take advantage of their ability to learn through each phase of development. A child is born into the world helpless and required to trust whoever is raising it for food, protection, and emotional nurturing. Betrayal of this trust sabotages the potential to learn.

Our investment in education both in terms of vested time and money seems to be inversely proportional to the capacity to learn. Failure at the nursery level is directly attributable to parenting. Parents too often deem infancy as the least important phase of learning development and are content to entrust their offspring to childminders of whom they know little or nothing, or to whatever programming happens to appear on an iPad or television screen. Linguistically we do little to prepare children for life in a technical world. We tell them that the sun rises in the sky and the wind blows across a meadow, though science told us otherwise five centuries ago. By the time a child enters the school system, plenty of potential for learning has already been squandered.

Failure at the school level

For a majority of students, modern schools are not healthy places to be. Survival in what for many is an alien environment, is first and foremost. Schools are intensely socialized, hierarchical subcultures in which educational objectives are necessarily subservient to more critical human needs such as personal survival and maintenance of status. The most important characteristic of a teacher in such an environment is that the teacher maintains discipline and an appropriate position in the pecking order of the social jungle. A shortcoming of this characteristic and armed with no more than ‘a desire to teach’ does not make a teacher. On the other hand, a ‘teacher’ who has absolutely nothing to share with the world as an educator but has developed the ability to regiment law and order in the school environment will be fast-track promoted to become its academic leader.

Despite the explosive changes that society and the workplace have undergone during the computer and communications revolution now into its fourth decade, those entrusted with tending and defending syllabi in our schools have been oblivious. While school boards brag up the number of computer nodes per student in their district, they are not so quick to respond to questions about exactly what they are using all these computers for. I challenge you to take a look at the syllabus used in your kids’ school. Take a look at it and compare it with the curriculum used in your grandfather’s school. See much that is different? In most cases, you get a curriculum recipe that is actually a dumbed down version of what was used four generations ago – though some of it may be delivered interactively … on the school’s computers. In our age where computer technology can offer learners a vast range of study electives engineered to suit every imaginable kind of learner, we have instead opted for the expedient, its exact opposite. Canned education. One size fits all. Actually, two sizes. At a relatively young age, attainment testing divides our children into those destined to succeed and those who will fail. And remember that Bloom key indicator I mentioned earlier about the role of ‘trust’ in education – how many high school students do you know who could apply that word to their learning experience?

Auto shop classes

As a college teacher I am obviously aware of how high schools fail to prepare students for success in college. Because I specifically teach diesel technicians, I am most aware of the shortcomings of entry level students who opt for automotive and diesel tech programs. A big part of the problem is the way in which technology is viewed by the high school establishment. When high school auto shop programs are used as holding stations for the dysfunctional and disruptive, the message sent to all students is that motive power technology is something you only want to get involved with when all else fails. I have visited a rare couple of exemplary high school auto shop facilities. Usually such an operation is driven by a visionary teacher with lots of energy and enthusiasm.  Inevitably such a teacher tells me he is made to feel that his operation functions outside of the mainstream of high school life. It is a sad truth that for every really great high school auto shop operation, there are another ten that are its exact opposite. Their effect is destructive. I have no problem with any student opting to take a liberal arts program though I might take some convincing as to the real validity of such programs in today’s world. But I do take exception to bright students being counseled away from careers in technology and trades because these are deemed second best options to careers in just about any other field.

Failure at the college level

The pace of technical change challenges colleges in a number of ways. Colleges are more diverse than high schools in terms of size, funding mechanisms, and accountability. A specialty vocational school has a much more control over its destiny than a community college which runs a mix of academic and vocational programs. Attempting to run a state of the art diesel technology program using the same funding and staff professional development models as a competing liberal arts program will provoke questions from the school’s accountants on issues concerning return-on-investment (ROI). The stark truth is that what Shakespeare wrote has not changed in 400 years but diesel engines change every 3 or 4 years. Trucks have a lifespan of as little as 3 years.  Funding starvation is a major problem for many small colleges, especially when they cannot obtain industry support. That said, many accusations leveled at college programs are justified and could be corrected given some inclination on the part of academic administrators and teachers.

A common criticism is that a program’s learning outcomes are competency-based only in name and out of sync with what industry needs. This is a correctable issue. The overall failure of colleges and vocational schools to provide their graduates with meaningful competencies is related to both curriculum and funding. Curriculum related problems often stem from the fact that many vocational schools are managed by persons who are academics by discipline and instinct.  Such administrators too often possess little knowledge of, and less respect for, the technical trades. Their ideas of how vocational learning should be managed are based on dated models of what might work in academia spiced up with whatever jargon is currently fashionable in education think tanks. They use catch phrases such as student-centered learning and competency-based outcomes without a notion of how to apply this to a technical learning environment. If you really want to develop technicians with competency there is no getting around the fact that you have to have equipment that replicates that used in the workplace.  That equipment can be costly, certainly more costly than chalk, talk, and powerpoint presentations.

College curriculum

Curriculum is a problem in technology programs. In most places of learning, curriculum is a static document. Change it at your peril, you are sure to be stepping on someone’s toes. Curriculum is interpreted as the road map that guides both teachers and students to a set of learning objectives. There is no doubt that curriculum is necessary; the consequences of allowing teachers and students to define their own paths toward learning outcomes would be too dangerous to contemplate.  In such an ambiance of academic chaos, teachers, supposed guardians of the learning path could not be held accountable to any benchmark.  I am not advocating the elimination of curricula, but rigid curriculum models damage the integrity of technical and vocational programs. I do advocate the introduction of fluid curriculum models. This means developing and effecting change in a manner that allows college curricula to keep pace with the real world of industry.  Key to making a fluid curriculum a workable model is to ensure industry partners are proactively involved in every curriculum decision. Curricula revisions should be an annual task, not one that takes place once in a decade.

Curriculum decisions in vocational education should not be left to teachers alone. Were this to happen, every decision would be about turf protection. Could a teacher of truck transmissions be persuaded that less time was required to teach that subject today because transmissions were seldom rebuilt in the field anymore and diagnostics were driven by software? Fat chance! The electrical and electronics teacher would be forced to accept the continuum of innovations that impacted his field and blend it into curriculum, without being granted a single minute of extra time to deliver it. This is consensus in higher education. It trumps objectivity every time.

Industry help

The biggie here for college based education is how to get the equipment you need to teach technology when historically industry has done next to nothing to help. The United States boasts the world wide leaders in University education. This because institutions such as MIT and Harvard are the beneficiaries of billions of dollars in endowments. It is prestigious for businesses to donate gazoodles of dollars to schools such as MIT. So why has big business been so reluctant to support education at less prestigious levels, even when it is clear that the investment could reap major dividends?

Failure at the workplace

In the United States and Canada, we have never used the European model of apprenticeship in which learning on-the-job is primarily a learning experience as opposed to that of a making money for the employer experience. In the North American workplace there is an expectation that entry level employees earn their keep from the get-go. As such, when learning takes place it is coincidental and of secondary importance to ensuring that the employer is not out of pocket over the deal. This is a short-sighted method of developing technicians because it is correlated precisely to billable hours. Considerations of investing in the future seldom enter the equation. This practice damages technical education in America. Firstly, it has excluded many good technical brains that learn more slowly. Secondly, it places undue emphasis on workplace task accomplishment as a singular goal. The latter is dangerous because it produces technicians with significant shortcomings in problem solving skills. It makes us unduly dependent on skilled immigrant technical labor; workers that have been ‘invested in’ by their employers earlier in their careers. We have a much greater need for technicians who can accurately diagnose engine malfunctions than those who can rebuild engines by rote.

Shifting demographics

As the baby boomer generation retires its way out of the workplace, a technical skills vacuum the like of which has never been seen before will emerge. Employers that fail to recognize this shift in demographics will pay a hefty price. Most will not until it is too late. One company that has identified the emerging skills deficit in the American workplace is Caterpillar. They have reacted to the problem with characteristic aggressiveness and have invested in technical skills education in exemplary fashion. When you invest in anything there is no guarantee that it will pay off. Some investments reap rewards, others may not. The folks at Caterpillar understand this and the corporation has used a multi-faceted approach to technician development that has embedded itself into both high school and college driven programs. The company’s leadership in technician education has positioned it well for the future … their plan is simple. Up the starting pay ante and sign up the best young technical minds when they are young. Invest in that potential by training them to the utmost extent. Reward loyalty. Overall the formula cannot fail. The rest of industry will have no choice but to follow.

Rescue action plan

It is clear to me that industry must begin to invest in education at all levels. Sitting back and waiting for whatever product is churned out by the school system has not worked. Investing in general education rather than specific vocational programs means lobbying influence to all levels of formal schooling, not just the final two grades of high school. In the state of Illinois, Caterpillar is the largest employer followed by Navistar International. Should companies such as these elect to play a role in influencing what happens in classrooms, lawmakers and educators would have no choice but to listen. I believe that outside of the handful of top flight universities and another handful of exclusive private schools, education is in crisis. The fiscal ROI of modern, publicly funded education, is pitiful; no corporation would put up with it. So why do we?

The fix cannot be left in the realm of educators alone. It is simply not in their interests to overhaul the current system. Until we recognize the role education plays in the economic health and general well being of society, we will lose ground to countries that do value and nurture their education infrastructure. Education is everyone’s responsibility. Parents, grade school, high school, college and employers all have different roles.  Any companies who currently feel that vo-tech colleges should be supplying them with a finished product and that education is someone else’s responsibility will either change … or not survive the next decade.

Sean Bennett

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