Friday Fun: Spotting Talent


It’s a Friday and sometimes that’s an excuse for a slightly off-topic post 🙂

Earlier in the week, I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 whilst preparing a meal. The programme was a short documentary where a famous piece of art was taken into a primary school (instead of taking the school to the museum).

The painting was shrouded in a cover and revealed to a class of young children. And the teacher asked them what they first thought when they saw the picture.

…pregnant pause…

“Don’t be afraid to speak up,” prompted the teacher.

At which point, the boldest child shouted out ‘It’s great!’. Another agreed and it got a bit noisy as others chimed up with similar words.

And then a quiet voice asked “Why is it so colourful?”

What a beautiful question. The teacher talked about how it had been painted in the Summer and a short discussion about colours took place.

Then an even quieter voice asked ‘How much does it cost?”

The conversation did make me smile. Whilst it’s great to encourage children to be bold and brave, to not be afraid to speak up, I’d be more chuffed if my child was one of those thoughtful quieter ones. Preferably the budding creative, but a future Richard Branson would do too. Curiosity trumps just shouting out what you think is the right answer. To steal a line from one of my mentors, always be learning.

Rethinking education and beyond


More children will leave school in the next 30 years than have left school in its entire history
– Stephen Heppell

A great video on YouTube explores the increasingly urgent need to rethink education in a networked society:

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But there is another question that also needs to be asked – what is the future definition of work, or the ‘job’? We are seeing people increasingly having far more education than available jobs require. That doesn’t make anybody happy.

I read an interesting (worrying) comment in a book recently

Great wealth is naturally persistent, generation-to-generation, as is deep poverty, but a middle-class status has not yet proven to be stable without [intervention]. – Jaron Lanier

In the current economic climate, the government mantra is that we need economies to begin growing again. But the underlying assumption is that growth creates jobs for everyone. It worked in the past, it may not work quite so well in the future. There are currently two critical trends emerging that have far-reaching consequences for job markets: freelancers and automation. Both are being created as a result of technological advances and neither help grow or sustain the middle class that is needed for a stable society.

The Internet has made it much much easier to connect freelancers with clients for work. But most of the work being bid for is of a task-specific nature. To do well as a freelancer, you either need to be really really good at doing something (either naturally and through years of toil with a portfolio to prove it or stay in education to Ph.D and beyond as the new short cut to get started), or you need to be really really cheap. There’s very little market for those in the middle.

Advances in automation and analytics are leading to machines performing more and more tasks better than humans. Not just through efficiency but through computation and analysis. A lot of manufacturing has been relocated to countries with the cheapest and largest quantities of human resources. If many of those roles get eliminated through automation, rising energy and transportation costs could lead to the factories being relocated again for different efficiencies. What happens to the hundreds of thousands of engineering students graduating annually from those countries?

These questions are not easily answered in a blog post and plenty of books are being published that explore both the optimistic and pessimistic outlook for technology advancement and population growth. But it is not just the education process that needs rethinking.

To close out where we started, the following video was uploaded to YouTube in October 2007 with a more near-term perspective

When I graduate I will probably get a job that doesn’t exist today

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  • Who Owns The Future? by Jaron Lanier, published 2013 by Allen Lane
  • Robot Futures by Illah Reza Nourbakhsh, published 2013 by MIT Press
  • The Future of Learning, Networked Society by Ericcson, 2012
  • The Lights In The Tunnel by Mark Ford, self-published in 2009

Related blog posts

Wikipedia and Education

world in a web

Earlier this year, the Thinking Digital conference took place in the UK. I wasn’t there in person this year but lucky for me and others, the great Thinking Digital team live streamed some of the keynotes and are now publishing them online for viewing on-demand.

One fabulous and inspiring talk was by Jack Andraka who, at just 16 years old, has invented a dramatic advancement in the testing process for pancreatic cancer.

Was he a child scholar completing his nth doctorate at an Ivy League or Russell group university, having finished high school at the age of 5. No. Clearly from just listening to his talk, he is very very bright. But his invention didn’t come from being a studious genius ‘ahead of his time’ pharmacology graduate. It came from a personal story and desire to figure something out. And it started with Google and Wikipedia.

So many authorities in education dismiss the Internet and tools like Wikipedia as dumbing down education. They so miss the point. We have tools now that enable anybody with an Internet connection to embark on an intellectual and/or emotional journey of their choosing. Our schools need to foster that desire, not squish it out because it doesn’t conform to the text books of old.

And for anyone who is thinking ‘well he’s a one-off, a genius’. Consider the following quote from his talk

I decided to go online and found 200 professors that had anything to do with pancreatic cancer… so I sent off 200 emails… I got 199 rejections… However, eventually, one person finally said yes. Well it was more of a maybe…

Success is never just about talent. It’s never just about hard work either. It is crucial to have the persistence to get others involved.  I admire Jack because that last aspect is one of my own weaknesses. And this is not something being taught well enough in schools. That needs to change. The world has become so much more connected, success or failure is going to have a lot more to do with relationships than ever before. Yes, that has always been true to some degree. And yes, some people are lucky to be born into circles that come with ready made connections that give them a significant advantage or head start. Just as there are still too many people born into conflicted areas of the world with more pressing needs than an iPhone. But for those of us privileged enough to be living in stable societies that are connected to the Internet, we can become part of any social network if we really want to. It’s not that long ago such an opportunity simply didn’t exist for those born outside of elite circles.

A closing quote from Jack and the video is embedded after. Take a break and enjoy. It’s worth 12 minutes out of your day to listen to his story.

I’m a 15 year old. What degree do I have? High school biology – Woot! … I was able to develop a sensor that can detect pancreatic cancer without even knowing what a pancreas was. Using just Google and Wikipedia.

Just imagine what you could do.

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Source: Thinking Digital on Vimeo and you can follow Jack Andraka on Twitter

Trends in Education

A summary of videos and articles from the past 5 years discussing the future needs for education.

Ken Robinson TED Talk: Do school’s kill creativity?

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Snippets from articles

How do you best prepare for the creative age? – Hugh Macleod, Apr 2012

To mas­si­vely over-simplify, there were two main pha­ses in the his­tory of edu­ca­tion, pre-industrial and indus­trial. The first meant only the clergy and the sons of the elite were pro­perly edu­ca­ted. Then along comes the second, indus­trial phase. Edu­ca­tion on a mass-universal scale.

Per­so­nally, I had a pretty good for­mal edu­ca­tion. I lear­ned to study and pass tests.

I don’t think that’s enough any­more, as the THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS of under-employed and unem­plo­yed uni­ver­sity gra­dua­tes with good gra­des in Europe and Ame­rica will tes­tify. They pas­sed all their tests fine…

What makes a great teacher? – The Atlantic, Jan 2010

Parents have always worried about where to send their children to school; but the school, statistically speaking, does not matter as much as which adult stands in front of their children.

The New Literacy – Clive Thompson, Wired, Aug 2009

Technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it… young people today write far more than any generation before them. That’s because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text.

Educators take Web 2.0 to school – Larry Magid, CNet, Jul 2009

“Whether it’s a wiki or Twitter, the notion of a participatory culture–upstream and downstream–is not going away,” Chris Lehman, Principal of Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.

Why I am not a professor: the decline and fall of the British University – Dr Mark Tarva, 2007

Universities are the last bastions of mediaevalism left in modern society outside, perhaps, the church.  Like churches they attracted a certain type of person who did not share the values of the commercial world. Poor communication, expensive reading materials and illiteracy were the foundation blocks for the universities. If today we have excellent communications, free online information and general literacy, we also have an environment in which the universities are struggling to maintain their position.

The Future of Learning, Networked Society – Ericsson

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Online Education Links

The Education Bubble

boy blowing bubbles (iStockPhoto image)

Sarah Lacy has written article on TechCrunch (link at the end of this post) covering her interview with Peter Thiel. It neatly gets to the heart of the problem with higher education. Although targeting the US. The UK certainly has the same problem, if not other countries too.

Here are some highlights but read the article for the full story:

“A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” he says. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.”

Like the housing bubble, the education bubble is about security and insurance against the future. Both whisper a seductive promise into the ears of worried Americans: Do this and you will be safe. The excesses of both were always excused by a core national belief that no matter what happens in the world, these were the best investments you could make. Housing prices would always go up, and you will always make more money if you are college educated.

Like any good bubble, this belief– while rooted in truth– gets pushed to unhealthy levels.

I didn’t go to university for two reasons. 1. I had no idea what I wanted to do (well I kind of did, but I’d blown my chances by being lazy through school and not getting the grades I should have), 2. Going to university meant giving up my horse since neither my parents or me could afford both (they couldn’t really afford either).  The thought of leaving university with any debt at all was enough to put me off going. As it turns out, career-wise everything turned out OK.  I took a partial degree in computer science through evening classes, whilst working full-time and confining horse riding to the weekends. After hitting degree-postered brick walls for a few years, I found myself working at Microsoft. Where people seemed to either have a Ph.D from Oxbridge or no degree like me. And at last I was able to flourish.

A higher education can certainly help ease your path into the world of work. But not at any cost, financially or emotionally. Determined and talented people will still succeed with or without the certificate. One road is just a little bumpier, harder and longer than the other.

…Or at least it used to be. With the rise of tuition fees, debts above ÂŁ30,000 are going to become the norm for many new graduates. Regardless of university or degree. That’s a lot of baggage to carry into work and a bubble that needs bursting.

The full article on TechCrunch: Peter Thiel: We’re in a Bubble and It’s Not the Internet. It’s Higher Education.