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History Table of Contents
1993 Summer Conference
 
Summer Conference 1993
The Challenge of Lifelong Learning in an Era of Global Change

Delivering Educational Excellence Part 2

MICHAEL JOHN McKAY,
Astronaut, Canadian Space Agency

Has the education system prepared people for the challenges of the future?

In typical Canadian fashion, I am going to say, yes and no.

Technically, I think that we are very good at instruction. Our teaching models, our methods, are planning, our organization of teaching is exceptional. We can come up with curriculum, the course plans, the lesson plans, the exams. We can design the university curriculum and we can deliver instruction in a very excellent way.

Part of the problem that the engineering stereotype is based upon, is that we often sacrifice breadth in order to get quick results, rapid production and sacrifice for the engineers a little bit of the humanities and maybe for the humanities side, a little bit of the science, in order to get someone through university quickly.

So, the question for me is not how to teach, but more what to teach. It is a question of leadership, or as I look at it, a bit of a lack of leadership. There are some analogies of leadership that I would like to share with you that come out of the management school.

One of them would be that if you can imagine teachers as being the people chopping their way through a forest using machetes. Behind them are the administrators and the managers, sharpening the machetes, bringing them food and things like that. The leader is the one at the top of the tree looking around and yelling down, "wrong forest."

Another analogy has to do with climbing the ladder of success only to find that it is leaning on the wrong wall.

It is that direction, where are we going to go and what are we going to teach And I guess the question for all of the students is that at the end of all of this work, at the end of studying, at the end of all of this time, is my education going to be useful for anything

Many of the speakers have spoken of the ability to learn, and the curiosity that you require to learn. The key is problem solving abilities. And that is key for anybody that works in a technical area. You have to be able to solve problems.

The problem with that is that I find the emphasis on problem solving coming too late. The only place that I have ever seen problem solving taught in a systematic way is in the class for high school dropouts. That is too late.

I am going to go back to management, business to give you another example of that.

There was a company that produced televisions, which is out of business now for a very good reason. They had an automated line and producing a television is a very complicated business. It is a very complex machine and mistakes do happen when they are putting it together. If the TV didn't work properly, they would pull it off and put it on another line called the recovery line. And on that recovery line you had high paid technicians find the fault and repair it. Now in order to become more competitive, the manager of this particular company decided he would automate his recovery line. This is a stupid idea.

I could give you an example of another approach to this. Motorola makes little pagers. They are very good at it. If a pager rolls off of the assembly line and it doesn't work, it gets smashed.

The onus is on the people building it to get it right and if they don't do it right, the company is not going to sell any. It is the responsibility of the people working on the line to get it right the first time.

Just as an absurd example, try that with high school education; a kid graduates from high school and can't read... and bang, dead. And we will make the teachers feel guilty for it.

The thinking behind total quality management is that you don't try and cover up your mistakes, or repair your mistakes, you stop making mistakes.

If you can teach the problem solving, teach it early as possible and hopefully you will not have to be teaching it after the kids have dropped out of school when they need it to survive. What I am getting at is that you want to make generalist of the students.

And another model you might want to consider is the Japanese model, where industry is the one responsible for specific training. Out of the school you get generalists that are hired almost out of high school by industry and they go to university and they do specific job training or specific skill training with the industry for one or two years before they get into their jobs.

The other part of that – besides what to teach, is when to teach.

Everybody who teaches wants to teach motivated students. What do you need in order to be a motivated student? I think you need a dream. You need to have some specific goal that you are going to be shooting for in the long run. And dreams require role models and society has to provide role models.

Because of the nature of my job, I just happen to be one.

But, I look at the people that I am competing against as a role model for young people and find I am competing with the sports, and the music industry. And I find that there is a very large lack of learning oriented role models.

If you ask the teenagers in high school who their role models are, I am sure that they could tell you an awful lot about their sports heroes or the rock bands, who plays in them, and when they were formed and what their hit songs are.

But ask them to name a living physicist, chemist, mathematician, or somebody from the humanities, and identify what that person has done. I doubt that you would get an answer. So, the challenge basically for us, and for society, to elevate these people to a little bit higher level, to make them visible so that the students can identify with them or use them as role models.

The other part of when to teach, is what we do right now– impose motivation through discipline. We do that to save time.

Some of the best students that I have seen have been older students that have found that dream rather late in life and have come back to school. And maybe we should be allowing people to do that.

When it comes to lifelong learning, I am reminded of a hero to electrical engineers, called Dr. Hamming, who is responsible for things like the Hamming code and he has won a couple of Nobel prizes.

He talked about how to do Nobel prize winning work and his theories sort of relate to lifelong learning and the challenges. He said that if you want to win the Nobel prize, you have to do Nobel prize winning work.

He has a method for it and his basic plan is that you have to be aware, first of all, of what the problems are. So, part of his time was spent identifying all the current problems and figuring out what were the most important problems. Another part of his time was spent developing tools which are a way to solve problems. And he would spend a lot of time finding and developing new tools. Every time he developed a new tool, he would try it against his list of problems. Every time he found an unsolved problem, he would try and tackle it with all of the tools he had at his command. And he got lucky, a lot of the time.

He developed many inventions and won the Nobel prize, so its obviously a system that works. And it is a system of lifelong learning.

You can apply that in technical applications, to businesses, the humanities and for the students. For the student, I find this an interesting analogy. If they start thinking of their technical training and scholastic training as tools and you are gathering tools, it answers a lot of the questions like, what good is math?

And it is a good analogy up to a point. The problem that I have with it is that it doesn't apply to people. It is very difficult to apply that to people problems. The people problems that we are faced with, such as interpersonal skills, resolution, negotiation, understanding and tolerance, maturity, independence, and interdependence and all of those other things that we have to learn. And these sort of skills you don't really develop, you learn them.

And you learn them mostly from the home, the church, the playground. All of that is a real personal journey of discovery and we watch and we observe and we see, we choose the qualities that we want in our own personalities. And choice is very important. You don't often think of it like that but we choose who we are going to be. We choose the qualities we want in ourselves and you can turn that around and use that as a great power. The choices that you make in your life can be changed.

I am who I am today because of the choices I made in my past. And because I have the power to choose, tomorrow, I can choose differently.

So, lifelong learning to me also involves this continual self discovery; discovery of who I am and who I want to be and trying to reach that. It would be nice if we could teach that at an early age.

As George Bernard Shaw said: People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world, are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want and if they don't find them, they make them.

We have the power to choose, we have the power to make the circumstances for ourselves, we just have to do it.