Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Real life and learning

Eldest on Skype this morning was tearful because she'd performed poorly (For her) in a test. She's passed, but she wanted to do better, and being who she is was getting pretty wound up. Mrs S began the talkdown, and I pitched in with some helpful hints upon how to address the issue. Go talk to lecturers and markers, we advised. Find out exactly what they want, not do the 100 metres conclusion jump and end up stuck in some emotional slough of despond. Eldest calmed down a little and we talked her through the process.

This triggered a number of memories about my own college studies and mentoring Mrs S through the last two years of her degree course. Now I went to Technical college and night school, not University, to get my inch thick stack of work related certificates. I'm a working stiff who expects to pay his own way, but I digress.

One of the first modules Mrs S got bogged down on was on system security. On the first test in the module, she scored a disappointing fifty six percent, and just like Eldest, got all emotional and tearful about it. She knew she had all her facts right, she could backtrack to the source information, and yes, it said exactly what she wrote down in the essay. The facts were definitely there. In our estimation the test mark should have been far higher. It was down to me to give her a hug and do the 'there, there' thing even when I should have been doing my own stuff. I pointed out that maybe it wasn't the core information, it was her presentation that was at fault. "But that way it doesn't make sense!" Mrs S protested. "I've tried that in my job and it doesn't work!"
To which I replied; "Yes dear, but perhaps that's the way they want your information presented."
"We did that two years ago. It's crap!" She said angrily.
"You know it doesn't work. I know it won't work, but this is University, not real life." I responded, wondering idly if the off licence was still open so I could buy more Whiskey. What with the emotional fallout from the course and teenage stepdaughters I tended to need the odd large drink during those years.

After a great deal of grumbling, I got her to ask her course advisers a number of pointed questions specific to the text in the low mark essay, and together we formulated a strategy. Mrs S restructured her subsequent submitted pieces of work to the required format and guess what? After a couple of tries her marks shot up to eighty six percent. A clear thirty percent increase, all because she asked the Lecturers how they wanted the essay submissions structured. Her marks throughout the next two years never dipped below seventy nine percent per essay (Including finals), for which she got a respectable 2:1.

After that, Mrs S went back to her job and carried on as she had before. The degree certificate is mounted in a nice frame, but the learning it took to get is hardly used. Mainly because the gulf between academia and real life is often quite a broad one.

As an apprentice, I recall working alongside those more academically gifted and looking at the work they turned out. Oft was heard the plaintive cry of; "Yeah, but that's what the textbook said!" When flinty-eyed Managers asked why this or that had gone pear shaped. As a lowly apprentice, I hid my smirk and learned to trust the input of my senses, developing my 'Engineers feel' of metals and measuring tools. Happy to be a lowly Technician and not a high flyer. We used to reckon it took a good three to five years at least to get an Engineering graduate to a reasonable standard of competence, such were some of the howlers our graduates designed. A 12ft long, unsupported lateral shaft was one such classic (Massive vibration due to microscopic changes in material density would have shaken it apart), critically overloading phases in electrical plant another. Mostly these were fundamental errors we Technicians had learned about in our first year. You could almost hear our eyes rolling up into heads sometimes. However, as lowly spanner and screwdriver wielders, our opinions were not required because we weren't educated enough. Indeed.

This of course was in the days pre Blair's 'Ejucashun, educayson, edcashun' when academic rigour was more, well, rigorous. This is not to disparage Degree courses, but my point is that academic excellence does not always equip one for the outside world, which has let's say, broader boundaries. The world is a far more complex place than University alone can prepare you for. Rather like not every member of MENSA being a millionaire.

Ergo, it is my contention that not everything that emerges from say purely academic 'peer review' should be taken as gospel. Particularly studies based upon pure statistics. Interesting? Yes. Worth discussion and evaluation? Of course. Implementation without testing? Definitely not. That is what 'Science' is for, a process of weeding out the unworkable and just plain impossible to produce something that works. Axioms must be tested, dogmas challenged. All else is Alchemy, which produces nothing but some odd smells, lost fortunes, and perhaps some heavy metal poisoning.

Yet every day the media leaps on some published academic 'study', which should be no more than the starting point for discussion and testing, and posits that this is the answer to life, the Universe and everything. From medicine and disease to mass extinctions and our ever changing climate. No matter how many times cataclysmic predictions fail, like a legion of zombies they are dusted off, stood up again, and sent lurching back into the public domain. A whole stage of the scientific method is bypassed by scientifically semi literate campaigners, a sensationalising media and grant-hungry researchers. Guess who our politicians react to in their ignorance? Got it in one.

It's probably why the UK has a plague of near-useless Wind Turbines, why unvaccinated children die of otherwise preventable diseases, basic liberties have been eroded, and people take pills that may be doing more harm than good.


The Filthy Engineer said...

I learnt the same rules as you. As an engineer you have to look at what you have before you and use your experience in your field to solve them.

I have qualifications but waving a certificate over a broken main generator really won't fix it.

I had a case a year or two ago where a shipyard stated that they could only replace a broken holding down bolt on a generator by removing the generator from the ship. Cost £40,000.

I used my experience and did the same job for 10 hours of my labour and about £20 for materials.

Bill Sticker said...

A full strip out and repair for one bolt? Sounds like a well-padded quote to me.

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