Striving for simplicity

Simplicity is a fundamental tenet of good engineering, but our anonymous blogger see precious little of this vital quality in our engineering education system

Education is the process of learning, and one would hope that part of that process is about building on what we have learnt from the past. “K-I-S-S” Keep It Simple, Stupid is a fairly recent concept. Attributed to Kelly Johnson, who was the Chief Engineer responsible for some interesting designs at Lockheed including the SR-71 Blackbird and the U2 spy plane, K-I-S-S was inspired by a desire to keep designs as simple as possible so that the US Air Force could carry out maintenance and repair more quickly and easily.

The SR-71 Blackbird: amazingly, an example of ‘keep it simple, stupid’ engineering

Interestingly, however, the principle of keeping things simple can be traced all the way back to the Middle Ages with William of Ockham and his ‘Razor’. Occam’s Razor refers to shaving away at all the assumptions and complexity associated with a hypothesis to make it as simple, and therefore as effective, as possible.

Now, K-I-S-S can be applied to all sorts of things and when an operator at work asked me if I could get some information on Apprenticeship schemes, I wished that it had been applied to the structure of those schemes. Despite being the product of an apprenticeship myself, I struggled to relate to the 3 levels, Intermediate (level 2), Advanced (level 3) and Higher (level 4), as well as the different types of technical qualification associated with each (underpinned by the Quality Credits Framework which seems to be entwined with the National Occupational Standards which in turn seem to be regulated by the Sector Skills Council and provide qualifications up to Foundation Degree level). In the end, I printed off some fairly confusing generic information and advised that he talk someone in the HR department of an organisation that runs a good scheme.

I wasn’t too surprised by the confusing state of affairs. In the past I have interviewed A level students that were going to study engineering at university and I had to enquire what multiple science award meant and what is studied when doing a GCSE in Resistant Materials. Not so long ago the government were busy adding Diplomas to the range oNational Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) that currently run in parallel to more academic qualifications and then, more recently the new government added a baccalaureate as an award for a certain pick and mix combination of GCSEs. Even before we had chance to see the results of these new schemes the curiously named English Baccalaureate (E-Bac) has been announced.

So how about keeping qualifications and career development routes as clear and simple as possible (but no simpler) as well as providing sufficient continuity for employers and individuals to understand the awards and qualifications on offer? My suggestion is that ministers should learn some lessons from the past and strive for greater simplicity in the education and award system. Still, maybe that’s why I’m not a politician.