Why I didn’t march for science

This is the age of Science Communication.

Science communication used to conjure up images of the BBC’s Horizon programme (when it used to be good) or of Carl Sagan talking about “billions and billions of suns” or, if we go back far enough, of Jacob Bronowski talking about the Ascent of Man.

These days, though, science communication has become big business. Richard Dawkins, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, John Gribbin, Steven Pinker, Daniel Kahnemann, Ben Goldacre and numerous others have become household names not so much for their ‘pure’ academic work but for their popularising of the sciences.

TED speakers, like American Idol contestants, have become akin to academic popstars on the basis of their short ‘inspirational’ talks delivered to adoring audiences from the now famous red spot.

Meanwhile, PhD students are urged to enter competitions in which they present their research, in an ‘engaging’ way, to lay audiences. Some attend modules where they are given training in how to write press releases, to give ‘elevator pitches’ and to present their work in easily digested soundbites in talks lasting no more than a few minutes.  It’s science for the era of short attention spans. Impact is in; nuance is out.

At the same time, universities are highly active on Twitter and the web generally, ready to spring into action and publicise the latest research output from their various research ‘centres of excellence’. Science communication has become science marketing.

The consequence of all of this ‘communication’ is that we, the public, are provided with a regular supply of science ‘stories’ that, ironically given the March for Science, are bordering on ‘fake news’. Or maybe it’s fairer to say that they are stories in which the writer is being economical with the truth. And the thing is, these stories don’t just emanate from badly-informed journalists concerned with maintaining readerships levels; they also come from within the science establishment itself.

While all science suffers from the problem of hype, it would appear that the biggest problems are to be found in the biomedical sciences. How many times do we hear of some new discovery or other (often in the very basic sciences especially human genetics) and the punchline is inevitably that the discovery could lead to treatments and even cures within a ridiculously short time period. Scientists and institutions are complicit in perpetuating a culture in which the expectations and hopes of patients and their families are raised, in most cases to be dashed when no new drugs materialise. Scientists need to be far more aware of the fact that their Pavlovian habit of ‘talking up’ the impact of their work affects real, vulnerable people. Journalists need to understand this too. When scientists claim that their discovery could lead to new treatments, many patients don’t hear the ‘could’ and even if they do, they don’t appreciate the long road from laboratory to approved drug.

Some time ago, there was a report in the media to the effect that scientists in Galway had managed to grow beating heart cells in the laboratory. The report then stated that it was hoped that the development could, in time, contribute to the development of treatments for cardiac conditions like heart failure, arrhythmia and the risk of sudden cardiac death in children. So from growing cells in a lab, a huge leap is made to the highly emotive subject of children dying from heart disease. There is nothing technically wrong with the story but it is economical with the truth in the same way as saying that if you buy a lottery ticket “it could be you”. And it all started with a press release from NUIG.

Science, especially biomedical science has a problem in that in the rush for personal and institutional prestige, the hopes, needs and fears of the patient become lost. The reputation of the researchers and the reputation of the institution are prioritised and there is a growing trend for the peer-reviewed publication of research articles to be preceded by media campaigns. And many academics are seriously discussing the use of alternative metrics to measure the quality and impact of scientific research.

All of this is tolerable if you have developed a new sensor to be used in a manufacturing process but it’s not acceptable when you are dealing with findings that raise the hopes and expectations of the vulnerable.

So instead of marching and adopting a slightly superior attitude, scientists should be asking hard questions of themselves. How many scientists have actually made an effort to get involved with national debates other than when it concerns them directly, as it does when research budgets are cut?  And how many scientists who have written letters to papers urging the government to fund more basic research have actually ever gone to the trouble of making a genuinely evidence-based case for the taxpayer to fund their academic research. Very few I suspect, as most submissions I have read rely strongly on anecdote.

I didn’t march for science because I think the whole thing came across as a bit smug at a time when science has lots of internal problems of its own, including its very own problem with fake news.

And, anyway, the Munster match was on.

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Reflections on the end of another academic year

And so another academic year ends – except for the shed loads of marking I’ve to do. Once again, I taught all years from first to fourth.  My biggest take away? The class dynamic is a mysterious thing.

Final year students are generally easy to teach. They’re usually mature, eager to do well and keen to get on with their careers and lives. First years are also easy to teach but only if the class size is small (as mine is), and not if you have to endure one of those mega-classes where 250+ students are crammed into an enormous lecture theatre for hours on end.  (Advocates of ‘broad entry’ take note.)

When you get the chance to work closely with first years, you find them to be raw, enthusiastic and a little naive. And there’s a pervasive sense in the class that they are embarking on a great journey. Everything is possible.

It’s with second and third years that the challenges lie, at least in my experience. It’s because of my experience with these groups of students that I would never have the nerve to make a blanket statement that I am a ‘good lecturer’.

I would hope that I am ‘good’ at least some of the time but I know there are times when I’m just adequate. But it’s not simple a question of having ‘off’ days. It’s more to do with the class dynamic and how I connect with that dynamic. It’s easy to teach bright enthusiastic students and over the years I have taught many classes where the general positivity in the class brought out the best in me. In those situations I think I have been ‘good’.

But there have been class groups over the years who just exuded negativity and apathy. There was never any malice involved and the individual students have always been very nice people in their own right. But when they got together for lectures, or even labs, they seemed to behave with a sort of hive mind, everyone a bit resentful and grumpy and seeing everything as an imposition on them. I’m not sure why that happens and I’m sure psychologists have studied group dynamics to death but when there is an air of negativity in a class it can drag the lecturer down despite their best efforts.

I know that there have been occasions when I could feel my enthusiasm fade within minutes of entering a class. In situations like that I don’t think I have been ‘good’ at all and that is a failure on my part.

But there’s always next year!

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Overhauling the Leaving Cert: Dos and Don’ts


After reading this article Is our education system fit for purpose in the 21st-century?  I re-read a blog I had written a while back in which I suggested that the Leaving Cert is probably un-reformable. The key word there was ‘probably’ and today I’m going to suggest a few things that we could do, things that could actually be implemented without industrial unrest.

First we have to define what the problems are. For most people, the key problem is that students are rote learning to an unacceptable extent. I’m not talking about learning off the basic rules of grammar or algebra or the laws of physics (that’s good rote learning) but things like learning off stock answers to questions on English literature or History or Biology; or even learning off entire essays. I’m not sure you can really do anything about this and if you talk to undergraduate college students they will tell you that they still employ these tactics even in third and fourth year.

The second problem that people associate with the Leaving Cert is that it supposedly stifles curiosity, perhaps by not allowing students to ‘drive their own learning’ by researching topics that they personally find interesting. I’m not so sure about all of this because I see a lack of curiosity in not only my undergrads but also in PhD students and even fellow academics.  Many of my colleagues, for example, have little or no interest in topics that are even a small bit removed from their area of expertise. In my experience, genuine intellectual curiosity, in a broad sense, is quite rare.  I also think that effect of the internet and especially social media has been huge and while Google gives us unprecedented access to information, most of us are using this access for socialising rather than learning, a wasting a lot of time in the process.

The third perceived problem is that the way students are assessed in a single high-stakes pen-and-paper exam is too limited and is incapable of testing a broad range of skills and talents. I would agree with this.

There are probably other complaints you could make, the main one being the fact that students from affluent backgrounds can avail of exam coaching in grind schools thus giving themselves an unfair advantage over their less well-off peers.

But what’s good about the Leaving Cert? For me it has too things going for it: (i) it is knowledge-rich and (ii) it is broad-based. Someone who leaves school with a decent Leaving Cert can consider themselves to be a reasonably well-educated person.

So how can we make it better? First let’s say what we shouldn’t do. First, we shouldn’t listen to CEOs of multinational companies. Multinationals employ graduates, not school-leavers, so if they want to engage with the educations system they should be talking to the universities and the IoTs. And when I say ‘they’, I don’t mean CEOs, I mean employees who actually work with graduates. Second we should not get caught up in 21st century waffle and obsess about trying to teach ‘skills’ like problem-solving, creativity, innovation, communication, collaboration, emotional intelligence etc. as if these things existed independently of knowledge acquisition. (Who wants to collaborate with someone who knows nothing?) If you have any doubts about this, just check out what’s going on in Scotland where the introduction of a so-called ‘progressive’ approach to education (the Curriculum for Excellence) is associated with a significant drop in PISA scores. Thirdly, and this is related to the last point, we should not fall for teaching approaches based on inquiry or discovery. These methods don’t work at this level. They do work at senior undergraduate and postgraduate level but not in secondary school.

The main thing we need to do is to introduce a bit of diversity into how we assess students. But we have to be careful and not fall into the trap of conducting large scale education experiments potentially at the expense of students. This is essentially what we’re doing with the Junior Cycle.

Education reform has to be done incrementally as was done with Project Maths. More importantly, every reform should be evaluated and changes made as required. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that mistakes have been made. For example recent research shows that we should be concerned about the fact that Project Maths seems to be causing a reduction in basic mathematical skills in first year college students. We don’t need to ditch Project Maths because of this but we do need to modify it in some way.

So we need to conduct some pilot studies on the use of things like: having more assessments (perhaps at the end of each term but not necessarily in all subjects); tailoring the method of assessment to the subject – using some computer-based assessments in mathematics, for example; introducing some multiple choice teststhey’re a lot better than people think if designed well; introducing comparative judgment (to reward original thinking) as opposed to the current marking-scheme approach that encourages the student to supply what he/she thinks the examiner wants. These are all initiatives that can be tried within the context of current system – a revolution is not required.

Of course there is a cost associated with all change especially if computers are involved.

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Higher education, language and the 21st century

This interview with DCU’s Brian McCraith (aka my boss!) got me thinking about expectations. It is quite clear from the interview that if you are to have any conversation about higher education these days and generate one of those word clouds, it would be filled with words like: creativity, innovation, adaptability, emotional intelligence, problem-solving, critical thinking, literacy (digital and otherwise), learning-to-learn, etc.

It’s not just employers that are using these words; plenty of academics use them as well. Last week we had an online brainstorming session here in DCU (we called it DCUFuse) and I was struck by how often phrases and words like ‘problem solving’, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘creativity’ came up. There was lots of good debate as to whether these ‘skills’ can be taught and whether they are domain-dependent (they are!). It was all healthy stuff – and fun too.

But it did occur to me afterwards to ask myself why the language that we use in higher education has become so dominated by these words and phrases, and why we no longer seem to use words like ‘knowledge’ or ‘enlightenment’ or ‘wisdom’ or even what seems now like a quaint term, ‘educated’.

I think there are a few reasons. First, higher education has become dominated by the STEM disciplines. In Ireland, for example, all of the Presidents of our seven universities are trained in science, engineering or medicine. I suspect that is part of an international trend. Furthermore, hardly a week goes by without an article appearing in the paper about some aspect of STEM education. And words like problem-solving and innovation are part of the natural vocabulary of STEM. Indeed, when academics try to defend the humanities they tend to default to the language of STEM, emphasising the value of the humanities for helping students to develop – you guessed it – their critical thinking / problem-solving skills.

Second, there is a widespread belief that the 21st century is ‘different’ and that the skills that humanity always had, and always needed, are now needed more than ever. There is a vaguely defined sense that this century is more complicated, and changing at an “exponential” pace, and there is even a suggestion that our very survival depends on our ability to solve problems and innovate our way out of danger. Personally, I don’t buy any of this. I think the whole 21st century ‘thing’ is little more than lazy thinking. It involves people extrapolating from the obvious fact that digital technologies are developing very quickly to adopting a belief that everything is changing and, for some ill-defined reason, becoming more complicated in the process.

The third point is perhaps the most worrying. Although academics use the language mentioned above, it is really employers and recruiters who tend to speak in this ‘language of the 21st century’. The question is, therefore: are employers speaking like this because they are dissatisfied with our graduates? Do they see them as being immature, unable to think for themselves, lacking in initiative and ambition, followers rather than leaders, fearful even. If they do, then is it a case that the expectations of employers are unrealistic or is it that the graduates we are ‘producing’ are lacking the skills and attributes that it would be quite reasonable for an employer to expect in any century?

If there is a widespread belief among employers that our graduates are seriously deficient in certain areas, then we have to ask ourselves if this is a new phenomenon that is related in any way to the changes that have occurred in higher education over the last twenty years. And what has changed? A lot actually: widespread use of continuous assessment to ‘incentivise’ students to study consistently; more exams of shorter duration and covering smaller ‘chunks’ of content; a general reduction in content and contact time; increased use of feedback; provision of lecture notes on Moodle/Blackboard; a general sense that students should know precisely what is required of them to achieve certain grades; learning outcomes; increased expectations of academics to be ‘there’ for students.

In short, the gap between higher education and secondary school education has narrowed. You could argue that the former has become an extension of the latter.

Have the changes we have made improved our ‘teaching’ but fundamentally changed the nature of what we are doing? And are employers seeing the effects of these changes?  It’s worth thinking about.

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Should lecturers have to have a formal teaching qualification?

The short answer is “I don’t know” because I haven’t yet taken the time to look at the evidence. It would be hard, though, to argue against lecturers undergoing some sort of ‘teacher’ training since, after all, a major part of our job is ‘teaching’. But what sort of things would it be useful for us to learn?

As readers of this blog will know, I have some difficulty with the whole field of education. I think it is very ideology-driven and occupies a space somewhere between science and philosophy/social science. It seems to me that debate is often impossible for the simple reason that people have fundamental disagreements over the very purpose of education. It can be quite frustrating really.

Take the new (Irish) Junior Cert curriculum where students will take 400 hours of a new subject called ‘Wellbeing’. This compares to 240 hours devoted to Mathematics. You and I can argue all day about whether this makes sense but we will never agree because we probably have expectations of the education system that are fundamentally different. Personally, I would be a traditionalist and would see schooling in predominantly academic terms and this probably reflects my own life experience as much as anything. Traditional education has been good to me. You, on the other hand, might see education as a place where the young person is prepared for living safely and healthily in the modern world. My own view is that by focusing on the immediate relevance of education, you would be setting the bar too low and ultimately denying young people access to a body of knowledge that if they’re not exposed to at school, they never will be. And in my view, acquiring knowledge is life enhancing – but it does require effort and it’s much easier when you have a good teacher.

Anyway, to get back to the point, if we lecturers are to undergo training in education, I believe we should steer well clear of the philosophy or sociology of education or anything that is too worldview-dependent. Teaching at any level is a craft so we need to learn things that will help us understand and improve our craft. So if I were designing a 30-credit postgraduate certificate in Teaching in Higher Education, it would look something like this:

  • Cognitive Science (10 credits)
  • Psychology (5 credits)
  • Developing Online Resources (5 credits)
  • Module Design and Assessment (5 credits)
  • Issues in Contemporary Education (5 credits – mini-thesis)

I’ll expand on this some other day.

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Axl Rose and Progressive Education

Reading this article in Guardian about the worrying decline in the performance of the Scottish Education system, I couldn’t help but think about the words of that great philosopher, Axl Rose. Actually they’re not really his words – they’re from the movie Cool Hand Luke but he says them at the start of the song, Civil War, from the album Use Your Illusion II.

The famous words are the following: “Some men you just can’t reach”. And when it comes to education, I suspect we will never reach those who believe in progressive education, and ‘believe’ is the appropriate word. What is progressive education? Well, it’s a sort of mish-mash of a number of ideas but the following are some of beliefs of the progressive educator:

  • A tendency to claim that the progressive or constructivist approach is more ‘student-centred’ than more traditional, teacher-led education
  • A tendency to emphasise and assume the superiority of all forms of active learning especially methods than could be classified as inquiry-based or discovery-based
  • A tendency to characterise memorisation as little more than ‘rote learning’
  • A tendency to characterise teacher-led education as conforming to a 19th century ‘factory model’ that is unsuitable (in some unspecified way) for the 21st century
  • A tendency to believe that advances in digital technology have changed everything and that the consequence of these advance is to make the world much more complex, requiring new ways of thinking
  • A strong tendency to view education in very utilitarian terms as evidenced by the repeated use of phrases like “authentic real world problems” and “relevant to learners’ lives”
  • A strong preference for the word ‘learner’ rather than ‘student’ or ‘pupil’
  • A tendency to believe that ‘understanding’ is more important than an ability to ‘do’ and a tendency to see ‘understanding’ and ‘remembering’ as fundamentally different cognitive processes
  • A belief that the way we learn should mimic how we live and work in the ‘real world’ – a bit like saying that rugby teams should prepare only by playing 15-a-side, full-contact practice matches.
  • A tendency to equate ‘engaging’ with learning and a tendency to use the word ‘engage’ a lot
  • A tendency to believe that supposedly generic skills like problem-solving and creativity can be taught in one domain and that these ‘skills’ will automatically transfer to other domains
  • An almost obsessive belief that learning should be a collaborative process
  • A tendency to believe that teaching within the framework of well-defined disciplines is inferior to more interdisciplinary, topic-based forms of teaching – especially given the ‘complexities’ of the 21st

Ideas and beliefs like those listed above are proving very hard to shift despite the fact that both PISA 2012 (maths) and PISA 2015 (science) cast very serious doubts on them, and despite the fact that countries that have embraced these ideas (Scotland, some Canadian states, Australia) are going backwards in the PISA rankings. We should also mention the fact that here in Ireland, the Project Maths initiative is associated with a decline in basic mathematical skills in higher education (Treacy, Faulkner, Prendergast; Irish Educ. Studies, 35, 381-401, 2016.)

The usual counter-arguments from progressive educators (who, by the way, need not buy in to the full list of beliefs above) are the following: PISA and standardised tests generally are very limited in scope and there is more to education than tests, especially in the 21st century (that word again!); or it takes time to bed-in new ideas and we need to be patient; or teachers aren’t implementing these ‘new’ ideas  properly and need further training etc. etc.

It is interesting to watch someone like Andreas Schleicher, head of OECD Education, who is clearly a ‘progressive’, respond when his own research (PISA) doesn’t support the progressive philosophy. When PISA showed that use of computers in the classroom correlated negatively with computer literacy, or when PISA showed that inquiry based methods were inferior to teacher-led methods in both maths and science, his cognitive dissonance was palpable. Now he seems to be really digging in his heels and simply repeating the same old slogans as if his hands were placed tightly over his ears. (See this wonderful debate between Schleicher and Daisy Christodoulou and Nick Gibb*. There was also an Argentinian guy who didn’t say much.)

So, getting back to Axl Rose and his quote, I think we have a fundamental problem in that education is not really an academic discipline – yet. (Did I say that out loud?) It’s too riddled with deeply-held ideologies and beliefs and no matter how many graphs that people like me churn out, others will hold on tight to their beliefs and plough on regardless. Our thoughts about education are very much intertwined with our ideas about motivation, fairness, equity, child-rearing and compassion, and also very much influenced by our own personal experiences of education.

But it’s not hopeless and some real debate can be started when we elect politicians who have a good grasp of the issues, like Nick Gibb in the UK who whatever faults he might have in other areas, is at least aware of the tradition versus progressive debate. This is in contrast to Irish politicians who, despite the fact that so many of them are ex-teachers, seem to have a very unquestioning mindset when it comes to education policy.

 

 

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The skills shortage paradox

This is the era of STEM. Youngsters are constantly exhorted to forge careers in STEM because, apparently, STEM is where the jobs are. This is the 21st century after all.

The STEM campaign has been broadly ‘successful’ and the number of CAO first preferences for STEM subjects has risen from around 18.7% in 2008 to 23.7%. At the same time there has been a drift away from the arts and humanities; 25.6% in 2008 to 22.0% in 2017. This is seen as a good thing.

But it does strike me that there is something wrong with the whole STEM narrative. According to the HEA, the following were the employment rates in Ireland (nine months post-graduation) for 2015 graduates for the following disciplines:

Science/Maths:                                   42% (7% abroad)

Engineering/Construction:            60% (10% abroad)

ICT:                                                        70% (6% abroad)

These numbers are …disappointing, and not what you would expect to see in a country struggling to cope as a result of skills shortages in STEM. I am amazed these numbers have received so little attention in the media and elsewhere. So what’s going on?

There are a number of possibilities:

  • When we promote the STEM concept we are being too vague and the consequence is that we might be producing too many graduates in areas for which there are, in fact, no skills shortages at all. An over-supply of graduates is likely, at least in some disciplines. For example, the job opportunities for biology graduates are probably quite different from those of physicists or mathematicians. Likewise the opportunities for chemical engineers are probably different from those of civil or electrical engineers.
  • The quality (or the skillset) of our graduates may not be what it should be and employers are recruiting internationally rather than recruiting here in Ireland. Given the number of non-Irish, EU citizens working in our tech industries, this seems a reasonable possibility.
  • The real skills shortage does not occur at entry-level but exists for graduates with 3+ years’ experience.  If this is the case, then perhaps we need to focus less on recruiting young people into STEM and more on the career paths of typical STEM graduates. Are graduates being lost somewhere along the line? Or perhaps we are in a chicken and egg situation where employers want a plentiful supply of experienced scientists and engineers but aren’t willing to make the initial investment by recruiting and training more raw graduates?
  • Graduates are choosing to get the masters degree ‘out of the way’, believing that career advancement will require a masters at some stage; so why not now?

Whatever is going on we need to be a lot more careful in our use of STEM rhetoric. We have an obligation to be straight-up with our students and that means being much more focused in our career advice. We also need employers to be much more precise and focused with their claims of skills shortages. STEM, after all, is not a thing. It’s a whole bunch of things, and quite different things at that.

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