Knowledge and problem solving

I experienced a really good example of why knowledge is an integral part of problem solving this morning.  One of my masters students comes to me with what seems to be an intractable programming (coding!) problem. He’s tearing his hair out.

When I check his program, I find that he has defined two separate but closely-related variables, namely x and x’. The result is that he’s getting error notifications and he’s fed up.

Being a chemist and given that it’s a while since he studied maths, he either doesn’t know or hasn’t remembered that x’ is sometimes used as shorthand for dx/dt and that’s what the software ‘thinks’ he’s trying to express. And the result is long, long hours of frustration.

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Are school-leavers rejecting science?

They are according to this article in the Examiner. However, let’s look at the data. The table below gives the number of first preferences for each ‘discipline’ after the February and July deadline. The % change is based on the February. Overall, there was an increase in total first preferences of 9.7% between February and July and that’s because many students express no preference in February – they effectively just get themselves registered on the system.

I’ll leave it up to you to make sense of all this.  However, it’s hard to make and argument that students are rejecting science. I suspect that if you look back over the last 5 to ten years, you’ll probably find that science is more or less at it’s natural level – and that doesn’t change a whole lot from year to year.

Incidentally, I wish the CAO would publish the July data on their website and do so every year. They do this for the February data so why not July? And why not put the data in Excel form?



July Feb % change
Built Environment 662 473 40.0
Engineering/Technology 7920 6838 15.8
Admin/Business 12750 11021 15.7
Arts 16485 14459 14.0
Ag/Hort 591 532 11.1
Dentistry 353 319 10.7
Science/Appl Science 9272 8503 9.0
Pharmacy 349 325 7.4
Education 4932 4686 5.2
Nursing 5620 5376 4.5
Law 2811 2694 4.3
Other Healthcare 2464 2369 4.0
Architecture 786 756 4.0
Art/Design 2348 2274 3.3
Physiotherapy 766 784 -2.3
Medicine 2937 3273 -10.3
Veterinary 549 612 -10.3
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Homework, Projects and Minecraft

We are all the product of our genes and life experiences and I suspect that my largely conservative views on education reflect the fact that traditional teacher-led, knowledge-rich education has had a transformational effect on my life.

The fact that education has been so kind to me means that I take it seriously – probably too seriously. So when I was driving in to work this morning listening to a discussion about homework on Newstalk Radio, I could feel my blood pressure rising. Then, as I sat in the Mater Hospital waiting for a blood test, flicking through Twitter as one does, I could feel it rising even higher.

Let’s take the Newstalk conversation first. The conversation centred on homework and whether it should be discontinued at primary level. Now, I’m not sure what the current state of thinking is regarding homework but aspects of the conversation worried me. The main guest who was herself a primary school principal (and, I think, head of the association of primary school principals) was suggesting that homework needs to challenge students in ways that the school day doesn’t and it should encompass things like physical exercise and especially the avoidance of screen time. She also raised concerns about the fact that disadvantaged students are, as you might expect, at a disadvantage when it comes to homework because they are more likely to lack the family supports and the home environment that more advantaged pupils have. She then suggested that the solution to the homework ‘problem’ was to make it more project-focused (building volcanoes was mentioned) in order to complement the more traditional learning done in class.

Now it seems to me that if you want to level the playing field, or if you want to limit screen time, assigning projects is the last thing you should do. Project work, which these days amounts to Googling and cutting and pasting, is likely to be far more problematic for kids from a disadvantaged background and is also likely to put far more stress on busy families.

What was also interesting about the discussion was that the word ‘practice’ was never mentioned. We take it for granted that homework in the form of practice is a key part of learning a musical instrument. Likewise, we accept that to become expert at any number of sports, practice is absolutely essential. Yet, when it comes to arithmetic, writing, spelling or reading or even art, we never use this word. I find it really strange that ideas and practices with which we are very comfortable in many walks of life, become ‘problematic’ when mentioned in the context of education. For some reason, many educators seem to be convinced that learning is a completely natural process that shouldn’t require the discipline and practice that music, sport, dance and art forms of all kinds require.

Having calmed down after the Newstalk interview, this article came across my timeline on Twitter. The conclusion of the article is that Minecraft helps children to:

  • To think things through.
  • To concentrate and develop a deep focus.
  • To use logic, problem-solving and goal-setting.
  • Learn from their mistakes.
  • To experiment.
  • To bring new pieces of knowledge together and use them in different ways.
  • Enjoy creativity because the game rewards it.
  • Co-operation and work with others.
  • Increase computer literacy.
  • Multi-task.

Now, I observe my son and his friends play video games all the time and I can safely say that all of the above apply equally to Super Mario Brothers, Clash of Clans, Clash Royale or any of the many games that he downloads onto my phone when I’m not looking. (Incidentally, the fact that kids develop a “deep focus” when playing computer games is a problem, not something to boast about.)

But here’s my view and I stress that it is a very personal one: play-learning with video games or Lego is not education. It’s the sort of thing you get your kids to do in a Summer camp. It’s a way of having your kids minded while doing something stimulating and vaguely educational. It doesn’t belong in the classroom. The skills you learn constructing worlds in Minecraft and completing levels in Super Mario or building Lego robots are very unlikely to transfer to other areas of life and there is a huge opportunity cost when using this approach to teaching and learning. But unfortunately we live in a time when engagement is equated with learning and this is no more evident than in the new super-discipline that we have decided to call STEM, a mish-mash of science and engineering where making structures out of spaghetti and marshmallows or making a metre-cubed out of toilet rolls is seen as an efficient and effective use of class time.

Of course, active play-learning is not necessarily all bad and only last week I saw a good example of it when my son attended an art summer camp. The theme of the camp was to create a comic-book character and what was good about it was that drawing time was interspersed with explicit instruction on developing characters, the use of fonts, shading, story-telling etc. The whole thing was focused and Leo came away having been ‘engaged’ but also having acquired very specific and tangible skills that will help in his development as an artist. Can we say such things about Lego or Minecraft or even Pokemon Go and fidget spinners? I don’t think so.

PS Leo is a doing a Lego Camp this week. He’s finding it engaging but the take-home…?

And meet Perry the Platypus


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Thoughts on Computers in Education

Over at the World Conference on Computers in Education people are tweeting about change, innovation and transformation. David Putnam is saying things like

Should we fail to radically change our approach to education, the same cohort we’re trying to ‘protect’ could find that their entire future has been scuttled by our timidity.”

Strong words indeed but fundamentally alarmist and not really based on any evidence. Indeed, I never quite understood the argument that pedagogy should continuously adapt to changes in technology simply because the technology is ‘there’.

For me, there are two main reasons why digital technology should be embraced in education.

Firstly, digital technology should be used when it is quite obvious that technology enhances learning. For example, it makes far more sense for me to explain how a centrifugal pump works by showing my students one of the many excellent animations on YouTube, rather than trying to do so by drawing diagrams on the blackboard.

Secondly,  new technologies should be embraced when those technologies have had a substantive impact on our discipline. For example, many of the (graphical) computational techniques that I was taught as a chemical engineering student are now obsolete because calculations can be done far more quickly and accurately using modern software. Therefore it makes sense for me to encourage my students to bring their laptops into my lectures and solve problems with me whether it is with Excel or WolframAlpha or simple simulation packages like Berkeley Madonna.

But – and while it is important that we constantly strive to improve learning – it strikes me that the world of education is fixated on novelty and finding solutions to ill-defined, or even undefined, problems. For example, although we can safely assume that traditional, teacher-led education played a significant role in the truly extraordinary advances that were made in the 20th century, many education theorists seemed to be convinced that the traditional approach is beset with problems, problems that make it unfit for purpose in the 21st century. This is an extraordinary claim and as Carl Sagan said, it really needs to be supported by extraordinary evidence. Does that evidence exist? I don’t think so because in my experience, change in education is driven by little more than plausibility and given the stakes, that is unacceptable.

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Women in STEM

2015 data – enrollments in Irish Universities (Mater Dei and St. Pat’s included as they are now incorporated into DCU.)


Note: gender balance in science reflects male dominance in physics and maths and female dominance in biology. Interestingly, there is parity (more or less) in chemistry.

Data is taken from new HEA website which is now excellent as it has loads of Excel files. The CAO people need to do likewise.

2 points:

  1. the idea that there is a lack of women in STEM is only partly correct.
  2. If you feel there is a need to address the lack of women in STEM, then you surely need to address the lack of men in Health/Welfare and probably in education as well.
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Why we need to get rid of STEM

On the surface, ‘STEM’ is a harmless acronym, a handy and catchy way of promoting disciplines that, let’s face it, are pretty important in this technological age.

But, to an engineer like me who has worked in a science faculty for my whole career, the idea of lumping science and engineering together, along with maths and ‘technology’, seems a bit…simplistic. In my experience, engineering is quite different from science; it’s pragmatic, solution-oriented and a bit of a black art at times. Pure science is essentially an evidence-informed search for ‘truth’, although it has to be said that in between the extremes of pure science and engineering, there is a large and diffuse grey area filled with applied science, translational science and even ‘engineering science’.

Just as importantly, the individual STEM disciplines have their own signature pedagogies. Engineering is learned largely by practice – what is often referred to as ‘doing the problems’. Biology typically requires students to assimilate large amounts of information and, being largely an experimental science, it requires students to understand and be proficient at a bewildering array of experimental techniques. No doubt, mathematicians, physicists, chemists and computer scientists can say what their signature pedagogies are.

But I could live with all of this; STEM is just an acronym after all and if it masks real differences between disciplines, just like the term ‘humanities’ does, then so what?

The problem for me is that many educators, especially primary and secondary school teachers seem to have decided to interpret ‘STEM’ as being some sort of integrated, super-discipline that must be taught using a hands-on, discovery learning approach.

The Twitter hastag, #STEM, is instructive in this regard. The vast majority of tweets seem to refer to teams of students simply making things. There seems to be an almost obsessive emphasis on Lego, Minecraft, Scratch, 3D-printing, virtual reality, automation and robots of all kinds. At times, it all looks a bit like science meets Art Attack, and STEM seems to have become a byword for building ‘sciencey’ contraptions. It seems to be mainly ‘T’ and very little ‘S’.

On one level I’ve no problem with any of this especially if it’s part of an extra-curricular approach to promoting science and engineering. However, if our curriculum designers become so fixated on promoting STEM as a super-discipline, and then fill the science curriculum with it, pupils will never acquire enough of the essential scientific knowledge that they will need if they are to aspire to  actual STEM careers, or more importantly, to be able to make sense of the world around them. Every hour spent building a bridge out of ice-pop sticks is an hour lost to learning about the natural world. And, no, Google is no substitute for being taught.

Yet, it seems to be full-steam ahead with the ‘hands-on’ approach despite the fact that discovery or project-based learning is inherently inefficient. More importantly, the discovery approach does not work very well with novice learners. Even the OECD, when issuing their 2015 PISA report, has admitted:

PISA results show that when teachers frequently explain and demonstrate scientific ideas, and discuss students’ questions (known collectively as teacher-directed instruction), students score higher in science, they have stronger beliefs in the value of scientific enquiry and are more likely to expect to work in a science-related occupation later on. Adapting to students’ needs, such as by providing individual help to struggling students or changing the structure of a lesson on a topic that most students find difficult to understand is also related to higher scores in science and stronger epistemic beliefs.

Perhaps surprisingly, in almost no education system do students who reported that they are frequently exposed to hands-on enquiry-based instruction score higher in science. After accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profiles, in 56 economies and countries, greater exposure to enquiry-based instruction is associated with lower scores in science.

The key problem here is that educators, even eminent ones, are making the classic mistake of confusing engagement with learning. Sure, pupils might be highly ‘engaged’ by all of this construction and robot-building, but the real question we need to ask is this: are they really learning anything of substance even after spending hours at the workbench. And by learning we mean “making a permanent change to their long term memory” – to use Daniel Willingham’s words.

The problem is that we are in an era when the dominant ideology (and it is an ideology) insists that the way to encourage a love of ‘STEM’ is to get students to behave like mini scientists and engineers, while attempting to solve (collaboratively – it must be collaboratively) so-called real-world problems. Relevance and ‘authenticity’ are seen as key ingredients of an ‘engaging’ education and ‘engaging’ is equated with ‘effective’.

For me, this is all so misconceived. When I see tweets about kids doing projects making rockets out of plastic bottles and fizzy water, I think of my time in secondary school when the physics teacher turned the lights out, flicked a switch and a beam of ‘light’ darted from a source on one side of a glass tube to another, where it produced a bright fluorescent spot. When he brought a magnet close to the tube, the beam bent and fluorescent spot moved: this ‘light’ seemed to be affected by that most mysterious of forces, magnetism. In fact, the teacher was demonstrating Thomson’s famous experiment to measure the charge-to-mass ratio of the electron. As 15-year olds we were witnessing, up close, the behaviour of one of the building blocks of the universe and doing so in a way that connected each of us to one of the great experiments of history. I don’t know about you, but that’s a lot more inspiring to me than building a Lego robot.

If we want to inspire students, we need to make them witnesses to the great science of the past. We need to tell them of the great experiments, the great rivalries, the petty jealousies, the dramatic successes, the embarrassing failures, the predictions that never came true. We need to bring science alive and good teachers can do this, especially if we give them time to think and plan, and laboratories that are well equipped with real scientific equipment. We don’t need to ‘transform’ science teaching, dragging science down to our own mundane level. The best science is removed from our day-to-day experience and that’s what makes it so fascinating and so challenging. It engages our imagination because we will never ‘see’ a proton or a gene or an electromagnetic wave or billions of simple gas molecules buzzing around a closed container, colliding with each other, sometimes conspiring to form new, more complex, molecules. And we certainly won’t ever see a dinosaur. And we all know about kids and dinosaurs.

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The road to STEAM

Mary gets a degree in a traditional discipline.

Mary gets her first job and it’s right in the middle of her discipline.

After a few years, Mary moves ‘sideways’ and starts to drift away from her discipline.

Mary does a postgraduate degree in a completely different discipline.

Mary changes job again and moves even further away from her original discipline.

As years go by, links to original discipline almost disappear.

Mary now has a broad perspective built up over her long career. She can approach problems from many angles.

Mary now becomes an education ‘expert’ and writes newspaper articles in which she argues that students need a broad perspective. She promotes multidisciplinary degree programmes and thinks that STEAM is a great idea.

Mary has forgotten.

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