Van Morrison, Newton and Einstein

Enlightenment, don’t know what it is“; so says van Morrison. But what about ‘understanding’? Well, just the other day I was taking to my son…


Be careful there, Leo, you might fall.

Dad, how come if I step off this wall, I’ll fall to the ground?

That’s because of gravity, son.

What’s gravity?

Well, all objects attract each other. So when you step off the wall, the earth and you attract each other and you actually accelerate towards the ground. If the wall is very high you’ll accelerate to quite a high speed so you’ll hit the ground with a bit of a bump.

Ok, but how does the earth actually attract me?

Well, that’s a tricky one. A great scientist named Isaac Newton was able to describe exactly what happens when two objects attract each other. For example he said that the heavier each object is, the stronger the attraction will be, and the further away the objects are from each other, the weaker the attraction will be. He was right but he didn’t really say what gravity actually is.

So we still don’t  know what really happens when two objects attract each other?

We do actually. Albert Einstein came up with the idea that when two objects come close to each other, it’s a bit like what happens when two people are sleeping on a soft mattress. They both make a big dip in the mattress and they end up rolling towards each other. Einstein said that space is a bit like the soft mattress and objects make dips in space that cause them to roll towards each other.

But space is nothing!

I know, it’s weird, isn’t it.

Do you really understand it all, Dad?

I do and I don’t. Understanding is a bit like an onion; you know the way you can peel an onion apart, layer by layer? So somebody who has very little understanding might only have one layer of knowledge; like me telling you that if you step off the wall you’ll fall because of gravity. Somebody with a bit more ‘understanding’ might remember some stuff about Isaac Newton and seem a bit cleverer to you. Somebody else might have seen a science programme on TV  and learned all about Albert Einstein and his theory of gravity, and that will make them seem that they understand things even better. But in the end most of us run out of layers of knowledge and at that point we say we don’t understand something.

So the mattress is the end of the story?

It is for me, I’m afraid!

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But what is critical thinking?

Since I wrote this letter to the Irish Times earlier this week, I’ve been thinking about what critical thinking actually is.

Basically, I believe that all of what we call critical thinking is recall; it’s not some mysterious process somehow separated from more ‘normal’ mental processes like remembering who won the FA cup in 1973 or what the longest river in the world is or what the atomic weight of Neon is.

So here’s what I think: when somebody is thinking critically, they are simply accessing (what they perceive to be) relevant knowledge stored in their long term memory, and they are using to it to bolster their original argument.

For example, many of my students, when encountering anomalies in experimental data, will say things like “the rise in flowrate was unexpected and was probably due to experimental error”. This is an example of student who is not thinking critically but it’s not because they can’t think critically; it’s because they are either intellectually lazy or else they simply have no idea what factors might cause the flowrate to rise, i.e., they lack relevant knowledge and they resort to writing down something – anything – that seems plausible. But having submitted their lab report and gained some feedback, this student will learn that in future they shouldn’t just ‘throw out’ statements that cannot be justified in some way, and hopefully their next report will be better. This is an example, I suppose, of “teaching critical thinking” but it’s done in a context that is tangible for the student and targeted at scenarios that they are likely to encounter in their discipline. This should be, and hopefully is, a normal part of university education.

A better student might say something like: “the rise in flowrate was probably due to a rise in pressure”. This student is connecting an experimental observation to knowledge that he or she has stored in their long term memory, namely that a rise in pressure will cause an increase in the flowrate. But an even better student might say something like: “the rise in flowrate may have been due to a sudden rise in pressure as it was observed during the experiment that the pressure tended to fluctuate and it was difficult to control using the manual approach that we employed”. This student has high expectations and is determined to provide as complete an explanation as possible. But his explanation is built, fundamentally, around recall; both accurate recall of what happened in the experiment itself and recall of relevant theory from long term memory.

So I think critical thinking emerges when a person has two attributes: (i) the right mindset, i.e., a desire or need, either innate or acquired though feedback, to base their conclusions on the justifiable rather than the plausible; (ii) having relevant and accessible knowledge stored in long term memory.

But what do we mean by “accessible” knowledge? I think the highest-achieving students have automatic recall of relevant facts. They will have achieved this ‘automaticity’ through effective and regular study/practice and not necessarily through a conscious effort to ‘learn off’ facts. If you like, key knowledge is firmly embedded in their long term memory and in a way that makes it rapidly accessible. Observations or statements or claims trigger a ‘visit’ to long-term memory where easily-accessible and relevant knowledge is retrieved. This combination of observation and accessible knowledge creates the process that we call critical thinking.

An academically weaker student, or a student who might not have studied so hard, or who might not have paid enough attention during the laboratory session, won’t have this automatic recall even if relevant facts or part-facts can be ‘dragged out’ of them following some prompting from the lecturer. This will make them appear to lack critical thinking skills when what they really lack is readily-accessible relevant knowledge.

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Can we trust the universities when it comes to teaching and learning?

The Irish Times had yet another poorly researched education column today. It contained the usual nonsense about problem-solving and critical thinking while implying that learning in the past was all about rote memorisation. Praise was heaped on Maynooth’s first year module that aims to develop generic critical thinking skills despite the fact that there is little or no evidence that this approach has worked in the past or indeed can work in principle. (Maynooth’s own evidence is worthless for obvious reasons.)

But surely no university would design such a module if there was no evidence to support it? Unfortunately they probably would because the field of education is riddled with ideology, confirmation bias and wishful thinking. Just take the idea of ‘learning styles’, i.e., the idea that if students are taught in a way that is supposedly consistent with their preferred learning style, they will learn better. It sounds plausible but it’s wrong. Well, at the very least it’s not supported by evidence.

Yet every single Irish university has extensive resources devoted to learning styles (see links below). So just because a university promotes an idea, even if the person doing the promoting has a credible-sounding title with the words ‘teaching and learning’ in it, that doesn’t mean that you should believe them.

University College Cork

Dublin City University

Trinity College Dublin

University College Dublin

Maynooth University


University of Limerick

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What are universities for?

So asked Diarmaid Ferriter recently in the Irish Times.  It’s easy to dismiss a question like this as being too vague or too ‘philosophical’, the sort of ivory tower question that academics are prone to ask without ever providing any answers.

But, in fact, this question goes to the heart of the entire debate around third level education.

Back in the 1980s when I was in UCD, universities existed largely to educate undergraduate students. Students went to lectures, labs and tutorials and the word ‘teaching’ was never used. Research was done, of course, but not to the same extent as it is now. In my own discipline – engineering – research was driven by a small number of pioneers, seeking out niche areas where they could compete despite their shoestring budgets. In chemical engineering, a deliberate decision was made to focus on drying technology!

But a lot more is expected of universities these days. Now we are supposed to be hotbeds of innovation, places where new businesses and jobs are created, or where services are provided directly to business. Indeed our role is increasingly seen as providing job-ready graduates with market-relevant skills. The language of education is dominated by talk of creativity, ‘real-world problem-solving’, collaboration and leadership. Words like ‘knowledge’ or  ‘wisdom’ have become somewhat quaint. Words like ‘maturity’ have been replaced with buzzwords like ’emotional intelligence’. Part of this process of making education ‘relevant’ is to suggest that all our students, regardless of their discipline, spend time learning ‘on the job’ as part of work placements and internships. And someone has to manage all of this.

Research has become ‘big’ in every sense. The idea of the lone academic pursing his or her own research interests is largely gone, at least in the sciences and engineering. The arts and humanities have undoubtedly been marginalised. Collaboration is the name of the game now and to do research you need to be part of a centre of excellence, often working out of a purpose-built building with its own support staff, at least for as long as the funding lasts.

At the same time, universities need to be seen to be relevant. Impact is the thing. So we have offices of engagement, outreach and international affairs.  Busloads of school kids regularly descend on our campuses, taking part in science festivals, hackathons, ‘maker’ days and coding schools.

And, at a time when everyone is more conscious (and rightly so) about all matters related to equality and equity, we have access programmes, collaborations with FE colleges and enhanced student support services.

As we have moved to a third-level-for-all model, universities have found themselves in a marketplace competing for students. So we need recruitment offices and offices of communications and marketing. We send delegations to China and India in search of fee-paying students. And we build attractive facilities as the quality of the student ‘experience’ becomes part of our marketing strategy. Growing our numbers is seen as an end in itself.

Within the universities themselves, greater emphasis on quality control has spawned a host of mechanisms and offices devoted to academic regulation and quality promotion. And  this needs to be managed with people and IT systems of varying cost and quality.

And while all of this was happening there has been a philosophical drift towards student-centred learning. Now, lecturing is perceived as being fundamentally flawed and ineffective, notes are provided online, continuous assessment has become almost mandatory, increasingly rapid feedback is expected if not demanded, while the undoubted flaws in our second level system has meant that universities have to engage in additional remedial teaching, especially in mathematics.

Against this kind of background, Diarmaid Ferriter’s question seems like a good one.

Whether or not you agree with the undeniable shift that has occurred, one where universities have moved from being places of education to places of pretty much anything you can think of, you have to recognise that this shift must have been expensive. Everything incurs a cost.

And when universities are borrowing hundreds of millions of euros to stay ‘competitive’ or even to provide a reasonable quality education to its students, you do have to ask fundamental questions about what we are doing.

The consensus is that the third level sector as currently structured is unaffordable and the only solution is to ask the current generation of students to pay for it by incurring long-term debt. As Brian Mulligan noted in the Irish Times recently, albeit from a slightly different perspective, who is asking about the cost of third level education? And since the cost is inextricably linked with the perceived purpose of higher education, we need more people in authority to ask the Diarmaid Ferriter question.

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Natural Born Lawyers

Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.”

Carl Sagan said that, and when I was a youngster watching Cosmos, I would have believed him. Since then, I’ve learned about things like primary and secondary knowledge and I now see statements like this as not only simplistic, but just plain wrong.

But the belief that humans are naturally curious, or more significantly, naturally ‘scientific’ is widespread and is, I suspect, at the root of our tendency to rely on science-is-fun arguments when encouraging school-leavers do study ‘STEM’  disciplines in college.

The idea that we might have evolved to think scientifically is plausible enough. It is reasonably easy to make an argument that there is a survival advantage to being able to think and reason logically – scientifically – about your environment, especially if you do not have the physical attributes that other species have.

On the other hand, it is hard to explain why humans have such an ability to think in the abstract. As Steven Pinker has said,

“Why do humans have the ability to pursue abstract intellectual feats such as science, mathematics, philosophy, and law, given that opportunities to exercise these talents did not exist in the foraging lifestyle in which humans evolved and would not have parlayed themselves into advantages in survival and reproduction even if they did?”

Pinker suggested that humans evolved to think in the abstract because it enabled us to occupy a sort of socio-cognitive niche, one where our ability to figure out and manipulate our environment and, crucially, understand, communicate and cooperate with our fellow humans, enhanced our survivability.

But one thing that is difficult to explain is why we human beings are so susceptible to faulty reasoning. Where’s the advantage in that? Authors like Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt have written extensively about this and it seems that faulty reasoning is literally in our DNA.

So despite the fact that we live in scientific age, many people are still prone to what most reasonable people would consider to be irrational beliefs.  And arguments with the supposed ‘irrationals’ often end up with us resorting to put-downs like “you can’t reason someone out of a position that they haven’t reasoned themselves into”.

But that may be a bit simplistic, unfair even. In their recent book, The Enigma of Reason (which I am struggling through – it’s hard going!), Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier seem to take the socio-cognitive niche idea even further and argue that our ability to reason evolved for purely social reasons.

They argue that to prosper in the social groups formed by our species, humans had to be able to reason in order to win arguments, to persuade, to build alliances, to form relationships and ultimately maintain the cohesion of the group, improving its chances of survival.

It’s a persuasive argument and explains why humans are so prone to confirmation bias. We use our powerful reasoning skills not necessarily to arrive at the truth but to convince others that we are right.

So the truth may well be that we’re not natural born scientists; we’re natural born lawyers.

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On Creativity

Creativity is one of those supposed ‘21st century skills’ that an awful lot of people are obsessing about these days.  “We need to teach creativity” they cry, without ever saying how we might do such a thing.

I would suggest that you can’t teach creativity per se and, in fact, there is no such thing as a ‘creative person’. You can be creative in areas where you have knowledge and skill but that doesn’t mean you’ll be creative in an area where you know very little or where you have very little talent.

Here I’m going to give examples of what creativity means in chemical engineering. It might be a tiny bit technical but, in a way, that’s the point. What I consider creative might not seem all that creative to you and that’s because our knowledge base is likely to be very different.



Back in the 19th century, Calais-born Dubliner, Aeneas Coffey, invented the Coffey Still.  His invention made it possible to produce essentially pure ethanol in large quantities and, as a consequence, the blended whiskey industry took off, mainly in Scotland. Coffey didn’t dream up the Coffey Still out of nothing: he worked in the Excise Duty section of the Revenue and he was a regular visitor to the large number of distilleries scattered around Ireland at the time. He knew quite a bit about distillation and he would have been aware of the concept of reflux.

Since then, countless devices have been invented by chemical engineers, from reactors to liquid extraction columns to membrane separation modules to gas absorbers. That’s creativity in a chemical engineering context; thinking up new ways of carrying out physical and chemical processes on a large scale.


But it’s not all about inventing new ‘machines’. Engineers also apply existing science (and mathematics) to new situations, situations that only arise in the environment of chemical and biochemical process plants. But in applying science in these situations, you need to be creative because most industrial processes are too complicated to be analysed exactly; you need to make simplifications and approximations, enough to capture the essence of the problem but not so much that you miss out on anything important. It’s a creative process built on a deep knowledge of the underlying science and an ability to express ideas in the language of mathematics.

In many situations, though, chemical engineers find themselves in places where the science is missing. These are places that scientists have ignored mainly because going there won’t provide them with any new insights into how nature works. But the chemical engineer has to visit these places because he or she needs to solve problems. So the engineer who wants to design a bioreactor needs to understand the behaviour of swarms of air bubbles rising through a liquid while passing close to an agitator spinning at high speed.  But that requires a deep knowledge of fluid mechanics and enough creativity to be able to see the wood for the trees.


A particularly creative way of simplifying complex systems is to see a connection between a complex system and a similar but simpler system. And in chemical engineering, the use of analogies is common. So when an engineer wants to describe (mathematically) the flow of fluid through a bed of sand, they make an analogy between flow through a bed of sand and flow in a pipe. This might seem to be stretching it a bit but, in fact, it’s a very useful approach. Likewise if an engineer wants to describe heat transfer in a complex system like a bioreactor, it helps to think of heat flow as something like the flow of electricity and to think in terms of currents and resistors. It’s a very powerful and creative idea but it all depends on knowing something about heat transfer and something about electricity theory. It’s an example of creativity emerging from a broad knowledge base and seeing connections between ostensibly different fields of study.


Very often, both in engineering and in science, we need to interpret laboratory or process data. That is a creative process because you can’t possibly ‘learn off’ all possible datasets that you’re going to be confronted with. But if you see a set of data and it puzzles you, the more you know the more likely you are to find an explanation for the patterns that you are seeing. And if you can explain the data, then perhaps you can fix problems or make processes more efficient or maybe decide that a process is not feasible.

What’s the recurring theme here? In order to be meaningfully creative, you have to know stuff and that stuff has to be relevant to what you’re doing. So, for me as chemical engineer, sitting through a creativity workshop where I’m encouraged to use my “whole brain” would be of doubtful value.

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How I teach: making a pact with the devil

Here’s how I’d like to teach engineering to college students – it’s the way I was taught:

  1. Give lectures in which I chart a course through the subject, explaining key ideas, deriving key equations, and using worked examples to enhance understanding and model the problem-solving process.
  2. Supply the students with lots of take-home problems to solve and lots of short questions that challenge the students’ understanding of the material as well as their ability to write coherent explanations of engineering phenomena.
  3. Be able to presume that the students will actually attempt those problems in a timely manner, in an environment that suits them.
  4. Provide feedback through the provision of detailed worked solutions.
  5. Be on hand to provide further feedback in person or by putting on extra tutorials, or whatever.

The fatal flaw in all of this, though, is Step 3. The sad fact is that I can’t presume that significant numbers of students will do the problems in their own independent learning time.  I think that is the fundamental challenge facing higher education in Ireland, and probably elsewhere. The modern world is too distracting for youngsters. To solve engineering problems, you need to think hard and that means locking yourself away with no distractions – for hours at a time. (I suspect this applies equally well to the humanities – to write a good essay you need to be completely focused and be willing to write, re-write and re-write again.)

So my lectures include lots of ‘active learning’ and about half of my lecture time is taken up with students solving problems, sometimes collaboratively, sometimes on their own.  (I never force students to work together.)

It all sounds very progressive because what I do tends to sit nicely with the educational zeitgeist. But it is the result of pragmatism, not belief. It doesn’t really stem from any sense that this represents good practice.

The price I have chosen to pay is that I cover far less material than I would if I taught the way I want to. My reasoning is that it is better for the students to learn a small amount of material well rather than learn a lot of material badly.

I feel consistently guilty about this because I am convinced that the more you know the better you become at solving problems and being creative.

So by diluting the content of my modules, I feel like I’ve made a pact with the devil. But I don’t think I’m alone in this.

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