Mavericks, nerds and innovation

You could say that our obsession with all things creative started with Ken Robinson and his TED Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity?  It’s been viewed by a staggering 45 million people, which, although a long way short of the 2.8 billion views that this work of art has earned, is nonetheless impressive.

Sir Ken was always on to a winner because we humans tend to  love the maverick, whether it’s the twenty-something who abandons college to become a tech billionaire, or the self-taught musical genius, or the sportsperson who becomes a winner despite having a technique that is nowhere to be seen in the coaching manuals. So championing the cause of ‘creatives’ being ground down by school is a no-brainer if you want to have a TED hit.

It was interesting, therefore, to read the results of a survey carried out by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). They surveyed 923 highly-successful tech innovators in the US. Here’s what they found:

  • 55.7% of these innovators had a PhD, 21.8% had a Masters and 19.6% had a bachelor’s degree.
  • Over half of the innovators majored in engineering.
  • More than half (57%) worked in companies with more than 500 employees while another 12% worked in companies with between 100 and 500 employees.
  • They had a median age of 47.
  • 46% were immigrants or children of immigrants

So, based on this survey, it is hard to make the case that schools (and universities) kill creativity, at least in the tech domain. If anything, a traditional academic education is a necessary condition for becoming a tech innovator. Of course there are exceptions to this rule but they are rare and that’s what makes them interesting.

So employers, you should employ those first class honours nerds at least if your vision extends beyond the middle of next week.

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Where’s your effing pride?

I’m about a third of the way through my continuous assessment marking and I feel the need to write this – for my sanity.

Back in 1985, Ireland were playing England at the old Lansdowne Road and with 10 minutes to go we were losing. The championship and the Triple Crown were ebbing away until Ireland’s captain, Ciaran Fitzgerald, was seen to use the now immortal words “where’s your f**king pride?”. The players responded and Ireland won the game.

I often think of these words when I’m marking continuous assessment work, especially laboratory reports. In a time when the world of education obsesses about creativity and problem-solving and all sorts of supposedly ‘higher order skills’, it would be nice if students were to show a bit more pride in their work. Many seemed to be trapped in the typically Irish “ah sure it’ll be grand” way of thinking.

It’s really very basic things that need to be fixed; like labelling axes on graphs, like writing sentences that actually make grammatical sense, like going to the trouble of formatting tables consistently, like using consistent notation, like giving units alonside numerical answers, like actually thinking rather than settling on old reliables like “these results were due to human error” or “these values showed that the experiment worked well”.

Third level education has a problem and it’s got nothing to do with the ‘21st century skills’ nonsense that has become part of the everyday vocabulary of the education establishment. No, it has to do with the fact that many students have expectations of themselves that are simply too low. Fundamentally it’s a lack of pride and I suspect it’s a cultural problem rather than a purely educational one. But it’s a problem we have to fix because the consequence is that many of our students are simply not developing as they should.

There are two solutions that I can see. The first is to continue the ongoing process of turning universities into secondary schools – but who wants that? The second is for us to be quite a bit less tolerant of shoddy work…

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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, and 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. We shouldn’t listen to CEOs of multinational companies. Multinationals employ graduates, not school-leavers, so if they want to engage with the education 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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