Pssst: The Emperor Has No Clothes

Jonah Lehrer has written some great articles lately on the believability of science and credibility of knowledge. We should be incorporating his thinking in our approach to all of educational reform, not just how people learn science.

See The Mysterious Decline Effect in Lehrer’s blog, The Frontal Cortex, on Wired. Then read When The New Yorker Probes the Decline Effect, An Opportunity Emerges to Rethink Science Education.

He cites the remarkable recent work of the epidemiologist John Ioaniddis, who has presented evidence that “most published research findings are false.”

Scientific American’s John Horgan asks whether the decline effect means that all science is truthy. And read the excerpt of Jonah’s The Truth Wears Off in New Yorker.

The test of replicability, as it’s known, is the foundation of modern research. It’s a safeguard for the creep of subjectivity. But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain. It’s as if our facts are losing their truth. This phenomenon doesn’t yet have an official name, but it’s occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology.

Big Think on Myth Busters: Merging the Formal with the Informal to Create a Third Place for Science Education points out:

In synthesizing available research on informal learning, they summarize several different factors from the informal sector that can enhance learning and individual engagement in the classroom. These include:

  • Affective factors such as providing for free choice, creating activities that are internally driven and challenging, encouraging wonder, delight, and awe, and making activities entertaining, interesting, and enjoyable.
  • Factors related to learning science that include holistic, trans-disciplinary content; emphasis on transferring knowledge across contexts and drawing on student existing knowledge; emphasis on narrative; and presentations that are jargon-free and in the active voice.
  • Factors related to learning about science that include drawing active connections to community, personal relevance, built around social interaction with others on the science topic; and presenting science as messy, human, and exploratory in nature, addressing real and current problems.
  • Factors related to doing science that including facilitating inquiry based science using real contexts and real data and involving real projects and real outcomes.

They write their conclusion that if these factors from the informal sector are to be incorporated into formal education—creating a third space for learning—it has to be a holistic approach driven by systematic revisions to the education system rather than a piecemeal effort where individual educators or scientists experiment with strategies.

This article led me to the Big Think site. I’ll be back. It looks to be a trove of fascinating, often contrarian stories.

Play within a play

The authors here focus on science education, but it seems to me that what they are saying could just as well apply to all education.

Why do researchers focus on technical training instead of enlightenment in general? I think it’s because you get what you pay for. The National Science Foundation grants enormous sums to research on improving learning in STEM (Science, technology, engineering, math).

Why do we bet the budget on technical stuff while shutting down programs in the arts, life skills, and physical fitness? Why aren’t we researching how to improve education in language, literature, and political science?

I think the bias toward STEM is that agencies like NSF focus on transferring explicit knowledge rather than tacit knowledge because it’s easier to measure outcomes. The hard stuff is the soft stuff, but it’s tough to rank accomplishments in philosophy, diplomacy, or critical thinking skills on a multiple-choice test. STEM ed may not be as important as non-STEM ed, but it is more “truthy.” It enables me to get my $5 million STEM grant and pay the bills.

For heaven’s sake, look at Einstein. He would have failed all the STEM tests, but his genius transcended the rote, mechanical, logical framework that underpins STEM.

Isn’t it time for the NSF and the people who live on the dole of research projects to set their sights on the humanities?

I wrote my undergraduate thesis in the mid-sixties. The U.S. was in a tizzy about brain drain; we feared the Soviets and Japanese were going to out-engineer us. I studied the career paths of engineering graduates. The higher their grades, the sooner they would free engineering for leadership positions. Our top engineering grads weren’t engineers for long. They rapidly advanced into fields for which they’d received almost no schooling.

Once again, we’re afraid of being out-engineered. India and China. Rightly so. Four years ago, Rediff India Abroad reported that:

The boom in engineering studies in India is fast catching up with China.

China is today the largest producer of engineering graduates in the world, with some 600,000 passing out of its colleges and universities last year.

India, it seems, isn’t far behind.

According to the All India Council for Technical Education, India produced 401,791 engineers in 2003-04, 35 per cent being computer engineers. In 2004-05, the number of engineering graduates increased to 464,743, of which 31 per cent were computer engineers.

Compared to India and China, the United States produces only 70,000 engineering graduates every year. All of Europe produces just 100,000.

The West is not going to out-engineer the East. It’s time to re-order our priorities.

Let’s invest more in developing people skills, tacit knowledge, the humanities, meta-learning, and decision-making.