Wednesday, September 12, 2018

On the science of teaching science


Ask a scientist what makes science so special, so effective, so powerful?
What makes science a science?
The top two answers are “data”, and “reason”.
A scientist believes that with the right amount of data and with the right approach to analyze the data science can explain everything.
Scientists generally believe that a scientific approach can be applied to any natural phenomenon, to any social practice.
Well, except one.
Science cannot be used to provide a scientific description of how scientists teach science.
When I say “cannot” I do not mean “impossible”, I mean “restricted”.
A scientific approach to analyzing how scientists teach science would require collection, accumulation, and analysis of a large amount of data; a scientific approach would require collecting as much data as possible because in science, no amount of data is ever enough – one or two new facts may force the paradigm change (it happened!).
But take any college or a university and check what data does administration collect on the teaching practices of the faculty? All you find is the set of standard questions in the end-of-a-course student evaluations. And that’s that.
Those evaluations serve two goals: (1) to display that the college or university cares about the quality of teaching (“See, we listen to our students!”); (2) to ensure that a faculty does not stimulate in students a large amount of hatred toward the college (“Not great at teaching, but OK”).
That is why all college and university administrations limit the set of the questions in evaluations to the bare minimum. Why bother if the answers do not make any difference, anyway?
Data coming from end-of-a-course evaluations are vague and limited. But they are data! Even they could have been used for some analysis. But they aren't. No comparison of any sort; a year to a year, faculty to faculty, a department to a department, a college to a college. Hence, there is no system in professional development of faculty. Of course, there is an official, or a faculty, or even a structural entity which purpose, supposedly, is helping faculty becoming better teachers. It regularly issues advises, links, or invites to talks. But no one assesses the impact of those actions in any way, and no one has a specific data-based strategy for professional development, so, in the end, it is just a facade ("See, we work on professional development of our faculty").
If no one analyses even that limited data which comes from limited and vague evaluations, no one spends any energy on designing more informative assessing techniques.
Could it be done?
Of course!
Why it is not happening?
Because no one wants it – not administration, not faculty, not students, not parents, not accreditation agencies, not the government, not politicians.
There are many possible reasons for WHY no one wants to conduct actual scientific study of how faculty teach (e.g. read “A Continent Lie” or “What Research University Faculty Tell Themselves About Their Teaching”).
Reason #2, of course, is that there are only few faculty who are actually good at teaching and making this fact official could shatter the system (reason #1 is that no one really cares about the quality of teaching at a college or a university level if that is a research college or a university; teaching practices at public or for-profit colleges or universities are heavily guarded by local politicians or the owners).
But there are faculty who are good at teaching (I am one of them).
Hence, there are faculty who are not afraid of sharing their evaluations (here are mine).
Plus, there are faculty who could share their evaluations anonymously (for the sake of science!).
If some college or a university would start collecting and analyzing the data coming from those evaluations, it already could lead to invaluable insights on the teaching practices at a college and a university level. That could, in turn, lead to the improvement of the teaching practices of more faculty; which would lead to more data, etc. A positive feedback loop could eventually break the current restrictions self-imposed by administrations on designing, collecting, analyzing, and sharing data on teaching practices of faculty.
Who knows, maybe even teaching practices of scientists teaching science could eventually become a science, too?

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Vision v. Imagination: what does a venture capitalist use?

Vision v. Imagination: what does a venture capitalist use?
Today (09/11/2018) on my way to work I was listening to an interview with some representatives from “Catapult Ventures”.
At one point a question popped up in mine mind: can we call a person “a visionary”, if that person only sees – according to him – what is right around a corner?
After some consideration, I came to a conclusion that venture capitalists do not need to be visionary.
Investing into what you see right around a corner doesn't require a long vision (or even a long division).
An investor is like a person who keeps one foot in the present (on a stable place) and uses another one to tap around to find the next stable place to put the foot on it, and then repeats the process.
An investor does not know which investment will disrupt or transform the current technology. An investor just hopes that one of those places he or she tapped on may bring unexpectedly large return. But in order to invest into anything, an investor first checks many variables to ensure the high probability of a return, any return, so he or she would not lose any money, because investing is never about disrupting the world, it is a business of making a profit, based on the utilization of existing products and technologies for developing new ones. Disrupting does happen sometimes, but just as a collateral positive effect. In that case, everyone starts pretending that investing is not about a profit, and an investor becomes a prophet. However, there are not many prophets in the field of a venture capital. And the most famous prophets - like Steve Jobs - were not even in that field. 

It is not like Sergey Brin and Larry Page came to you and you wrote them a check for a hundred grand just for an idea. That never happens in the venture capital world. Remember the first motto of a venture capitalist? “Ideas are cheap!”
An idea is a seed, which needs to be planted and carefully nurtured. But only when the hardest part is over, and one can see what fruits can one collect relatively soon, only then a venture capitalist steps in.
That is why a venture capitalist never invests into basic/fundamental science (unless it is some pet project, like searching for extraterrestrials or landing on Mars).
In 1947 an invention was made without which no personal computers, no cellphones, no Internet would exist. If was done by three researches working at Bell Laboratories. They got the Nobel prize for their invention, but no single venture capitalist supported their or similar research (to my best knowledge). No venture capitalist could envision how a semiconductors-based transistor could decades later give the birth to cellphones, tablets, etc.
To be fair, the field of a venture capital is not the only one where ideas can be overlooked. It happens in all human practices, including art (e.g. Vincent van Gogh), or science (e.g. Thomas Young).
Maybe, some venture capitalist investing in AI could invest into the development of a technology which could search for those promising but overlooked ideas,  artifacts, people? 
The main reason people like Steve Jobs become a prophet is because they have imagination, which the majority of the investors, including venture capitalist, do not have (and do not need).
One simply does not need imagination to make a choice about something already seen right around a corner. One does not need to imagining it, it is already seen! One can already see the most important details and weigh the probability of the return. In most cases, an investor puts the money in an already existing company, with a solid team, an existing product, structure, infrastructure, and the clear financial streams. No imagination is required, but math; the company is seen as an amplifier; if I put $X I should get back $X*K, where K > 1.
Imagination is needed to make a decision about something one cannot see. But placing money into something one cannot see would not be an investment anymore, because the return is not guaranteed, or even not expected.
In my opinion, today is the right day to talk about the role of imagination.
As we all know, an official view on the general reason for 9/11 happened was, and is, “the failure of imagination”.
“The failure of imagination” is the main reason democrats lost the presidential elections in 2016.
And the reason why American intelligence agencies missed the Russian intervention in the 2016 elections is also “the failure of imagination”.
“The failure of imagination” is why the educational reform has not been fruitful, despite decades of “reformation”.
So, I hope that eventually there will appear some truly visionary investor who will begin the study of imagination, what it is, how it works, how to help to boost it.
He or she will have to accept the fact that the money spent on this study will not represent an investment, because no one can predict if there will any profitable outcome from it.
But in order to see how the study of imagination could boost – something? if anything? – one has to have imagination.
BTW: imagination usually goes (or not) hand-in-hand with a true genuine curiosity (but who has time for questions which will not bring any profit?).