STEM, Part culture war, part cargo cult: My latest Fin column

The Future of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)Here’s yesterday’s op ed for the Fin published as Technology education is about more than funding:

STEM is all the rage in education – that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Part culture war against Australian mediocrity, part cargo cult, a principal goal is more money – for universities and school education. It’s hard not to agree. Lateral Economics’ HALE index of wellbeing values Australian human capital at $18 trillion – over three times all other physical and natural capital combined. Growing it puts every other means of enriching our future in the shade.

Still, I smell a rat.

We’ve nearly doubled educational spending per student in the last few decades. That’s funded popular measures with little impact – smaller class sizes – and politico/educational fads some of which have proven disastrous – like whole language learning. If STEM is simply cranked up and bolted onto the existing system, expect business-as-usual, expensive-as-usual disappointment.

Traditional STEM teaching often turns kids off. If they were ever invited into the debate, they’d see the STEM agenda as baby-boomer finger wagging telling them to eat their greens. They’d ask what exciting jobs will exist for STEM graduates. They’d ask what STEM skills will be in demand in ten or twenty years. And we don’t know.

The vast riches of Silicon Valley use STEM skills sure enough. However not only has old-fashioned entrepreneurialism been the dominant input, but the main STEM contribution has been computer coding. While that’s taught in universities, the valley is full of practitioners who’ve mostly taught themselves with the help of free internet resources and their own workplaces. Silicon Valley has embraced data science but no thanks to university courses. Even today, while they crank out stats grads, our universities barely teach data science.

The innovation we desperately need to get STEM right is institutional. In 2010 I proposed a different approach lunching with the secretary of a state Education Department followed by discussions with his senior managers. I suggested we tap into free resources all around. The net is brimming with free resources. Want to learn how to build a website or learn JavaScript? Head to CodeAcademy.com.

Second, while teacher training, support and specialisation in STEM should be better resourced, on its own that would achieve very little. The last thing we should do is insist on widespread STEM in-service training for existing teachers – for instance in teaching computer skills – who’d simply go through the motions.

Meanwhile an immediate human resource is students. We should find those already doing it for themselves and empower them to enthuse and teach their peers – not to mention reverse mentoring their teachers. And if we’re to do that, we must make room for it in kids’ timetables and in the recognition they receive – their marks.

However that requires some real transformation of existing routines and priorities. And incumbent organisations find that almost impossible. Much better to seek funding for some new, bolt-on initiative. As we’ve loaded the curriculum with recent enthusiasms and political correctness, what priorities have we jettisoned? Stats was more useful than trigonometry even when I was a kid: Much more so now. But the relative weightings in the maths curriculum haven’t changed in 30 years. I learned more about computer coding in school in the the early 1970s than my kids have done in today’s schools.

What I’m proposing can’t simply be ‘rolled out’. Just as a manufacturer wouldn’t release a new product without extensive design, prototyping and testing, that’s what should happen here. We should draw out in-system entrepreneurs, fund experiments and pilots, fixing or jettisoning the failures, identifying, tweaking and growing successes and rewarding those behind them.

After speaking with the Education Department, I attended a showcase of students’ achievements in IT projects. There I met Ben, a year 8 student. He’d built an iPhone app to hone his brother’s mental arithmetic.

“How do you find maths” I asked.

“Boring! We keep doing the same stuff.

“How’d you like to teach other students to write iPhone apps?

“Awesome!

“Wait right there.

I fetched the Departmental Secretary. Here was an opportunity to get going with what I’d proposed. Excited, he summoned his Innovation Chief saying “I want to start on this tomorrow!”

The next year I asked Ben how things had gone. I still have his reply: ”Nothing really went anywhere with my school, didn’t really surprise me”.

The STEM agenda could handsomely enrich our future, but only if it’s part of wider transformation which, though it would cost nothing, offers a richer prize than any amount of new STEM funding.

Ratings on Airbnb

As readers will know, I’ve been a fan of the way in which the internet generates reputational information which greatly improves the efficiency of markets. Still it’s surprising how tricky these things are, something I’ve been pondering while using Airbnb for quite a few stays in Europe.  There are several major problems with Airbnb’s rating system, which are enough to have me much less keen to use it.

Firstly it seems that there’s a happy clappy vibe in collaborative consumption. Perhaps once people have met others they don’t want to reflect on them invidiously. Perhaps they are hyping the vibe of collaborative consumption and how luvvie duvvie it can be. Or perhaps they’re thinking of the incentives. I don’t like leaving bad reviews because when I’m seeking to rent a place, hosts can look up my previous reviews, and if they’re lower than others, they mightn’t want me to so review their place. Perhaps this drives grade inflation on the system.

And perhaps to prevent that, Airbnb do separate out streams of feedback including feedback for all, private feedback for the host and private feedback to Airbnb.

But there’s another problem. Airbnb’s survey is the kind of survey that irritates me when I get one from a hotel. It asks for five stars in various categories which make logical sense.

Accuracy, Communication, Cleanliness, Location, Check In, Value. The thing is, it remains quite possible to have a flat that is more or less uninhabitable whilst retaining a four and a half star rating. How do I know? Because I’v been staying in such a place in Barcelona. It gets four or more stars in all categories and a four and a half star rating overall. About half of the reviews are very positive. So on a quick squiz we booked. Four and a half stars overall? What could go wrong?  Here’s a not untypical review from the remaining reviews.

Jordi met us, and gave us a lot of great information about the neighborhood and the city. The location and price are excellent.

However… I must mention that this is the noisiest place I have ever stayed. The apartment is upstairs from Bar Mariatchi, which is open until at least 3am EVERY DAY, and which has loud music that you will hear through the walls, making sleep nearly impossible, even with earplugs. Plus, you can count on street noise–talking and yelling–until the wee hours EVERY DAY. The noise factor derailed our rest, pushed our sleeping to the “quiet” times (7am-noon), and thus rather derailed our daily sightseeing plans.

If it weren’t for this excessive noise factor, I would recommend this apartment wholeheartedly. As it is, I can only recommend it to those who plan to party into the wee hours every night and sleep the days away.

Note how people are at pains to be nice, even if their time has been effectively ruined. Yet the place keeps getting it’s four and a half plus ratings. Enough to swing my preferences back towards hotels I’m afraid.

Tips and tricks, or ‘tips and tricks of the iceberg’: Going meta on behavioural economics

Standard economics’ traditional penchant for focusing on problems that are chosen for their formal tractability rather than their resemblance to real world problems squeezed non-monetary incentives and ‘irrational’ motives from economists’ purview. At the same time bureaucracies are very good at doing the same thing – of ignoring the specific nature of the life world of those they serve. (Of course ‘cultural incentives’ and if you like ‘irrational’ motives are at the heart of what makes bureaucracies work at all, but that’s internally. Those very conditions create fertile ground in which the organisation will make presumptions on the rationality of those whom they serve. But I digress.)

There are two potential ‘narratives’ as we say these days about behavioural economics as an antidote to this state of affairs. The first – exemplified, for instance in this blog post from behavioural economics consultancy 42 ideas - is that behavioural economics and the policies that emerge from it provide an example of economics’ taking upon itself the injunction “Physician health thyself”. Thus in the place of homo economicus - a simplified but unrealistic view of human nature – behavioural economics investigates the way this model is wrong and policy inspired by it takes those things into account in proposing new policy.

Thus the nudge unit in the UK (we have a small clone of it in NSW) does AB testing on government correspondence – discovering and exploiting the fact that taxpayers show stronger compliance to an arrears letter from the tax authorities if it contains a sentence like “over 90% of taxpayers pay their taxes on time” and the response is a bit higher still if the sentence makes the comparison more personal still “Over 90.5% of your neighbours in Notting Hill pay their tax on time”. These are ‘nudges’ in the vernacular of this field and so too is attention to trying to set the most benign possible defaults to take into account the power of inertia. The classic example – used around the world in both government and business these days is setting people’s savings plans to save higher proportions of their income (often by diverting any pay rise they have received into savings) unless they make a conscious decision not to go along, in which case it’s as easy as ticking a box on a form and they can (consciously) choose some alternative. This is behavioural economics as a box of tips and tricks to be added on to neoclassical economics. The physician, if he hasn’t healed himself, has introduced some routines that are better suited to the world.

But there’s another way to look at these tips and tricks – to look at them as ‘tips and tricks of the iceberg’. Ultimately people must be encountered as such. The tips and tricks of behavioural economics are no more or less than a summary of rules that have been gleaned that have the generality necessary to find their way relatively straightforwardly into the learned journal literature. But there’s a whole life world out there. That’s what needs to be encountered and that’s what is always in danger of being given insufficient weight. As Hayek put it

Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is . . . a body of very important but unorganized knowledge: . . . the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. [In this] respect . . . practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active coöperation.

Hayek only ever paid any attention to one particularisation of this general proposition – he’s thinking of the value the trader adds in a market to the knowhow of the scientist, the accountant, the engineer, the boss. But the observation is a much wider one. Yet the very tyranny of central planning against which he set himself is alive and well inside organisations, not least government organisations and those that deliver their services.

 

Continue reading

The middleware of democracy. Or from knowledge to wisdom: or at least knowledge 2.0

StyrelseSimon Heffer’s High Minds presents us with a portrait of the mid-Victorians in which they consciously set about building the world which became ours. A liberal democratic world.

To do so they recognised the need for all sorts of public goods. Those of education and health surely enough, an honest public service chosen on merit too (an idea they nicked from the Chinese who’d been at it for a millenium or so) and also civic virtue. It’s a stirring and a sobering story reflecting an age which I think had a more balanced understanding of the necessary ecology of public and private goods each reinforcing each other in building the Good Life.

Today for all manner of reasons – intellectual, sociological and economic - our contemporary vision is profoundly skewed toward private good and private endeavour as the paradigmatic category. That’s why I regard it as a happy hunting ground for low hanging policy fruit – a panoply of ways to drive productivity and economic growth that don’t even cost any serious government money.

But as Heffer makes clear, this Victorian quest was not just economic. It was a political project. As he argued in an interview with Geraldine Doogue – which I quote from memory because I can’t find on the ABC website – they knew that democracy was coming, so they needed to get The People a decent education before they used their vote to wreck the place. Continue reading

One reason why Britannia ruled the waves: TQM 18th C style

 

An Englishman enters a naval action with the firm conviction that his duty is to hurt his enemies and help his friends and allies without looking out for directions in the midst of the fight; and while he thus clears his mind of all subsidiary distractions, he rests in confidence on the certainty that his comrades, actuated by the same principles as himself, will be bound by the sacred and priceless law of mutual support. Accordingly, both he and all his fellows fix their minds on acting with zeal and judgment upon the spur of the moment and with the certainty that they will not be deserted. Experience shows, on the contrary, that a Frenchman or a Spaniard, working under a system which leans to formality and strict order being maintained in battle, has no feeling for mutual support, and goes into action with hesitation, preoccupied with the anxiety of see­ing or hearing the commander-in-chief’s signals for such and such manoeuvres. . . . Thus they can never make up their minds to seize any favourable opportunity that may present itself. They are fettered by the strict rule to keep station, which is enforced upon them in both navies, and the usual result is that in one place ten of their ships may be firing on four, while in another four of their comrades may be receiving the fire of ten of the enemy. Worst of all, they are denied the confidence inspired by mutual support, which is as surely maintained by the English as it is neglected by us, who will not learn from them.

Source:

Nelson leaves men onboard to whack polar bear: Inadvertently shoots own arm off

Don Domingo Perez de Grandallana, a Spaniard writing of the Battle of St Vincent where a relatively obscure Commodore Horatio Nelson first rocketed to celebrity thrill-seeker status. Disobeying orders, he headed his 74 gun third rate straight into six of the heaviest Spanish ships three of which were 112-gun three-deckers and a fourth the 130-gun flagship. With his ship’s wheel shot away, he led his troops to board an enemy ship and then with cries of “Westminster Abbey or Glorious Victory” ordered them to board another ship. Everyone ended up very impressed. The rest is history. 

 

Smartphone use in meetings and impressing your boss

Distractions abound: In an image from the inauguration, the entire Obama family is seen using their smartphones.This post is mostly a note to self: Like I keep saying, there’s an ecology between public and private goods. This article asks whether smartphones should be used in meetings. That’s a question about a cultural rule. It’s a public good question. The article however seeks the answer to the question in private feelings and etiquette.

The closest it gets to considering whether the rule – or some more felicitous variant of the rule – is good is considering whether you (an underling) should use your smartphone. Well no you shouldn’t. Why? Because it might annoy your boss.

TalentSmart has tested the emotional intelligence of more than a million people worldwide and found that Millennials have the lowest self-awareness in the workplace, making them unlikely to see that their smartphone use in meetings is harming their careers.

There are certainly lots of circumstances in which one could agree. It can be annoying. Sometimes very annoying. As I understand it one of Kevin Rudd’s staffers early in his term wore earpieces attached to an iPhone in meetings.

Still the moment I saw Twitter being used at conferences I realised there were costs and benefits and there could be strong benefits. The costs were distraction and all that can entail. On the other hand the spoken word is a very time inefficient medium for getting across information. You can read these paragraphs a lot faster than you can listen to them, and if there’s a lot to the article, you can also skim stuff you think you don’t need to read. Not so with listening to someone on a platform talking at you and taking you through his slides. And the more people there are in the audience, the greater the gain for them as they tailor their attention to what is generating the best value for them at the time (OK, that’s the theory, some will just be distracting themselves, but lots won’t).

Smartphones can be a pain in meetings if they’re used by people who don’t’ acknowledge their duty to the group to pay attention and know what’s going on. On the other hand you can occasionally check email and even write back without losing track. If you manage that then we’ve got a productivity gain on our hands. Not only doesn’t this article even canvass this possibility. It’s whole world is the world of impressing your boss. Too bad if he’s a jerk and is only impressed by your dumb obedient silence – too bad for the public good that is – which in this case is the interests of the organisation he’s bossing you about in. Continue reading

How the aged crowd out the young, and how it’s inefficient

This paper is pretty interesting. The last generation has seen the triumph of the baby boomers in attracting resources to themselves, at the cost of other generations, most obviously illustrated in throwing off the shackles of university fees (so other generations and the uneducated could pay for their university education) and then returning to ramp up fees on the oncoming generations. Ditto for the pension – which they’ll enjoy but get later generations to self-fund. Ditto all the tax breaks for self-funded boomers and on it goes though quite possibly the effect of house prices may be as or more important than all that.

Meanwhile think how those who rise to a certain position in the workforce tend to stay there, regardless of merit. This is not so true at the very top of large companies any more that seem to turn over their CEOs pretty quickly and ruthlessly (thought the terms of separation show a great deal of ruth). So economists tend to think of firms as making efficient decisions to survive competition, but they’re full of humangoes, and humangoes, just like mangoes have soft squishy bits that tend to do pretty much what they’re going to do whatever the state of competition is.

Demographics and Entrepreneurship

: by James Liang, Hui Wang, Edward P. Lazear – #20506 (IO LS)

Abstract: Entrepreneurship requires creativity and business acumen. Creativity may decline with age, but business skills increase with experience in high level positions. Having too many older workers in society slows entrepreneurship. Not only are older workers less innovative, but more significant is that when older workers occupy key positions they block younger workers from acquiring business skills. A formal theoretical structure is presented and tested using the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor data. The results imply that a one-standard deviation decrease in the median age of a country increases the rate of new business formation by 2.5 percentage points, which is about forty percent of the mean rate. Furthermore, older societies have lower rates of entrepreneurship at every age.