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Innovation: Problems of Science and Technology

[Total read time = 6 minutes]
[Bolded read time = 1 minute] 

"I'm interested in seeing where the curiosity will lead to, not, 'Where have we been?'"
-Clifford Stoll in the above video

I'm uncomfortable with the language of "innovation." Recently, it seems as if "innovation" has become Innovation™. The activity of creative problem-solving has been packaged and is now being distributed. It is traded on the non-fiction market: people are reworking the fundamentals, delivering happiness, and building lean startups. Don't get me wrong: I'm obsessed with all of this and I love Stanford's approach.

However, in the world of innovation, we seem not to actually understand the kind of work we're doing. We treat the innovative process as a commodity and expect to create, with it, entirely new solutions to problems. But here's the problem: a commodity is a product of technology. What we're searching for requires science. Let me explain.

The first time you do something, it's science. The second time, it's engineering. The third, it's technology (Stoll).

  • Science seeks to discover systems of principles that explain the world's happenings.
  • Engineering uses these systems to design useful tools.
  • Technology takes these useful tools, connects them with others, and packages them into distributable solutions (aka, commodities) based on the available science and engineering.

Note: the term "science" does not imply anything except for what the definition says (I'm not talking specifically about physics, chemistry, etc.), and "technology" does not imply anything specifically digital or computer related.

The problem is this: our technology and engineering can be rock-solid, but if our science is wrong, everything that follows helps on a surface level, but fundamentally makes the problem worse. In education, our science is wrong. Or to be more accurate, our science is first invisible, then wrong. I've discussed this point in more depth previously, so I won't dwell on it now.

We in the education innovation world like to hide behind Innovation™ and it lets us avoid problems of science. Again, I'm not talking about hard sciences like physics, chemistry, etc. I mean science as the process through which we seek to discover systems of principles that explain the world's happenings. If we can focus on identifying a problem, designing a solution, prototyping, iterating, testing, rinsing, and repeating, then we can ignore the uncomfortable and difficult questions like, "Am I even looking at the fundamental systems in the right way?" Most of us hardly know what it means to ask, let alone begin to answer this question.

Systems of principles (products of science) must be present before practical problems (precursors to technology) can even emerge. If we perfectly solve a practical problem (e.g., increasing test scores) but it turns out it's based on a bad system of principles (e.g., education as a system of knowledge acquisition), we will solve a very short term problem, but compound and deepen the troubles of the problem-solving space as a whole. It makes the problem worse because it falsely validates the bad science from which the technology emerges. Play this out over a century+ as we have in the United States, and bad science becomes the unquestioned foundation. Big problem.

Further, there aren't even really places where this kind of science development can take place. We have incubators and VC firms help with the engineering, entrepreneurs/foundations/funds to take care of the technology, but nowhere to do the science required to fix the education system. I once suspected that universities played this role, but turns out I couldn't have been more wrong. This work needs to be done, and we need to create a place in which to do it.

At this point, I want to pause, because I feel like I'm picking on "innovation" quite a bit, and in fact it plays a very important role.

  • Innovation means to change or renew something old into something new and different. It stems from the Latin "in" and "novus" which literally means "into new."
  • Invention means to create something original that is fundamentally different than all things before it. It stems from the Latin "inventus" which translates roughly as "to discover or devise."

Notice that innovation relies on something old as a jumping-off point: a problem. Invention, on the other hand, requires no old jumping-off point, only a set of principles. Innovation implies reasoning by analogy, while invention implies reasoning by principles.

There is an important difference between reasoning by analogy vs. reasoning by principles. We need to be able to reason by analogy because if we didn't, we couldn't get through the day. It helps us make adjustments and adapt to slightly unfamiliar situations. But when we want to do something new, we have to reason by principles, which equates to creating or using sciences (science, by our definition above). Reasoning by principles allows us to discover new things that are counterintuitive, like Einstein's special relativity. He couldn't have discovered special relativity through analogy because there were no analogies that would have led him there in the first place. Only principles. (Note: Einstein by Walter Isaacson is the most brilliant biography I have come across.)

By definition, it is impossible to create entirely new solutions to problems with technology. The technology we're talking about here goes by the name "innovation." When we think we're creating entirely new things with technology, we're confused. Instead, if we want to make something new, we need to use processes of invention (discussed briefly here) to rework the science that funds our problem-solving activities in education. Once we're moderately confident with our science--confident due to rigor, not ignorance--we should then boldly and cautiously move on to engineering and technology.

There is a reason that computers were not invented before the advent of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics (science) informed the invention of the transistor (engineering), which created the conditions through which computers (technology) could then emerge.

Similarly, in education, if we do not focus on the science, we will never invent our version of "the computer." Again, by "science," I once again mean processes that seek to discover systems of principles that explain the world's happenings. Unfortunately I have very, very rarely seen research in the field of education that attempts this, and have talked directly about why in a previous post. One notable exception to this is the method through which Maria Montessori conducted research, which is far from perfect, but fundamentally dealt with science nonetheless.

Having said all of this about reasoning by analogy, it can be and often (but not always) is part of the process of invention. Reasoning by analogy provides us with a framework from which we work backwards to discover how one system of principles maps on to another. This is actually much closer to how Einstein made his discoveries, and the real powerhouse is reasoning by principles. Reasoning by analogy must take a back seat.

That's all for now. Click here and I'll let you know when I publish future posts.



A note for my philosopher compatriots:

As I discuss notions of principles here, I do not mean principles in the formal sense. I mean instrumentalist principles, in the way that Rorty, James, or Kuhn might use the term to describe non-objective, non-universal ways of describing how things might be described as working. Kuhn puts it well:

From "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions"

"...It makes little sense to suggest that verification is establishing the agreement of fact with theory. All historically significant theories have agreed with the facts, but only more or less. There is no more precise answer to the question whether or how well an individual theory fits the facts. But questions much like that can be asked when theories are taken collectively or even in pairs. It makes a great deal of sense to ask which of two actual and competing theories fits the facts better."

Reader Comments (2)

My concern is just that even if you are able to narrow down your understanding to principles that make things work, and look at fundamental systems the 'right way', this does not necessarily make room for student voices (or the emergent properties of immediate experience), which ought to be considered intrinsically valuable and hence immeasurable/transcendent/incommensurable. I might be missing something, but the focus here seems to be about innovation for the sake of it, rather than a focus on students. This seems to be merely an application of *an approach to innovation* to the process of education, and I'm simply just not interested in innovation for the sake of innovation. Even if you find fundamental principles involved in educative processes, which I sure hope that I'm doing when I 'study philosophy of education,' this doesn't preclude a replication of the very same problem we're dealing with in education: we think we know what's good for students. *Of course* it's good to find principles via reason, but then what? Perhaps this is a concern about the presupposition that you bring to your aim of 'discovery of principles': are you presupposing the value of innovation or the value of your students? If it's the former, then you may as well go into robotics. If the latter, you need to make this value of your students a principle. We're just as responsible for creating principles as we are for discovering them -- of this we ought to be careful.

April 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

First, I'm really just saying that innovation as it's seen today isn't doing the job we think it's doing, and am describing what seems to me to be happening on the meta-level. In other words, this piece is part of a descriptive conversation, not a prescriptive one. It says nothing about the way we should look at things, just about how we can look at things only in light of particular goals.

I don't think it makes sense to try to "look at fundamental systems the 'right way.'" As we've discussed before, the notion of objectivity has not been formally shown to be a coherent concept, despite the fact that much of the field of philosophy relies on it, and it thus does not hit with a force that many would like to claim for it. As a result, it turns out that the concept of intrinsic-ness reduces and actually refers to practicality, such that the statement, "student voices are intrinsically valuable," is an empty statement. Such a statement reduces to the statement, "student voices are valuable for specific and particular reasons XYZ"--a statement that does not require us to accept an undefined "intrinsic-ness." The main point you're making here is, of course, a good one--that the activities in which one engages should be very specifically matched to that person/their context/etc. In traditional education reform, people refer to this as "student-centered learning." The reason I don't refer to it with this language is that it's built on a metaphor of education that I think is fundamentally incoherent with what we'd like our educative experiences to do for us.

I haven't seen any evidence that "finding fundamental principles involved in educative processes" makes any more sense than the concept of objectivity, in large part because such an activity is rooted in a faith in objectivity--and since objectivity has not been shown to be a coherent concept, it is faith (see A.J. Ayer's paper, "The Elimination of Metaphysics" for a good illustration of this--notice that I'm referencing a canon analytic philosopher, not a pragmatist, here).

To ask if I'm "presupposing the value of innovation or the value of my students" is to set up a false dichotomy. I don't think either has intrinsic value because, as I said, the concept of intrinsic-ness is not a coherent one. People often rely on it, but once you really try to look at it, it disappears. The reason I'm speaking so strongly about concepts of objectivity/intrinsic-ness is that I think they are arguments that lend themselves to being very easily discredited. There are other arguments we should make instead, that lead to the things that you're rightly concerned about protecting, but we need only make practical claims. So to answer your question (which is actually far beyond the scope of what I wrote in this post), the value of the student doesn't need to be presupposed in education any more than the value of a patient needs to be presupposed in medicine. It doesn't make sense to design a medical treatment without a patient because that patient could have any set of infinite needs that need to be designed for. Same in education--many people don't see this, and that's the main topic of this post.

As for the intrinsic value of innovation/invention--as I implied above, I don't think there is any intrinsic value to either of those things. Again, the concept of intrinsic-ness is devoid of coherent meaning. Things only have value with respect to their practicalities. Even "knowledge for knowledge-sake" reduces to practicalities like enjoyment, excitement, etc. So perhaps we might say that, "innovation that accomplishes its practical goals is valuable if the goals match the value expectations we have for the innovation," but that's not a particularly interesting statement. It's basically tautological.

Finally, note the section I wrote to philosophy students (such as yourself) at the bottom of the post. You and I are using the language of "principles" very differently. You seem to be implying that principles say something about the way things actually work. When I say "principles," I'm referring to non-objective, non-universal ways of talking about how things can be described as working given a practical context. In my world of "principles," there are potentially a huge myriad of pluralities of principles that all describe the same thing--the set that we take up and use at any given time is dependent on the context in which we want to take it up. It has nothing to do with "the way things work," and everything to do with the ways in which we think and handle ourselves in particular, practical situations. You can see how, given this, it doesn't make sense to innovate/invent in education without being primarily concerned with the person who is/meant to enact the educative experience.

For a good example of what this process looks like--and how deeply student-centered (if you will) it turns out to be--check out this video of the school I went to as a kid. This is not just the type of school I went to, but the actual school itself: Montessori School of Beaverton.

April 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathan Pai Schmitt

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