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"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."