Why Educational Technology Isn’t Working

The OECD has just released a report that concludes

There is little solid evidence that greater computer use among students leads to better scores in mathematics and reading.

Researchers tracked students in 31 OECD countries (including the U.S.) and measured their educational outcomes, as well as their use of technology at home and at school (including computers, Internet connections, and educational software).

I’ve been arguing for years that most Ed Tech is useless, and it’s because the companies that develop the apps don’t know anything about the learning sciences. The problem isn’t computers, or the Internet; the problem is with the pedagogical techniques and theories that are embedded in the new software. The OECD report supports my argument:

We have not yet become good enough at the kind of pedagogies that make the most of technology; adding 21st century technologies to 20th century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching.

The report doesn’t say much about how to align new educational software with the new science of learning, and with the reformed pedagogical approaches that work best to provide students with the deeper learning and thinking skills that graduates need. That’s why I’ve created a new master’s degree to teach how to combine learning sciences research, innovation, and software development (applications are open right now!) This study shows that we have to change the way we develop educational software, and ground technology in the science of learning.

Why are there states of matter?

We all learned in school that there are three states (or phases) of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. Later, you may have learned of a fourth state, plasma; and, physicists say there various other states that emerge in extreme conditions (e.g. Bose-Einstein condensate). But let’s keep it simple, and go with three for now.

While helping my 12-year-old son with his homework, this question came up, and I haven’t been able to find the answer:

Why are there states of matter at all?

In other words, it’s easy to imagine a physical world where there are no phase transitions. In this alternate world, all matter would change continuously with temperature change. The molecules of the substance would continuously increase in space from one another, with no sudden changes in properties or structure. At the coldest temperatures, everything would be extremely solid. As the temperature warmed up, the solid would become progressively and continuously less solid, and more “mushy,” let’s say. More “liquid like” but continuously, not in a sudden phase transition. And as this liquid-ish form of matter warmed up into what we know as the “gas” state of matter, it would gradually and continuously become more fog-like–but again, with no sudden phase transition.

I have searched all over the Internet, and I haven’t found this question asked or answered. (I ended up reading some advanced stuff about energy states, and curves crossing, but that doesn’t answer the question.) Does anyone know the answer, and if you do, can it be explained in a way that regular people can understand it?

Why Aren’t Entrepreneurs More Creative?

I just read a provocative research article that makes a surprising claim: most new startups aren’t very creative. The authors, Professors Howard Aldrich and Martha Martinez-Firestone, state their claim on the first page:

Generally, entrepreneurial efforts leading to stable, self-sustainable organizations yield simple replications of existing organizational forms. The products and services offered are typically slight variations on what already exists, rather than dramatically different ones. Indeed, radical innovation in entrepreneurship is an uncommon phenomenon.

But all of the conversation I hear is about how entrepreneurs drive innovation. We keep hearing that small startups identify opportunities that big companies miss. Visionary outsiders come up with radical ideas, that transform entire industries, and make billions of dollars in the process. That’s the story we’re used to hearing…and this new article says just the opposite! If you care about innovation and entrepreneurship, you need to read their argument very closely, because it turns out, it’s pretty convincing. Even better, they conclude by offering great advice for entrepreneurs, about how they can break this pattern and truly innovate.

They ground their argument in New Institutional Theory (NIT) (after all, in an academic paper you need a theory!). NIT argues that “institutional forces severely limit variations in behavior” and “NIT downplays the likelihood of human creativity and innovation” (p. 3). Most institutions that occupy the same markets and industries tend to converge on pretty much the same organizational form; “they develop similar structures and strategies over time” in what is called institutional isomorphism. Even when everyone realizes that the world has changed, and these routines and structures are no longer optimal, they persist due to inertia and the difficulties of changing. Basically, entrepreneurs have only two choices. Either they can work in ways that are “compatible with existing institutions” or they can “engage in collective action to change the institutional order.” The second option is pretty darned hard, and usually isn’t possible. (p. 6)

The article argues that entrepreneurs are even more  constrained by these institutional forces than established firms, because they’re just trying to get on their feet and stay alive; and they have to steal away customers from the established players, and those customers are comfortable with the old ways of doing business. “New ventures often adopt the structures of incumbent firms in their industry. Although not very creative, it is a rational choice for entrepreneurs wishing to grow their ventures successfully” (p. 4).

The good news is that this research helps us understand what situations are more likely to result in genuine innovation. The first is institutional complexity. The second is when there are multiple audiences with divergent expectations. Institutional complexity has been increasing for years, with decentralization and globalization. As a result, the “institutional isomorphism” is beginning to break down in certain organizations and industries. This is also why “chaos and uncertainty” are more likely to foster entrepreneurial innovation: because the routines and practices inherited from history break down and stop working.

A final characteristic that fosters innovation is network structures: connections among people that are diverse, with lots of small and indirect relationships.

Entrepreneurs with diverse networks and many weak ties are more likely to be innovators, as are entrepreneurs who have contacts that go beyond their local environments (p. 7)

Sad to say, most startups don’t have any diversity. Founders they “assemble teams of cofounders very much like themselves” (p. 8). This makes it much less likely they’ll be creative.

They conclude by saying it’s time to get rid of “the heroic image of innovative entrepreneurs that have plagued entrepreneurship research for decades” (p. 9). It’s the same point I’ve been arguing about creativity: creative breakthroughs never come from a single solitary individual. Creativity and innovation always emerge from collaborations, teams, and networks. It’s a myth that super-creative people generate brilliant ideas while they’re alone, and then reveal them to the world (and are showered with venture capital). It doesn’t happen that way–not with entrepreneurship, and not with any other type of creativity, either.