This is an excerpt from Raising Heretics, available now online in ebook and paperback format (check out adsei.org for international links & ebooks).
It’s time to change the world. We need creative problem solvers to address catastrophic climate change, income inequality, pandemics, ecological collapse, misinformation, radicalisation, and many more problems facing humanity. We need critical thinkers. Rational Sceptics. People willing to challenge the status quo.
Unfortunately, we have an education system that’s exceptionally good at turning out obedient people full of “facts” and unshakeable opinions. This book proposes a new approach to education that empowers our children to solve real problems, to challenge their own results, and to shake up the status quo on the basis of evidence and data.
I founded the Australian Data Science Education Institute in 2018 because I wanted to show kids that they are capable of working with technology, that it is relevant to them, and that they don’t have to look like Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory in order to learn to program.
It’s well known that the technology industry has a diversity problem when it comes to women, but lack of diversity goes way beyond gender. By trying to increase the number of women and girls in STEM, we are only tackling the easy part – though it’s actually not that easy, judging by the sheer volume of women in STEM programmes and the persistently stubborn failure of the numbers to actually shift.
The problem is that we consistently attract the kinds of people to tech that are already there. We are missing big chunks of the population – boys included. Boys who don’t see themselves as nerdy, or who don’t see the point of tech. Girls who don’t see it as relevant to them. Non binary and gender queer kids who don’t see themselves as represented or welcome in any of the tech programmes available to them.
If we had true diversity in technology and Data Science, we’d have a range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, as well as people with a wide range of physical abilities. We’d have people on our design teams that are mobility compromised, vision impaired, with allergies, with varied gender identities and sexualities, with every possible skin tone and body shape. We’d have people who act differently, dress differently, think differently, and have different needs. I have headphones that don’t work well with long hair, for goodness’ sake! Guess who was on that design team?
This lack of diversity is bad for the technology industry, but it’s even worse for the rest of us, because technology is changing the shape of our world at an alarming rate, and we currently have very little say in our own future. Companies like Uber and Doordash are radically changing our working conditions and eliminating hard won entitlements and protections, while Facebook and Youtube spread misinformation and encourage radicalisation, all in the name of keeping people on their platforms and maximising their profits. Our world is being directly shaped by technology companies that are working in ways we don’t understand and have no control over.
Meanwhile we see human resources companies using AI to filter job applicants, claiming that their system eliminates “human bias”, without admitting the possibility that it introduces new forms of machine bias. We see “predictive policing” algorithms being used to predict crime and target particular communities in disturbing ways. We see a rush towards machine learning and artificial intelligence systems for their own sake, rather than for problems they can legitimately solve, and we have a wholly unwarranted confidence in the accuracy, reliability, and objectivity of their output.
It turns out that diversity in the technology industry is only a small part of the reason why teaching all kids Data Science and STEM skills matters. The big part is that we need a technology and data literate population who are trained to think critically and creatively, and, in particular, trained to believe that they can solve problems. That’s the world we need to build. And the foundation stone of world building has to be education.
We have a choice. We can train kids to be obedient process followers who don’t rock the boat, or we can train them to be challenging, critical and creative thinkers who ask difficult questions and come up with innovative solutions to our worst problems.
Above all, we need people who are prepared to be heretical.
Who ask “why?
Who ask “how can we be sure?”
Who ask “what have we missed?”
Who ask “how can we do better?”
Who ask “who are we hurting?”
Who ask “how can we fix this for everyone?”
Who ask “how will we know how well it works?”
These questions are often heretical. By asking them, I’ve sometimes made my bosses very unhappy. They make people uncomfortable. But they are crucial to building an ethical, sustainable, positive future for all of us.
I have a PhD in Computer Science Education and over twenty years experience teaching Computational and Data Science at both Secondary and Tertiary levels. Now I’m the Founder and Executive Director of the Australian Data Science Education Institute (ADSEI) – a registered charity dedicated to ensuring every student is empowered with data literacy, Data Science, and STEM skills. I started ADSEI because I figured out how to engage kids with STEM and Data Science skills, and I wanted to engage all kids, not just the kids in my own classes. I thought this would help improve diversity in the technology industry, but I have come to realise the problem is far more fundamental than that.
All of my time in education has made it clear to me just how badly wrong education has gone. We continue to make the same educational mistakes we’ve been making for decades. We are failing our children, and, in doing so, we are sabotaging our future. If we want to build a future that is evidence based, rational, and inclusive, then our education system clearly needs to change.
There are so many signs that our current education system is missing the mark. When my teenager gets frustrated because she doesn’t understand how what she’s learning in maths could ever be useful. When a primary school kid says science is boring. When a high school kid says maths is too hard, or science isn’t for them, or they aren’t smart enough to program a computer. None of these things would happen if education was working. It’s obvious that it’s not.
And that’s unsurprising, since the primary focus of education is a matter of facts, rote learning, and mindless application of procedures. By giving kids “experiments” to do that have known inputs and known results, we teach science as confirmation bias. This trains them that the important thing is to get the right, expected answer (and if you get a different answer, fudge things until it’s right!), rather than exploring the unknown and looking for new things.
Although the importance of STEM is widely acknowledged, it is frequently taught as a matter of tech toys, rather than a crucial tool for solving real problems. This commonly comprises a day of robotics play, or the installation of a maker space where kids can tinker with 3D printers and laser cutters. These toys are frequently error prone and difficult to use, so when kids don’t find them fun, or have trouble using them, they assume that STEM is something they can’t do.
Even when problem solving tools like Design Thinking are introduced in the classroom, they are often only used to solve toy problems that don’t relate to challenges that kids can tackle in real life. Design Thinking plays with trips to Mars, or responding to a famine in Ethiopia, instead of taking one of the many problems in our own schools and communities and empowering kids to solve it. You can’t teach problem solving properly if you skip the really tough part; implementing your solution and then troubleshooting all the ways it doesn’t work the way you thought it would.
By doing this, we tell kids that they can’t make a difference until they are grown up, when we could be giving them the tools to make a positive difference in their world today.
The truth is, with this kind of education we have got really good at turning out obedient kids who follow the rules and do as they are told. And those are not the kind of people we need to overcome the huge crises we’re facing. We need people who are confident, skilled, knowledgeable, and prepared to stand their ground and argue a point. We need people who see things differently, who look for new answers, who understand uncertainty, and who ask hard questions. We need people who are “unbossable”,who don’t do what they’re told without first understanding why it’s the right thing to do. We need people who challenge the status quo. We need people who consider ethics first, rather than as an afterthought or not at all.
Meanwhile, Science has somehow become a partisan political football. Australia’s response to the Covid19 crisis was effective, largely because the Government followed the advice of experts in epidemiology. Unfortunately, we face a larger and more serious existential crisis in the form of climate change, and in this case, the Government is ignoring experts and investing deeply in denialism and cheap grabs for immediate power and profit.
Policy in this country (and most of the world) is largely driven by ideology, powerful lobby groups, and manipulative media organisations, rather than by science and evidence. This kind of destructive behaviour is justified with dodgy data and deeply suspect visualisations, and all too often even the media lack either the scepticism or the skill to call them out.
Inequality is rising under the influence of capitalism-driven globalisation that promises better lives for all via the concept of “trickle down economics”, which the data shows quite clearly does not work. We resist Universal Basic Income on the basis that people would stop working out of laziness, when the data from the trials so far shows not only that people don’t stop working, but also that they become more entrepreneurial. Our governments sell off natural assets, log native forests, privatise essential services like health and education, and give tax cuts to big business despite evidence showing that the best way to stimulate the economy is to give money to poor people. As a population, we swallow the line that it is all for our own benefit, and vote the same people back in.
Social media also drags us by the nose, constructing ever more cunning ways to tie us to their platforms, milk us for data and profit, and manipulate our behaviour, all without our informed consent. Our social and workplace gains are casually undermined by disruptive technologies, while we have no input into, and even less control over, the way they shape our future.
This is why we need a rationally sceptical population. We need to stop being irrationally sceptical of climate science and vaccines and start being rationally sceptical of government policy, business motives, and media beatups.
We need to build a new world. And world building has to start with education.