Rick Perry’s brilliance knows no bounds!
The scientific method is a mystery to many people. They may hear about scientific discoveries in the news but they don’t understand how an experiment is conducted. So I wrote this for those who are curious about the scientific method.
A scientific experiment requires four basic components; a researcher controlled independent variable, a dependent variable, a random sample and random assignment. First I will define each then I will put them together.
Say you want to find out if fertilizer X is better than fertilizer Y for growing tomatoes. What would you do? Well first you would get a bunch of tomatoes of the same variety and both types of fertilizers. You would plant a third of the tomatoes with fertilizer X and a third with fertilizer Y and a third with no fertilizer. Every plant would have equal chance of getting fertilizer X, Y or no fertilizer. You would plant them all the same day. They all would be planted in a place where all plants get equal sunshine. Every plant would receive equal water and fertilizer.
The independent variable (IV) is what you think will have an effect. In this case it is the fertilizer. Take note that one group has no fertilizer. That is the control group, it tells us what would happen without intervention. That gives us a baseline to compare the effects of the fertilizers. Without a control group you don’t know what effect any fertilizer has on tomatoes. Another critical feature of the IV is that the researcher controls it. Since the researcher can control the IV you can make an attribution of causation. That is you can say IF I do X then A occurs, if I do Y then B occurs, if I do nothing then C occurs. If you are slightly confused don’t worry, we will come back to this after explaining the rest of the experiment.
The dependent variable is what you expect the independent variable to cause. In our experiment we could use a number of dependent variables. Maybe you think a better fertilizer leads to larger plants. Maybe you think it leads to more tomatoes. Maybe you think it leads to more nutritious tomatoes. An experiment requires a minimum of one dependent variable but can more than one. Since this is set up as a basic experiment that anybody could do in their backyard it makes sense to select plant size and amount of tomatoes as the dependent variable. Very few have access or the knowledge to test the nutrition of tomatoes. So now that we have selected the dependent variable we have to decide how to measure those variables. For plant size we could measure height or we could measure mass. In order to measure mass we could have to pull the plant out of the ground to weigh it and few people would want to kill their plants for that. Whereas measuring height is simple and easy which makes it a great measure for this experiment. When it comes to measuring the amount of tomatoes we could opt to count the number of tomatoes produced or measure the mass of tomatoes produced. Because it is easy enough to weigh the tomatoes I would chose to measure the mass of tomatoes produced. That allows me to tell if one plant is producing larger tomatoes even if it is producing the same number as another plant. Now one key to the dependent variable is that you must specifically define how it is measured and then apply it consistently. The definition should be clear enough that another person could duplicate your experiment on their own. For example when measuring the mass of tomatoes produced do you ensure that the stem is completely removed or can you leave some of the stem attached? I would remove the stem entirely so I am only measuring the tomatoes but I have to ensure that I include such specifics in my definition of my dependent variable.
Next is random sampling, that requires that every member of a population has the same chance of being part of the study. That means when you go to buy all the tomato plants every one of them should have an equal chance of being picked. We don’t want to go and just pick the healthiest looking ones or the largest. That would skew the results. There are number of ways to accomplish this. You could decide before going to the store that you would buy every 5th tomato plant you see. This type of sampling is done in survey research when dealing with a crowd like a event, rally or demonstration. Or you could decide that you will roll a 6 sided dice for each plant and take any that you roll a 6 for. The key is that all have equal chance. That allows you to generalize your results to the population as a whole because you pulled out a random group from the population so theoretically it should represent the whole group. Whereas if you picked only the healthiest plants then you could only generalize your results to the healthiest population of plants. Whatever group you sample for the study is what group you can generalize your results to.
The final requirement is random assignment. Every member of the sample should be randomly assigned to the different conditions of the IV. In our experiment all tomato plants should have an equal chance of getting fertilizer X as getting fertilizer Y as getting no fertilizer. This is done because there will always be individual differences in a population. There will be genetic and environmental factors in the past that influence the individuals whether those individuals are plants or humans or whatever they are. By randomly assigning individuals to groups then those differences are distributed between the groups. In theory the differences should be equally distributed. In our experiment say that some of the plants we bought were less healthy than others. Well if we randomly assign each plant to the three groups then it is likely that each group would end up with about the same number of unhealthy plants. That equalizes the effects of those unhealthy plants on the final results since they are distributed between all the groups.
Now it is time to put this all together. We have an independent variable (IV) which is the type of fertilizer (X or Y or None). We have two dependent variables (DV); the height of the plants and the mass of the tomatoes. We believe that the type of fertilizer (IV) will have an effect on the tomato plants which is measured as our DVs. In addition we randomly sampled the tomato plants from the store by ensuring each plant had an equal chance of being included in the study. Finally we randomly assigned all of the plants to one of the conditions of the IV. Otherwise every plant should be as equal as possible in treatment. They are planted in a place where all can get equal sunshine. They all receive the same amount of water. The groups that get fertilizer get equal amounts of fertilizer each.
This set up will allow us to determine what effects the fertilizers (or no fertilizer) causes to occur with the tomato plants. So how do we know that? Well we held all conditions we could control equal (water, sun, etc). The conditions we could not hold equal like the individual variations in genetics or past environment we distributed randomly among the conditions of the IV so as to equalize the impact on each group. The only change between groups was the IV which we controlled. So we can say with confidence that changing the IV is what caused the difference in the plants because it was the only feature being changed. Furthermore since we randomly sampled plants from the population we can generalize the results we see to that population. By randomly picking individuals from the population we are able to assume that the sample we tested would be equivalent to any other random sample pulled from the same population because the individual differences should be equally represented in our sample as they are in the population as a whole.
Well there you have it, we have set up an experimental design. This is the same basic design of just about any experiment. It could be applied to tomatoes or psychology or biology or just about anything. At a later point I will go over correlational designs which are used heavily in medicine, economics and sociology.
DISCLAIMER: The only piece that I did not and will not go over in this post is the statistical testing to determine if there really is an effect of fertilizer. Just because one group has slight taller plants or slightly more tomatoes does not mean that we can definitively say the IV caused that effect. That is because there are individual differences in plants and that must be accounted for when determining if there was an effect. We have to statistically test before making that declaration. Unfortunately explaining even a simple T test or F test is quite a lengthy process and beyond the scope here. Though if the differences are large then it is very very likely that the IV caused the differences because it is very likely the statistics would turn out that way. But I am warning against saying the IV caused a difference if the differences are minimal.
I heard a piece on NPR this morning about re-educating Taliban Jihadis in Pakistan. What really caught my attention was that they were using education and opportunity to combat terrorism. Here are two excerpts from the article.
Even today, for the young men of Swat there is the constant fear of Taliban fighters, who press whomever they want into service.
“The Taliban just grab these kids and take them into the hills,” says Hussain Nadim, a professor at the National University of Sciences and Technology in Islamabad. He is part of an effort to re-educate these young men at a number of jihadi rehab centers in the valley.
“These kids have no exposure, they have no education, there is no media to speak of, and the lack of these types of things in Swat breeds ignorance … and fear,” Nadim adds. “It makes it easy for the Taliban to recruit them and radicalize them.”
Vocational School For Jihadis
That explains why the Pakistani army decided to make Swat ground zero for a quiet experiment: a little-known program aimed at re-educating thousands of young men who were taken in by the Taliban.
Using international funds and a contingent of army officers, Pakistan has tried its hand at turning would-be terrorists into law-abiding citizens. It has opened two jihadi rehabilitation centers — one called Mishal, for teenage militants, and another called Sabaoon, for younger ones — to see if they can return the young men of Swat back to their families.
The two campuses are like vocational schools for jihadis — only with high walls, barbed wire and armed guards.
Zeshan takes me into an electronics class — it looks like a high school science lab, all electrical meters and alligator clips. A computer lab has rows of flat-screen PCs.
“We teach them very basic things, like how to use MS-Word and things like that,” Zeshan says. I ask if they go on the Internet, and Zeshan looks surprised, saying, “Yes, of course.”
Before coming to the army centers, very few of the young men even knew what the Internet was. Parts of the Swat Valley are that cut off from the rest of the world. And that isolation, rehabilitation center officials say, is one of the reasons the Taliban prey on young men from this area.
“We bring them here to make them productive members of society,” says Zeshan. “The Taliban has put ideas in their heads, and we work to undo that and set them right.”
There are different theories on how to re-educate violent jihadis and an even greater number of doubts about whether reverse indoctrination actually works. In Saudi Arabia, a 12-step program includes art therapy and helping young men find a job and a wife. In Singapore, jihadis are taught less violent interpretations of the Quran.
But in Swat, the approach is different — and simpler.
The focus at the centers is not specifically about jihad. Instead, it is more about skills.
“We tell them, you need to get your life back in order. We tell them that their mothers or their sisters are at home waiting for them … waiting for them to take care of them,” Nadim says. “We don’t confuse them with ideas of what is a good jihad or a bad jihad. We tell them their focus should be on their families.”
Since 2010, several thousand young men — and a handful of women — have graduated from the program. The funding for Mishal, Sabaoon and a couple of other rehab centers in Swat comes from the Pakistani army and from international aid groups. Zeshan says the recidivism rate is near zero.
“When they are provided an opportunity to come back to the society where they have a livelihood and a family, what’s the point in going back to those people?” says Zeshan, referring to the Taliban.
I have said in the past and I will say it again; the lack of opportunities breed extremism. When there are little or no opportunities for people then any option looks good compared to no options. This creates fertile grounds for recruiting people into extremist causes. Groups like the Taliban are able to offer direction, work, a livelihood and meaning which in some cases is more than the recruit sees available to them in society in general. When you have nothing then you also have nothing to loose, so why not take a chance on the only opportunity you see available?
Yet when people can make a life for themselves in society then the idea of joining an extremist group is far less appealing. Why would they want they want to risk their livelihood and family for a cause unless they already are true believers in that cause?
This is why we see extremism breed in countries that have weak economies and weak governments. Recruits tend to come from the poor and uneducated populations. That is why I think this program is great, it engages the root causes rather than the symptom. If people have opportunities in life then they are far less likely to become an extremist. With programs like this we could defuse terrorism rather than fighting a war against terrorism. In order to stop terrorism we do not need everybody to like us, rather we need people to not hate us so much that they are willing to die to hurt us. There are two sides to this equation. First terrorism can be reduced by reducing animosity towards the US. Second terrorism can be reduced by giving people something to live for so they don’t want to risk dying.
No amount of killing will stop terrorism, in fact it will make terrorism worse. War destroys economies and governments, it takes away the opportunity to live a normal life and have a family which makes people easy targets for extremist recruiters. Also war creates animosity towards the US. So the war on terror fuels both sides of the equation that drive people to extremism.
I hope that in the future we focus more on creating opportunities for people in order to combat terrorism rather than killing terrorists.
Since Sandy Hook there has been talk about arming teachers. Well I live in TX so we are moving forward with this plan in some school districts. But I don’t think it is good idea the fundamental premise is flawed and the execution is flawed.
The premise of arming schools seems good on the surface, the idea is to provide protection to children. But the issue is that arming teachers in schools will not prevent mass shootings. It might deter a potential mass shooter from targeting a school. Though it isn’t like schools are the only place that can be targeted, if a person wants to start killing people there are plenty of places they can do that. In fact the Aurora shooting was at a theater so does that mean we need to armed guards at theaters too? What about malls? What about city streets? Are we going to put armed security on every corner and in every building to deter mass shootings? If we want to deal with the problem of mass shootings then armed guards are not a solution. Guards only address the symptom not the cause. Deterring a shooter from one location does not prevent targeting a different location. We simply can’t protect all locations all the time.
On top of basing this plan off a flawed premise those moving forward are flawed in their execution of the plan. The districts that will allow armed teachers only want them to have a concealed weapons license in order to do so. But a concealed weapons license does not mean you are prepared to use a gun in a real combat situation. Think about what the situation would look like if a teacher was forced to defend students from an attacker. There would be screaming and chaos, people running every which way trying to get away. There would be pushing and shoving as people are fleeing for their lives. It would be chaos and confusion. In that chaos the defending teacher would have to identify the enemy target and shoot the enemy target accurately without hitting innocent bystanders. I have done a concealed weapons course and I am sorry but the short time at the firing range is not enough for a person to even be able to accurately shoot a stationary piece of paper. Yeah you learn to shoot but it takes practice to be accurate. So a concealed weapons license is not adequate training for a teacher to defend students.
Instead I think that if teachers want to be armed in order to protect students they should at minimum have to take all of the firearms handling training that police are required to take. Police are trained to identify enemy targets when innocent bystanders are around. They are trained to shoot the enemy while not hitting bystanders. In addition armed teachers should have to maintain the same level of continuing firearms training that the police are required. They should be required to show that they put in the same amount of time practicing as police and they should be re-evaluated every year at minimum (preferable twice a year). This is what I think is a minimum absolute requirement.
Though to be truly safe I think teachers that want to be armed should actually do all the firearms training done by SWAT. SWAT are the specialists in going into hostile situations and eliminating enemies while protecting innocents. Their training is focused for situations like mass shootings. So if a teacher wants to carry a gun to protect their students they should maintain a skill level with their gun that is up to par with SWAT.
Requiring armed teachers only to have concealed weapons license is asking for trouble. Putting guns in the hands of those inadequately trained and expecting good results in an emergency is foolish. If people are insistent on arming teachers then teachers should be properly trained for the situation they are intended for.
Most people would agree that the educational system of the US is in need of serious work. Students are unprepared either for the work place or for college. Science and math education are in need of drastic improvement. Under performing schools are told to improve yet they don’t and nothing more happens. Something needs done about education in the US, we need a school voucher system.
There are several reasons we should move to a voucher system. First off the competition can help promote better education outcomes and greater innovation in education. Schools will have a great freedom to try new means of improving education without state and federal regulations guiding dictating the methods to be used. So they can try to fix our educational system in the manner that seems best to them. While at the same time the competition allows parents to pick and choose the best school to fit their children. That way parents have a greater choice over school since they can select which of many schools they send their children thus allowing them to tailor their children’s education to fit their values as a parent.
Next the ideas and methods developed from competition of schools will be adopted by other schools. That is schools which perform extremely well will be emulated by other schools trying to improve their performance. While schools which perform poorly will not be emulated.
Also vouchers will hold schools more accountable than they are currently. Parents will have the choice of whether or not to attend a schools. So if a school is performing poorly then parents don’t have to send their children there the next year. They can find another option. When children are assign to school regardless of school performance and parents don’t have any other options then the school has little incentive to improve. The district may tell them to improve, but they will still have about as many students next year as last year which means they will have about the same funding. The school doesn’t deal with any feel any consequences of poor performance, rather it is the children that suffer from it. So they school doesn’t have to really worry about improving performance.
Now the two problems with vouchers have to do with the allocation of funding. First in our current system in many places school funding is tied to property tax. That creates massive disparities between schools in rich and poor neighborhood. Back in Phoenix (my home town), I use to work at a school for developmentally disabled children that the local districts couldn’t handle. We got a child one day from a North Scottsdale school which is an affluent suburb of Phoenix. Well the school didn’t have an extra bus to send the child to us. So they hired a limo company to take him back and forth until they could buy a van and hire somebody to drive it. This kid was showing up in a limo for several weeks. It was ridiculous. How can they justify spending that kind of money? They clearly had more dollars than sense. They had so much extra because they got more from property taxes all the while other students barely have the basics.
For this reason I think that education funding needs to be separated from property taxes. All children deserve to be invested in equally. Affluent children do not need to have greater public funding than poor children. Yet at the same time we can’t ignore the simple fact that the cost of operating a schools does depend in some ways on the area it is located. The overhead for school property is going to be more expensive in urban areas than rural and the overhead for schools within urban areas will vary depending on the neighborhoods. Though at the same time it should not be highly connected to the neighborhood so as not to create vast disparities in the education between the poor and rich. That is way the value of the voucher should depend in part on the location of the individual but only in part. It should have a base value that is adjusted based on the cost of living in the area surrounding the individual. The area should be sufficiently large so that poor neighborhood include rich ones in their cost of living and rich neighborhoods include poor. It could be something like the cost of living for the 50 mile area surrounding the individual compared to the cost of living for the state as a whole. That factor would be applied to the base value which would be the average per student cost of education for the state. So say the average cost per student in your state is $7,000 and your area cost of living is 120% of the average statewide cost of living then your voucher would be worth $19,000 * 1.2 = $12,000. The whole point to this is to help combat the disparities in education based on family socioeconomic status.
The next issue is the question of how much tuition will cost. If everybody got a school voucher worth $10,000 in tuition, you would quickly find that most schools happen to cost $10,000 in tuition or more. No school would opt to charge less than the voucher is worth. But that would encourage waste. Also that would mitigate some of the pressures of competition since there would be no pressure on the price of education only on the results of education. In order to deal with this vouchers need to be connect to individual accounts. Any unspent money from your voucher rolls over to the next year. If any is left unspent after graduation then it can be used to attend college. So if your voucher is worth $10,000 and you pick a school that only charges $8,000 tuition then you would have $2,000 rollover in your account for next year. Then next year you would have a $12,000 voucher. That gives parents and schools a reason to focus both on educational outcomes but also the cost of education. Then parents could decide how best to spend their child’s education money, maybe they will send them somewhere that is good but not the best for grade school so that they can afford the top end high school. Maybe they will find a good value for their dollar and save extra for college. Or maybe they will put some of their own money on top of the voucher and send them somewhere more expensive every year. The parents will have a choice over it. At the same time it creates competition between schools on price. They will have to offer a reasonable price for the education so as to entice parent into sending their children to that school.
This plan will provide competition among schools for both educational performance and cost of tuition. It will allow greater freedom to innovate while allowing schools to emulate top performers. Finally it will put parents back in the driver’s seat of education and allow them to make meaningful choices about their children’s future.
The goal of education is not to produce higher test scores. The goal of education is to produce citizens that can sustain our democracy into the future.
I flipped on the radio this morning and heard the quote above. I don’t know who it was that said it or anything. But the idea struck me as poignant. Often times in the debate over how to fix or reform the educational system people make assumptions about the purpose or goal of education but rarely do they make those assumptions explicit. So what are some of the goals of education that some people ascribe too? Well the answer depends both on context, your relation to education and your personal beliefs.
The first conception I will look at is the idea that the goal of education is to produce higher test scores. Most of us will reject that as the goal in favor for something broader and more comprehensive than simply test scores. Yet this is a conception to is built into our system and our thinking. Schools have used standardized test scores for decades to evaluate students, schools and sometimes teachers. When a school and/or teacher evaluations are tied to standardized tests then at least some teachers and administrators are going to focus primarily on the goal of improving test scores. Also we all have known students who strive for the highest possible grades, you know the type that freaks out if they get a B+ instead of an A. Those students are clearly focusing on higher test scores as the goal of education.
Now test scores can be a reasonable goal of education in some circumstances. First off it is difficult to compare the performance of various schools without some form of measuring stick. You need a neutral measure by which to compare school performances. Standardized tests can provide that. The school performance data produced from such tests then can feedback into parent evaluations and choices of schools since they need some means of comparing schools. Thus higher test scores becomes a goal of education at least in part because they use high test scores to determine the optimal school for their children.
Next test scores can be a reasonable goal when the course / subject is primarily focused on concrete skills and knowledge that need effectively applied. There are classes we all take that are very application focused and for those tests seem to be an excellent choice to evaluate performance. Here I am thinking many of the trade type skills, lab skills, mathematics and such. If you have ever taken a college level lab course you probably have done a lab practical too. That is where you demonstrate all of the skills you developed throughout the course in one hands on test. You have to show that you can actually do what is expected and you are evaluated on performance. Here the evaluation ties very directly to the course goals of teaching practical application of skills. This also holds true for other applied skills like taking vitals for a CNA or EMT, or replacing an alternator for a mechanic, or identifying the problem with an AC unit, or even calculating resistance in a circuit.
The next conception comes directly from the quote. The idea that the goal of education is to produce citizens that can sustain our democracy into the future. This is an idea I had not considered and I have no idea how wide spread it is but I found it interesting. I agree that it is important for our next generation to be capable of maintaining our government. If the government collapses then everybody faces massive problems. Now by no means do I believe this is a goal that is focused on heavily in education. The state of knowledge about the government and how it operates is abysmal. Schools don’t seem to spend much time focusing on the inner workings of the government or truly thorough discussions of the Constitution. I would think that if this were a goal then good citizenship would become a primary focus as educators try and get children involved in politics.
The biggest problem I see is the question of how to measure success. How can you evaluate if a school is producing citizens that can sustain our democracy? Would evaluations be based on measures of civic participation (voting, signing petitions, writing elected officials, attending city council, attending demonstrations)? Or would evaluations be based on civic knowledge (Constitutional knowledge, identification of major political figures, understanding of party platforms, familiarity with election mechanics)? Though I think it is important for people to know about their government I do not think that is the primary focus of education. But it should not be neglected either. Even my daughter (almost 5yrs) can tell you that the President only gets two turns (turns make more sense to her that terms). She can tell you that Mitt Romney and Obama were in the election and that the people picked Obama to take his second turn. Also that Obama is not allowed another turn ever again because he had his two turns.
As a parent I think the goal of education is to help prepare my children to successfully navigate the world are in. The purpose is to prepare my children to eventually go out on their own and make their way in the world successfully. I think many would agree with this goal for education. Though I am not sure we would all agree on what success constitutes. I see this as requiring at minimum basic understanding of the basics of academic education including math, science and English. But also they should have an understanding of the elements and function of government. Regardless whether they like it or not politics will have an impact on the lives of my children and they must have at least the foundational knowledge necessary to deal with that. They should know the fundamental rights that citizens enjoy in the US (at least in theory). They should have a fair idea about what both major parties stand for. They should understand how powers are separated both on a federal level but also between levels of government (federal, state, county, city etc). Also education should provide a cultural foundation of knowledge. Children should have basic understanding about all the major world religions and their views. Whether or not they are religious they will interact with individuals of all religions and should have basic knowledge about those religions. They should also have basic knowledge of cultural customs to help them deal with people from other places better. But equally important it is important to teach about the varieties of cultural customs in order to broaden their horizons. By learning about how the customs of other cultures work they can learn to see culture at work in our society. I don’t want them to believe that their narrow little world is how the whole world is. I don’t want them to expect all other people to make the same choices as they do.
The problem here is how do we measure success. I don’t believe success is purely the income you earn or the toys you own. So you can’t just gather income data on children in order to evaluate the success of a school. Also even though I value education immensely as shown by the fact that my wife is finishing her PhD and I am planning to attend grad school in the fall. Despite that I don’t believe higher education is for everybody or necessary for success. To me success requires involves a combination of productivity, happiness (on the job and at home), leisure time and overall comfortableness of life. This is no easy thing to measure without extensive research and even then it would be missing critical information.
What is the goal of education to you? How would you measure a school or teacher’s success in achieving that goal?