13 November 2016

On the notion of "one right answer" in your education

on the notion of "one right answer" in your education

Why does this exam question focus on judgement? Why did more than half the class fail this particular question? 
The question seems so easy ... at least ... it seem that way now you are outside the exam room.  
Personally, I mostly blame teachers for this. We teach in primary school that 2 + 2 = 4 (a deductive argument) that has only a single correct answer. We give you textbooks and exercises that are "clean", but in the real world, things are often much more messy.  
Likewise, students also demand "clean" because it means school is easy. This semester I set an assignment that reflected a realistic situation and students said "it's too hard, we're not even accountants yet". In AIS I found a real life client for students to use an assignment scenario and everyone tells me it's too hard to deal with the real world. 
This is a question of private interests.
TEACHERS know that every employer is slightly different, so we have to train students a little bit in every field.
EMPLOYERS know that teachers can't cover everything they want specifically and they have a low expectation of graduate capabilities, and they just rely on grades as a proxy for "smarts" and "conscientiousness".
STUDENTS know this and interpret this as "nothing we learn at school matters", and so see this as a game to just get the highest grades and actively try to learn as little as possible. 
Thus the incentive for teachers and students alike is to have assessments that are narrow in scope, objective to grade, and thus easy to mark.
Can anyone say “multiple choice questions"? (CPA I’m lookin’ at you!)
But like all short-term/long-term trade offs, in the long run everybody ends up unhappy. Cynical students are involved in a game that ultimately leaves them with little knowledge and holding worthless paper. Everyone joins the teaching profession thinking that they will make a difference, but through the system of perverse incentives the good teaching staff will leave or their enthusiasm is crushed out over the years. This leaves us with a team of mediocre staff.
Too many good teachers leave or are poached by more profitable and rewarding employment opportunities. Too many good students (the people who genuinely who want to learn useful professional skills) often find it hard to extract any meaningful knowledge or professional wisdom out of dismal teachers.  Employers in Australia complain loudly, and make zero investment in their staff expecting their employees to personally pick up cost for learning their quirky niche systems.
There are of course exceptions, but you know in your heart that I am describing a reality in which you live.
Good teaching is really hard work. Teachers are reminded constantly that there isn’t any reward for doing a better job. By this I mean things such as writing better assignments or writing new exams questions every semester. Indeed there are penalties for not marking fast enough. No one challenges a grade over 55%, but everyone is ready to fight over a grade at 45%. Doing the ‘right thing’ is a lot of work and involves interpersonal conflict. Going ‘soft’ is comparatively painless. The short term incentives are not long term sustainable.
By the way, these same incentives apply to auditors too.
Above all professions, Accounting is one where we are nothing without our commitment to telling the truth. And yet, it’s the only career choice where 0% of the entrants do it for their commitment to civics or social justice. Literally everyone does this for purely self-interested reasons: i.e. to get a job.
How can we square this notion of a profession whose sole job is to “tell the truth” with the reality that we sampling from a base that is almost entirely disinterested in telling the truth if it conflicts with their own self interests?
At some point in their careers, most accountants pretty quickly realise that our powerbase is dependent on ‘doing the right thing’. At the very least, or at maximum cynicism, we must be seen to be doing the right thing.
Personally, I’m committed to my own long term self-interest, and means that being ethical is probably going to maximise the benefits for everyone including myself. This means that I am willing to accept more work on short-term. Doing the right thing is always harder than the easy short cut.  I believe that genuinely doing the right thing is better than merely being ‘seen to do the right’ thing.
I want students to understand that the profession is complex. Making good judgement is hard, and it can be messy at times.
I understand that as a student you might dislike the emphasis on judgement over ‘straight forward’ procedure. But the fact that you find it uncomfortable, is a sign that I’m doing something right.  
I want you to be strong. 


24 November 2014

Why I doubt my economics training.

The nice thing about Economics is that it gives us simple explanations about the world which are natural truths about human, thus we can use the conclusions drawn as axioms to guide our everyday life on what behaviour is good and evil.
Ok: now swap "economics" for "religion" and read the sentence again.

My alma mater was the School of Economics at the Australian National University.   The ANU is one of the most staunchly neoclassical schools in all Australia. Obsessed with markets, marginalism, and mathematics, the school was supposedly one of the very toughest in the land. I was not the very best student, but I did drink the Kool Aid. 

More recently my understanding has become more nuanced, not just because of the shift in public attitude largely driven by the global financial crisis. no longer can I believe that is possible the loan optimal to follow the path of ubiquitous unfettered markets as idealised by libertarians. But economists are asking the right questions, mostly. 

Although I do not agree with the recommendations set by Pickette, his work is certainly nuanced, will supported by evidence and is not set ideal logically opposed to the Say or Jevons. Rather, he accepts the vast majority of the orthodoxy, and proposes a critical way of thinking about the problems. The problem is that this critical approach was missing from an otherwise stellar education at the ANU. 

The use of mathematics and algebra is in fact a constructed for the indoctrination of potentially powerful individuals. By simplifying out all the problems, we are able to come up with simple models that contain one one, or a perhaps a few of variables, which will ultimately determine the outcome.

But the real world is not like this.

Much like in physics class, students will study aerodynamics, Newtonian physics, fluid dynamics, friction, etc, and typically study these in isolation. Usually a problem starts with a scenario such as"a ball is rolling down a hill", commonly followed by a long list of assumptions to isolate out any unwanted effects, "assume that there is no friction, air resistance, and that the ball is perfectly round". 

The real-world engineer will understand the physics, but will have to take account of the all the things that have been assumed away. So it is with economics and business.

The problem is, when a physicist is applied to a particularly difficult engineering problem, they will tend to accept the operating environment, and adapt their apparatus accordingly. The Economist on the other hand is more likely to attempt to change the environment or blame other exogenous variables. Physicist do not hold on to their Newtonian way of thinking when it fails to explain the pre-ambulation of mercury around the sun. The answer is, "the model does not explain the behaviour". This spurred on Einstein to develop his theories, and we now have Lagrangian mechanics, which is a re-formulation of classical mechanics. 

Basically, scientists went looking for a more complex models that closer match reality rather than trying to change reality to match the model. Economists usually don't do this.

The antidote is "we need to imagine people more complexly", as championed by John Green of crash course. Conversely, I am concerned that the default assumption that "everything is complex" would also lead people to give up on trying to understand. "Complexity" isn't an excuse for giving up.

So therefore it is very useful to start off with the simplicity of powerful models, but insufficient to accept them at face value. We must be able to relax the strict assumptions, and allow for multiple models each having their own effect simultaneously. Much like the ball rolling down the hill, gravitational forces might be the main driver, but air resistance and surface imperfections do exist, and do play their part. 

So yes, we need to imaginable more complexly, and the complexity of algebra does not make up for the lack of imagination in accepting which variables might be playing their part. 

I believe that we can go a lot further in teaching our students to think critically at the undergraduate level. 

09 November 2014

Are people more selfish or more sustainable?

Can people be sustainable? I tried to see if I could mimic markets in the class room and it turns out the people in my experiment were pretty selfish.

This was a shame because the game is setup to reward sustainable behaviour, but it goes to show that even when the rules are there, people have the choice to not follow the expectations of other.  Basically, people can be unpredictable.