Secret Sauce?


One of my favorite presentation slides lately is simply a clipping from a newspaper that reads: “We Hate Math – say 4 in 10 – A Majority of Americans.”

It usually takes the audience a beat or two to catch the irony.  But this notion of Western cultures embracing a fixed mindset (Dweck, 2006) around math is pervasive.  As a culture we DO hate math.  We believe ourselves to be not only bad at it, but incapable of learning it.  In fact, I still remember my 9th grade math teacher telling me, “You’re just not a numbers person Jeff.  Don’t worry, we’ll get you through this so you never have to take math again…”

mathstinks3For years I have argued that just as we have “Writing Across the Curriculum” in so many places, so too do we need “Math Across the Curriculum.”  Our kids are graduating into a world where math is more and more important – especially statistics, a class most will never take in their entire educational journey. So, as any person can learn ANYTHING, if the right conditions are met, math should end up in everyone’s tool belt.

I get why it’s slow to gain traction.  It’s actually a paradigm shift.  After all, even my generation needed relatively little math to be successful.  If you could write and/or speak effectively, you could find work…good work.  I could likely talk my way into many positions, even ones for which I was not qualified, thanks to solid communication skills.

But even that historical perspective is starting to hold less and less merit with me.  While I DO believe that our current students will need more math than ever to be successful – not only to be skeptical of statistics, figure out what correlations matter, and wade through advertising blitzes aimed at the math challenged – I think I under-valued the importance of math in my own time.  I have really started to notice that those who control the numbers, seem to control a lot in our society.

I’ve always suspected this of course.  The Warren Buffets, Bill Gates, and other MBA / Data Wonks who run empires and countries are often strong in their math and analytic skills.  Managers are often promoted for math (not people) skills.  But lately I’ve noticed an annoying trend, hammered home by a new Partner at Saint Leo.

If you’ve not heard of Blue Canary Data, you need to.  This company is going to help us transform our data story, one important question at a time.  (Like, “Will student X attend class next week?” or “Will student Y pass this class with a C or better?”, etc)  The predictive modeling and algorithms are going to help us leap past the rudimentary basics to try and help every student be more successful.  Over time, our question pools will grow.  Over time, our data sets will become more integrated, and therefore more powerful.  And over time, our student experience will improve.

But it was a simple phrase that founder Mike Sharkey of Blue Canary stated during a data workshop that really converged my thinking on the importance of math today and tomorrow.  He explained that many companies will take your data, put it through their own black box, and give you proposed actions.  What’s in the black box, you may wonder?  Many organizations will not tell you.  They’ll explain it’s their Secret Sauce.

mathstinksOf course what they mean by Secret Sauce is math.  They believe their equations and algorithms (aka math) to be the best, to the point of top secret!  Forget that it’s your data.  Forget that it’s your students.  Forget that your people are the ones doing the implementing.  The secret math equations (insert eerie, mysterious song here) will save the day!  (And just like McDonald’s famous sauce which was readily available for years, any algorithm or equation will eventually be uncovered…)

So how can something like that be secret?  Easy.  Because most Americans can’t check it anyway – educators included.  And since it takes substantial math – the kind psychometricians, statisticians, and (more importantly) computers perform, most people can’t do those kinds of equations quickly or easily.  After all, as Kahneman and Tversky pointed out, NOBODY is good at intuitive statistics…even statisticians.  So, if a company determines a good algorithm for student retention, with weighted measures that are not easily identified without math, they make it a ‘secret.’  That way other people who are good with math won’t copy it.  (Including the university math departments, etc…)

I hope you all see the problem here.  Should an equation or algorithm be secret?  I suppose if you believe in commercial enterprise, almost anything can be business differentiator.  But at Saint Leo we’re taking a different route.  We don’t want to work in a ‘black box’ system any more than we want our students to feel that learning is a black box.  (I know many institutions never really help students understand how they learn best, but not at Saint Leo.)  Instead, we’re looking for partners who will help us develop the best algorithms as a partner.  They’ll expose the equations to us just as we expose the data to them.  

statisticsI’ve blogged lately about our building of the “White Whale” – a learning ecosystem others have sought after, but nobody has created.  We think we’re onto some significant architecture choices with regard to analytics, a meaningful social layer, and teaching / learning.  And along the way, we’ll open up to anyone who wants to see it.  They might help us out after all!  But when we are finished, we’ll have a system that empowers the best student experience, from enrollment to classroom to connection to graduation and beyond.  None of it will be a secret.  Our “sauce” will be around architecture, implementation, roll out, and effort.  But no secrets.  I hope you join us along the way…

Good luck and good learning.

Dr. Jeff D Borden
Chief Innovation Officer


About Jeff Borden

My title at work is ‘Chief Innovation Officer.’ So I'm trying to transform teaching and learning at scale. How do I do that? Through my "life" jobs. Primarily, I'm a dad and husband. But I'm also a professor, writer, professional speaker, comedian, researcher, lifelong learner, musician, dog-owner, and even a ranked disc golfer... I've spoken to, trained, or consulted with hundreds of thousands of educators at all levels, in numerous countries, K-20, about how to teach and learn effectively in the 21st Century.

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