About Dai Ellis

Passionate ed reformer, Generation Rwanda co-founder, recovering infectious disease drug-slinger, rookie father. @DaiEllis on Twitter

Weekly roundup

Plenty of interesting stuff stored up from the last few weeks!

The MOOC backlash is in full swing now, as many of you will have seen. So far, not finding the backlash a lot more thoughtful than the initial hype. Sigh . . . It’s not about MOOCs-awesome or MOOCs-suck; it’s about how education orgs can use MOOCs as one small part of a thoroughly reinvented model that includes in-person elements and produces much better outcomes. Recent Clay Christensen piece made this point

1) Blogged this yesterday, but just to flag in case anyone missed it — Jamie wrote a spot-on piece in Slate yesterday, trying to find some middle ground between the MOOC hypers and haters

2) Jamie’s piece was partly in response to an Anya Kamenetz article in Slate, which was thought-provoking in highlighting the potential downsides of using MOOCs aggressively in the developing world. We found it a bit overstated and not reflective of our experience with Kepler so far, in the ways Jamie highlighted in his piece.

3) Meanwhile, Anya wrote an excellent piece in the NYT — showing why she’s one of the hottest journalists in the higher ed space right now — on competency-based education. In the long run, we continue to feel that this trend will be much more far-reaching than the MOOC one.

4) Loved this spotlight on Champlain College in Vermont by James Fallows in The Atlantic (Atlantic continues to impress on education coverage!). So much in common with our vision. Can’t wait to get up there to check it out. What a shame it’s capped at 2K student enrollment. Wonder if the cap makes them more open to partnership to expand their impact?

5) Fast Company article on the major pivot Udacity is undertaking. Seems like a step in the right direction strategically for Udacity as a business, though the piece is much too fawning (explicitly and implicitly) about Thrun. But the piece misses the point about how MOOCs can create value and how to interpret completion rates, as just about every other observer does.

6) Audrey Watters with a MOOC-backlash-representative piece on Udacity’s pivot and all the attention Thrun gets. Critiquing Thrun-as-saint is totally fair — no way he should be the figurehead for improving higher ed, and he’s said some pretty daft things. But turning that into across-the-board MOOC-hating isn’t much more thoughtful than what Thrun has said. The whole idea that we need to keep MOOCs at bay because they’re bad pedagogy? Um, yeah — two problems: 1) MOOCs can/should be used to take lecture out of the classroom and enable smart pedagogy during class time, as Kepler is attempting; and 2) bad pedagogy has already taken root across most of our college campuses, well before MOOCs came to town! As Jamie says in his Slate piece, the danger is the status quo, not MOOCs howling outside the gates.

7) Paul LeBlanc of SNHU with a very thoughtful piece on tech-enabled education and the human heart. Made me think back to the Gawande piece on how there’s no substitute for door-to-door, in-person engagement when rolling out new health technologies and behavior change campaigns.

8) Anyone else doing — or interested in — entrepreneurship in education service delivery or ed tech should have a look at this Diane Tavenner talk at a Lean Startup conference last year. Diane founded Summit schools which is doing some fascinating & pioneering work in blended learning.

9) Giants feeling pain: in the higher ed world, Yale feeling the crunch, and in the K12 blended learning world, Rocketship making some major changes even as it shoots for the stars with scale.

10) Our friends at Bridge International Academies got some nice coverage in Wired this week

11) Mindfulness and meditation taking off in the business world. If mindfulness practices are as potentially personally transformative as its practitioners feel they are, how could we incorporate into education in a secular way without setting off Wavy-Gravy alarm bells?

12) Interesting piece in Getting Smart about how higher ed institutions might become ‘lifelong learning partners’ and really unleash the power of their alumni network and connections. Want to circle back and blog on this. Big part of what we’re envisioning.

13) Coursera creating some global learning hubs to create ways for learners around the world to get some in-person support and facilitated access. Makes sense, consistent with Kepler vision though thinner model in many cases; curious to learn more about some of these

14) Kepler also got a mention in a recent BBC piece

Kepler in Slate

Our own Jamie Hodari just wrote a great piece in Slate responding in part to an earlier, thought-provoking piece by Anya Kamenetz.

Some money quotes:

  • The greatest threat to national education systems is not online courses or other innovations. It’s the status quo.
  • No one cries afoul when a Nigerian professor uses an economics textbook written by a professor from Berkeley.
  • And many of the experiments happening in Africa will be just as relevant for helping the United States work through its own higher education crisis. In fact, the best experiments in places like Kigali may eventually be featured at your alma mater a decade from now.

Seeking a rockstar Kepler CEO

Kepler just launched its search for a Chief Executive Officer! We’re looking for a bold and innovative leader who has run a high-performing organization and is passionate about the opportunity to shape and deliver on Kepler’s ambitious vision.

A full job description can be found at:  http://www.on-ramps.com/jobs/891

This job doesn’t always drink beer, but when it does . . .

Please help us spread the word!

Weekly Roundup

Much more interesting week this week than last!

1) Interesting piece in Scientific American about the increasing evidence base and new techniques for what many educators and students have known for a long time — that it’s possible to enhance cognitive ability (and specifically our ability to learn, or ‘fluid intelligence’). The tone of the article is a bit ridiculous, as if the author were proving the whole world wrong. But interesting nuggets — eg, hadn’t come across the Robert Sternberg stuff yet, which is worth checking out. Main thesis of the article:

1. Fluid intelligence is trainable.

2. The training and subsequent gains are dose-dependent—meaning, the more you train, the more you gain.

3. Anyone can increase their cognitive ability, no matter what your starting point is.

4. The effect can be gained by training on tasks that don’t resemble the test questions.

2. The results from the OECD’s inaugural — and crazy-large — Survey of Adult Skills are in. Best write-ups I’ve see are this one by Eduardo Porter in the NYT and another in the New Yorker with some striking charts about how the US is falling behind virtually all OECD countries in its ability to produce highly-skilled workers. Both are US-centric.

3. Here’s a course I’d love to see MOOC’d and I’ll be among the first to enroll — an Ancient Chinese Philosophy class that’s one of the top five most popular undergrad courses at Harvard. One example student take on it: “the class absolutely changed my perspective of myself, my peers, and of the way I view the world.” And another excerpt: “’We are what we repeatedly do,’ a view shared by thinkers such as Confucius, who taught that the importance of rituals lies in how they inculcate a certain sensibility in a person.” E.g., if you smile and make real eye contact with everyone you interact with, including the convenience store clerk, you’re more likely to be or become kind and generous. During my time at Excel, a high-performing charter school network, I saw how important reinforcing and routinizing the smallest positive/respectful behaviors was to building character.

4) Want to go start a college from scratch? Learn from Patrick Awuah (one of our advisors at Spire) who started Ashesi, the best liberal arts college in Ghana. The story about how the regulatory authorities rejected Ashesi’s proposed honor code — and how the whole Ashesi community rallied behind it and decided to put their accreditation on the line by insisting to the regulator that they be allowed to keep it — is inspiring.

5) Harvard starting to roll out more limited-enrollment MOOCs. Er, “SPOCs”: small, private online courses. When a 500-student class started to qualify as small I couldn’t say . . .

6) Significant new study out on the effectiveness of direct, unconditional cash transfers (“UCTs”) to the poor — a la Give Directly, which is run by our friend (and an early Kepler/Spire contributor) Joy Sun. Economist thinks UCTs are good but that conditional cash transfers (“CCTs”) with strings attached — eg, tied to kids attending school — are generally a better instrument, especially for governments. Haven’t yet looked closely enough at the evidence to weigh in, but I’d back anything Joy’s leading.

7) Looks like Ted Mitchell is going to be taking over Martha Kanter’s role as U.S. Dept of Ed Under Secretary responsible for higher education. I don’t know Ted personally but have heard great things and judging by the caliber of the rest of the leadership team at New Schools, this seems like good news. It’ll be nice to have someone driving higher ed policy who has spent many years thinking about how the system screws kids from low-income families.

8) One of the more fascinating ed tech seed rounds of the year — Zuckerberg, Google Ventures and others backing Panorama Ed which was founded by a few Yale undergrads and is based in Boston.

9) Tom Friedman on what makes Shanghai schools (at least the ones he visited) successful. He says there’s no real secret ingredient — just good old-fashioned execution and particular investment in teacher development. News flash: this is at the center of any school’s success anywhere in the world.

10) Controversy over the slow ramp the $10K college degree programs have shown in the early going

11) World Bank getting into the MOOC platform game. As much as I love Jim Kim, if the key to good education is good execution, I wouldn’t put my money on the Bank

12) Enjoyed this piece on paying it forward by covering the cost of the Happy Meal of the people behind you in the Drive-Thru lane. I’m totally doing that next time I go get my daughter McNuggets, but don’t try to tail me — I’ll give you the slip.

Kepler in action!

Kepler students have been working in teams on business ideas to improve Kepler over the last three weeks. Big shout-out to the Kepler team for coming up with this idea — I love the cultural message this sends, similar to the spirit in which Olin College drew its first-year students into co-creation as “Olin Partners.”

The students’ work culminated in an event on Wednesday where one student from each team gave a panel of four judges the team’s “Rocket pitch.” Then each team fielded questions from the judges about how they’d think about expanding their market, paying back investors, funding their operating costs, etc.

Here are some great pix from Wednesday’s event



Hiring for Growth Mindset

At Spire and Kepler, growth mindset is right at the core of the special sauce we want to cook up. By growth mindset, I mean what Carol Dweck has written about so compellingly — a belief that our mind is a muscle that can be developed, that our talent for something is malleable rather than fixed. People with strong growth mindset are hungry for feedback and coaching to improve themselves. We want to select for that hunger, cultivate it, and feed it. It will be core to our organizational culture and DNA if we do things right.

We believe, as Dweck does, that growth mindset itself can be developed. After all, it would be weird to be a proponent of growth mindset and then to see growth mindset itself as something that you’re either born with or you’re not. But having the beginnings of it certainly helps. So we’ll be looking for it in the students we recruit and, even more so, in the staff we hire.

But how do you actually hire for growth mindset? One of my favorite blog posts ever addresses this squarely with a simple but deceptively powerful approach. It’s written by a guy named Ben Marcovitz who runs Sci Academy, a great charter school down in New Orleans. He emphasizes to candidates how they’ll love Sci Academy if they thrive on frank, constant feedback, but burn out quickly if they’re threatened or depressed by it.

The key insight, though, is one ingredient in the hiring process: incorporate a feedback cycle. Have candidates do the same task twice with one round of concrete feedback in between. And rather than evaluate based on the absolute quality of the performance on whatever the task is, look for relative performance — on the specific aspects that you gave the candidate feedback on.

Ben does this by having teachers film a video lesson, giving them feedback on it, and then having them re-do it. But the beauty of this approach is that it’s very task-agnostic and could be used in almost any industry.

Have you seen any creative applications of this kind of approach or anything else that might be a good way to select for growth mindset?


Friday Roundup

This week feels thin — did I miss all the interesting stories this week? Please flag what I missed! At least a few things worth sharing:

1) Great piece by University Ventures on the need for making apprenticeships more central to the higher education experience. Not sure this will ever take off at the elite level, though I think it should there too — learning on the job (with support!) is often the best way to learn, and this may be the single most important feature of Spire & Kepler over the long run.

2) The UV piece in last week’s Friday roundup was one of my favorites — and I promised to do some follow-up to dig into it. The underlying stuff they cite comes from Merrilea Mayo, whom we had a great conversation with — here’s an example presentation summarizing some of the key insights

3) More concrete evidence that — shocker! — meaningful individualized support to students during college improves persistence rates substantially. One of the main programs cited is interestingly a volunteer-based on in Tennesse

4) An INSEAD professor weighs in on Harvard Biz Review blog with a thoughtful (but missing key points / counterarguments) take on why he isn’t down with MOOCs and won’t be producing one anytime soon

5) Coursera thinking that if MOOC completion rates are low, might make sense to shorten the courses! Six-week courses is what gets highlighted, but imagine how high completion rates would be if you shortened to a single lecture

6) Think I may have shared this one called The Improvisers awhile ago, but it’s a great piece on entrepreneurship and the informal economy in Kenya — and how the education system is undermining real opportunity

7) Awhile back I shared a piece on the jellyfish explosion that is one of the best articles I’ve read all year (ordering the book!) — and now it turns out there’s an emerging war between robots and jellyfish. Jellyfish are also one of the biggest reasons to think twice about swimming from Cuba to Florida

Revisiting “Minimum Viable Instruction”

One of the most thought-provoking blog posts I’ve come across this year was John Danner’s excellent piece on Minimum Viable Instruction. John takes the concept of Minimum Viable Product — which as part of a broader theory of ‘lean startups’ has taken the entrepreneurship world by storm in recent years — and applies it to teaching, arguing that less instruction can be better. If we take this idea seriously, what could it do for teaching? What if the education community thought as deeply about MVI as the startup community has thought about MVP?

John’s take on “MVI” focuses largely on how focused and individualized instruction can be (and how this can be easier in online learning): addressing one narrow learning objective at a time, probing and assessing iteratively to identify the student’s particular needs in that area. In other words, individualizing the zone of proximal development with respect to some subskill — and providing only what is needed for the student to work on that.

Focused and individualized instruction seems like a great start in fleshing out a theory of MVI — if a theory of MVI turns out to be worthwhile at all! What might an even thicker conception of MVI look like?

* * * * *

Part of the reason John’s piece on MVI struck such a chord was that it caught me at a time when college friends and I were mourning the loss of our adored rowing coach, Harry Parker. Toward the end of his blog post, John rightly points out how great sports coaches often keep their instruction to a minimum, focusing on a single thing at a time (like the tempo of a golf swing). While Harry was definitely focused in his coaching, the more striking minimalism in his style was how little he said. He set extremely high expectations, then created big challenges for his oarsmen in competitive situations, and largely let them learn through effort (lots of it) and trial and error.

When someone was struggling to improve on something, he gave sparing but blunt feedback. Some people don’t tell you, say, if your zipper is down; Harry would tell you “your zipper is down, and I expect never to see your zipper down again.” When he did give feedback, we listened — and did everything in our power to adopt whatever he was encouraging us to change in our technique or approach.

To illustrate, here are some quotes about Harry from articles this summer after he passed away:

“It’s funny, because he never really said much when we were training,” Prioleau said. “I remember one particular time when he started us off on a piece. He said, ‘Full pressure on this one,’ and then didn’t say anything and actually left the room for awhile and came back 45 minutes later. We were all just rowing along at full pressure wondering when it was going to stop.”

When his former oarsmen talked about Parker, it was with equal parts affection, admiration, and awe. “He was like Father Guido Sarducci, who had the five-minute university,” said Dave Fellows, who captained the unbeaten 1974 Rude & Smooth boat. “Harry taught you about yourself. Isn’t that the purpose of a liberal arts college?”

A five-minute chat was a filibuster from the man they called The Sphinx. “If there was a prize for ratio of influence to words spoken, that’s a horizon job for Harry,” reckoned Blair Brooks, who captained the unbeaten 1975 R&S edition.

* * * * *

I learned so much from Harry — maybe more than from any other single coach or teacher. I’ve spent quite a bit of time reflecting over the last few months, asking: how did I learn so much from him when he said so little to me?

I got to thinking about other teachers and coaches I’ve admired. My best teacher in high school, J.C. Smith, taught a seminar on comparative literature. Like Harry, he said relatively little and let students spend most of the class talking to each other and reasoning through tough, broad questions he posed. I still remember our final exam question at the end of the first term: “based on what we’ve read together so far this year, what is one meant to do on a Thursday afternoon?” We had two hours to write an essay answering that question.

While I was at Excel, one of the higher-performing charter school networks in the U.S., I also saw some MVI-leaning practices. My first year there, one of the schoolwide themes for instructional improvement was “ratio” — with a goal of getting teachers to be talking less, and students doing more talking, small-group work, and ‘deliberate practice.’ Talking less, maybe counterintuitively, isn’t an easy objective for a teacher to execute. It requires more succinctness and planning, and having students work independently or in small groups is harder to facilitate and supervise well. It’s hard enough keeping everyone on task even with 20+ eyes on the teacher. But the more experienced teachers at Excel did this very well — because they got lots of feedback on it over time. Teacher coaching involved full-period observations roughly every other week by the school’s principal, followed by extensive plus/delta/question feedback on their practice.

Thinking back on all the successful but minimalist teaching and coaching I’ve experienced, John’s emphasis on the “one-issue-at-a-time” and individualized nature of the instructional approach is one common theme. But there are a bunch of other reasons why thoughtful, intentional minimalism often seems to work. I’m no Doug Lemov, but here’s a rough and incomplete crack at pieces of the case for incorporating more minimalism in instruction. 

One is the shift in cognitive burden. When teachers achieve better ratio (which is actually one of Doug’s Teach Like a Champion techniques), students end up doing more of the talking — and therefore thinking — rather than have the thinking and talking done for them (or to them). The more cognitive load we put on students, the more likely they are to get the deliberate practice that evidence suggests is so key to mastery.

A corollary to that is sequencing. The less “delivery” of instruction or information a teacher does upfront, the sooner a student gets to practice a skill, struggle or fail, and then solicit coaching and feedback from the teacher or peers. The cycle of trying, failing, getting feedback, adjusting, and repeating is central to deliberate practice. But too often the classroom sequence is extensive teacher “delivery” followed by student practice, then moving on to the next topic, with the delivery-then-practice cycle repeated. Even the conventional “flipped classroom” model presumes this approach — watch lecture at home, then come into school the next day and do something active (practice/discuss/etc.) to put the theoretical concepts to work. Both intuition and some emerging evidence suggest that flipping the flipped classroom may make sense: practicing first, followed by targeted feedback and explanation of the theoretical underpinnings. Watching my young kids learn, they’re not picking up skills by having me teach them initially. They’re learning almost entirely by trying something first with zero or minimal guidance, struggling, and then getting some coaching from a parent or watching a friend or sibling.

Another benefit of minimalist instruction is that it gives more space for small-group peer-to-peer learning. This was one of Excel’s distinctive instructional features throughout the building. I’m not enough of an expert to explain all the reasons why learning through peer interaction is effective, but others including Eric Mazur have put a lot of thought into it. Among other things, the act of one peer teaching another peer not only leverages scarce teacher time/attention by getting peers involved as coaches, but also helps the peer who’s doing the teaching better absorb the concepts and skills herself or himself. As Lev Vygotsky said, “the one who does the talking, does the learning.” Have you ever had the experience that preparing to teach and then teaching something to someone deepened your understanding of an issue? In settings where teacher capacity or talent is unusually scarce — as will be the case for both Kepler and Spire — making the post out of older or more advanced students’ ability to help teach others will be critical.

Saying less may also help students fully internalize concepts by applying their own language and framing to the core idea. The more a teacher talks about a concept, the more likely it may be that the student tries to memorize the thing using the teacher’s own language. The more a student experiences and talks through the issue, the more likely they are to reframe or re-articulate the idea to themselves in a way that feels more authentic and is more digestible. Atul Gawande’s anecdote about Sister Seema in his fantastic recent New Yorker piece about driving behavior change in healthcare captures this beautifully.

One final — though maybe less important — thought on MVI’s benefits is that making an effort to be minimalist may push teachers to think more about their non-verbal communication. In the K12 setting, I’ve seen teachers use non-verbal communication (something as simple as a glance) very effectively to keep a student on task or engaged. But it goes beyond mere classroom management. One of Harry’s particular geniuses was how well he communicated and motivated non-verbally. A pause, a glare, or a grunt — these kinds of things were his stock-in-trade.

One of the biggest beefs we have with higher education around the world is how lecture-heavy it is. Preschools practice Minimum Viable Instruction pretty well. But by the time we get to college, and are pretty geared up to learn independently, we get maybe the heaviest dose of getting-talked-at the education system uses anywhere. Lecture is Maximum Possible Instruction.  

I say all of this with a huge dose of caution. I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I’ve never taught professionally, and have tremendous respect for the art and practice of teaching. The earliest learning I had at Excel — after watching world-class teachers and totally muffing a stab or two at guest teaching — was how damn hard it is to teach well. It’s also far from simple — so any simplistic theory isn’t enough to build a teaching practice around. And MVI, where I’ve observed it, only works when it’s done in the context of the right culture (including high expectations) and support (including readily available coaching and feedback from a teacher, coach, and/or peers.

But I’ve seen it often enough to feel like there’s some ‘there there’, and am curious if some of these ideas resonate with others? While MVP and MVI relate to very different fields of practice, they’re ultimately about the same idea: that we learn best (organizationally in the case of MVP, individually in the case of MVI) by doing things, failing early, getting corrective input, adapting, and iterating. And doing that repeatedly until the cows come home.

Friday rodeo

It’s been awhile since last one. Lots stored up. Shorter notes on each this time, sorry O Best Beloved!

1) Kepler was the lead article on Chronicle of Higher Ed’s website a couple of weeks ago. Go team!! Reports from the team in Kigali continue to be really encouraging. More updates to come before long

2) Interesting University Ventures blog post on promising approaches to testing and remediating some of the most basic cognitive skills that are predictive of job success. Wish there were more detail! Following up to learn more.

3) Harvard Business School going online! Wharton took the first big step, but HBS not to be outdone

4) Interesting NYT Opinionator piece on whole-school rollouts of the flipped classroom model. Our friends at Mediacore — who are very generously running tech for Kepler for now — are the behind-the-scenes partner of the Clintondale school highlighted in the piece

5) Hadn’t realized that Amazon is starting to make some significant moves into the education space — buying Ten Marks being the latest. Anyone hawking tablets just needs to be in the K12 world these days. I have a weird feeling in my tummy about that

6) Conventional wisdom is that the oldest kids in a given cohort in school have the edge in the long term. New Yorker says maybe the opposite — youngest kid, smartest kid?

7) Fascinating, disturbing piece about why there are still so few women in science — gotta get you riled up. Some hope, but so much that’s just unacceptably wrong. I saw some of this during my time as a biochem major

8) Good to see College Board trying to apply recent Stanford research on how simple nudges can help address the college undermatching problem

9) In the recent WSJ special section on education / edtech, there was a “review” of MOOCs’ performance to date. Meta-review: MOOCs still getting too much attention — everyone watching the dribbler while the goal scorer is going back door!

10) And in case any of this is of interest:

Enjoy the long weekend peeps!