How did Poland get so far ahead of us? High expectations.

I’m reading The Smartest Kids in the World right now and loving it. One great section explores how over just a few years Poland surpassed the US on the gold standard international academic achievement test (PISA). The answer researchers found that stood out was simple: high expectations.

What had made the difference in Poland? Of all the changes, one reform had mattered most according to research done by Wisniewski and his colleagues: the delay in tracking. Kids who would have otherwise been transferred to vocational schools cored about 100 points higher than their counterparts who had already been tracked at that point. The expectations had gone up, and these kids had met them.

Before the set of reforms that vaulted Poland to the top 10 worldwide on the PISA tests, students had been sorted early into academic and vocational tracks based on test results from childhood. But after reforms, vocational students weren’t split off from other students until age 16. Meanwhile in the US, so-called ‘gifted’ students have been tracked since elementary school.

So how does tracking early drive such dramatic differences in results? Again, it’s about expectations. In 1964 Robert Rosenthal ran an experiment exploring this. He gave a set of elementary school students an IQ test. After the test, he randomly selected a subset and told their teachers that they had done remarkably well on the test and showed great potential. And what happened? From NPR:

As he followed the children over the next two years, Rosenthal discovered that the teachers’ expectations of these kids really did affect the students. “If teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly, those kids gained more IQ,” he says.

As Rosenthal did more research, he found that expectations affect teachers’ moment-to-moment interactions with the children they teach in a thousand almost invisible ways. Teachers give the students that they expect to succeed more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval: They consistently touch, nod and smile at those kids more.

“It’s not magic, it’s not mental telepathy,” Rosenthal says. “It’s very likely these thousands of different ways of treating people in small ways every day.”

It’s less and less controversial to argue against traditional gifted and talented programs that track students from a young age. So-called “no-excuses” charter schools have started taking high expectations through high school. But few have started to question tracking after high school.

In designing our higher education programs, we’re shifting more and more to focus on those students left out of the traditional higher ed pathways – students tracked out of university by their secondary school performance and exams. We’re asking what would happen if you got rid of tracking altogether, and at any point in a young person’s life, even after they’d missed their shot at university, you gave them strong education and had incredibly high expectations of them. We don’t know yet, but we’re excited to find out.

How to draw the rest of the f*cking owl

I loved Ben Casnocha’s writing about Mastery. He starts with how to draw an owl:


And I think this is how some systems treat learning. You memorize how an owl looks from the picture and then you just draw it. In fact this is what many educational systems in East Africa that I’ve spent time in look like. You look at the answer, maybe memorize it, and that’s it. But the results of systems based on rote memorization speak for themselves. 

But how do you really draw the rest of the fucking owl?

Geoff Colvin writes about something he calls deliberate practice. We’ve heard about Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, but what do you do during those hours? You practice, deliberately. This means a few things:

1) It stretches you beyond your abilities:

At the driving range or at the piano, most of us are just doing what we’ve done before and hoping to maintain the level of performance that we probably reached long ago. By contrast, deliberate practice requires that one identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them. Tiger Woods – intensely applying this principle, which is no secret among pro golfers – has been seen to drop golf balls into a sand trap and step on them, then practice shots from that near-impossible lie.

2) You repeat it, a lot:

High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts. Tiger Woods may face that buried lie in the sand only two or three times in a season, and if those were his only opportunities to work on that shot, he’d blow it just as you and I do. 

3) Feedback on results is continuously available:

You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts. Or you may believe you played that bar of the Brahms violin concerto perfectly, but can you really trust your own judgment? In many important situations, a teacher, coach, or mentor is vital for providing crucial feedback.

 4) It’s hard:

Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it “deliberate,” as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in. Continually seeking exactly those elements of performance that are unsatisfactory and then trying one’s hardest to make them better places enormous strains on anyone’s mental abilities…Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands. Instead of doing what we’re good at, we insistently seek out what we’re not good at.

Then we identify the painful, difficult activities that will make us better and do those things over and over. After each repetition, we force ourselves to see – or get others to tell us – exactly what still isn’t right so we can repeat the most painful and difficult parts of what we’ve just done. We continue that process until we’re mentally exhausted.

Adding these up, we get a very different picture than ‘just draw the fucking owl’. And we get a very different picture than the lecture halls full of students staring at the ceiling while professors read aloud to them from textbooks. In fact this list is almost the polar opposite of what we see here in East African higher education. Students here are not stretched beyond their abilities, they don’t repetitively practice the skills they’ll need after school, they almost never get feedback, and their studies aren’t mentally demanding.

Deliberate practice is anything but easy. And running academic programs that actually provide meaningful practice with feedback is challenging. But luckily Casnocha’s follow up post lays out 30 simple steps, which I really love:

1. Start
2. Keep going.
3. You think you’re starting to get the hang of it.
4. You see someone else’s work and feel undeniable misery.
5. Keep going.
6. Keep going.
7. You feel like maybe, possibly, you kinda got it now.
8. You don’t.
9. Keep going.
10. You ask for someone else’s opinion–their response is standoffish, though polite.
11. Depression.
12. Keep going.
13. Keep going.
14. You ask someone else’s opinion–their response is favorable.
15. They have no idea what they’re talking about.
16. Keep going.
17. You feel semi-kinda favorable and maybe even a little proud of what you can do now.
18. Self-loathing chastisement.
19. Depression
20. Keep going.
21. You ask someone else’s opinion–they respond quite favorably.
22. They’re still wrong.
23. Depression.
24. Keep going though you can’t possibly imagine why.
25. Become restless.
26. Receive some measure of praise from a trustworthy opinion.
27. They’re still fucking wrong (Right?)
28. Keep going just because there’s nothing else to do.
29. Mastery arrives, you mistake it for a gust of wind.
30. Keep. Fucking. Going.

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

Disruption rolls on

Udacity’s recent announcement that it was pivoting away from free courses for all has been met by glee and relief from the anxious academic establishment. Their satisfaction, just like the hype that they deride, misses the point. MOOCs have always been a sideshow of the three-act play that is the disruption of higher education. Their inevitable retreat from the public eye that Udacity’s evolution begins does nothing to change the radical change that is coming to higher education models around the world.

The real disruption is being driven by models like College for America, which enable individuals to earn a degree at their own pace, from anywhere, using any methods. It is being driven by models like Kepler and Spire which combine online resources with the best in-person learning techniques, which have been proven through extensive research and experience but few universities meaningfully employ. And ultimately it is being driven by the fundamental flaws in current higher education models, flaws which charge young people a king’s ransom and often provide them with little meaningful learning or employable skills.

The irony of Rebecca Schuman’s polemic is that the current American higher education system is guilty of the same bias against poor people which she attributes to Udacity’s founder, Sebastian Thrun: consider, for example, the appalling 30% graduation rate of lower income students. Yes, MOOCs are currently an intellectual playground for the global elite. But so are many colleges and universities around the world. New models will take hold more slowly than in other industries due to the greater switching costs in higher education. But they – and the disruption they herald – offer the best hope for millions of poor people around the world and should be cheered by everyone who believes in equality of education and opportunity.

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.

Full Court

Reading David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell’s new book has gotten me thinking seriously about how underdogs succeed. Our students enter the global economy with weaker primary and secondary educations, less educated parents, limited financial cushions, and coming from countries that don’t have strong economies compared to Europe, Asia, or North America. So how do they win? Let me tell you about the full court press.

The Press

After one team scores in basketball, usually they retreat to the back of their side while the other team brings the ball down the court. In Malcolm Gladwell’s new book though (summary here) he talks about a different defensive strategy – one that has propelled most teams who’ve used it to do far better than expected. The full court press. Instead of retreating, the full court press has players ferociously defending all 94 feet of the basketball court instead of passively retreating. And it works.

So why don’t more people try it? Because it’s so freaking hard:

“I have so many coaches come in every year to learn the press,” Pitino [a coach famous for his full court press] said. Louisville was the Mecca for all those Davids trying to learn how to beat Goliaths. “Then they e-mail me. They tell me they can’t do it. They don’t know if they have the bench. They don’t know if the players can last.”


Pitino shook his head. “We practice every day for two hours straight,” he went on. “The players are moving almost ninety-eight per cent of the practice. We spend very little time talking. When we make our corrections”—that is, when Pitino and his coaches stop play to give instruction—“they are seven-second corrections, so that our heart rate never rests. We are always working.” Seven seconds! The coaches who came to Louisville sat in the stands and watched that ceaseless activity and despaired.


The prospect of playing by David’s rules was too daunting. They would rather lose.


One, Two, Three, Attitude

I think a full day of intense, active learning, with no sitting back and listening is our full court press. Regular basketball defense has you heading back to your side of the court and sitting around without moving (passively!) while the other team comes down the court. It’s harder – ask our amazing teachers and students – but it works. And the beautiful thing our ability to execute with this intensity doesn’t depend on background, wealth, or anything predetermined – just our students’ and teachers’ passion and drive.

“We followed soccer strategy in practice,” Ranadivé said. “I would make them run and run and run. I couldn’t teach them skills in that short period of time, and so all we did was make sure they were fit and had some basic understanding of the game. That’s why attitude plays such a big role in this, because you’re going to get tired.” He turned to Craig. “What was our cheer again?”

The two men thought for a moment, then shouted out happily, in unison, “One, two, three, attitude!” That was it! The whole Redwood City philosophy was based on a willingness to try harder than anyone else.


Never Punt

But what about burnout? Isn’t running this hard more likely to exhaust your team – is this strategy more of a sprint instead of a marathon? Maybe, but that line of reasoning ignores how fun it is to win. To push yourself to do your best.

I loved this video about the “full court press” of football – a coach who never punts, and who always onside kicks – two risky strategies that require a bit more work, but pay off with points and wins. The coach here says it loudly and clearly: “Kids love it. They absolutely love this style of football.”  It’s FUN to perform at the top of your game and shock the competition with your performance:

And that’s been our experience at Kepler so far – it’s hard work, but at our recent business pitch session, the feedback from the successful entrepreneur judges was that our students in one month of learning had outpaced many 4-year university graduates. And for our teachers and students, that feels damn good.

A Farewell to MOOCs?

There is some interesting news from Udacity, one of the big three so-called MOOC platforms. Their pivot clearly seeks to address some  of the most common – and warranted – critiques of the MOOC model to date. Their changes?

     1. Instruction – You can now get direct and personalized feedback from a coach on your work on the course;

     2. Doing, not just watching – Courses now include focus on applying skills to build things rather than just taking quizzes

     3. Business model – They pay for those first two features by charging students on a monthly basis. You take longer to complete the course you pay more – the approach taken by other emerging competency-based providers such as College for America.

These are sensible moves and signs that at least some providers are getting serious about the online course format. Feedback and real application of skills are the core of effective learning and the future of education – not simple recordings of the broken formats of the past – professorial talking heads – that has been the mainstay of MOOCs to date. It is also notable that Udacity course developers are all practitioners and leaders from relevant industries, not professors. While they can’t leverage big academic brands as others can, this is likely a net strength, providing them with focus, insulation from academics with fixed notions of course design, and a value proposition that customers are more likely to pay for (tech skills from industry leaders) than play with (humanities courses from academics).

At more than $100 per month, it would be hard to claim that Udacity will still be Massive or Open – MOOC hype is starting to deflate as sensible observers like University Ventures have predicted. But with their focus on employability, high demand technology skills, and formats that facilitate high quality learning, my money would be on Udacity surviving and thriving over Coursera and other for-profit platforms.