Leading Kepler: Straddling the Lines Between Hopes for the Future and Contending with the Past


As we continue to plod forth focusing on the students’ futures, here’s (amongst many other things) what we’re dealing with from their educational pasts, which are present both in Rwanda and in most students across the globe:
  • As in many classrooms in the world, students are often required to copy notes and memorize them to “learn” content. Teachers often tell them what to do, when its due, and have small, individual incremented assignments for students.
  • Generally, students have used limited technology in their learning—even in countries where it’s available, the cost, teacher training, and just change itself can impede the use of technology.
  • While group learning has become more common, most students will arrive at their post-secondary institution having completed far more individualized assignments rather than work with others for desired outcomes.
  • Students also get used to set dates and concrete assignments that are submitted and often never looked at again. They’ve never (or rarely) had to complete a task where there may be unclear or missing pieces of data sets, nor do they get a returned assignment requiring refinement to meet a high standard. Generally, schools are places that remove ambiguity through their rigid structures and often-fictitious problem sets that don’t mirror what our students will actually have to face in work.
Schools are hierarchical, and students take their roles in the classrooms, as do teachers and the principal. In my last ten years as both a K-12 and university educator, I found many schools to adhere to hierarchies that often don’t let students exercise real leadership, stymie teacher innovation, and ensure that each student appropriately takes his or her place in the educational hierarchy (and doesn’t challenge the teacher, administration, or institution). As a result, there are only a few students that graduate with the skills to lead through influence—perhaps those that played on a sports team or had a role within a club. But for most students, the educational system’s curriculum has our students learning how to function within a hierarchy that lacks fluidity. The reality of today’s workplace doesn’t mirror strict hierarchy—multiple projects sometimes require leadership, sometimes to be an active team player. More importantly, leadership no longer works well simply through title. Leaders need to know how to use influence to get the most out of a team. Most students will leave school and enter the workplace without having the chance to develop this skill. Instead, the few lucky who either participated in an activity to develop authentic leadership or are “naturally charismatic” will be competitive in the job market.
In educational institutions all across the world, students are required answer questions—in class, on exams, in projects, in essays. We rarely, however, ask them to think critically by asking questions before arriving at a solution. Reflecting of my own education, I can recall few experiences or assessments asking me to process HOW to think about a problem rather than to simply find a solution. Thinking through the different angles from which to solve problems are key steps in the critical thinking aptitude that employers resoundingly report are missing from today’s university grads.
So what to do about all of this? While of course there are exceptions, generally at the university level, educators are faced with a group of students that have been conditioned in individual, route learning, with little practice in critical thinking, working in groups, leading by influence, and most have used technology much more out of the classroom rather than as a learning tool.
It is easy to gripe about these shortcomings from a desk, in a discussion with colleagues, or to write a fancy model that will beautifully address the gaps that today’s university students arrive with on the first day of class. It is another, however, to go through the daily grind of reversing these factors of educational conditioning through curriculum design, delivery of instruction, curriculum modification, analyzing student data, and carefully examining student outcomes, which is what we’re doing to the best of our ability at Kepler.
We’re seeing great improvements in our students. But, we’ve already had to revamp schedules, reconsider how we cover content in lessons, and re-think our overall scope and sequence to address these concerns. Additionally, some of our master teachers are hard at work on a pilot program for our upcoming third term to study how we can move students through at more individualized paces–offering opportunities to push forward hard when students are showing mastery and utilizing appropriate methods to support students more fully when the habits of hierarchical, route learning creep up from their educational pasts. There’s no doubt our students are developing at an exponential pace. But our task is creating improvement fast enough to ensure success once they enter the workplace. Undoubtedly, reversing 13+ years of the educational past in the short time of post secondary education is no easy undertaking. I truly believe we’ll make it happen, but it will require a constant refinement to ensure student outcomes match our goals. En masse, the ebullience of this work comes from the ways in which students will master undoing their previous educational habits, while also surprising us with those we thought would be easily overcome, but required additional support and “un-teaching” in ways we didn’t expect.
Once the pilot is finalized and underway, we’ll report about our specific successes and areas for improvement. Would love to hear thoughts on how others are addressing this challenge, or how they think it can be best addressed.

Leading Kepler: Straddling the Lines with Our Academic Program



In my last post, I discussed the challenges of straddling the line between a rigorous program designed for success in the 21st Century workplace while also trying to ensure students can meet our demands. I also mentioned another line we straddle–we want to create disruption in university education while making sure we don’t push to a point where there’s so much innovation that it compromises proven best practices in teaching and learning. That line is not always defined or clear.
Here in Rwanda, the basics of the Kepler model we’re using to disrupt the traditional system while straddling the lines mentioned above includes the following:
  • Using a flipped model, students are watching mooc lectures at home and preparing for classes and coming to us to do projects or other exercises that would usually be considered homework.
  •  During the day, the students also engage in a series of seminars, workshops, advisories, and coaching to make meaning of the material they viewed at home.
  • Seminars are groups of 50 taught by two teachers (at least one that speaks Kinyarwanda) to go over the big concepts, do “homework” in class. Eventually we plan to have this seminar taught by 1 teacher and have a student assistant help with language difficulties. (Language is a challenge for our students–Rwanda switched to the English language in 2008, so they are still learning how to master reading, writing, and speaking in a second or third language).
  • Workshops consist of groups broken down into A, B, C (language levels) managed by two teachers–at least one that speaks Kinyarwanda to support students with difficult concepts (or push advanced students) in the course.
  • Advisory includes groups of 15-20 students meeting with their assigned advisor to talk through both academic and personal challenges. There is also a literacy component to advisory, where students read and discuss articles (this is due to the challenges learning English as well as a limited culture of reading in Rwanda).
  • Coaching consists of one on one 15 minute meetings where students have to practice self directed learning through tracking their progress, setting goals, and making small steps toward goals.
Students have an in-person meeting point (the campus) and a digital meeting point (Canvas, the learning management system we use). They are graded, receive course materials, feedback on assignments, get homework, and have discussions on-line through Canvas. For a group of students who had limited or no exposure to technology before coming to us, this can be quite demanding.
Final exams are College For America projects. Courses are designed to build the skills needed to complete the projects, and are submitted on an on-line platform to be evaluated by CfA staff in the United States. Since this is also brand new in the US, we’re excited to bring it to Rwanda at the same time!
Students do a combination of traditional learning (on paper), digital learning, group work, and individual learning.
A huge amount of our work involves evaluating the model with the students’ futures in mind. However, as future-driven as we desire to be, there’s no ignoring the fact that the students’ pasts matter as well. We can do our best to build a model that will best prepare our students for a knowledge-based economy. But, on the ground, the reality is that there’s a significant gap between skill sets students come in with and what’s needed in order to successfully engage in a model like the one we’ve designed at Kepler. It’s not an easy line to straddle.
I’ll be posting more about how the Kepler team manages these challenges–how we understand what’s working and what needs revamping, when to keep trying at something and when to work it from another angle, when to incorporate student feedback and when to push ahead even though it might feel too hard on them, how teachers create change, and what other educators and professionals comment on when they come and visit Kepler. Would love to hear any thoughts or comments on the program we’ve developed thus far!

Leading Kepler: Straddling the Lines

One of the most exciting yet challenging aspects of launching and leading Kepler Kigali on the ground is navigating the many lines we straddle on a daily basis. For example, innovation versus traditional best practices, understanding core concepts versus pushing critical thinking, building a program for scale versus meeting student needs, local relevance versus globalization, partnership needs versus our own mission/vision, learning for the sake of learning/growth versus learning for the sake of employability. The list is endless.
In some ways, we are not unique because all industries have to navigate the fine lines that can greatly impact the outcomes of an organization. However, the joy of working in an educational setting is that the choices made can be life changing, but the terrifying part is that if we make the wrong decision, the stakes are immeasurably high. Our students won’t have a second chance at a university degree, and the difference in the quality of the education we provide could determine if our students live a life of poverty or move into the middle class.
As we’ve launched into the oh-so-fabulous and equally oh-so-challenging project called Kepler, one of the most interesting lines we’re straddling isn’t relevant just to Rwanda—it’s a world-wide issue and challenge.
We’re committed to planning the best program for our students, and to do so we concentrate deeply on their futures.  In examining their futures, we’re working to figure out how—as the world of work rapidly changes—do we develop a university program for students that are coming out of a K-12 educational system that hasn’t necessarily prepared them for readiness in a rigorous curriculum like the one we’re designing? It’s a program that at a minimum requires the following:
- Blended learning (in person teaching and on-line teaching) that demands high levels of independence
- Technological fluency
- Skills to collaborate and effectively work in a group for desired outcomes
- The ability to access, analyze, and synthesize complex and large quantities of information
- A flexible attitude that embraces engagement in ambiguous situations and rapid change
- Leadership through influence
- The ability to think critically by asking questions about problems rather than rushing to solutions
-The willingness to take feedback and continually improve projects until they demonstrate competency
In grappling with how to best build these skills for our students’ futures, we’ve quickly been brought to their educational pasts.
Every corner of the world has its own local version of how these readiness challenges manifest themselves, but university educators have some universal similarities in preparing students for the world of work. Essentially, higher education institutions have two choices: 1) continue the traditional models that many students have engaged in for their first 13-15 years of education, with the likely result that students will not be prepared for tomorrow’s workplaces; or 2) disrupt the traditional system and develop models of teaching and learning that prepare students for a rapidly changing knowledge-based economy. At Kepler, we’re choosing the latter, which is clearly an easy choice (maybe the only one?). But choosing and implementing are two completely different phenomena, and it’s our daily efforts at executing the decision that bring the challenges, imagination, failures, resolutions, and aspirations of building Kepler to life. 
I’ll be posting more about our curriculum, implementation, challenges, and our efforts at disrupting higher education as we build Kepler in the weeks ahead, so keep an eye out.


I just read (skimmed?) MIT’s report (via Lloyd Armstrong) on the future of their education and the recurring theme is modularity:

An outcome is what the student will know or be able to do as a result of a learning experience. Outcomes are intended to drive the instruction and assessment for the module. The size of modules can vary, ranging from an entire class to a portion of a class or a series of lectures. We propose here that a module is defined by its corresponding outcomes…

Offering smaller modules, each focusing on a set of outcomes, will permit students more flexibility in customizing their degree programs. This could be achievedby creating new modules or by decomposing existing classes into smaller modules. Modules could be “vertical”—where module order matters—or “horizontal”—where there are multiple interchangeable orders of learning…

Currently it is possible for a student to fail a portion of a class and still achieve a passing grade (or even an A or B) in the class. When subsequent classes depend heavily on that prerequisite material, the student is ill-prepared to continue. Greater modularity in the curriculum would permit competency-based assessment—evaluation based on a student’s level of mastery on specific capabilities—which could be related to the outcomes comprising a module. This in turn could be used to guide a student’s progression through downstream modules.

This resonated really deeply with some of the educational ideas we’ve been batting around at Spire and Kepler. We’re building a lot of our curriculum at Spire modularly, not necessarily because of a deep commitment to modularity, but rather because that’s simply what customers want – an employer will flag Customer Service or Feedback as an area they want their teams to focus on, so we build out a training program to meet those needs. But what we’re developing turns out to be exactly what MIT is talking about – an outcome-based set of modules that can be mixed and matched to create a skill-set or degree that matches what a student needs.

The other modular education program I’ve loved exploring recently has been Khan Academy’s Math Dashboard:

Screen Shot 2014 01 22 at 9 35 24 PM

The idea is each square represents a modular lesson and skill. As you work your way through the program, you fill in each grey box with light blue, changing to black as you master each skill. You take a test up-front to determine which skills you already have a solid grasp of, and build from there. This feels to me like how competency-based education should be in the long run.

Imagine a dashboard like this with the core professional skills that employers require for general knowledge work. When you start university, you take exams to figure out which skills you need to work on. As you move through modules (little boxes in your dashboard), independent of time, you try to master each skill. When you’ve reached a certain competency across skills, you’re ready to mix in work to your learning so you start an internship. When you’ve mastered a larger set, you “graduate” and take on a higher percentage of work. Finally, as you master most of the skills on the dashboard, you move up into management and begin to coach and guide new students through their learning process.

Ok, maybe this is a little ways off, but I’m feeling inspired!

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