Sources & Methods #39: Mastery-based Learning with Chris Lee

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Launch School 101:

Chris Lee on Twitter

Launch School

Launch School blog on Medium

Show Notes:

4:27 - (On leaving ‘ad tech’) Most software engineering jobs pay really well, of course, but - and this is probably the case with most jobs, period - you have to reconcile your personal beliefs with the primary goals of a money making enterprise. Everybody has to go through that. Ad tech in particular, especially in san francisco, is focused on growth, and focused on numbers.

It’s hyper focused on money, especially with regards to increasing conversions and eyeballs for the customers of the ad tech company. Which is a fine goal, but not my personal reason for getting up every morning. So it was hard for me to get excited for it. I was excited about my paychecks at first, but eventually you get numb to that.

6:18 - In the search for something different and more meaningful, we decided to focus on education (which led to LaunchSchool). My partner, Kevin, works on this with me, and I’ve known him since 2002. Early in our careers we were both computer engineers at IBM in Austin, Texas.

Early on, we read a book called Good to Great by Jim Collins and he talks about getting the right people on the bus.

9:18 - This is one of the things that makes us unique (in teaching coding skills), is our approach to Mastery Based Learning. It’s about making sure that people know what they’re doing each step of the way, and taking indefinite time on each step.

Ours is a curriculum where you have to demonstrate you understand each topic every step of the way. And we don’t know how long that will take. And we’re a 100% Mastery based program. We evolved over the past 3 to 5 years to that system because we were unhappy with the results we were seeing.

I think we are the only place where Mastery Based Learning is taught.

13:13 - We started this to try to figure out education. It was not a money making endeavor. So to us, teaching became the engineering problem to solve. I was not a proponent of Mastery Based Learning before LaunchSchool. Mastery Based Learning or Competency Based Learning is not unique to LaunchSchool, it’s a well known pedagogy in academic papers. But it’s really hard to implement.

Think about a physical classroom. Mastery Based Learning means that a student gets to occupy a seat in that classroom for an indefinite amount of time. That’s a really hard promise to make when our schools are tasked to usher through students. It’s not about training students and making sure they understand every topic, but getting people through.

15:39 - Complexity grows exponentially if not handled linearly. You have to handle one concept at a time, otherwise the complexity grows out of control.

16:49 - So, everyone wants to talk about algorithms. Well, there’s no point in talking about algorithms and solving complex algorithmic problems if you can’t handle loops. And lots of people can’t handle loops. Or nested loops. There’s no point. So to cover an advanced topic is pointless.

22:24 - I see a lot of people go from Explore - and bypass the Fundamentals - and head straight into Advanced. And then they realize there are so many knowledge gaps they have to plug in, and they spend years fixing that.

25:21 - We chose a pedagogy, and then built a pricing model around that.

27:30 - The value that students get from their education has such a lag from when they pay. There’s a tremendous lag. Think about Uber. You pay for an Uber ride, and you derive the value immediately. I view education almost like a restaurant that serves healthy food, and the restaurant says something like, ‘If you have eat here for 5 years, you’ll live an extra 10 years.’ It doesn’t taste great.

Coding bootcamps can make a big promise - ‘in a few months, you can get a job.’ And they have been getting away with that because the job market is so good. It’s so good - and there’s such high demand for software programmers - that they can take people who are just in that ‘Explore’ phase (of learning) and pay them. And that’s why bootcamps are very successful.

If you think about long-term though, it’s dangerous. Because you have a lot of people who are underskilled. 2 months, 3 months, that’s just not enough time to develop context or nuance for some of these problems. So if there’s a downturn, people are not going to be able to get these jobs. So it’s very dangerous.

I think coding bootcamps are a marketing success. It’s market forces that allow this to happen, and it’s the marketing - it appeals to people's’ desires for fast results. Lasting education needs to last decades, a career. So that’s the hard part of education.

32:14 - You don’t just want a job doing programming. Because most programming jobs, as I alluded to earlier with ad tech, are not very good, are not very satisfying. What you want to do is develop enough mastery so you can dictate some of your own terms on your own career. In order to do that though, you need to get pretty good. And that’s what we’re trying to do here.

Fail State Movie - Documentary on for profit higher education.

36:10 - The key word in higher ed these days is ‘retention.’ It isn’t learning - it’s how do we get students, and how do we get them to stay. Because the attrition rates in a lot of schools are close to 50%. Which is astounding if you think about it. So they’re trying to retain students any way they can. One way they do that is to through grade inflation. So everyone gets a good grade now. A C nowadays is a Fail. If a professor fails too many students, that professor will get pulled into the Dean’s Office and be told ‘What are you doing? If you do that, these students won’t come back.’

38:21 - You’re starting to see companies not demand a college degree anymore. Google doesn’t demand that. Deloitte said recently they won’t demand a college degree. And it’s because the college degree has begun to lose any meaning as far as quality. And part of the reason for that is because schools need to retain all the students, otherwise they can’t make money, so for that reason, they’re letting everyone through. It’s a compound effect here.

It means more than ever that a Mastery Based system is required. Learning institutions have to hold the bar, and educate students on why that is. I spend most of my time talking about Mastery Based Learning for this reason.

47:50 - (On international students in some countries) - It’s pretty easy in the United States to say, if you want to work at Google, you need to learn this (x). That’s a fairly straightforward statement to make. And you can decide, that’s too hard or I don’t want to do that. But when you don’t have that context, it’s really difficult to convince people to learn things deeply unless they have this natural intellectual curiosity.

53:10 - Everyone needs to learn to code just from the perspective of awareness.

Does everyone need to become a software engineer? That I don’t know, it’s more of a career choice. But programming concepts will touch more and more things.

More and more jobs will require how data flows and how systems connect.

Sources & Methods #38: Learning the Abacus with RightLobeMath

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RightLobeMath 101:

RightLobeMath.com — main website / homepage

Show Notes:

8:40 - RightLobe Math - The website is a platform that delivers a program that helps any child master arithmetic. When I say master arithmetic, I really mean master. Through our personal experience, we have felt that elementary schools were not delivering the quality of math education that we felt our kids should have. So we thought that there was a gap there. So as an engineer, whenever you have a problem, you look to see if anyone has created a solution. And if you look to Asia, this is a method for teaching basic numeracy, number sense, and all of arithmetic in a visual way. I think that’s really the modernization of the use of the abacus for math instruction. It teaches kids to process numbers in a mechanical way that is very visual.

12:30 - For example, when you walk into any public school here in the United States, you will never see any instruction to do arithmetic calculations using complements. But this is how your computer does all of its calculations. When we instruct using the abacus, all of their subtraction and addition processes are routed through base 10. So when you understand and can manipulate numbers using complements, you better understand how our base 10 system works. It teaches you place value right from the beginning.

This device and this method is very method in how we are applying it because it gives kids such a deeper understanding of our numbering system.

14:45 - In a lot cases, we see kids understanding the concepts but still not coming up with the right solutions because their basic number sense is missing. So we concentrate on that.

15:35 - You’ll hear a lot of educators talk about kids having or developing the grit to work through a problem to its final solution. We have found - and developed into our program - a systematic way to help kids develop their mental endurance. They can concentrate for longer periods of time. They can focus more intently. These kinds of skills, you can call them soft skills, are very important to be successful.

20:17 - Parents are shocked with how quickly we can achieve results with their kids. For example, we were working with a third grade teacher. She had been teaching for more than 20 years, and always struggles getting the kids to do well in math. She tried our program out. After one month of implementation, a third grade girl was crying. At first I thought we did something really wrong. But the little girl came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Terry, I’m not crying. These are happy tears. I thought I couldn’t do math. But I can do this.’

22:35 - A lot of parents don’t understand where their kids are mathematically. This is a big problem.

24:20 - My daughter entered kindergarten multiplying and dividing double digit numbers using this system. The school’s requirement entering kindergarten was simply to recite the numbers 1 to 30. My kids aren’t some gifted math geniuses. It’s a matter of the efficiency of the learning process.

For third party evidence that this approach works - if we look at the highschool level. The PISA scores, the international testing that 72 countries participate in, the United States is 39th in math out of the 72 countries. The top 10 are all Asian countries. In all these countries, the soroban has been a significant instrument in math instruction.

Some will argue that it’s not really used in the public schools, but you’ll see significant use in all the private sector all across Asia. So whether public or private, it’s still happening.

26:28 - When you begin to look at the early research - there was a research project done by professors at the Department of Education, led by a guy named Duncan. And he was looking at what affects future learning outcomes more than anything else? The study showed overwhelmingly that if we focused on math early on, that it would produce better future academic outcomes by a factor of 2. Math, even more than reading or attention skills, or other areas that we typically look at in the early years - focusing on math in kindergarten will produce better readers down the road than focusing on reading will.

It has a lot to do with how we’ve evolved as humans. We’ve only been reading for a couple of centuries. But we’ve been developing logic and reasoning and problem solving for a millenia. So our brains are well developed for mathematics that uses all these areas of the brain. Reading is something that we have to learn.

What a Base 16 System Looks Like

41:04 - One of the things we did early on [while developing the program] is we began asking questions. When a teacher gives students a math test, she goes online or pulls it out of a book somewhere. And because she doesn’t want kids to cheat, she gives students a different version of the test. And I always wondered - is that really fair? Does she know that each one of those tests is equivalently difficult? I started to poke around, and saw that no one was creating tests with that in mind. So we wrote some software to really analyze all of the different number combinations, and we were shocked. There was a tremendous variation in difficulty level. If you just looked at the two tests, you’d say they look exactly the same. But when you peel back the onion, software analysis had shown us that there was a tremendous variation in difficulty. One of the things that we’ve done with our content - not only is it generated dynamically, that gives us a lots of variation, but we are able to analyze what we generate, but we can put constraints on it, so that we can guarantee that every quiz we give at any given level will be exactly the same in difficulty level as any other quiz that we put in front of a kid.

43:22 - Kids love to compete.

43:45 - To those looking to build their own learning platform - be ready to throw away everything you’ve done. You have to go where the kids go, and not be married to your ideas. And that’s been a winning solution for us. Constantly paying attention to our users, and they always showed us the way.

44:36 - The guiding principle for us has been twofold - 1) We want our students to enjoy the process of learning. We want it to be self-empowering. We want them to go through this process and see their academic endeavor as something that enables their future and opens up doorways. But it’s also about 2) efficiency and the efficiency of learning. Just like adults, kids don’t like to waste their time. So everything we do is all about helping kids getting to their goals as quickly as possible.

Many academic websites, they say we ‘gamify’ learning. So they put learning in a videogame context. We have taken a different approach. We use the mechanics of gaming that motivates kids, but instead of useless payoffs of digital artifacts you can’t do anything with, we decided to open up other academic areas that might be of interest. So now when kids train on our site, kids earn digital money and can buy kanji characters for example.

48:41 - [On ‘fashionable’ STEM learning efforts] Just go ahead and look at the statistics that the labor department is putting out. They do 10 year projections on what the job market will look like for our kids post graduation. I think the last report is predicting by 2025 that more than half of all new jobs will require math and computer skills. And they expect that trend to accelerate. So mathematics is becoming more and more important.

2017 US Department of Labor Report - STEM Occupations: Past, Present, and Future

50:34 - Our current system is allowing kids to pass through with significant gaps in their math understanding. So what happens is once they go to middle school and on to high school, the research shows that those gaps never get remediated.

51:44 - When you really boil it down, it’s the simple stuff [early education arithmetic education] that will have the biggest future impact.

The softer skills - endurance, concentration, grit, to push through and not give up - if we can build those qualities into our kids in elementary school, I think we have a bright future. If we don’t, the rest of the world is advancing. And they’re competing for the best jobs and getting their kids into the best universities. I think we need to step up our game.

55:25 [On Adult Learning] There are a lot of adults who want to advance their mental calculation skills. Having mental calculation skills is just useful in general life. As we get older, being able to use our mental faculties - it’s proven that that’s a worthwhile endeavor. Look at recommendations that come out of Alzheimer’s associations and studies on dementia - they constantly talk about older people and the need for them to continue learning new things.

Sources and Methods #37: Jim Wilcox

 
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Jim Wilcox 101:

Jim Wilcox's website

'Philosophical Inclinations'

'Jim Wilcox retires after 43 years'

Show notes:

1:08 – It’s an important part of the existential view of the world. We can either join early on, the ideas that our parents and the culture we’re raised in, all just join into them, and go along with that particular flow, or we can try to find a way to step out of it. Traditional ways have been just going to another culture, to another part of the world, and looking at how other people live.

2:50 – (The existential discovery) For me it was a book that a baseball manager gave me on a baseball trip…. It was Colin Wilson (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colin_Wilson), who began to layout the existential argument. I hadn’t heard of it. I hadn’t heard of existentialism. And he began laying out the existential argument. And the existential argument has: you have to learn to step outside. If you want to know who you are, if you want to find out what is going to make you go, what’s going to give you the zest that we need in order to go forward, you step outside and examine the world from a different perspective. That will lead you to look inside because you’re no longer being captured by the environment around you. It’d be like Plato’s allegory of the cave, where you’re strapped to a chair, and you have to look at the images on the cave wall, and that’s it, that’s your whole life. And somebody else is producing those images. So you don’t know what other reality there may be. So when you do that, you may have a moment of insight where you can look inside and say ‘what would you like to do.’ And that changed my life from being a full-time Air Force guy to becoming a student.

10:32 – (On cuts to humanities budgets) This is something that undermines your faith in a culture and a society. When it can’t recognize the role of the humanities in a young person’s life. They get a lot of the moral values from their family, yes. But sometimes the family is a little limited on getting the wider range of experiences with other cultures. The humanities always opens up the door. And what it teaches us through its stories, those beautiful works of art, it teaches us empathy. Isn’t this what it’s all about? Sympathy? Connectedness? This is the goal of the humanities.

These works produce order.

12:54 – If we lose the humanities, where are we going to get the empathy? Where is that going to be produced? Religion seems to have been eroded. If we don’t get empathy fully developed at home, then our chances of ever getting it are diminished a great deal. The humanities humanize. If we don’t get it, we go around de-humanizing other people. We see people in terms of monsters. And once we have de-humanized them, you know what human beings are capable of doing to other human beings.

It’s a very difficult era that we’re going through.

15:00 – When you retire, you’ve got to have projects. Something you’re working on.

18:53 – Albert Camus is my favorite philosopher. He stood up with his philosophy as well as his novels. Remember, he won the Noble Prize in Literature. Isn’t this the perfect wedding? Philosophy and Literature?

20:30 – There are no absolutes. I’m just inclined.

21:00 – There are no absolute truths. There are truths that we create ourselves out of our experiences and what we’ve learned. And we live by that truth. But that truth is never permanent. It’s always on the very verge of changing, because more evidence may come in. Something else may show up on your doorstep.

21:45 – (if you cling to absolutes) I think that leads to an intellectual and existential death. Because you’re not going anywhere. You’re not paying attention to the world you’re living in. Because that’s what existentialism requires of you. Because the world is always changing, so something may show up that will produce change.

23:51 – Many people resist change. They resist changing their thinking because they think they have the truth. But existentialism argues that truth is a fluid thing. It’s like a scientist. Some new data may show up and we may have to change our assumptions.

27:11 – I think we need to separate pleasure and happiness. It isn’t that we should diminish pleasure. It’s that we should put it in a different context. Epicurus was right about the pleasure principle. The question is how to get to the pleasure side instead of the pain side. If we’re trapped in a materialistic world, we might see money as the pleasure principle, or buying something. My argument is that you want to take your pleasure in the humanities. If people haven’t been trained in the humanities, this is hard for them to do. Our culture has become very materialistic. This is the difficulty. My solution isn’t a great one.

34:27 – The existential way of approaching death is simple: you just keep living. Just the way you have.

Book Recommendation:

The Plague, by Albert Camus. That is the book that defines the world that we live in. It’s a perfect book.