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 #36: Thomas Nichols

Thomas Nichols 101:

Nichols' website

Nichols on Twitter

Nichols on Facebook

 

Show notes:

4:30 - It’s an ironic paradox - there’s more information in the world than there’s ever been, but people are less informed.

 4:46 - The hallmarks of expertise are not just the traditional markers that people often think of and they often reject by the way. When you say ‘expert’ people think ‘someone with credentials’ and then you get into all kinds of arguments about whether credentials really matter, whether smart people don’t need them, whether there are dumb people who have degrees on the wall, that’s just part of it.

I argue in the book that expertise is a complex of things: credentials, experience, longevity in the field, peer-review or affirmation by other people (and I don’t just mean academically). If you’re a master electrician, that’s determined by other electricians who decide to bestow that on you after examining you and watching you. As well as talent. It’s those things taken together that makes an expert, which is really more of an art rather a science. It’s the weighted outcome of all of those things together.

7:04 - We’ve had Know Nothing parties in the past. But what’s different about this time is how much it’s driven by narcissism. In previous eras I think you’d find some of this rift was between town and gown, educated and less educated, knowers and lay people - this was driven by class differences, regional differences. What’s striking to me now is it seems to be spread across classes, regions, genders, races, and at the root of it all is this notion that “I’m smart.” I’m smart enough to know that I’m smarter than my doctor.

And this is different than previous eras in American history.

 10:32 - [Students] think of libraries as book warehouses. They don’t think of them as institutions full of professionals there to help them. And what they really don’t understand is that the books that are in a library are there because people who understand books and publishing have made a decision about what books should and should not be there. Whereas younger folks would argue that gatekeepers are just there to get in your way, they represent the establishment, they are part of the ‘publishing-knowledge-complex’ or something and that going on the Internet is a more liberating and freeing thing. That’s like saying that instead of getting your medications from a pharmacy, with a professional pharmacist, you should just walk down the street and talk to any unlicensed herbalist who happens to be sitting around.

 Reference librarians in particular are my heroes.

 17:09 - We’re going to get a very steep pyramid of knowledge. I think we’re seeing it already. We’ll get a small number of people at the top of the information heap who know how things work and how to make things work. And they will be disproportionately rewarded for it because those skills are rare. Beneath that are people are people who haven’t taken the time to figure out how things work, whether it’s technology or diplomacy or public policy or how a road gets paved… the more people who opt out of that, the more and more rewarded a small elite will be for knowing that stuff. And I think that’s already happening, and it leads to a great deal of resentment between laypeople and experts who then become well rewarded elites.

 I tell people that this is not happening because elitists are keeping you down. It’s happening by default. When people say ‘it’s too complicated’ well the people who are involved, who take the time to learn these things, are well rewarded and compensated socially and materially for knowing things.

 19:29 - When I teach classes on the Cold War, I always make my students watch a movie from about 40 years ago called Three Days of the Condor. And an intelligence spook says, “why do we have so much power” and the answer is “because when things go wrong, people are not going to want us to ask their permission. There’s just going to want us to get it for them.” I always found that a really chilling kind of expression of that kind of technocracy. And in the end, for all the complaining about elites and experts, people will expect, that when they turn on their tap, clean water comes out. That when they want to fill up their cars, gasoline comes out. That the Internet works. That the mail gets delivered. That packages can be sent.

 This notion that ‘we’re just going to tear it all down and who needs elites’ - people rely on all this stuff every day. And I worry about experts simply turning to each other and saying ‘probably better not to ask anymore, probably better not to engage the public anymore, let’s just do the things we know need to be done.’ I think that’s far more of a danger, because I think we’re already in that situation, than rule by the mob because populism isn’t sustainable. It tends to be a temper tantrum that comes and goes as we’ve seen in American history. There are no really successful, sustained populist movements. While populism is good for venting anger, it’s really bad for the mail. I worry about both of those outcomes, because both are the separation of experts from lay people, where they simply stop talking to each other about how to create good public policy.

 22:26 - This is why I argue at the end of the book for the need for experts to re-engage the public. Because it’s not fun. It’s not fun to engage with the public because you can’t tell them what they want to hear.

 Dr. Nichols article: “The Death of Expertise” in the Federalist.

 26:58 (On how to work on expertise daily) - Read a newspaper. A reputable national newspaper. And just read it. Start there. I think if people would go back to doing that, it would make us a different country. Find a source you disagree with and read that. Regularly read one newspaper or journal that you don’t agree with.

 31:29 - People no longer have the patience to read a newspaper or to read a book. They want it digested, into searchable chunks. I think that’s killing people’s ability to think.

 32:25 - Experts need to shout back at the mob. Experts need to stake that ground out again. Instead of constantly kowtowing to this populist notion that ‘we all have an opinion’ and ‘we should all be taken seriously’ I think experts need to reassert their expertise. And again, this is not going to be pleasant. This is not going to be fun.

 Experts and academics also need to be better at policing each other about the kind of work we’re doing.

 Everybody’s opinion is not equal.

 41:07 (On Getting Onto Jeopardy): You can’t really study for it. The people that went to the jeopardy test with atlases and encyclopedias, almost all of them failed. The trick to jeopardy is understanding that 90% of the time the answer to the question is buried right there in the clue. And the other is that no matter how good you are, if you can’t master that little buzzer…

 The idea that you need to be smart and study and pore over maps, those people rarely do well on Jeopardy. If people want to know what the experience is like, watch it at home while you’re standing up. A friend of mine give me that advice to prepare.

 Remember, one of the great players, was Frank Spangenberg, a NYC Transit Cop. Being an expert on jeopardy is no help.

 Book Recommendation:

I re-read The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis every year.