My older son asked me yesterday about how colors on the screen work. We started talking about the history of the RGB color model including early color screen technology. That eventually led to a discussion of how the RGB color space is three dimensional with 256 values on each axis for a total of 2^24 or roughly 16 million colors. Since a display is only two dimensional how would you go about showing the entire color space? From that question we talked about projections (from 3D to 2D) but also wrote a bit of code that let’s you slice through the color cube and display that slice on screen.
As we were playing around with that using Khan Academy’s visual programming environment, my son discovered some wonderful color patterns more or less by accident. That led to a discussion of generative art. And as it turns out the Khan Academy environment is based on the Processing library which has been used for years for exciting generative art projects. So I helped my son to take what he had stumbled upon out of there and put it on a web page. With a little more work we figured out how to enable fullscreen mode. You can see the results here.
Talking through all of this provided a great example of how knowledge hangs together and how context provides motivation. Each progressive bit of exploration here was motivated by the territory we were finding ourselves in. It is a stark contrast to our fragmented experience of education in school and even to this day online. As we are creating more and more of atomized learning objects, reassembling them in new ways around these kind of journeys is a tremendous opportunity.
One of our goals for 2012 was to get scuba certified as a family. We took a first run at it in a rushed fashion early in the year but abandoned that effort after a less than pleasant pool dive in Manhattan. In the fall we decided to start the process over and go with a proper PADI certification program. We found a dive center in Playa Hermosa in Costa Rica called Diving Safaris and structured our vacation around that.
Instead of wasting time on location with theory, we took the theory classes ahead of time online. The PADI e-learning course was quite well done. It consisted of short segments with lots of illustrations with both a recorded voice and a text you could read (Susan preferred the voice, I preferred reading the text). The short segments were grouped into subsections and then sections. Each subsection came with immediate review questions and then each section had a full on assessment. You had to pass each section assessment to qualify for the overall theory assessment (in fact, you can’t even access the overall assessment until you have passed the sections).
When we arrived at Diving Safaris, they conducted a brief review of the most important theory — this may be a test to make sure that people didn’t get others to take the online test for them. But other than that we went straight to the practical hands on equipment handling. Having done all the theory up front allowed the instructors to spend more time with us individually on equipment handling and underwater skills.
I had been thinking for some time that schools should switch much more aggressively to the inverted classroom model in which students learn the material at home (from videos, texts, etc) and apply it in the classroom. This frees the teacher up to see where the students have individual difficulties applying the concepts that they are supposed to have learned. Given our PADI experience I am now a complete convert.
I am convinced this is an amazing model and should be used much more broadly. It’s especially powerful if the application of the theory is as lively as our open water dives, although I realize that’s a high bar, especially because on our third dive we got to see seven whitetip reef sharks!
It was great fun to see XKCD take up the subject of Bayesian probability. That was a good reminder that it’s been a while since I taught my Skillshare class on the subject. And so I have added a new date for a lunch class on December 4th. As per usual, all proceeds go to Pencils of Promise.
I have been asked if I am going to teach this class online as opposed to in person. Some day I may do that. But for now I really enjoy being together in a room. There is something very gratifying for me to be able to look people in the eyes and get a sense of whether or not they understood something.
PS In case you missed it, I posted Part 3 of my mini series on employment yesterday.
One of the reasons that we decided to move to Chelsea was the proximity to the USV office. The other was that our kids can walk to Avenues, a new private school with an ambitious program of building campuses in leading cities around the world. Another distinguishing factor of Avenues has been their embrace of technology which got a good writeup in today’s Wall Street Journal. Our kids each have both an iPad and a MacBook Air from school and use both of them heavily across a variety of classes.
There is one important missing component though so far and that is learning to program. That of course has been the subject of my Tech Tuesdays and I have in the past promoted Scratch as a way for kids to learn programming. In that post I wrote that “the use of Scratch can and should be pervasive throughout instruction rather than being something taught separately.” Here is just a short set of ideas for how to do that in different classes:
- History - changing maps over time; graphical relationships between concepts and people; animated historical timelines
- English - create word games; animated six word biography; create your own scene from a drama (“enter stage left”)
- Music - create electronic compositions; visualize sound and music
- Science - simulate experiments; graph the results from experiments; safely explode things
- Math - illustrate the number line; create math games; show the relation between algebra and geometry
Having spent more time writing about programming and also talking to my kids about it, I have become even more convinced of the importance of integrating it into other classes. The reason is that programming provides an exceptional way of learning a concept. It is reminiscent of the saying that you haven’t really learned anything unless you have taught it several times. Programming is “teaching” the computer how to do something. If you can’t teach it to the computer you have probably not completely understood it. Hence the “programming to learn” in the subject line of this post.
For instance, our kids are currently learning about identities and inverses in Math. If they were simultaneously learning how to write a program that kind find the inverse of a number for either addition or multiplication, I am convinced it would give them a much deeper understanding.
Thankfully the team running Avenues is receptive to this idea. I will be spending time at the school in early December to meet with several of the instructors to talk about Scratch and other ways to integrate programming into the learning experience. It is something I very much look forward to.
Last Friday to Saturday I had the good fortune of being invited to crew on my friend Mark Hansen’s boat Sweet Lorraine (a beautiful J-145) in the 2012 Vineyard race. The course starts near the Stamford Harbor, goes up to the Buzzard’s Bay Light Tower and then returns south of Block Island all the way to Stamford for a total length of about 238 nautical miles. We are the rightmost boat in the picture below, taken shortly after the start.
The crew consisted of extremely experienced and successful sailors including several national/world champions in their respective boat classes. I on the other hand have very little race experience and even my total sailing experience was a tiny fraction of that of the rest of the crew. Everyone on board was super generous explaining things to me and being patient when I took a bit longer to get the hang of something or outright screwed up (e.g., overtrimming the spinnaker). As a result I learned a ton! I also really came to appreciate the many lessons about team work from sailing with such a great group.
First, it is tremendously useful to check your ego at the gate (the opening in the lifelines for getting aboard). Despite their tremendous individual accomplishments everyone did whatever was needed at the moment to help move the boat forward. On a boat that often includes cleanup, such as coiling lines so that they don’t obstruct movement and also can run out easily when needed. High performing teams at work take a similar approach where every team member takes responsibility for the quality of the operation (and isn’t above picking up trash in the office when that’s needed).
Second, a clear division of labor makes everyone on the team effective. On a crew everyone has a position at any one time (positions may rotate). The responsibilities for each position are well defined. I have encountered many teams in the workplace where people were not sure what they should be working on which results either in duplication or in gaps with work that doesn’t get done.
Third, communication is the lifeblood of a team. There is a nearly constant flow of information on the boat that enables team members to make the right local decisions. For instance at one point the wind was quite gusty and one team member announced incoming gusts letting both the helm and the sail trimmers adjust accordingly. I think too often in work teams there is an assumption that others have the information already when that’s not in fact the case.
Fourth, recover quickly from errors. When something goes wrong on a boat, there is no time to go sulking. Instead the problem needs to be fixed or it will generally get much worse. There is time to discuss what went wrong and how to avoid it once the problem has been fixed. Put differently, a moment of crisis is not a good time for the team to start questioning each other. That too is a good way to operate as a team at work.
Fifth, don’t get bent out of shape. Sometimes on a boat somebody will yell, especially when something is going wrong or about to go wrong and it is important to pay attention quickly. People don’t take that personally. With work teams at crunch time sometimes things are said without a ton of reflection. There too it will help a lot if people don’t take that personally and instead focus on getting back to the job at hand.
Sixth, experience is the right basis for authority. Of course there is a formal hierarchy on a boat. For instance, each watch on Sweet Lorraine had a designated watch captain. But what made it easy to pay attention was the experience that people brought with them. That I think is another critical lesson for high performing teams. The team leadership is based on domain authority instead of formal titles.
In the end we finished second in our class and sixth overall in a super competitive race where after 24+ hours of racing boats were often only minutes apart. It was a terrific experience and I will make sure to apply some of the team lessons in working with our portfolio companies.
Speaking of teams and portfolio companies: The team at Shapeways has made a great video about the power of 3D printing. You should go watch it — it does a great job conveying the excitement both inside the company and among the people using Shapeways!
Only a short post today as I was spending most of the morning on the phone with some PR folks in Germany talking about the German National Computer Science Competition (page in German). I participated in and was one of five national winners in one of the early years this competition was held. They called to find out what I thought of it all these years later (this year marks the 30th anniversary of the competition overall). I told them that I had very fond memories and was glad to see this tradition continue for a number of reasons (other than feeling good about winning). At the time it was the first formal recognition that spending a lot of time learning how to program a computer was something potentially worthwhile. My parents had been super supportive but still didn’t quite know what to make of computers and there was nothing at school. It also was a great way of meeting other kids who were really into computers which was particularly great for me as I lived in a relatively small village. The competition with its emphasis on algorithms helped spur my interest in a deeper understanding of computing which has served me well over the year. Finally, as a winner I automatically qualified for an important scholarship which helped pay part of my way through Harvard as an undergraduate. So I continue to be grateful for the existence of this competition and am happy to see it still going strong!
I was on a panel for the wonderful iMentor organization earlier this week talking about the future of education. Every time I do that these days I emphasize that instead of talking about education we should focus on learning. Because the Internet is revolutionizing where, when and from whom we can learn. Secondary education in particular is where we are beginning to see the first signs of the dramatic shifts to come.
Here are just a few examples of the amazing things that are happening. MIT, which has been leading the charge on Open Courseware is working on MITx which will be a learning system on top of the existing great and free materials. Udacity and Coursera are for-profit startups working on similar offerings. Through Codecademy (USV portfolio company) many thousands of people are learning for the first time how to program in a highly interactive and engaging fashion. And through Skillshare (another USV portfolio company), people like Fred — experts in a domain — are beginning to teach without needing to become adjuncts or instructors at existing universities.
The increasing availability of these free or incredibly affordable learning opportunities will put tremendous pressure on traditional colleges and universities, especially at a time when students are finding it harder and harder to pay back their loans. All of this is very much at the early adopter stage, but these Internet based systems are hugely scalable unlike the incumbents. So when the shift picks up momentum it can happen quite rapidly.
I am excited about this revolution in learning and am looking forward to hearing from people on the forefront at Skillshare’s Penny Conference tomorrow. If you can’t attend in person, there will also be a livestream. I will be starting the day with a class on modern art — now that we have moved to Chelsea that seems particularly relevant!
Couldn’t resist an attention grabbing headline here after spending yesterday morning with my daughter on the kind of homework that just completely takes the fun out of learning. In geography her class is learning about latitude and longitude. As homework they got a work sheet that made them look up about 15 cities in the US based on Lat/Long and write down the Lat/Long for another 15 based on a map in their social studies book (a ridiculously heavy tome by Pearson). It was an incredibly dull and completely unnatural exercise with the net result that my daughter now associates lat/long with tedium. As a sailor and a fan of Dava Sobel’s “Longitude” I find that incredibly upsetting.
What could have been done differently? In an ideal world the teacher would have gotten the kids excited about Lat/Long with stories of sailors and pirates and being lost at sea. Seeing how it was “International Talk Like a Pirate Day” that would have been the angle I might have gone with. But even short of that there are dozens of ways of making the particular homework way more fun. For instance, the lat/longs to look up could have come from a famous journey of exploration or from the concert tour of the Rolling Stones. Or the first letters of the list of cities could have formed a secret message. Or they could have used Google maps or earth. Anything other than a random list of cities would have been a huge improvement.
Just like in business where it is much harder to win back a customer that had a bad experience, it is now that much harder to get my daughter excited about Lat/Long. It’s annoying to think for how many other topics this is likely to be the case.
Last week I had the pleasure of teaching my first Skillshare class. The subject was “Bayesian Probability and a Theory of Life” and is one I am very passionate about. I hope that I was able to convey some of that passion but I can say for sure that I learned a lot:
First, the saying that “you don’t understand something until you have taught it a dozen or more times” is definitely true. In preparing for my class and teaching it, I realized that my own grasp of some of the concepts was not as good as it should be and even teaching one time helped deepen that understanding.
Second, it is easy to try to cram way too much material into 90 minutes and I am definitely guilty of that. I will have to figure out what to cut or how to split this up into two different classes, one of which might be an “Intro to Probability.” Alternatively, I might provide this as pre-reading material so that everyone is familiar with basic terminology and notation. Since I was intent on getting through what I had prepared, I did not leave enough time for questions or discussion.
Third, I should have had some links for further reading available to distribute at the end of the class. I am pretty sure that I managed to get at least some of the attendees interested in learning more (which is what I would consider a huge success) but I did not have a resource ready to send them to. Sadly, I am still remiss on this point as I got promptly swamped with work.
Fourth, attendance at lunch time was strong. I had made 15 spaces available which all sold and 12 people showed up (for a 20% no-show rate). Also: I got wonderfully constructive feedback from several of the people who attended.
For the end of her 5th grade, my daughter had to complete something called the “capstone project” — meant to be a first original research project. She came up with what I thought was a rather original project: she wanted to look into “how does ESP work?” Her teacher didn’t seem to think so and suggested she find another topic. Katie batted around a few other ideas but it was clear that she wasn’t excited about any of them. I felt pretty strongly that her being excited about the topic was more important than pretty much anything else and wrote to the teacher to make that point. The teacher relented and Katie got to look into ESP.
It turns out that looking into ESP is a hugely fun topic that can teach kids a ton about science! That started with working on the question itself. With a bit of prodding, Katie came to realize that the way she had phrased the question had a huge assumption in it: that ESP exists and is a real phenomenon. So she wound up looking instead into how one might determine whether ESP exists. Here are some of the fun things she got to do along the way: read up on famous ESP frauds (she thought the idea of spoon bending was particularly funny), notice how deeply ingrained some idea of ESP is in culture (words such as “premonition,” tons of books, movies, etc), learn about probability (how easily can you guess a Zener card?), run her own experiment, participate in an experiment and interview a professor who has done some research on precognition.
The interview was with Prof. Daryl Bem who is emeritus at Cornell University. He took her interest seriously and spent an hour answering her questions. He did a terrific job explaining to an 11-year old the difference between questions that can be tested scientifically and those that cannot. I personally came away thinking that (a) the design of his precognition experiment is rather ingenious and (b) meets the requirements of a scientific experiment. One can argue about the outcome and how to interpret it, but this is a repeatable experiment and if I ever come up for some air (maybe this summer), I’ll code up a web version of it so that lot’s of people can take it.
The whole project further confirmed my belief that more than anything what kids need to learn is to be excited about a topic. So if your kids are looking for a research project and get excited about something offbeat such as ESP, I say roll with it!