Making maths beautiful

These are the words that (almost) made me fall in love with maths:

Math is a beautiful art, full of awe and mystery. It gives you a sense of control when you figure out its secrets. (Shimon Schocken)

Schocken's demo of at the Skills 2014 summit was absolutely enchanting. Slate Math is an adaptive learning system that teaches children through beautifully-crafted interactive games. In Schocken's words, it's about bringing back those "Wow!" and "Aha!" moments in maths - "Wow!" (I understand this! That's how it works!) and "Aha!" (this is how it's applied!). Part of the system's beauty lies in its simplicity. This charming episode, for instance, teaches Kindergarten kids the concept of "mapping" - a concept fundamental to mathematics - through the process of pairing bees and flowers.

As I listened to Shocken present at the summit, I discovered that there was a romance to maths, a magic to the process of abstraction that I hadn't contemplated before. And yes, maybe maths is uniquely placed to give a learner that beautiful feeling of something finally "clicking". If only my primary school maths lessons had been like this. Concept-focused, wonder-filled and "wowish".

Because STEAM is the new STEM...

There's been a lot of excitement around STEM lately (Science, Tech, Engineering and Maths) and not without good reason. The arguments are compelling. STEM careers are rich, diverse and rewarding and form the lifeblood of some of the fastest-growing industries in the world. These skill-sets are fundamental to innovation and something needs to be done about the skills gap. There are some brilliant campaigns and initiatives built around this important agenda, some of my favourites involving a drive to expose more girls to STEM skills and careers.  We've got kids engaging with STEM professionals, kids learning to code, kids actually "making" things again - I'm sure you'd agree that it's inspiring stuff. But before you sign yourself up as a STEM evangelist, there's something that you should know. Turns out that STEAM is the new STEM. That's Science, Tech, Engineering, the Arts, and Maths.

Now, this isn't wholly surprising. Every time the STEM debate kicks off, someone inevitably brings up the importance of balancing left brain/right brain activity, simultaneously nurturing creativity and critical thinking. I may sound cynical but I'm actually a big believer in having a well-rounded education. When I was growing up, you were either an artist or a scientist (or, in MBA terminology, a poet or a quant). A few bright sparks would blur the lines, of course, but chances are you'd be put in a box at some point (or you'd put yourself in one). There are also the extreme cases - in many Indian schools, students are still cordoned off into "Science", "Commerce" and "Arts" streams at the age of 16 (and sadly, the way it most often works is that fab grades = science stream, mediocre grades = commerce, and the rest = arts).

STEAM, striking a balance between the left brain and right brain - these aren't new ideas. Our ancestors didn't all live in the same edu-silos as us. The great thinkers of the Renaissance are a case in point. Da Vinci was not just an artist but also a scientist, an architect, an engineer and a musician. Michelangelo was a sculptor, painter, poet, architect and engineer. They were not only rational and analytical but also contemplative, sensitive and expressive. They wrapped their minds across multiple disciplines. They saw connections between them.

To call these thinkers "polymaths" somehow separates them from the rest of the world. And is this fair? All young children have a wonderful sense of curiosity - they assess and dissect, design and create. They are simultaneously artists and scientists, musicians and architects, linguists and inventors. When we talk about putting the "A" back into STEM, I'd like to think we're moving towards a curriculum where we revive that flexibility, that richness of being: every child an innovator, every child a polymath.


An education system that celebrates failure

In the worlds of tech and entrepreneurship, you hear a lot about fostering a “culture of innovation” - getting comfortable with making mistakes, celebrating failure and using it as a launchpad to bigger and better things. It’s the lean startup methodology. You don’t wait for perfection. You get out there with a minimum viable product and you keep iterating. If necessary, you “pivot”. As Paul Schoemaker puts it in his fantastic article on, failure is the foundation of innovation. Yet, most of us grow up with a dangerously unhealthy attitude towards it. Dangerous because it stifles creativity. Dangerous because it's a paralysing fear and so embedded that it follows you throughout your adult life.

It takes courage to share unfinished work with your colleagues, to throw out a hypothesis that’s yet to be tested, to chime in with a suggestion that might just fall flat. It takes courage to allow yourself to be this vulnerable, especially after years and years of hiding behind the defence of “perfectionism”. How do we make sure the next generation of students learn these lessons early on? How do we build an education system that allows room for mistakes, one that teaches you to iterate, to pivot? One that dispels the stigma and nurtures confidence and courage?

Hopefully things have changed since I was in school but I don't think we ever had a serious discussion about "mistakes". At least, not until the first week of the MBA and that unforgettable introduction to the Honda (B) case. As every MBA student knows, there's always a "(B) case" - a not-so-rosy version of events, a jumble of mishaps hiding behind the glossy exterior of the "(A) case" (a curious product of post-rationalisation). It's not as elegant but it reflects the reality of things. It allows room for mistakes and acknowledges their part in the story.

And on that note, here's a quote I just love and one I wish I’d come across years ago. Conan O’Brien reflecting on failure during his 2000 Harvard commencement speech:

I've dwelled on my failures today because, as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed. Your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve. Because success is a lot like a bright, white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you're desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it in any way.
I left the cocoon of Harvard, I left the cocoon of Saturday Night Live, I left the cocoon of The Simpsons. And each time it was bruising and tumultuous. And yet, every failure was freeing, and today I'm as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good.
So, that's what I wish for all of you: the bad as well as the good. Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally. And remember that the story is never over.

Mr. Fry on teaching history

“The biggest challenge facing the great teachers and communicators of history is not to teach history itself, nor even the lessons of history, but why history matters. How to ignite the first spark of the will o'the wisp, the Jack o'lantern, the ignis fatuus [foolish fire] beloved of poets, which lights up one source of history and then another, zigzagging across the marsh, connecting and linking and writing bright words across the dark face of the present. There's no phrase I can come up that will encapsulate in a winning sound-bite why history matters. We know that history matters, we know that it is thrilling, absorbing, fascinating, delightful and infuriating, that it is life. Yet I can't help wondering if it's a bit like being a Wagnerite; you just have to get used to the fact that some people are never going to listen.”

- Stephen Fry, Making History 

A school in the cloud

This TED talk from Sugata Mitra sets out an inspiring vision for the future of learning.  Mitra talks about "hole in the wall" computers combining internet connectivity and collaborative study with encouraging, wonder-evoking online facilitators who offer up big picture questions before standing back to "let learning happen".

EdTech in Schools

I was at the Manchester Town Hall last month for the launch of The Education Foundation's "Education Britain" programme. Some fab speakers and interesting ideas but what really blew me away was the enthusiasm of the kids that presented there. I met some truly charming young girls from Plymouth Grove Primary, for example, who talked me through how they had been using augmented reality app, Aurasma, to create video book reviews and to put some magic into learning languages, history and art (think talking paintings, student displays and "clues" around school!) I've singled this school out because of its culture of creativity - a tangible thing that becomes apparent within minutes of speaking to any student, teacher or the head. What I love about them is the fact that they are all about putting technology in the hands of the students and just letting them play with it. Yes, it's scary. Yes, it means losing control. But you should see how engaged and excited these kids are. They're already successful bloggers (do check them out on the Plymouth Grove website and show your support via Twitter with hashtag #comments4kids), confident and comfortable with tech, with sharing, with reaching out into the unknown. And they don't just learn, they teach too.

Edtech or digital in schools really isn't about "kit". It isn't about moving from textbooks to ebooks or recreating our analogue world through digital tools. It isn't even just about teaching kids to code. It's so much more than that. It's about attitude. It's about collaborating, questioning, and discovering. Being immersed in the present and being poised for the future. Listening to and learning from these kids fills me with optimism and excitement about the world they're going to grow into and, more importantly, the world that they are going to create.

Provocations: e-Learning in the UK

Some provocations from the Future of e-Learning panel at the Times Festival of Education 2013, chaired by the wonderful and witty Dr. Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College. Food for thought. Don't know about you but I'll certainly be munching on some of this. 

Rohan Silva, senior policy advisor to the PM (at the time of writing - soon-to-be EdTech entrepreneur)felt that something special is happening in EdTech, that "we are on the cusp of a revolution". He offered 3 provocations:

  1. In EdTech, all of the innovation is from the States. Britain has an established, world-class education system but it's been slow and complacent. We've got to push ourselves.
  2. A lot of the focus so far in EdTech has been aimed at the 1st world and yet there are 100m Indian and Chinese students in need of education. Britain has something to contribute here - there's an opportunity to develop EdTech products that are tailored to the BRICs.
  3. For the UK, as far behind as we may be, all is not lost. So far, we have been taking offline content and putting it online. The next step is to incorporate interactivity. We need to lean in. EdTech is a $4TR market, growing at 8.5% per year. It's a huge opportunity to change lives.

Martin Bean, Vice Chancellor of the Open University, sought to redefine the debate on e-Learning. We're focused on the wrong thing, he said. It's not about e-Learning versus face-to-face but about creating the richest experience. The goal is great learning. 

Together with the lovely Daphne Koller, Stanford Professor and one of the founders of Coursera, he made the case for blended learning and the flipped classroom. They talked about the convenience of delivering content before class in a personalised format (where students can pause, rewind and reflect) and using valuable class-time for meaningful engagement - two-way discussion, debate and dialogue. Martin Bean described the need to move teaching from "Sage on the Stage" to "Coach on the Side", to make it experiential. That way, we can still give students that sense of wonder and love that makes great learning possible.  

In response to a question on the dehumanisation of education, Daphne Koller pointed out that tech can humanise. It can bring together a huge global audience in a way that offline systems cannot. It can make education accessible. 40% of Coursera's students, for example, come from the developing world. There is still much work to be done but progress is being made and the growth in e-Learning has been phenomenal.

What will the future of education look like? Who knows? The panel felt strongly that we are likely to see some dramatic changes to the learning landscape. They predicted a "hollowing out" at universities and colleges as curated content on online learning platforms becomes increasingly popular. Institutions like Harvard, MIT and Stanford have been driving this revolution - they're not going to go away, they'll still be standing. But what about the others? Where are our UK universities?

Reminds me of Clayton Christensen's "Innovator's Dilemma". No one said it would be easy to dance in the face of disruption but for those who get their heads around it and do stretch themselves, embrace change and challenge their own incumbency, the rewards will be rich.

Note from the author: No, I don't think it's about tearing down all the brick-and-mortar schools and doing away with human interaction. I think there's a happy medium to be had through blended learning wherever possible. But I do think that technology's ability to democratise education can't be ignored and we haven't even seen the best it can do.  

Getting my geek on

So a couple of weeks ago, I FINALLY started learning how to code. My weapon of choice: Codecademy. Credit where credit is due - I was inspired by the MBA at London Business School and my time on exchange in LA. I was excited by the fast and furious world of tech entrepreneurship and had this sneaky little feeling that I was at risk of being left behind. I'd been contemplating the idea of coding for some time and this beautiful video from was all it took to push me over the edge:


Now that quote around 4min 58 might sound cheesy ("It's the closest thing we have to a superpower") but I think there's a lot of truth to it. To code is to create. It's art in motion. I'm teaching myself through Codecademy in my spare time so I'm obviously no Zuckerberg but even I can tell that there's some magic to this stuff.  Today, it's a hot topic (think STEM in education), but I believe that tomorrow, coding skills will be a given. Digital literacy will be as integral to a child's schooling as the 3 Rs.

Sure, this generation can easily get away with ignoring the whole thing but why would you want to? It's amazing stuff. You can't imagine the satisfaction you can get from something as simple as the first time you get a little box to pop up on the screen, saying, "BOO!".  You start with baby-steps, of course, but the possibilities are endless. And the more you learn, the more you unlock.

My mini-goal? To build an iOS app. Someday. However crappy. But first, the basics.