Be in love with the mission rather than the method
It took me a long time to realise that working in education is what I wanted to do.
When I was 12 my class had a field trip to a science fair. At the fair a team was exhibiting a bunch of robots they had a created using Lego Mindstorms. I was hooked. This lead me to pursue a degree in mechatronic (robotic) engineering at the University of New South Wales.
At university I was awarded a Coop scholarship where I would gain 18 months of work experience at 4 different engineering firms throughout my degree — two 10 week placements over the initial two summers, and then two 6-month placements taken between the 3rd and final years. These placements were invaluable in that I realised I didn’t want to be an engineer anymore. While I loved the problem solving involved, I found the day-to-day very repetitive. I needed more variety.
Upon graduation I worked at Boston Consulting Group for 3 years getting that desired variety with projects across many industries and functions (See here for my thoughts on consulting life).
It was only a couple of years later while applying for business school that I was forced to connect the dots. As an Australian I had never been forced to write a university application. At the end of Grade 12 you sit a series of exams and the score you get determines which degrees you can get into. Now I was being asked heavy questions like “what matters most to you and why?”. I wrote my first version, sent it around to a few colleagues who had gone through the process and received some helpful (i.e. blunt) feedback. “This is very superficial. You need to push deeper and really connect the choices you have made to what you care about”. Hmm, righto.
I have a twin sister Natalie. When we were younger we both went to maths enrichment classes where we would work on harder questions and advanced concepts. Throughout elementary school we progressed together. But then something funny happened. Over the space of a year, while I continued to progress Nat began to get stuck and fall behind. She stopped doing the enrichment work and before too long she began to fall behind in her own classes. Errors compounded upon other errors leading to poor academic results. Finally, at the end of Grade 10, having decided that “she must just not be a math person”, Nat stopped studying mathematics at school.
My wife had a similar experience. Right-brain dominant (although the jury seems to be out on whether this really exists), Liz often struggled with maths throughout school. These early struggles sapped her confidence which in turn lead to less effort and worse performance. Again, at the end of Grade 10 she too dropped maths.
To me this seemed like wasted opportunities. Had they been provided the right support at the right time, surely they could have performed well?
At 15, in need of some fun money, I became a private tutor maths and science tutor. So began a love affair with teaching, tutoring and mentoring that has turned into my passion — but more on that to come.
Through these tutoring sessions I observed the same story over and over again. Students would perform well until a certain concept came up that didn’t quite make sense. When completing homework the textbook would tell them they were incorrect but offered no feedback as to why. Lucky students would have parents who had both the required knowledge and the time to help — most didn’t. The next class when they tried to ask the teacher for help there often wasn’t enough time as 29 other students all needed help. Predictably, when the test came around they performed poorly. But by now the syllabus dictated that the class needed to move on. No time to catch up. A knowledge gap forms. The cycle repeats.
By the time a student came to me it was often many years since these knowledge gaps first appeared. The result was that although it appeared that they were struggling with a current topic (such as calculus) in fact they were actually struggling with earlier concepts (such as simplifying algebraic equations).
Wouldn’t it make more sense to help students overcome these issues when they appeared rather than reactively?
That final year of engineering studies gave me the opportunity to test this idea through my undergraduate thesis. Given I hadn’t changed my degree, I needed to find a topic that related to engineering but one that actually interested me. At this point I reflected back on my tutoring experiences. During my one-on-one tutoring sessions I was able to have this deep impact with students. Unfortunately, this process wasn’t scalable and was limited to the hour or so that we spent together. Why couldn’t I take my tutoring approach and translate it into a scalable process.
There isn’t anything magical about tutoring. Two people sitting talking to each other doesn’t guarantee learning. It is like the seductive fallacy of small classrooms. Simply having fewer students per teacher doesn’t help if nothing else changes. I think of it as having a key. Keys can unlock doors but having the key isn’t helpful if all you do is keep it in your pocket. Fewer students per teacher provides the opportunity to spend more quality time with each student. Time in which teachers can drill down and understand why the student is struggling.
As a tutor I would similarly look to find the root causes behind the errors by reviewing the student’s working or by asking nuanced questions. Once I understood where they were stuck, we would then go through examples and practice some exercises until they were comfortable. Only once they had mastered this underlying concept would we go back to original question. The software would work in the same way; drilling down to find the underlying gaps and then working with the student to help them overcome these gaps.
Over the course of the year I developed some rudimentary software that was implemented in two university engineering courses. Students had the option of going to a professor/tutor lead tutorial or else completing the adaptive tutorials I had created. The classroom tutorials occupied 2–3 hours per week while it took students an average of 1 hr for students to complete my adaptive tutorials. At the end each course we compared the performance of students using the platform to students attending the classroom tutorial as well as to prior year results. On average, students using the platform outperformed their peers by 10 percentage points which equates to roughly a grade letter.
Looking back over it became clear that I had always used education to fill the different holes in my life. When I needed money I became a tutor; When I wanted to give back to my school I joined the alumni association and helped manage the scholarship fund; When I needed to complete a thesis I built software to help others learn; and when I wanted to add a more personal mission to the consulting work, I mentored new starters and ran training sessions. Clearly there was a deeper meaning to this work.
Time to take another crack at this essay…
Now at Harvard Business School I have the responsibility to use this opportunity to make a larger impact in the world. Enter adapptED.
adapptED’s mission is to provide effective learning for anyone, anywhere. The way I am doing that is by taking the foundation I built with my thesis and turning it into a digital tutor that will provide personalized feedback to students. With that said it may turn out that this is not the best way to help students learn. In this case I’ll turn to a different method. My strong view is that founders should be in love with the mission rather than the method.
But for now it’s my hypothesis for the best solution to provide effective learning in a scalable way.