(Deliberate) Practice Makes Perfect

6 Nov

Practice makes perfect. It’s a very famous quote that I’ve heard and read since I was a child.
Practice makes perfect

But is it true? The answer is both yes and no.

When we perform an activity – any activity – for the first time, we don’t do it correctly. Reading and writing for kids, calculus for high-school students, driving, piano, soccer, everything is learned. The more we do it repetitively, the better we get at doing it. Practicing piano for a few hours every day makes us better than practicing for a few hours every week. Though inherent talent, intrinsic motivation, feedback, and support or coaching does play a role.

So the answer is yes, practice does make us better- not perfect – but better, which is okay since perfection has a different meaning for everyone.

Practice makes us better only to a certain extent. After that, practicing more doesn’t necessarily lead to an improvement in skills. Why? This is where “deliberate” comes into the picture. You need to figure out what parts of a skill you have mastered and what parts you still need to get a grip on, so you can make a “deliberate” decision to practice only those parts that you are not yet proficient in. While playing the piano, it might be certain types of notes. In tennis, it might be the backhand. In physics or math, it might be a certain topic or problem. Practicing everything, all the time, only wastes time. More time should be devoted to learning new skills.

In cognitive psychology, researchers call it metacognition, the knowledge about one’s own knowledge. If you are aware of how much you know and how much you need to learn, you’ll be able to use different strategies to learn the content or skills.

Adaptive learning
A common buzzword these days is adaptive learning, which has different meaning for different people, but it generally means the content or assessment adapting  to the learner’s knowledge or skill level. If you answer a few questions correctly, you are presented with a higher-order content or questions. If you don’t do it well, you get lower-order content. This way, you spend your time learning new or higher-order things, and not spending a lot of time on content that you already know well. This is the premise of my adaptive learning model for K12.

Related readings
Over-Practicing Makes Perfect
No. 1 Reason Practice Makes Perfect

The Gifted Child

8 Sep

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test is administered every two years. Students from 65 countries took the test in 2012, and United States ranked 36th in Math, 28th in Science, and 24th in Reading. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have expressed a lot of concern, while some researchers say the data has been blown out of proportion.

The American children, however, rank first in self-esteem. The children, since their birth, are told they are special. Their self-esteem doesn’t take a hit so everybody is given a prize in competitions. They get independence to decide what to study and when, and how much TV to watch. In absence of role models to look up to for inspiration, more and more children are taking the easier route and studying humanities and business. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) has fewer and fewer takers, and over the last few years, the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search has been dominated by Asian kids.

In schools, kids take tests for “giftedness” just to prove they are above average. Parents are proud of their gifted kids. The kids who qualify the tests get to go attend higher curriculum classes a few times a week. Until the sixth grade in my school district! For some reason, the schools don’t find it necessary to nurture their gifted kids after the sixth grade. There are many kids who are “late bloomers”. They may not fare well on the gifted tests, but they perform very well academically in later years.

Are they bored?
It’s a very common complaint from parents that their gifted child gets bored in the classroom because the environment or curriculum is not challenging enough. So they need to take higher-level curriculum to sustain their interests. I don’t agree with this view. The kids are gifted in certain subjects but there are a lot of subjects and topics taught in the classroom. The teachers may not be trained or experienced enough to engage the students. The bored kids will be bored … in any class, in any curriculum. Because they have a tendency to get bored easily.

Are they really “gifted”?
The kids who score in the 98th percentile are, no doubt, above average, and we need to nurture them. However, are they truly “gifted”? I think not. The word “gifted” sounds like they are wizards like Harry Potter and we are truly blessed to have them between us. They are intelligent and have a lot of common sense but “gifted”? Really? How about “talented”?

Multiple intelligences
Identifying gifted children through standardized tests is not the right approach. True, there are kids who are intelligent and can perform well on verbal and non-verbal tests. However, there are kids who are promising in other fields such as arts and music or athletics. The schools do not think it is necessary to identify those gifted students early and nurture their talents. They may never find someone who encourages them to pursue a career for which they have a natural flair. The gifted kids go on to become successful members of the society. However, most of the successful people in business and academics are those coming from the other 98% of the population that didn’t get identified as gifted.

I know a thing or two about gifted kids because I have two in my home.

You are not special

Additional readings
US teens lag in global education rankings as Asian countries rise to the top
The Wrong Way to Treat Child Geniuses
The Illusion of the ‘Gifted’ Child

India: A Study In Contradictions

7 Aug

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”, said Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, a nineteenth century French journalist and novelist.

I recently visited India after three years. The country has been changing rapidly in the last 5-6 years, but there are things that are still the same. Never have I seen the rich diversity of culture and ideas staying together as a cohesive entity though not without its share of issues. India has been a British colony until fairly recently (1947) and a socialist state until 1989 when the closed economy was partially opened. With more than a hundred spoken languages and an equally diverse culture, it’s a miracle everyone and everything coexist.

Incredible India

Poverty and affluence
The incomes are rising at an astonishing pace and so is the disposable income. Due to a high inflation rate around 7-8%, everything is getting crazy expensive. Capitalism, though not booming, is visible in the rapid growth of mall culture and the youths’ increasingly consumerist habits.

On the other hand, there are still millions of people living in abject poverty. There are kids not going to school and are forced to work to earn a living. The poverty has been going down, and per the work of Gates Foundation, the worldwide poverty will end by 2035.

Modernity and spirituality
The young people are getting modern by the day, both in their thinking and habits. They are eating out and drinking more, especially the women. They are spending a lot on physical amenities, and the fast food culture is growing. Though equal marriage rights is still a pipe dream,  gay people are coming out and there is a growing support for the LGBT community.

The number of people believing in god and going to the temples is still the same as before. On my visit to one of the most visited temples in southern India, it took us 8 hours in line. And people said, we were lucky it took only 8 hours.

Old and new habits
The old habits of throwing trash anywhere outdoors is rapidly changing. The perspective is changing, and especially in big cities, cleanliness has taken priority. However, the smaller cities or the extremely crowded cities are still very much the same.

Modern and traditional family values
A very small fraction of young people are living together, before marriage, which is considered as sinful in the society as anything. People are getting married with people from other castes, and their families are happily accepting it. More and more women are working instead of being homemakers with no ambition. More women are joining politics and government.

Family values are still intact. Extreme respect for elders in the family and love for everyone is the norm. Family comes first is the leading cry of the collectivist culture. The kids, whether in college or working, come to their parents’ home for every vacation.

Education trends
Until just a few years ago, everyone wanted to study engineering because it ensured a good job. Not anymore. Now kids are studying business, computers, economics, and science. I’m not sure how those degrees would lead to a job and a career, but at least they are doing something different.

The top-ranked engineering colleges, especially the IITs, are, however, still very much in high demand as always. The competition is extremely tough, and the kids are spending an extraordinary amount of time studying.

There are a lot of things that have not changed. There are a lot of things that are better than those in the US. A prime example is the fledgling democracy. Unlike in the US, where congressman get elected term after term, even if they don’t do any work, the Indian people are very unforgiving. They throw out the mightiest of politicians out of office.

Change is the only thing constant, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

An Adaptive Learning Model for K12

20 May

My wife and I have been planning to launch a technology-centric non-profit organization to serve the underprivileged kids in poor schools in India. Much research and analysis needs to be done, and it’s going to take us a few years to get everything right. Fundraising, needed to purchase hardware, would take a lot of time too. However, the software, which would be an online product utilizing an adaptive learning model, can be launched sooner, so that we can iterate rapidly and keep improving it.

On a very basic level, for third-grade math, here are the requirements.

A database of math questions with these fields:

  • Question ID
  • Difficulty level
  • Question number
  • Options
  • Correct option
  • Feedback

Adaptive algorithm

  • A multiple-choice question with four options is served.
  • When an option is selected and submitted, the option is compared with the correct option.
  • If correct, the corresponding feedback is displayed.
  • if incorrect, the corresponding feedback is displayed.
  • When the Continue button is clicked, the system checks if the question was answered correctly.
  • If true, another question at the same difficulty level is served to make sure the previous answer was not a fluke.
  • A total of three questions at the same difficulty level is served.
  • If all are answered correctly, the next question would be at a higher difficulty level.
  • If any question is answered incorrectly, more questions at the same difficulty level will be served.
  • If two or more questions are answered incorrectly in succession, a brief tutorial will be displayed showing how to solve the question.
  • The tutorial will be followed by a question at the same difficulty level.

Though there are multiple interpretations of “Adaptive Learning“, I interpret it as a learning model that adapts or shows content based on the users’ current performance. It’s not a one-size-fits-all product, which are common these days though the technology has made rapid advancements. Great content and a great algorithm can be integrated with the right hardware to teach the kids effectively. It’ll take time but I think it’s doable.

A Technology-Centric Non-Profit Organization

14 May

Learning is hard. For most people. Because most of us are average learners.

Learning is hard also because the teachers in schools are not well trained, the classroom size is large, the socio-economic status of some students is low, there are not enough resources in the classrooms, and/or the students don’t expend enough time and effort outside the classroom.

In developing countries like India, there are thousands of schools that suffer from these problems. Surviving on minuscule government funds and poor management, these schools fail to teach their students effectively.

Classroom - India

Classroom in India

A technology-centric non-profit organization
There are many non-profit organizations in India and the US that serve the underprivileged kids. They are focused on training teachers and arranging for resources. Is it possible to build and implement a technology-based learning product for such schools when these schools lack even basic computers?

This is a question my wife and I have set out to find answer to. A few years ago, we’d decided to found our own education-focused non-profit organization to help poor schools teach their kids. This model requires two things:

Software/Learning product: The learning product can use an adaptive model to help the kids learn by creating a personalized learning path.

Hardware: I envision two options.

  1. Cheap 10″ tablets embedded in the desks to prevent mobility and potential damage. This model can be used in the classroom under the teacher’s supervision.
  2. Large touchscreens in kiosk-style stations. This model can be used outside the classroom in common areas to foster group learning and collaboration.

In the next post, I’ll elaborate on my adaptive learning model.

An Adaptive Learning Model for K12

Forecast, Don’t Predict

8 May

Predict: to declare or tell in advance; prophesy; foretell

In short, a prediction is looking in a crystal ball and is based on one’s knowledge and gut feeling. We all think we are very knowledgeable and can predict the future, and we all know how things turn out. Exactly the opposite.

Crystal Ball

Crystal Ball

A few examples

Apple: A prominent VC, Fred Wilson, recently predicted that Apple won’t figure among the top three companies by 2020 while Google and Facebook will. His logic is based on his knowledge of the hardware industry. We have to wait six years to see how true this prediction is.

The Beatles: “The Beatles have no future in show business.” — A Decca Records executive to the band’s manager, Brian Epstein in 1962

Harry Potter: “Children just aren’t interested in witches and wizards anymore.” — A publishing executive writing to J.K Rowling, 1996

iPhone: “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.” — Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, 2007

Computers: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

Personal computers: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

Invention: “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” — Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899

Computer memory: “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” — Bill Gates, 1981

Big iPhone: “No one’s going to buy a big phone,” – Steve Jobs, 2010

Forecast: to
predict (a future condition or occurrence); calculate in advance

On the other hand, a forecast is based on cold, hard data. Removed from gut feeling or one’s own knowledge or emotion, a forecast takes lots of data and extrapolates from it. Could a forecast be wrong? Yes, it’s possible. However, a forecast always comes with a probability, the chance of something happening. While a prediction carries with it a heavy load of 100% probability, a forecast can be 0% or 100% or any figure in between.

Nate Silver, the founder of FiveThirtyEight.com and the guru of statistical forecasting, has risen to be the most prominent figure in this field, especially after the 2012 presidential elections when many people and polls predicted a Mitt Romney victory. Nate Silver took the data from many polls, ran them through his forecasting analysis, and said that there was a 90% chance of Obama’s victory. His forecast of all 50 states came true. Not all of his forecasts for this year’s Academy awards were true, but at least, he didn’t make a fool of himself like so many famous people.

Suggested readings:
25 Famous Predictions That Were Proven To Be Horribly Wrong
15 famous predictions that were spectacularly wrong

Don’t Fool Yourself …, Or Why Evaluation Is Important

7 Apr

In 2006, when I was attending Stanford University School of Education for my master’s degree, we were working on our master’s project. One of our professors, who is an expert on evaluation, came to our class to discuss evaluation of our projects. He started by saying:

“Don’t fool yourself into believing that you are developing a great product.”

It was a shocker for us as we all completely believed that we were indeed on our way to developing great products. My project was intended to make it easy for school children to view 3D animations on 3D monitors on concepts that were difficult to visualize in 2D, for example, the rotations and revolutions of planets and the atomic structure of molecules. It was the greatest idea of all time. Why did I need to conduct an evaluation for such a simple, yet powerful concept?

We learned a lot that day, especially not overestimating the usefulness and effectiveness of our ideas. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to evaluate our projects so we completed our program and set out, starry-eyed. to change the world.

However, people in real world who develop products and services don’t always care about the users of those products and services. They come up with innovative ideas (or so they think), and start working on the ideas with the premise that they are developing great products. Case in point: Windows 8, iTunes Ping, Google Plus. They ask the users what they think about those ideas, and, thanks to confirmation bias, come back with user feedback that confirm the greatness of their ideas.

They fool themselves into believing that they are developing a great product. They don’t want to look at the analytics because that would disprove their hypothesis. And I have been as guilty of this crime as anyone else.

The right way: Startup companies

Startup companies too start with the premise that they are working on the world’s greatest idea. And they are right. If they don’t think that way, they wouldn’t risk everything to work on that idea. They spend years developing, launching, evaluating, and iterating on their idea. Their best friend? Usage analytics, which gives them insights into how many people are using their products, where, and when. How many people are visiting what parts of the product more? What macro-level trends are visible? Does making a minor change in a color shade increase or decrease the usage of a page or a field?

More than 90% of startup companies die within two years of launching because of several reasons. But they all know how useful and effective their products are (or not) thanks to analytics data. Analytics do not always save an idea but they help fail early, fail fast, fail often, and help people learn and move on. They can fool themselves but not for long. And that’s why evaluation is critical to developing great products.


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