How should we design a course?

What does it take to design a course?

One fine morning in March of 2016, I took over the Michael Polanyi College. I’d been involved with the college for a couple of years and loved it. Its premises included a wide and breezy terrace that overlooked the green mall at Universidad Francisco Marroquin (UFM). Breathing in the clean forest air while having a dialogue on topics ranging from philosophy to technology and economics has been by far one of my favorite professional experiences. It has also led me to question my educational journey and what the future of education should look like.

Over the past few years, I’ve given a lot of thought to how to design the ideal learning experiences. That was a key element of my job at the Micheal Polanyi College, after all. After four years of designing learning experiences, reading and reflecting, I think I have a good idea of the main components of what that ideal learning experience is like. I want to write these principles down and then provide a few examples of what they would look like when applied to a learning experience.

In short, these principles[1] are:

  • Learning happens when we create a concept or chunk in our long-term memory. Chunking is a slow process.
  • The first step to learn something is to look at a problem and try to solve it without having the tools to solve it. That is, learning is very problem-specific (which makes sense because the brain evolved to help us survive and learning is a key aspect of survival). It is difficult to learn something that has no meaning for us or is taken out of context.
  • When learning, we need to repeat a concept to ourselves from memory several times, with a day or two in between. This is called spaced repetition using recall (not rereading notes or a textbook).
  • Exercise, particularly cardio-vascular exercise, is extremely important to learning.
  • Interleaving: mix learning one subject with learning other subjects at the same time.
  • Socializing: learning must happen in some sort of social context. This context changes in nature depending on the person who’s learning.

These principles are crucial to designing effective learning experiences. They’re also the key to understanding what’s wrong with “traditional” education.

[1] A Mind For Numbers, Barbara Oakley

Make It Stick, Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, Mark McDaniel

Brain Rules, John Medina

The Generalist

As the blast of raw energy brings forth into life a new being that crawls into existence and stares at the face of its maker, it has but one question: what am I? Who am I? And at such a moment the maker steps forth onto the ledge and peers down the abyss, suddenly coming to the realization that those questions need answering, but all that comes to his mind at that point is more questions… Such is the experience of the founder of a startup after going through the process of customer discovery, much akin to the experience Viktor Frankenstein experienced upon seeing his Creature.

But to the founder’s aid comes the Generalist. After creating a product and finding customers for that product, a founder finds that he must now build a company that can create, distribute and sell that product to scale. The challenge is then how to do those things and, as Steve Blank says: a startup is not a miniature version of a large company. The Generalist, then, is a person who has the qualities of an inventor and an explorer. Much like the elite parachute divisions of modern armies, the Generalist gets thrown into action wherever he is needed: sales, marketing, human resources, finance, operations or general management.

What, then, are the character traits and tools of the trade of a Generalist?

In terms of character traits, the generalist thrives in chaos and knows how to do battle with it. Within minutes of encountering a situation, the generalist will have a pretty good idea of the structure of a problem. The generalist also loves to experiment and be very interested in the causal relationships that drive problems that need to be solved. In addition, the generalist has an insatiable desire for knowledge about the startup in general: its product, strategy, operations, finance, HR, etc.

As for the tools of the trade, a generalist knows a bit about everything without wanting to be placed into a neatly-defined role. This person will know about the things listed below but will be an expert at curating the sources that will enable him or her to learn the necessary skills quickly: