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:

New Tools Will Transform Your Life

Last night I was reading a book to my two-year old daughter. I noticed that I was pointing to the words on the page and reading them aloud, while my daughter ignored my hand and started pointing to things she identified and naming them. I felt silly, to say the least. But I also thought that this would be a good story to illustrate what I tried to explain in my post on technology. Technology shapes the way we see the world, which in turn shapes us.

Instead of diving into more technicalities, I’ll share with you another example. The best and most interesting book that I’ve read on the power of a technology to change our self is in Walter Ong’s Book Orality and Literacy. In this book, Ong explains the tremendous power of the written word and how radically a literate society is from one in which no writing exists. The most powerful passage that I encountered to this point was when Ong describes A. R. Luria’s work with illiterate cultures. Ong summarizes Luria’s work and notes that “it takes only a moderate degree of literacy to make a tremendous difference in thought processes.”[1] And again, from Luria’s study:

Subjects were presented with drawings of four objects, three belonging to one category and the fourth to another, and were asked to group together those that were similar or could be placed in one group or designated by one word. One series consisted of drawings of the objects hammer, saw, log, hatchet. Illiterate subjects consistently thought of the group not in categorical terms (three tools, the log not a tool) but in terms of practical situations – ‘situational thinking’ – without adverting at all to the classification ‘tool’ as applying to all but the log. If you are a workman with tools and see a log, you think of applying the tool to it, not of keeping the tool away from what it was made for – in some weird intellectual game. A 25-year-old illiterate peasant: ‘They’re all alike. The saw will saw the log and the hatchet will chop it into small pieces. If one of these has to go, I’d throw out the hatchet. It doesn’t do as good a job as a saw’ (1976, p. 56). Told that the hammer, saw, and hatchet are all tools, he discounts the categorical class and persists in situational thinking: ‘Yes, but even if we have tools, we still need wood – otherwise we can’t build anything’ (ibid.).[2]

The society we live in today is not illiterate, naturally. And we are more or less all taught to categorize and express our ideas in the same way, particularly if we speak the same language. I wonder, however, if a similar concept can be applied to the adoption and creation of new tools. If we are creating new tools or products for people to use, what are the ways in which we want our user to see the world and how do they differ from they way they currently see the world?

In other words: the biggest mistake we can make when launching a new product is to assume that people already understand the implications of using it, or that we already understand the profound ways in which we are changing our users’ behavior. In essence, that is why products fail: because we fail to transform our users’ view in a way that opens up new horizons for them to explore and achieve their goals.

[1] Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong p. 50; Orality and Literacy: 30th Anniversary Edition (New Accents) (9780415538381): Ong, Walter J., Hartley, John: Books

[2] Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong p. 51; Orality and Literacy: 30th Anniversary Edition (New Accents) (9780415538381): Ong, Walter J., Hartley, John: Books

Why Do Some Products Feel Like They’re Magical?

All successful products fall in the “magic quadrant:” they solve painful problems by providing tools that are easy and intuitive to use. But how are these products conceived of in the first place?

Last week, I spoke a bit about magic: how good technology closely resembles magic in that it seems to solve problems effortlessly. There are several reasons why this is true, but I will go over them in another post. Today, I’ll focus on a few frameworks or brainstorming techniques that have helped me come up with good products in the past.

First though, we need to agree on what is a product.

A product is a discrete result of a process that begins with a customer demand. I am here speaking of products that get exchanged for money between individuals or organizations. A product is always a result of a process, it involves the use of resources and transformation of materials into a finished thing that can be shipped or given away. This thing can be material or immaterial, it can be an experience or a piece of code, a bottle of juice, etc. The most important notion in identifying a product is that it was conceived in the context of a marketplace by a person or group of individuals who seek to aid another person or group of individuals, and in order to be exchanged for money. That is, if I sell or provide products, it is in response to a need I see and am trying to provide for that need.

Most of us will probably think of products within the context of an organization we already work for or built ourselves. I will therefore speak of creating products from within an organization.

Organizations can either do what they already do in a better way, i.e.: improve their products, or do something that they’ve never done before, i.e.: launch new products.

The quadrants may be good to categorize products in the making but, you may have noticed, they lack a crucial success factor: how do we define and measure pain and ease of use? If we don’t have clear definitions for these two axes, then the utility of this guide is null. We therefore need to define them in objective ways that teams can agree on in order to produce great products.

The Truth About Technology

Some memories have a way of being stored in the brain under the same category. Taking a stroll down memory lane, one will tend to see side streets diverging with names such as “pubescent me” or “mom tips.” I happen to have a particular street labeled as “the pompous interlocutor:” the person who, at dinner parties, seems to come up with an incredibly bland or popular-mechanics sort of answer to anything that requires deep thought. And so I can picture this pompous interlocutor replying to a question such as “what is technology” with an all too boring answer such as “why, it’s a tool, silly!”

Well, I’d like to think about technology because it is not merely a tool. See, my hammer doesn’t really have the same characteristics as the internet or my smartphone. It would surprise you, perhaps, to learn that I classify many things as technologies that you would not conceive of being called that way. Would you, for instance, classify language as a technology? If so, is language a tool? If it is a tool, then it is one which is of inordinate importance for it seems that complex thinking, the most elemental of human activities, seems to be impossible without language.

The first time I came across this question was when I read Heidegger. The sensorial experience of reading Heidegger to me comes with the taste of beer, the heat of a Texan summer and the weight of an inexpensive paperback, fleeting images stored in my memory as “undergrad experience.” But the notions that reading Heidegger inspired have lasted over ten years and are stored as “life-changing experiences.”

I described (and I apologize for I did a terrible job at that) last week Aristotle’s four causes. Heidegger relies upon that concept to explore what technology is and his answer is surprising. Heidegger says that technology is a constant stream of revealing the truth, a way that is always present in our activities and which reveals to us forms of existence that would otherwise remain hidden. We are, in a sense, chained to technology and cannot escape it. Technology is a way of being, not a tool.

If we think of ourselves as having parts, we could at least come up with two kinds of parts: our bodies and our minds. Within the latter we have another sub-division: the intellect and the will. If technology is a way in which we reveal the truth to ourselves about the world, then we are concerned with the mind and the will. To be engaged in understanding the truth has implications that are far reaching and impact our ethics, morals, work, and endless other human activities. It implies that, at every waking moment, we decide whether we want to look at the world in one way or another, always making tradeoffs.

In the next post, I will explore further what Heidegger says and what these tradeoffs are, so that we can further engage with them and come to terms with the existence we have been given.

The Best Way To Spend Your Wednesday Morning

Most humans spend their mornings deciding whether they’re going to be trees, onions, squirrels or just plain old humans. They wake up every morning and don’t remember at all what they did the day before but simply start fresh. Today, as you go about your daily business, you may thank your morning self for not choosing to become some of the lesser forms of being that result from natural digestive processes that are better described by biologists or certain, very wise and observant toddlers.

“But, hold on,” you might be thinking to yourself, “that’s not at all how it goes and I’ve never forgotten, at least not entirely, what I was up to the day before.” And I would most emphatically congratulate you for you have just begun the first step on the journey to become a metaphysician.

Metaphysics began as a serious attempt at understanding change: why is it that we are able to recognize some features as staying the same but others as changing? Almost instantly, other questions arose, such as: why do some things come into being? Why do things become what they are? That is: why does an acorn become an oak and not an ice cream? And, finally, what is being? On the quest to answer these questions hinges much of what many would recognize as the true drama of human history.

And now, to some answers.

Plato and Aristotle came from a long tradition of thinkers before them that had tackled these questions, with varying degrees of clarity and all sorts of creative answers. It was with Plato and Aristotle, however, that the conversation shifted to an actual study of being, from whence answers to the other questions could come. For Plato, being came from the Forms: the abstract, immaterial, eternal and unchanging realities that give being to everything in the world. Plato, however, wrote in dialogues and not in systematic treatises. We therefore have many and sometimes conflicting ideas as to what these forms are exactly and what the process of interaction between them and the “created” world looks like. It is on Aristotle that we must count on to get a more thorough explanation of what is being and how change comes about.

Without going into too much detail about Aristotle’s work, suffice it to say that he came up with a basic framework to define being and change: things have essential qualities and accidental qualities. That is: things have that which makes them be what they are and things about them that can be different at different times without changing what that same thing is. To put it more bluntly: if you get a haircut you’re still going to be a human being, just wearing your hair differently. There is also a way to determine what each of these two qualities are in each being. That is through the four causes.

When a thing exists, it can be described as having its being in four ways:

  1. Its material cause: the material composition of a thing: metal, wood, bone and sinew; i.e.: the bronze that a statue in a public square is made out of.
  2. Its efficient cause: the immediate action which brought about the existence of a thing; i.e.: the craftsman or artist that carves out a statue.
  3. Its formal cause: that which gives a thing its “whatness,” what makes it be what it is; i.e.: in a statue this would be the form of a human, such as a general on horseback.
  4. Its final cause: that which gives a thing its “why”; i.e.: a statue that serves as a memorial of a past event.

Through Aristotle’s framework, we can more or less determine the nature of a thing and see what it should be, according to what it in fact is. This is called teleology: the notion that things have a definite nature and that the mind can grasp when something is deviating from its nature. It then becomes possible to define what the correct way of life for a person is: since a person can be definitely defined and identified, it follows that it should live in a certain way. This framework eventually gave rise to the idea that to be truly happy, a person must live an ethical and virtuous life.

Naturally, not everyone agreed with Aristotle, but his view became more or less standard for the next 1,700 years or so.

Now, if any trained philosopher reads what will follows (and, to some extent, what I have said above), he would probably bring a lawsuit against me and bring me to trail for all the grave misrepresentations and over-simplifications that I am here going to make. I will nonetheless proceed and, in very general terms, provide a sketch of how the rest of the history of metaphysics sort of became an answer or a coming to terms with what Aristotle said.

Why We Need To Think About Magic

I had been avoiding reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy for many years. I somehow had the impression that it was boring, but 40 pages in and my mind has been blown already. In any case, now that you’ve read into the third line of this post, I might as well tell you that this post is not about Foundation and its fascinating reflections on the nature of power. That post may be forthcoming but it might also not. This post is about magic.

While reading Asimov, I came across this passage: “A man in glaring blue and yellow uniform, shining and new in unstainable plastotextile, reached for his two bags. […] ‘The Luxor Hotel,’ said the driver.” To give you some context: a man who had just gotten off a spaceship that could travel millions of light years, had just gotten off a taxi that had to be driven by a person. And here we are in the 21st century with no colonies in Mars but have driverless cars zooming around in some cities with the hopes of taking this technology to scale in less than two decades. As I read that passage, I thought to myself: how would I write about a futuristic society and achieve “technological foresight immortality”? And by this I mean: how would I write something that doesn’t seem dated forty or fifty years down the line?

Questions like this might blow up the internet, naturally, but this question brought me to another passage in another, quite different, book:

‘And you?’ she said, turning to Sam. ‘For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel. Did you not say that you wished to see Elf-magic?’[1]

This is the encounter between Galadriel, Frodo and Sam in Lothlorien. I then asked myself: why does Galadriel not understand what magic is? For those who’ve read some of Tolkien’s essays and letters, you’ll know that this has to do with his “metaphysics” or the underlying structure of the world he created. Without going down the rabbit hole with this notion, suffice it to say for now that the interaction between an elf’s mind and the world around him is not limited in the same way that a hobbit’s, or a human’s is. That is, elves have a certain control over matter and nature that enables them to shape the world through images and notions in their minds.

Herein lies the secret, I believe, to writing about technology: the more perfect a technology is, the less there is a barrier between a person’s mind and the world around him.

I hope to follow up on this notion with a few ideas I explored in my thesis a long time ago, where I relied upon Heidegger’s analysis of technology to explore the nature of the internet and its impact on how we perceive ourselves.

In the meantime, I highly suggest reading Asimov 😊

[1] Tolkien, J.R.R.. The Lord of the Rings: One Volume (p. 389). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

How To Crush It (Or Work At Your Best)

Last Wednesday, I shared some of my ideas about philosophy: where I learned some of the things I hold to be true and why they are useful to me. This week I want to share some resources that helped me get to where I am professionally and continue to be valuable.

2.     Resources for the young professional:

  • So Good They Can’t Ignore You: this book really resonated with me. I think that, overall, Cal Newport is right in saying that in order to achieve a highly satisfying professional career, you must first focus on developing skills that are in high demand. Passion usually follows this. Plus, being useful to others is generally highly satisfying.
  • Deep Work: again by Cal Newport, he dives into the topic of how to work best. The key takeaway is that setting aside time to work deeply without interruptions yields the best kind of knowledge work the mind can produce. The key is to have no distractions. There has been a lot of science supporting this claim.
  • a product that’s become a company developed by a good friend of mine. This platform will teach you work habits that will enable you to be in flow when you work. It goes beyond work habits, however, to help you become more introspective and truly gain satisfaction in life.
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: one of my all-time favorites, this book taught me to focus on the things I can control and work towards them, leaving the tings that are out of my control to sort themselves.

As you can probably tell, these resources are profoundly influenced by some of the philosophers I mentioned in my previous post. I hope they’re useful to some extent and please share more if you come across any that helped you!

What to Do About This Thing Called Life

Over the years, I’ve come across certain resources that have definitively shaped the way I think and who I am. I’ll share them here in a few broad categories that are not necessarily mutually exclusive but provide a preliminary grounding for explaining why I think each resource is valuable and in what kinds of context I’ve applied each. I hope you like this list and feel free to share your thoughts!

1.     Why do we exist and what should we do with this thing called life?

Personally, I would be unable to do anything significant with my life if I didn’t understand why I do what I do. Here’s a sort of guide for how I went about things:

  • Read a lot of Ancient philosophy including:
    • Plato’s Republic, the Meno, Phaedo, Phaedrus and Symposium. Plato thinks that there is a thing called the Good, towards which we all strive. This Good is an abstract reality. In essence, the goal of life is to become virtuous and lead a good life to get to know the good. This will lead to blessedness and joy.
    • Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, On the Soul, Politics and Organum (his treatises on language and logic). Aristotle develops a theory on how things come into being and become other things. His theory on the goal of life is more appealing and coherent than Plato’s (simply because he didn’t write in dialogues, whereas Plato says contradictory things because his ideas are set down in dialogue form). Essentially, Aristotle says that we are able to understand what our nature is and become virtuous according to our nature. This entails practicing becoming virtuous: courageous, truthful, just, prudent, etc. The key difference between Plato and Aristotle is that the former thought virtue came out of knowledge, but the latter claims it comes out of practice.
    • The Stoics: Marcus Aurelius is probably one of the best examples of this philosophy.
    • The Epicureans: Read On the Nature of Things by Lucretius.
    • The Academics: the best way to get an understanding of what these intellectuals taught is to read Cicero’s On Academic Skepticism.
    • Probably one of the best works that sort of deals with all of these questions in a more succinct matter is Cicero’s On the Good Life.
  • Read more philosophy:
    • Augustine’s Cassiciacum dialogues, including: Soliloquy, On Order, On the Good Life, Against the Academics. Also, profoundly affecting the way I understood the world was On Free Choice of the Will.
  • Read some more philosophy:
    • Kant;
    • Hume;
    • Hegel;
    • Marx;
    • Nietzsche;
    • Heidegger;
    • Sartre;
    • Foucault.

The key takeaway for me from philosophy is that life is complicated, that the mind exists and can learn concepts that are true independently from itself through great effort, and that the best way to live life is to examine it, learn the truth about self and the world and pursue it relentlessly.

I will follow up on Friday with resources that deal with other, more mundane but equally important aspects of life 😊

How To Succeed At Meetings

I never thought I’d be intellectually engaged by a so called “business guru” but I’ve recently begun reading Ray Dalio’s Principles through LinkedIn and have found them tremendously uplifting and useful. In an effort to bring principled thinking to my own work, I’ve tried to come up with a framework to become useful to others. To me, this means being efficient and valuable. Much of the time I spend at work is in meetings and I thought I’d begin to reflect on what it means to be efficient and valuable during meetings. In my own personal context, this means coming to meetings prepared. I’ve therefore attempted to develop this framework with that end in mind and I hope it’s useful to me and to those who are kind enough to read my blog. This post is intended not so much as an exposition of an idea but as a checklist. I hope you’ll give me feedback in the comments and help me improve the ideas I’ve set out here.

(As a side note, I highly recommend reading Aristotle’s Rhetoric, upon which I drew inspiration for this post).

Meetings happen in ways that fit into three buckets, broadly speaking: those where one or more people wish to galvanize others to pursue action in one direction or another; when a group decision must be made and when information is to be shared. Meetings don’t necessarily happen in one of these buckets exclusively but can move from one to the other at different times.  I’ll call them persuasive, deliberative and informative.

Persuasive meetings: during these meetings, the goal of a speaker is to present an argument for or against an action. If I participate in such a meeting, I’ll try to keep the following in mind:

  • A good argument has three key parts: terms, premises and conclusions. The key questions to ask are:
    • Are the terms clearly defined? Do I understand the key definitions of what is being talked about? Do I think there is overlap in terms?
    • Are the premises true or false?
    • Are the arguments valid or invalid?
  • Do I agree or disagree with the argument? Why?
  • Do I understand what would make my point of view invalid?

Deliberative meetings: in these meetings, the goal is to reach a team consensus or deeper understanding of an issue at hand. For these meetings, I’ll try to have these questions answered by the time the meeting is finished:

  • What is the task or project that we need to define?
  • How many different parts does it have?
  • How long is the task going to take? How long are each of the parts going to take?
  • Who should do what?
  • What are the criteria for progress?
  • When do we want to regroup to evaluate progress?
  • Do we need to pivot or change our focus?
  • Are there questions? Can we solve them together or do we need someone else to solve them for us?

Informative meetings: these meetings are always about the state of affairs of some action or project within an organization. During these meetings, we’ll hear about:

  • Project elements:
    • Resources: are we using more or less than was anticipated?
    • time frame: is it on time, early or delayed?
    • person responsible for carrying it out: changes in leadership, additions to the team, etc.
  • If the goal or purpose cannot be fully defined, then a deliberative meeting has to be held to determine it.

This sums up much of what I encounter during meetings but I’m sure this checklist will continue to evolve as I gain experience and participate in other kinds of projects. I’m also aware that I’ve excluded certain key ideas about participating in meetings: knowing my role during a conversation, when to address uncomfortable ideas or conversations, how to help the meeting reach its purpose when its been derailed, etc. But I think that for many of these questions there already are excellent frameworks. In another post, I’ll include some resources you can use to learn about these questions. As always, I appreciate your feedback and hope to continue to grow.