Update: Open Letter to the President’s Office

Several months ago I published “An Open Letter to the President’s Office” in response to a request for students to participate in the Student Engagement Survey. The survey request was sent at a time when I noticed a considerable amount of conversations related to improving how we learn occurring around me, and  the issue being one I am intensely interested in, I couldn’t bear the idea of these conversations ending in the hypothetical.

In a spur of naïve passion, I wrote to the president’s office offering to share some suggestions on how to improve learning – borne of these conversations – with President Hamdullahpur. This morning that conversation happened, with Sean Van Koughnett (Director of the Student Success Office), Bud Walker (Associate Provost, Student) and Feridun Hamdullahpur – the goal of the discussion was to cross-pollinate the ideas of students to improve learning with UW leadership’s vision and vice versa. I would argue the most important part of any conversation is listening, and this post aims to be a fruit of that endeavor – outlining commentary on the discussion’s themes: improving how we learn innovation, improving how we learn from each other, and improving how we learn from professors.

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” – Winston Churchill

It seemed appropriate to stage the most intriguing questions that beset the students conversations to this group, and so the format generally followed a pattern of asking a question, everyone adding supporting content and their opinions, comparing with student consensus points, and finally segueing to an ‘actionable suggestion’ from student conversations. Like you might imagine, the ‘actionable suggestions’ are as they sound: a fairly concrete opinion on how to solve the problem brought to light in each discussion question, posed as one possible solution. In reality, frameworks for conversations are a last resort and rarely used. A healthy conversation will be very agile, with different people’s opinions bringing the current topic far from anything that could be planned, so please forgive the absence of commentary within some topics.

(Improving how we learn innovation) We talk a lot about the need for innovation in the workplace – its importance in transitioning Canada to a knowledge-based economy, in keeping Canada globally competitive – but specifically, what does innovative behavior look like?

The discussion begins with an illustration of the University’s founding ethos with respect to innovation. When the University was founded in 1957, it’s innovative genesis was in the unique opportunity it afforded motivated and intelligent individuals who could not necessarily otherwise afford to study at university without the Co-op program. The founding students were those intrinsically motivated to progress towards a better life, and possessed a certain motivation to make such happen. It reminds me of Keynes’s animal spirits.

The anecdote leads naturally into the role of motivation within learning, and strategies for teaching underlying behavior requisite to innovation. We mark the role of professors in this process, and discuss UW’s requirement of hiring professors who excel at both research and teaching. Dr. Hamdullahpur outlines a vision for exceptional researchers using classroom time for scenario based learning, inspiring students by linking what’s being taught to specific examples of application. MIT is brought up as an example of a university where ten years ago, the focus was extremely biased towards research. MIT and many other American universities today recognize the importance of placing equal priority on teaching and research, as does UW.

It’s an incredible direction. A direction that will admittedly take time – but the excitement in the room was tangible, and the vision contagious.

(Improving how we learn from professors) How do we kindle a motivation to teach within professors primarily concerned with research? Or a desire to improve within professors who have no reason to attempt to?

UW has some great researchers, and it’s hardly a secret that some professors much prefer their research to teaching. UW has a well regarded Centre for Teaching Excellence with many resources available to help professors become more comfortable and interactive with their classes, though as previous conversations with some of my professors indicated, the Centre tends to be of most value to those who are already good communicators wishing to improve. The real issue is one level deeper – it’s the motivation to improve – and how can we kindle motivation?

The actionable suggestion for this question was to to create a system of peer-mentorship for professors,  such that professors are cross-exposed to other styles of communicating and engaging with a class.

The system for student evaluations of courses and their professors is explained and ideas are brought up for where it could go in the future. Mr. Walker explores differences between teaching and learning, and comments how professors not comfortable in a “50-1″ learning environment may be exceptional one-to-one. This leads into a discussion on integrating research into undergraduate education, bringing the “learning is experience” mantra of Co-op full circle into the formal learning experience.

This is an exciting possibility for the future of UW: tightly integrating experiential learning into all facets of education. Once again the room was charged, and a twinkle adorned an eye or two.

How can we motivate students to take charge of their own learning and create an environment where there are opportunities to take risks and learn leadership?

I tend to far underestimate timelines when planning content for discussions or presentations, and on suspicion I verbally noted I wanted to be When you teach you learnmindful of everyone’s time, as I was not sure how much had passed. We had indeed fared well beyond the 1/2 hr tentatively booked, and it is only a testament to the politeness of the group that no one had mentioned it.

There seemed to be an interest in this topic, however, and we agreed to take a couple minutes to wrap up with discussing the actionable suggestion of creating a formal system of peer-learning, where students would teach each other. Such a system would not only partially meet the challenge of the first question mentioned (on developing skills requisite to innovation, such as risk-management and the ability to think across silos) but encourage leadership and develop communication skills. In order to teach something well, you have to understand it at a deeper level than pure memorization. To this end, peer-teaching encourages mastery of material as opposed to regurgitation.

It is a subtle area of passion for me, and I was surprised to hear Mr. Van Koughnett talk of the concept being within the realizable vision of Office of Student Success, and how UW’s living / learning communities are a step towards such a direction. Dr. Hamdullahpur followed with a story of such practices being employed in a trial at his previous institution, where the class rose by seventeen percent.

Within a supported context that ensures students experience success in teaching others, there is significant potential for students to develop confidence in themselves and their abilities. I believe there is compelling reason t0 correlate confidence in one’s abilities with the ability to further one’s abilities.

“When you teach, you learn” – Helen Suzman

The conversation left me excited for UW’s future –  I have substantial confidence in the the administration to execute a vision to bring the university to an experiential, research intensive, student focused learning environment of tomorrow.


On Innovation and Horizontal Knowledge

The events I describe in this post comprise one chapter in a series of events which I would describe as formative experiences. Occurring over the past year, these milestones have collectively set me on the path I currently travel.

It’s fall 2010. I’m a brand new student at the University of Waterloo, staring wide-eyed at a hall full of kiosks, noise, and demonstrations. It was clubs day – the two days of each term where the student clubs on campus all clamor for new recruits. It reminded me of a conference, or mini trade-show. When reading the small posters plastered around campus informing everyone of the upcoming showcase, it never quite occurred to me that there would be hundreds of student clubs – covering quite practically everything. To someone with diverse interests, it was a ‘kid and candy store’ moment.

After signing away my email address at seemingly every other booth (essentially agreeing to spam-for-life), I happened upon a table that was a little bit different from the others. It was backdropped by a large pull-up banner instead of folded cardboard -  the kind you see in actual tradeshows – that read ‘IMPACT’ in large white letters set against an orange and yellow texture. Eric Ho would go on to explain exactly what Impact was: a national organization dedicated to student entrepreneurship. To someone raised with the silent expectation to ‘invent’ things – a phenomenon in retrospect that could be considered a self-fulfilling prophesy – the mere existence of such an organization was elating. That Impact was holding an expo the following weekend was even better.

The format was conference-typical; keynotes, workshops, sponsor showcases, and a twitter wall. The people that filled in this framework were all but typical. I first met Albert Lai behind his Kontagent booth at Impact Expo (after asking if he was a Co-op student with Kontagent). It was also the first time I chatted with Kunal Gupta after his workshop on Polar Mobile about inflo. I would later learn he was a Shad Valley alum, and was Impact’s founder and Chair. Larry Smith gave the closing keynote; several months later I would sit in his macroeconomics class, and we would discuss strategy and market research during office hours.


But it was Evan Koslow’s opening keynote that would keep me awake at night. The man owns a company you’ve never heard of and never will – unless it’s too late and they’ve already taken over your market. They have expertise in almost everything. from power plants in Bangladesh to chemical processing and encryption algorithms. Koslow holds 50 patents and has 70 pending. Their headquarters is  housed in an entirely unassuming building in an industrial zone of Waterloo. Their website has lots of pictures of smiling people that will fundamentally tell you nothing of what they do – it’s the perfect stealth operation.

Koslow essentially described an established concept for a fuzzy philosophy on education I had long held. For the first time I had a label – a term – for a set of loosely coupled ideas and theories on education, innovation, and learning I had half-wittedly developed over the course of my high-school career. My conundrum is best surmised with a graph:

Right / Left brain bellcurve distribution

That is, as we travel to either extreme of stereotypical ‘left’ or ‘right’ brained activities, my interest generally dwindles as time spent exclusively on those activities increases. I become most passionate (take the y axis to be ‘excitement’, if you will) with activities that require employing thought processes typical to both seemingly polar mindsets, and what I busied myself with during high school reflected this.

By definition this goes against the grain of specialization. In balancing down the middle, I was refuting the general post-secondary ethos of ‘you shall become an expert in building bridges’ or ‘you shall become an expert in creative writing’. Granted, I surely understand that near every profession requires the capacity to be creative and logical at some level, though the focus is almost always slanted to one or the other.

Koslow spoke to this effect, insisting that the structure of higher education was entirely unconducive to serial innovation. He described higher education as a hole you start digging with your undergraduate degree, and continue to dig deeper with your masters – digging deeper still with your PhD – until finally, one day (if you’re exceptionally good), you dig the hole a little deeper than anyone else and you’re the world’s foremost expert in something. Something very small. This is all fine, it is the process by which much of knowledge we consider now consider ‘boilerplate’ that contributed to our standard of living eventually came to be. However, it hardly allows one to think across boundaries and disciplines – which, when you think of, is somewhat fundamental to innovation.

I define innovation to be the creative correlation of previously unrelated ideas. In this case, it somewhat helps to have a lot of unrelated ideas to draw from.

Koslow went on to speak of Horizontal Knowledge – that instead of resolute knowledge of one hole, a framework knowledge of a thousand holes is better suited to spontaneous innovation and the era we live in. In the not too distant past, should one not be able to recall offhand critical information specific to one’s field, he or she might spend a week in the library hunting down the required piece of missing information. Efficiency dictated memorization king. Today, with quality information (such as scientific journals and references) is instantly available and searchable, we are far better suited to concentrate on the supporting framework and infrastructure of understanding and intuition than mere information.

In the context of Entrepreneurship, horizontal knowledge is especially important. Due to the multifaceted and ambiguous nature of entrepreneurship, entrepreneurs need to be well versed and capable – at the very lest competent – in a wide and varying set of often hard to define skills and abilities.

I now had an established concept under which to gather my thoughts on education and learning. My theories was in some way validated – I had a basis to build from.

For three continuous hours after his keynote ended, a fluctuating group of about 20 people continued to talk with Evan as he touched on his adventures in bringing down billion dollar companies, in contracting himself to companies to ‘innovate on the spot’ and – what intrigued me most – in developing a system of extremely efficient learning with a college friend.

There is more to come. Far more to come.


An Open Letter to the the President’s Office

A letter composed to the office of the President of the University of Waterloo, urging  discussion on methods of innovating teaching and learning itself.

I’m contacting you on behalf of a group of students who have begun a conversation – begun to think and brainstorm – on how the University of Waterloo could improve and innovate the learning process itself, sparked by President Hamdullahpur’s request for students to write the National Survey of Student Engagement.

This conversation I’ve observed occurs all the time. Students often sit together for lunch, after or in between class, and think of strategies that could help us master material. There is often a surprising consensus. I drop into these conversations whenever I hear them, and now offer to do the one thing that seems not to have occurred to anyone else: respectfully and cooperatively include the President of the University. The one individual, who perhaps more than anyone else would not only be interested in the subject, but have the desire and ability to effect positive change.

We do not claim to be experts – to know the latest in pedagogy research – but we do offer an opportunity to see inside the minds of your students, information which could perhaps be used in conjunction with experts’ theories when making decisions to push the University to the forefront of innovation.

We are passionate about innovation – we identify with the University of Waterloo; many of us chose this institution “in the spirit of Why Not”? We’ve surmised many of the common, recurring themes and write today to request an opportunity to discuss these with President Hamdullahpur. Please allow us to help you in your quest to innovate learning itself.


“Would you like to buy some Chocolate for Kare for Kids International?”

I am currently enjoying the relative  high speed internet (compared to iPhone tethering) of Second Cup coffee house trying to plan out the upcoming week and take a moment to catch up with my thoughts. There’s a lot of truth in Steven Johnson’s TED talk, with respect to coffee shops being a place of thought and idea-meshing – though today for me is more a time of thought and reflection (fertile ground for blog post creation, I might add).

I was lost in a drifting, wayward, thought when a jolt of energy bursted from my immediate left. A kid no older than 11 was blurting at something approaching light speed. To be sure, I was slightly taken aback – I might have muttered “what?” as I struggled to switch context.

Still unable to contain himself, he repeated,”would you like to buy some chocolate for Kare for Kids International?” A millisecond pause as he inhaled at a similar speed. “It would be really helpful. Only $10 dollars for three boxes.”

In stark contrast to his lighting-speak, I slowly explained that I had no cash on me, and had spent more of the day than I wanted to spend hunting for transit ticket dispensers that accepted debit. His eyes started darting around. He was losing interest. But I implored him for details  - “what is this organization? What do you do?” After all, this was a young person doing something out of the ordinary, something I love to see and am keenly interested in.

At this point another kid – whom I shall refer to as kid2 – emerged from behind the kid. Somewhat taller and of a slighter build, he didn’t say much – or anything, rather – he simply handed me a thickly laminated (though somehow water stained) information sheet that explained K4K International and what they did. By this time the kid became fixated on the next target somewhere behind me. I took my time and read both sides, eventually handing the material back to kid2 along with a few words of encouragement. He uttered “thanks” along with a slight smite and then reassumed his place trailing the kid.

I would have really liked to have bought their chocolate. Even more though, I  really would have  loved to offer both of them a few tips in pitching, persuasion, and building good arguments. My few suggestions would have been to focus on building relationships and connecting with people at a deeper level than simply what you are trying to achieve. In essence, treat people as people and not as objectives. Strike up conversation, figure out what their experiences have been with similar organizations. Have they ever encountered poverty or felt the need to do anything about it? Get people excited. Young people doing incredible things have an amazing capacity to do exactly that.

My eyes followed the kid as he progressed towards the door – kid2 in tow – abruptly stopping at each table en route to repeat the same offer he gave me, each time being turned down by some barely legible mumble escaping the mouths of people too consumed to care.

They were a team of two extremes – of fire and ice – the go getter and the strong and silent. But kid knew persistence, and kid2 was ever vigilant – ready and waiting when the time was right. They’ll do well. They’re getting an early introduction to a skillset gleaned through context and practice, not from a textbook, and have lots of time to figure out for themselves what works and what doesn’t. Reminds me of Cameron Herold’s TED Talk.

I only wish I could have helped them learn a little faster.

On Asking Questions

The power of the internet belongs to those who have mastered the art of asking good questions.

What, then, constitutes a good question? What’s the difference between a good question and a bad one? In today’s world, our ability to find information often dictates productivity. How then can we purposefully strive to form better questions?

It is a bit of a paradoxical situation We ask questions to discover something we do not already know – we only know what we want to know, and so we can only describe what we want to know in terms of what we know of it already. Which – when you think about it – is a serious limitation.

All new information we glean through self-directed learning (ie. Googling), is an extension of what we already know. (and everything we come to learn is a platform from which to build future understandings). So in order to learn new things, we must ask questions based on ‘old things’. In a world where keyword based discovery reigns king, not knowing the jargon of ‘new things’ can cause considerable delay in acquiring new concepts.

The context surrounding new concepts must be built first. We must ask ourselves, “What terms do people who are already familiar with these concepts use to describe them?”

‘Google Instant’, the feature that autosuggests what you might be looking for based on what you’ve already entered into the search box,  is an attempt to aid you in discovering the context surrounding what you’re looking for – though you still must know enough of what you’re looking for to employ at least one instance of jargon, from which Google can extrapolate related jargon.

So back to our root question: “How do you search for something when you lack context?” Currently, the answer seems to be hoping that someone else also lacked context and attempted to describe what they were trying to learn the same way you did. This can break down fairly easily as the material to be learned becomes more specialized; as the material to be learned requires more prerequisite knowledge.

A concrete example: A few days ago I was trying to learn the syntax for writing arrays in python. There was surprisingly little available information on Google (compared to the number of results a normal query would have returned), and the material I did find was obviously not official python documentation. The context I was lacking is that python does not have arrays, and the jargon I was looking for was ‘tuples’, ‘dictionaries’ and ‘lists’ – data types that offer similar functionality of what I knew as ‘arrays’.

It seems that our ability to ask good questions is directly related to our ability to build context around what we want to know. How do we build context surrounding what we want to know? We start with what we already know and generalize what we want to know. As we build context and associated jargon, we gain the ability to increase the specificity of our query – and the likelihood of finding experts who are discussing what we want to know -  because you now are using the same jargon they are.

So how do we become more efficient at learning? And how, when our productivity depends much on our ability to learn, how do we increase productivity? Learn to build context fast.

Ken Robinson on Education: Visually

I wish I could take every educator and politician in the country, stick them in a room (lock the doors, of course), and make them watch this. Half of them won’t agree and never will agree, but it would be a start…

Check out ted.com and search for Ken Robinson if you’re interested in more of what he has to say. I’m fairly certain he wrote a book as well.

The Story of 50 Sheets of Paper

The following is an instruction given by a teacher to a class working on a project in a school Library:

“OK grade nines – listen carefully. There’s about five minutes to the bell, and you’re not going to have enough time to finish. We’ll work on it again on Monday – save you’re work to a USB key or save it to My Documents if you don’t have one. Make sure you print off a copy as there’s no guarantee it will be here on Monday. Are you listening? Make sure…”

The end result was at lease 50 sheets of paper (not to mention ink) consumed as each Grade 9 student printed off their multi-page-in-progress essays. The problem here lies not in the teacher’s actions. The teacher is responding to a set of circumstances which have forced her to recommend printing hard copies of work – namely, the lack of a secure place provided for each student to store work. Students cannot be expected to remember to bring USB memory drives to class each day.

If we hope to one day reduce our reliance on physical copies of digital documents, I would argue a school is the first place to start entrenching these values.

Work Experience: Week 7

Last week at REDACTED I continued learning the Solidworks Engineering modelling program while I waited for REDACTED and theREDACTED to create the REDACTED I designed.Learning Is Experience

This week I began creating the documentation for the project. This REDACTED‘ will touch on everything from a high-level project description to REDACTED. I anticipate this will take me several days to complete and will consume the majority of my time until REDACTED arrive.

Work Experience: Week 5

When I arrived at REDACTED on Friday, REDACTED recommended I shift my immediate focus to the wall-mount case that would hold REDACTEDand the REDACTED,Learning Is Experience as the time required to get the expenses surrounding this item and fabrication lead time would be the restricting factor.  So I put REDACTED on hold and proceeded to calculate the minute dimensional details involved with designingREDACTED. The distance between every component must be accounted for; the framework must adequately support the mass of the finished product as well as individual components; mounting points and fasteners must be accounted for. It’s detail work…and I love it. On Monday I will be meeting with someone who can take my REDACTED and turn it intoREDACTED using Solid Works – this will allow the fabricator to load the file onto his / her computer, outputting the design directly to a robotic CNC machine.