Monday, July 29, 2013

How Do Organizations Learn?

Following a recent blog post where Horace Dediu asks, "What's an Android user worth?", two readers ended up discussing the relative strategic positions of Apple and Google.

handleym writes:

BUT there is another side to the future, the server side. Machine learning, big stats, all that entails. Voice recognition, image recognition, translation, emotion detection, pattern recognition (and notification when the patterns change), all that. Google is obviously king here. More to the point, Google GETS this as a conceptual category, a way of thinking, not just as a series of current products, in the same way Apple gets design as a conceptual category. And by the same token, Apple does NOT get machine learning and big stats as a conceptual category. They see it as a few products --- Siri, a few parts of Maps, that's it.

To the extent that I am worried about Apple's future, it is here. They have design, HW, UI, developer tools, network engines, server farms, all the tools of the past, covered for the foreseeable future. What they have not shown any strength in (and any interest in acquiring) is the tools of the future. I want to see them hiring some big academic names in big statistics, acquiring a few more firms in machine learning. I want evidence that they understand that this is the essence of the future of computing, every bit as much as graphics (from the first Mac GUI on) were the essence of the past 30 yrs of computing.

And Kizedek replies:

I am not too worried about Apple taking on the future.

First, we don't know what they are working on and have under wraps. We often don't know what they have prepared in advance until they launch it. Though we get some hints from patent applications.

Second, Apple seems quite adept at finding and acquiring the small startups it needs to bring a core team into its fold. Chip designers, Siri, mappers (news this week or so), whatever.

For the sake of argument, let's say that machine learning and big data is the future, and Google gets it and Apple does not. Is Apple doomed? Will Apple coast along, getting slower and fatter until more nimble competitors eventually race in and disrupt it?

That is certainly the lifecycle for 99.9% of the successful companies out there. You identify an opportunity in the market, build a competitive advantage, and then milk that competitive advantage for all its worth until the market shifts and you go bust. Apple often gets credit for disrupting itself... being willing to cannibalize its old personal computer business to grow a new business in smartphones and tablets. But there is no old guard at Apple protecting its turf in personal computers. Apple has a functional structure, so when Apple began working on the iPod or iOS, the existing software, hardware, services, design, operations, and marketing groups could all see it as a new growth opportunity, not as a threat that needed to be smothered in the crib. Instead of having to reinvent itself to enter the music market and then the mobile market, you could say that Apple simply used its competitive advantage in vertical integration and UX design each time to disrupt others, not itself.

Disrupting yourself is hard. It is not enough for management to recognize that it needs to add core competencies in machine learning and big data, and then go out and hire those people. handleym describes it as a conceptual category, a way of thinking. Executives at Apple often talk about the company's DNA. Any new core competency must be integrated into the company's way of thinking or DNA, not simply tacked on. And this can't just happen at the management level. The thinking at Google is still nothing like the thinking at Apple even after hiring Matias Duarte and releasing the Chromebook Pixel and Chromecast; and the thinking at Apple is nothing like the thinking at Google even after introducing Siri.

I'm a huge fan of Peter Senge's learning organizations, and it is clear that Steve Jobs had a similar vision for Apple. Jobs wanted to leave behind a company that would engage in inquiry and adapt to new challenges through deep reflection and capacity building, from the top of the company down to each and every employee. Did he succeed? I think it is impossible for any outsider to know at this point. But I do know that he took a real stab at it and that he was under no illusions about the difficulty of the task. That is a necessary but not sufficient first step. For the rest, we'll just have to wait and see.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Serving Your Customers

In the last few days, I've read at least two internet commenters citing the Apple maps "fiasco" as evidence that Apple does not care about its customers. When Apple released iOS 6, it replaced the Google-powered map app with one of its own. The new app was widely criticized for having inaccurate or sparse data, especially when it came to points of interest. Apple is accused of pushing an inferior app at the expense of its users for selfish business reasons (to either attack Google or collect more map data for itself).

Businesses are always going to make decisions that benefit themselves, and Apple is no exception. It is clear that mapping and location services are going to play increasingly vital roles on mobile devices, and Apple doesn't like to have to depend on a single source for key components, especially not a rival like Google or Samsung. But using the maps fiasco as evidence that Apple does not care about its customers is a bit ridiculous since its customers ultimately benefited from that decision.

The Google-powered map app was crippled because Google would not allow Apple to add more features to the app, such as turn-by-turn navigation, as long as Apple would not hand over more user data and give Google deeper hooks into the app. We could argue if users would have benefited from Apple bending and giving more user data to Google or not, but there is no argument that the map situation on iOS 5 sucked. Less than three months after iOS 6 was released, Google had a far superior map app on the App Store that iOS users could download for free. How is that not a win for users?

You could make a stronger case that Apple does not care with the perennial lack of a mini-tower in its line up or the release of Final Cut Pro X. Depending on who is asking for it, the mini-tower is either a headless iMac, an expandable Mac mini, or a smaller and much cheaper Mac Pro. People have been clamoring for this mini-tower for so long now that the concept has its own name, the xMac. Final Cut Pro X is Apple's latest version of Final Cut Pro, a non-linear video editing program used by many professionals. Final Cut Pro X was written entirely from scratch with significant architectural improvements. But because it was a complete re-write, it shipped with lots of missing features. Apple promised to add some of those missing features later, but others, especially those related to older formats or working with tape, were gone forever. Pros were understandably miffed.

I personally believe that Final Cut Pro X and the lack of an xMac have less to do with Apple not caring, and more to do with Apple's belief that it knows better than its customers and its reluctance to spread itself too thin across too many products. Some people thought that Final Cut Pro X was Apple's attempt to position its pro software at prosumers (a larger market) at the expense of professionals (a smaller market), but that doesn't seem to be the case now that Logic Pro X has been released. The underlying architecture for Logic Pro had already been rewritten, so Logic Pro X simply added more powerful features without taking anything away. This despite constant internet chatter that Apple was set to kill Logic Pro altogether.

It's interesting to contrast Apple's behavior with the behavior of two of its largest rivals: Google and Microsoft. The sense that I get from Google is that they want to serve their customers by building cool stuff. (I'm going to sidestep the whole argument that Google's real customers are advertisers and that we and our data are the product.) Unfortunately, there are some basic things that customers want that Google doesn't consider very cool. So far, Google has spent very little effort trying to expand its music, video, and app stores to other countries. Negotiating with big content is not very fun and it doesn't earn you much geek cred. Buying hardware through the Play Store is also a terrible experience. You would think that Google, with its expertise in servers and internet infrastructure, could set up a decent internet store front, but the launch of the Nexus 7 and various Nexus phones have been complete disasters. Their store front isn't even linked to the store's inventory! This is clearly a lack of caring and effort rather than engineering talent or resources.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is in the unenviable position of trying to prevent itself from being disrupted. When it conceived of and released the Surface, I'm sure that they wanted to build a great product for their customers. But Horace Dediu of Asymco makes a compelling case that another motivation behind the Surface is Microsoft's desire to protect its profits. Dediu estimates that Microsoft earns about $120 per user for Windows and Office licenses. In the shift to mobile, it isn't enough for Microsoft to win customers and grow market share, it has to earn the same profit per user as its desktop business model does or its stock will be punished. This is a tough sell when customers and OEMs are used to mobile operating systems and software being very cheap, if not free. One solution is to earn that $120 per user from device sales. If Surface isn't allowed to stand on its own and must do double duty as a way for Microsoft to extract its licensing fees for Windows and Office from users, then it will never be designed to serve its customers as well as it could.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Dissecting a Lesson in Snell's Law

I am having lunch on Thursday with the CEO of School Yourself, a MassChallenge 2013 global finalist. School Yourself has developed an intelligent tutoring system that personalizes math and science instruction by delivering it in small chunks, deciding which chunk to deliver next to an individual student using embedded assessments.

School Yourself's technology is very good. I have tested many intelligent tutoring systems in the past — it's one of the holy grails of education — and even tried to design one myself when I wrote my chemistry textbook, Chemistry from the Ground Up. This is the first system that I've used that feels like it may actually be ready for the classroom. But no matter how intelligent it is or how much data it has, a tutoring system is only as good as the curriculum it has at its disposal.

I am going to dissect the curriculum used to teach students about rainbows and Snell's law that School Yourself has up on its website. First, let me say that if a teacher that I was evaluating or coaching had designed this curriculum, I'd be very pleased and full of positive feedback. Compared to what is in common use today, it is very, very good. But the goal of Vertical Learning Labs is to elevate what we consider good curriculum, and the curriculum designed by School Yourself is not nearly good enough. It needs to be much better if they have any hope of reaching their ambition to be "the future of math and science education."

The lesson begins by telling students that light travels through different media at different speeds and that light traveling from point A to point B will travel on the fastest path possible. The cool thing about this is that it enables students to find the path light travels between two points by trial and error. Doing this a few times will then help them develop their own intuition about light paths. The problem with this approach is that it doesn't help a student understand why light travels on the fastest path possible. What is the local mechanism that causes this to happen? Photons clearly do not have brains to figure out which path is fastest or guidance systems to then follow that path. You are essentially giving the student an abstract rule to follow, one that is not grounded in the physical world at all.

This is not a deal-breaker. I think it is okay to develop a lesson or unit around an abstract rule, and then have students explore the implications of that rule. I've taught a four-week unit on square roots grounded in the definition of a square root. That is pretty abstract! But the kids thoroughly enjoyed it as interesting brain exercises that also happened to help them learn math stuff. However, I do feel that a curriculum developer should be aware when a unit isn't grounded and avoid it when possible.

A more serious problem occurs when Snell's law is finally introduced. The equation for Snell's law is simply given to the student to memorize and practice using. The curriculum developer has chosen not to have the student derive the equation for Snell's law using the rule that light follows the fastest path, and I actually think that was the right decision. Having the student derive the equation for Snell's law would have been cumbersome and time-consuming, and the student would not have gained a deeper understanding from doing it. The problem is that the curriculum developer gives the student a tool (find the fastest path possible), and then promptly abandons that tool once Snell's law is introduced. If the student forgets the equation for Snell's law, will he or she be able to re-derive it from the fastest path rule? No. If the student is struggling to apply Snell's law, will the intelligent tutoring system or the student's teacher suggest that the student go back to the foundation of the unit and apply the fastest path rule? No.

The fastest path rule ends up being a device, or hook, to introduce the student to Snell's law. It is not a tool that the student will be using over and over again in the future. This is the kind of bait-and-switch that curriculum developers use on kids all the time, and kids resent it. It also teaches kids that the fun, hands-on activity that opens a unit is just a gimmick and that the "real" learning starts once the textbooks come out.

But the biggest problem occurs at the end of the lesson. By the end of the lesson, I actually have a fairly deep understanding of rainbows. I know what causes rainbows, why rainbows are in the form of an arc, where to look in the sky to find rainbows, why it is brighter inside of the rainbow than on the outside of the rainbow, and why there are secondary rainbows. I even have the tools and understanding to reason about rainbows and answer questions that I wasn't directly taught. In fact, I'm feeling pretty good about myself. But in the end, there is still a one-to-one correspondence between teaching and learning. You taught me something and I learned it. I learned it really well. And then you'll teach me something else, and I'll learn that, too. For some kids, this is more than enough. But for others, the pay off from understanding rainbows isn't enough. Maybe you can keep them interested if the thing they learn about is personally relevant, but that wears off over time also.

What kids want is to get off of that treadmill, the one-to-one correspondence between teaching and learning. We keep promising them a future where they will be able to learn for themselves, but for most kids, that day never seems to arrive. Some curriculum developers believe that the solution is to let kids pursue their own interests from an early age. I believe that the solution is to make learning exponential. I teach you one thing, you learn two. I teach you a second thing that builds off that first thing, and you've learned four. I teach you a third thing that builds off of the first two things, and now you've learned eight. When kids see that happening, they can see and believe in that future where they are powerful, capable, and learning for themselves. That future is now.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Pitch Perfect, Pitch Different?

Two educational games were pitched last week at the July LearnLaunch Meetup/Pitch Night. I pitched Petri Dish, a cell biology simulation game. As I was developing my pitch, I shared it with friends and family. I had never pitched before, and I wanted Petri Dish to stand out. The overwhelming feedback I got was that I should give a more standard pitch. This meant:

  • Talking more about myself (my credentials, my passion for learning, the story behind my company).
  • Explaining the need for a cell biology simulation game (failing educational system, students not engaged, need for knowledge workers in the 21st century, growth in biotechnology industries).
  • Drawing analogies that the audience can relate to (SimCity but with cells, engaging students in an open world like Minecraft where learning is social).

In the end, I did none of those things. Instead, I dove straight into the game itself hoping to show the audience the kind of learning that students would be doing instead of simply telling them about it. It was a lot to accomplish in five minutes, but I was determined to show as much as possible.

Another team presented SputnikBot, a game teaching young kids how to program. Ksenia of SputnikBot did make a standard pitch. There were the obligatory slides on the importance of STEM, the growing shortage of computer programmers in this country, programming as the new literacy, and the power of games as learning tools. After this lengthy lead in, Ksenia only had time to show a few screenshots of SputnikBot and explain the game's scenario: An accident occurs aboard a satellite that erases the memory of the satellite's computer system. The player must program a robot in the satellite to deal with a series of challenges.

For one segment of the audience, this was a revelation; the growing shortage of computer programmers was alarming news and we clearly needed to do something about it soon. For a second segment of the audience, this merely confirmed what they already knew and had been alarmed about for some time. Of course the U.S. is falling behind in STEM; I've been yelling at my school committee to do something about it but nothing ever happens. Thank god someone is finally doing something to address this! But for a third segment of the audience, there was frustratingly little detail. We've seen dozens of pitches just like this one and have tried dozens of games that tried to teach something to kids by hooking them with some superficial game elements... and it doesn't work. How is SputnikBot any different?

The standard pitch loses this third segment of the audience. My unconventional pitch was directed straight at them with the likely possibility that I would lose the first two segments of the audience. I'm not sure if there is a way to craft a five minute pitch that would hold everyone. I'm also not sure which segment of the audience is more important to win over. Since I fall into the third segment (jaded and skeptical, requiring hard evidence due to years of people over-promising and under-delivering), I want to win that segment of the audience over. But maybe you gain market success by appealing to the first two segments? The third segment is small and very hard to win over, and it isn't clear that you gain anything by winning them over anyways. However, if your goal is disruption, winning them over might just be a useful benchmark that you are on the right track.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Culture Change at One Microsoft

Microsoft announced a major re-organization this week intended to end the internal turf wars that have caused divisions to sabotage each other and undermine key company-wide strategies. Many internet commenters immediately lauded the move. There was a lot of consensus that now that Ballmer had laid down the law, divisions would begin cooperating and Microsoft's potential would be unleashed.

But turf wars are ingrained in the culture at Microsoft, and that culture won't be changed easily, certainly not by a top-down re-org. The turf wars aren't caused by a few bad apples or limited to top executives or managers. Engineers engage in turf wars as well. The entire review system at Microsoft is based on grading team members on a curve. If you've spent any time at Microsoft, you've gotten used to seeing peers as competitors who are trying to get ahead of you in a zero-sum game. I imagine that there are many employees who would love to see this culture change, but you aren't going to lay down your knife at a knife fight unless you are fairly confident that everyone else is going to lay down their knives, too.

I can guarantee you that the turf wars will not stop right away. The question is: How will Ballmer respond when the turf wars continue? If Ballmer makes a public example out of the first major turf war that breaks out after the re-organization takes hold (meaning heads roll), then the culture may slowly start to shift. However, if he does nothing, then he will signal to his employees that it is business as usual. Believe me, everyone will be watching to see what he does.

Unfortunately, Ballmer's track record in laying down the law at Microsoft is not very good. Tablet PCs were first introduced by Microsoft in 2000. According to Bill Gates, tablet PCs were the future of computing and the company was totally behind them. But year after year, the Office team undermined this strategy by refusing to release a tablet-optimized version of Microsoft Office. They flat out refused to do anything to help tablet PCs take off... and heads never rolled. I could see Ballmer taking a hands-off approach for the first couple of years; after all, he put the best people in charge and trusted them to execute. But after it became clear that tablet PCs were falling victim to an internal turf war, why didn't Ballmer step in and put an end to the fighting?

Okay, maybe all of the tablet PC talk at Microsoft was just marketing speak and there was no true belief in the form factor. But then the iPad hit, tablets really took off, and Microsoft countered by releasing Surface RT and Surface Pro. To support the release of the Surface, the Office team did release a version of Microsoft Office where you could turn on a touch-friendly UI. Now this touch-friendly UI was clearly meant to be a stopgap while a truly Metro-fied version of Office was being developed, so I didn't expect a lot of engineering resources to be thrown at it. But what was released was a joke. All they did was tweak the ribbon so that buttons were a little bigger and farther apart. It really looks like an intern was assigned to the job for six months. Again, no heads rolled.

Maybe the ouster of Steven Sinofsky and this re-organization represent a real shift in Ballmer's thinking and leadership. Time will tell. But changing a culture is hard work, and that hard work is just beginning at Microsoft. I wish them luck.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Competition and the Most-Favored-Nation Clause

In a blog post three weeks ago, I wrote about the e-books antitrust trial. I had some confusion about antitrust law (the standards for horizontal and vertical collusion) and I felt that the DOJ had seriously overreached in their case against Apple (alleging that Apple was the mastermind of the conspiracy and not just a participant). Well, Judge Denise Cote has handed down her decision and she has ruled that "without Apple’s orchestration of this conspiracy, it would not have succeeded as it did in the spring of 2010." The smoking gun cited by Judge Cote is this exchange between Steve Jobs and Walt Mossberg where Mossberg asks Jobs why a customer would buy an e-book from Apple for $14.99 when she can buy the same e-book from Amazon for $9.99:

Jobs: Well, that won’t be the case.

Mossberg: Meaning you won’t be $14.99, or they won’t be $9.99?

Jobs (smiling): The prices will be the same.

Judge Cote writes: "Jobs's purchase of an e-book for $14.99 at the Launch, and his explanation to a reporter that day that Amazon’s $9.99 price for the same book would be irrelevant because soon all prices will 'be the same' is further evidence that Apple understood and intended that Amazon’s ability to set retail prices would soon be eliminated."

The problem with this so-called smoking gun is that it doesn't prove anything. It is accepted fact that Apple negotiated most-favored-nation (MFN) clauses in its contracts with the publishers. Apple doesn't deny it because MFN clauses are perfectly legal. Amazon has one in its contracts as well. I've been looking for a more detailed explanation of how the MFN clause works and found one in this column by Adam Engst. Adam explains that if Amazon did not switch over to the agency model and continued to sell e-books below cost at $9.99, then Apple would be able to match their price. Apple would only get 30% of the $9.99 price, but they would make up for it by selling more e-books at that price than at $14.99. And if Amazon did switch over to the agency model, then both Amazon and Apple would be selling the same e-book for $14.99.

The MFN clause ensures that Amazon and Apple would be selling their e-books at the same price. So how does Jobs' statements to Mossberg indicate that he knew that the publishers were going to force Amazon to accept the agency model (never mind the DOJ's contention and Judge Cote's decision that Apple was the one forcing the agency model on the entire industry when all of the evidence suggests that it was the publishers who wanted the agency model and that they were just using Apple as a stick against Amazon)?

I don't like these MFN clauses; I think they are anti-competitive, especially for the smaller players in a market. The MFN clause does restrict a competitor's ability to set retail prices. One effect of the MFN clauses used by Apple and Amazon is that it makes it difficult for either company to offer a special sale price on an item. A similar technique, which I also think is anti-competitive, is the whole price-matching thing. When a huge retailer says that they will offer price-matching if you bring in a competitor's ad with a lower price, it reduces the incentive for a small retailer to offer a discount. Why offer a discount when you know that people are just going to take your price to the big box store nearby? Price-matching may sound like a good deal for the consumer, but ultimately it isn't. Unfortunately, MFN clauses and price-matching are both legal, and smoking guns are now apparently evidence of nothing. Go figure.

Stand Your Ground: Martin and Zimmerman

I haven't been following the trial that closely, but when the shooting first reached national attention, I did have a question immediately pop into my head: If Trayvon Martin had killed George Zimmerman (instead of the other way around), would he have been innocent of murder under the stand your ground law in Florida? This is not a question about race or perception, but about how the stand your ground law in Florida actually works. In other words, is it now perfectly legal in Florida for two people to get into an altercation, both feel threatened, and then one kill the other?

Consider this scenario: George Zimmerman sees Trayvon Martin walking through his neighborhood in the middle of the night. Zimmerman thinks that Martin looks suspicious and decides to follow him. Martin, on his cellphone with his girlfriend, spots Zimmerman following him. He starts to walk faster. Zimmerman speeds up also and closes on Martin to stop and question him. Martin, fearing for his safety (maybe he thinks he sees a gun), suddenly turns and attacks Zimmerman. He gets Zimmerman on the ground and starts bashing his head in against the pavement. (I know that these facts are being disputed in the trial, but for the moment, let's give Zimmerman the benefit of the doubt). If Martin goes on to kill Zimmerman in this scenario, is he innocent of murder? And if Zimmerman manages to get his gun out and kill Martin, is he innocent of murder? It sounds like the latter is true since the trial seems to hinge on who was on top and who was yelling for help when Martin and Zimmerman were on the ground fighting.

In a state without a stand your ground law, the killer could be found culpable if he could have avoided the situation altogether. In Florida, not so much. Guess I'm going to have be on my toes when I'm in Florida next.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Learning Through Inquiry

A lot of people like to tell me what is wrong with public schools in this country or how to fix education. It seems like most people think that they understand schools because they went to one. And when they do ask what I think, they will latch onto something that I say and then force that one thing into their existing mental model. This is perfectly normal, healthy even. Piaget calls it assimilation, and it is what we all do until enough cognitive dissonance builds up to cause us to reconsider our mental model instead of squeezing that square peg into that round hole over and over again. Happily, something different happened when I had dinner with my sister Lisa and her husband Chris last night. But let me back up a little.

Before meeting my sister and her husband for dinner, I had a lengthy conversation with my friend Ilya about my pitch. Ilya told me that I needed to paint a mental picture for my audience. What would it look like when students were playing my game? Would they be using for it homework? In class? When I told Ilya that Petri Dish was designed to be the primary learning tool for a cell biology unit and not something to supplement the main curriculum, he was surprised. This was something that I needed to explain upfront in my pitch because it would reframe everything that came later.

Now fast forward to after dinner (a lovely meal of beef with Chinese broccoli over rice). With dinner out of the way, Lisa and Chris settled in to give me their undivided attention. I started going over the pitch, but paused here-and-there to give some color commentary. When I reached the slide where I had decided to mention that Petri Dish would be the primary learning tool in a cell biology unit and not a supplement, I described the conversation I had with Ilya. Lisa and Chris were both surprised and impressed. They always envisioned educational games as something that you added to instruction, not something that you used instead of instruction. We talked a little about this, but our conversation stayed on a fairly abstract level. They understood what I was saying, but couldn't really picture it in practice for themselves.

Later on, I reached the slide that had been giving me the most trouble. In a standard cell biology unit, students learn about a cell's structure. All cells are surrounded by a cell membrane, and many cells contain organelles where specific cell functions are localized. Common organelles that students learn about are the nucleus (the "control center" of the cell), the mitochondria (the "power plant" of the cell), and ribosomes (where proteins are assembled). Students memorize this information and then move on. Even though students learn that earlier cells did not have organelles and that many cells today (such as bacteria) still do not have organelles, they never ask themselves why organelles evolved (what competitive advantage did cells with organelles have over cells without organelles?) or why cells without organelles continue to exist. If cells with organelles do have a competitive advantage, then natural selection would eventually lead to all cells having organelles. Instead, organelles are just presented as a fact of life. Many cells have them. Boom.

In Petri Dish, we take a completely different approach. Cells contain molecules that are able to perform certain functions. Given those functions, what can you do to maximize your cell's ability to survive and reproduce? Working within those constraints, students should be able to invent organelles and figure out when a cell should build them or not. When I told Lisa and Chris about this, Chris was highly skeptical. Surely you'd have to introduce students to the concept of an organelle before they could ever hope to invent one. Everything in my experience as an educator tells me that this is not the case, but I appreciated his skepticism. It told me that he fully grasped the import of what I was saying, and that he needed to see evidence that kids could do what I was saying... because he had never seen anything like it before. To him, it seemed beyond the capabilities of the typical student.

Another example like this in Petri Dish is the invention of predatory bacteria. I can guarantee you that a student somewhere is going to want to know, "Can I design a cell in Petri Dish that eats other cells." And my answer to that student would be: "You know what cells can do in Petri Dish. Can you figure out a way for one cell to eat another?" The answer is yes. You can design a cell that can kill another cell using the basic mechanics you are given (no additional mechanics need to be added). The question is: After your cell has killed a cell, how do you bring the molecules from the dead cell into your cell? Do you transport each unique molecule with a unique protein (ingestion and then digestion)? That's a lot of transport proteins! Do you break down the molecules into basic building blocks and then transport them in (digestion and then ingestion)? You'd need fewer transport proteins, but your cell has to do more work.

This entire process reminds me of playing Lode Runner when I was a kid. In Lode Runner, you control this dude that can run back-and-forth and drill holes to the left and right. You'd encounter this level and you'd say to yourself: "There is no way to finish this level with these basic game mechanics." But you'd know there was a way, and you'd analyze that level and test different strategies until you had figured it out.

The conversations I had with Ilya, Lisa, and Chris were a lot of fun. Assimilation is natural and necessary. If you don't assimilate experiences into your mental model, then you're not using the mental model. But in the absence of true inquiry, assimilation often never shifts to accommodation, where you revise your mental model. When I said that Petri Dish was designed to be the primary learning tool in a cell biology unit, it created enough cognitive dissonance that Ilya, Lisa, and Chris all began engaging in inquiry. It didn't create enough cognitive dissonance to get them to revise their mental models, but it sparked enough curiosity for them to ask questions and listen to the answers, which did lead to some mental model revision later on.

I've been wanting to have this kind of serious dialogue about learning and education for a long time now. It's nice to know that others are willing and even happy to participate if I can frame things and put them in an mindset driven by inquiry and not pure assimilation.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Mindfulness and Intentionality

I've been working with a life coach, Sarah, for about three months now. I started working with her because I wanted to improve my communication skills and create a better first impression in both personal and professional settings. On Wednesday, she helped me prepare for the schmoozing portion of the July LearnLaunch Meetup/Pitch Night. Vertical Learning Labs is one of five companies selected by LearnLaunch to make a pitch, and I am pitching my next educational game, Petri Dish. I am terrible at schmoozing.

One of the key strategies that I've learned from Sarah is to be intentional. If I have in the forefront of my mind that I want to be positive, confident, energetic, and open... then I will be. When the presentations are done and schmoozing begins, I told Sarah that I wanted to be active and not passive. Normally, I would stand still and wait for things to unfold for a little while before doing anything. Not this time. This time, I wanted to spring into action and do something right away. I figured that the easiest thing to do (at least in my mind) is to walk somewhere.

Sarah and I spent a few minutes discussing where I should walk: toward the center of the room, toward the event organizer/host, toward a fellow presenter that I had picked out to talk to, toward the snack table (No!), toward someone who is looking in my direction. Sarah told me that I shouldn't plan things out too much in advance and that it almost didn't matter who or what I walked toward since there was I good chance that circumstances would intervene and I would be intercepted before I reached my destination. The point was to create an intention for myself and then go from there. Just creating an intention for myself would break me from my bad habits and put me in a better position.

I found the advice really helpful. But as I was signing off our phone call, I happened to mention to Sarah that I was meeting my sister for dinner on Friday (today) to practice my pitch. This is kind of a big deal because I have rocky relationships with my family (they have shown close to zero interest in my professional goals or activities over the years), and Sarah helped me successfully navigate a family gathering a few weeks ago. Sarah cheerfully said to me, "Wonderful! This is another opportunity for you to practice being intentional." And then the call was over.

My reaction was: "Oh, great. Not another opportunity to be intentional. Am I going to have to be intentional all the time?" Just thinking about it felt exhausting. Then I remembered an interview that Bradley Cooper did with Graham Norton. Bradley Cooper had just been named to some sexist man alive list and he recounted a moment when he opened a door to a store and he thought to himself, "Oh, I could have done that a lot sexier!" The line got a huge laugh because the thought seemed so silly. But we tend to go through life in our basic default mode, and one way to change that default is to create a different intention for ourselves until that becomes our new default mode. If Bradley Cooper were to go through his day thinking about being sexy all the time, then he would be sexy all the time and soon he wouldn't need to think about it.

The other thought I had about intentionality is its relationship to mindfulness. Now I had always considered myself a mindful person. By "mindful" I mean someone who is both situationally aware and self-aware. And situational awareness includes being aware of what events and our actions are generating in the people around us. So when I'm taking about something and someone is bored, I can tell they are bored. And if I keep talking about this thing that bores them, I know my motivation for doing that and the effect it is having.

The curious thing about my mindfulness is that it did not really cause me to change my behavior. I've been bad at schmoozing for a very long time and I know why I'm bad at schmoozing, but I don't try to do things differently. My brain was registering feedback, but then I was just continuing on cruise control. As my friend Daniel says, "I wasn't closing the loop." For me, intentionality with my normal level of mindfulness closes the loop, and I am starting to change my behavior. Closing the loop is essential for learning. Close the loop, people.