Startup Weekend Delivered a Magical Weekend in the Magic City

Florida International University was the site of some incredible magic as Startup Weekend EDU saw one of its most diverse group of people come together to learn and practice critical entrepreneurship skills in order to take ideas from concept to creation in less than 54 hours!  It could not be more fitting that Miami, Florida also known as the Magic City was home to a magical experience for a diverse group of aspiring entrepreneurs that included: students from elementary, middle, and high school; university students; university professors; K-12 teachers; parents; ex-convicts; developers; entrepreneurs; and local professionals.  The youngest participants at this event were 8 years old and they both presented with their respective teams!  

SWmiami2Startup Weekend EDU is a 2.5 day event whereby educators, developers, designers, and entrepreneurs come together to pitch ideas to solve problems in education and form teams around the selected ideas.  Teams then spend the weekend taking these ideas from concept to creation, culminating into a final presentation to a panel of all-star judges from the community.  Judges assess pitches based on clearly defined problem statement, prototype design, validation of problem and prototype, and finally, the business model. This theme was critical for a region that is home to some of the largest school districts going through difficult challenges.  

Having facilitated over 16 events around the country, I thought I had seen it all.  However, nothing could have prepared me for this incredibly diverse group of people and all of the challenges and possibilities that would manifest over the weekend.  To be honest, I was concerned about whether the event could be a success and if everyone would figure out how to work well together quickly enough to deliver a final presentation by Sunday evening to a panel of all-star judges from the Miami community. Continue reading

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Could There be a Silver Bullet to Learning Math?

A couple of weeks ago someone asked me to explain the most challenging aspect of teaching math to students of any age.  She said she is not a math person and as a result always struggled with it.  Perhaps she wanted to know what I find most difficult about teaching students that might have been like her.  For years, I have been asked variations of this question.  “How do you do it?”  “What do you do with students that are just not meant to do math?”  “Why do you do it?”  “Is there a secret for teaching math?”  The list goes on and on.  If you are a math teacher, surely you have heard dozens of versions of the same inquiry.

I believe every person is meant to be a math person.  In fact, I believe this so wholeheartedly that I look forward to working with the students that people believe are the most difficult to teach math to.  I look forward to the cases where the uphill climb is the steepest.

It was in circumstances like this where I began to discover something very interesting.  I discovered that all people are wired to reason and use logic every single day of their lives.  People are constantly running complex algorithms in their mind to make decisions and conclusions in situations with friends, dealings with family, scenarios in sports, and many more challenging and high pressure contexts.  Essentially, people are practicing and getting tested in the fundamental skills of math every single day.

Lack of reasoning and logic ability are not the problem.  The problem is how do we leverage math, which is a simplified version of the complex algorithms we face on a daily basis, in order to continue to build our ability to evaluate, analyze, and make complex decisions?  And related to that, how do we take our existing reasoning and logic ability and apply it to learning math successfully? Continue reading

What if IBM’s Watson Was Your Co-Teacher?

Picture the following scenario…

Students walk in for 8th grade math class on Monday morning at 10am.  They are scheduled to have a test on linear functions that day.  There’s a camera in the front of the classroom that scans the room and notices Linda and Emma are not in class at the start time.  It scans again 5 and 10 minutes later and still no sign of Linda and Emma.

This camera isn’t just any camera, it is powered by IBM’s Watson or another artificial intelligence system and it is connected to the teacher’s calendar, the grade-level calendar, and the school calendar.  It immediately knows by cross-referencing all calendars that there was a test scheduled for that day and that Linda and Emma will need to schedule a make-up test.  Since the AI is also connected to Linda and Emma’s class and extra-curricular activity calendars and cross references their availability with the teacher’s availability, it knows that Tuesday between 2-3pm and Wednesday between 3-4pm are the optimal times for a make up test.  Taking it another step further, it also looks into the room schedules and knows which rooms are available during those two time slots.  Next, the AI sends out emails to the teacher, Emma, and Linda to offer the two optimal make-up test time slots in a format where all the students have to do is click on a link or button to select one of the two time slots.  This action automatically creates calendar entries in all parties involved, books the room, and sends out a reminder 1 day, 12 hours, 1 hour, and 15 minutes before the scheduled make-up test. Continue reading

The Problem with the Silver Bullet

silver bulletWhat is a silver bullet? According to Google, it is “a simple and seemingly magical solution to a complicated problem.”

The problem is that when the problem is complicated, as the definition states, it is likely to have a multitude of variables that behave in many different ways and at times, unpredictably. If you think of all of these moving parts as a moving target, the bullet isn’t really the solution, but rather a tool, and it is the shooter who becomes most important. What this suggests is that we need to stop looking for magical solutions and instead focus on developing and motivating skilled, talented, and creative professionals to solve some of our most difficult problems.

Nevertheless, we look for silver bullets. We are intrigued by and hopeful that we will be able to find a one-size-fits-all solution that can address an entire organization or industry’s woes. We hope that somewhere out there, there is a recipe and/or a state-of-the-art tool that solves a complicated problem for us so easily that even a caveman can do it. We want to believe that we could just write a big check and purchase the proverbial silver bullet. This isn’t a bad dream…for the maker of the silver bullet, this stands to be a profitable product, and for the buyer, it’s a guaranteed way to become a hero. It seems that everyone wins.

The problem, as I stated before, is that it just isn’t that simple. Complicated problems are like moving targets. At best, there are several regular bullets (i.e. tools, recipes, etc.) and the shooter or the professional is the most important part of the solution. If the silver bullet were real, we would not need professionals in our organizations. The mere talk of a silver bullet undermines our skilled, talented, and creative professionals as it reduces them to robots blindly following an algorithm. This attitude and resulting culture will have a significant negative impact on motivation, at all levels of your organizations. Furthermore, it destroys innovation and ingenuity because the responsibility of solving problems is left to those who can purchase the silver bullets, so what is the use of hypothesizing, testing, and building new solutions.

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric (GE), believed everyone all the way down to the assembly line was responsible for solving problems at GE. In fact, he believed the people on the assembly line were better positioned to solve problems than the people who managed them. He would often walk the assembly lines asking people directly what they thought could be done better. As simple as it may seem, asking the question, “what do you think?” cultivated a strong culture of innovation by drawing solutions from all people in the organization. This question also motivated his people by empowering them to contribute to the greater mission of GE. People who understand how and feel that their work contributes to the overall company are more engaged, satisfied, and loyal. The result for Jack Welch was one of the largest, most successful, and innovative companies of all time, whose stock value rose 4,000% during his 20 year tenure. Jack Welch did not believe in silver bullets, he believed in people.

Empower your people to solve problems for your organization instead of shopping around for a silver bullet. Your people will be the ones to best positioned to decide what the best tools are for solving complicated problems and how and when to apply them. Create a culture of innovation where everyone is a part of the solution.

The Problem with Technology and How to Fix It

At some point, many of us have purchased a cool new gadget or downloaded an awesome new app that is supposed to enhance our productivity, help us achieve some awesome goal, or help us do something we’ve never done before.

Perhaps we and/or our organization purchased an expensive set of golf clubs, the priciest software (i.e. SaaS) solution, or the best audio/video editing software in the market.

State of the Art TecThe problem is that state-of-the-art tools don’t do much to help people unless they already possess the underlying skills and understanding to make the greatest use of it. Unfortunately, due to some pretty incredible marketing, we end up convincing ourselves we need the absolute best tools in order to be successful. What often ends up happening is we get overwhelmed by the technology, distracted, and end up using less than 20% of its capability. This leads to a waste of money and/or failing to achieve a goal.

A tool is only useful if you have the understanding and underlying know-how to use it adequately.  Furthermore, you have to have a purpose first, then a strategy/model/plan to achieve your goal, and finally can you then begin to consider the appropriate tools to employ. Then and only then do tools take on a clear meaning, become easier to learn, and stand the chance of delivering results.

This problem is evident in education where districts prematurely commit to major investments in technology and in corporations that purchase or acquire new processes or tools without a clear problem to solve. Organizations end up training people on the tools or integrating the processes first and then try to find places to use it, thus putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

Problems and opportunities must drive our need for tools. Tools are developed in response to and in order to solve problems. Purchasing a tool without a problem to solve or an opportunity to pursue is like buying a hammer and not having a nail to hit.

Consider these steps next time you are faced with this dilemma.

  • Identify the problems and opportunities in your organization that you intend to address.
  • Ensure you have or design a model/strategy/plan for solving the problem or addressing the opportunity.
  • If you don’t have a model/strategy/plan, then learn more about your problem or opportunity and understand it in depth.
  • Identify and evaluate the tools available to help you reach your goal.
  • Finally, select and employ the tools that best fit/align with your particular plan and be open to switching tools when necessary.

In the case of opportunities, there may be a great deal of learning to do before tools are even considered. For instance, education has yet to understand how technology truly enhances learning outcomes. According to a report published by the OECD, “there is little solid evidence that greater computer use among students leads to better scores in mathematics and reading.” Before education can even make effective use of education technology, it will need to identify the opportunities and goals it wants to pursue.

Lastly, do keep in mind that most tech tools today come and go rather quickly, so while you are learning about your problem or opportunity and designing a plan, new and better tools may emerge that you will be better positioned to enjoy.

Design for Awesome: How 19-hour School Days Can Transform Education

What if school were open from 5am to midnight?  That is, what if school was open for 19 hours a day?  Well, anytime I have brought that up, people in education have dozens of reasons why it can’t be.  Anything from those hours are not humane to it’s just not possible.  None of the answers have ever sounded convincing.  What’s more is that everyone is looking at it from the perspective of his or her own lives, not the people schools serve.  Most of the reasons I have heard have to do with not wanting to work longer hours, there’s not enough in the budget, or there just aren’t enough people.

I beg to differ though.  I think everyone is reading into the question the wrong way.  When people talk about extending the school day, it’s often to extend classes, make them longer,  extending the teacher work day, or adding more class time.  But that isn’t the only way to martial arts schooldesign a 19-hour school day.  When I was in 7th grade, my dad enrolled me in a martial arts school.  I went to about one class a day that ran about 60-90 minutes.  I absolutely loved it.  As the weeks went on, I started showing up a little earlier to warm up on my own and practice.  I would then stay a little later so that I could get in a little extra practice time.  Then one day I finally decided to ask the instructor (owner) if I could come in during non-class times to practice.  And what he told me I would never forget.  He said I am a student at his school and this is now my school.  I am not just welcome for class, but at anytime.  As long as the doors are open, I am welcome to come by, practice, talk to him, or just hang out.  Essentially, he said this was my second home and I should feel welcome.  So I did just that, I started showing up anytime I wanted.  On days off from school I spent several hours there practicing, talking to Master Lee, and reading the martial arts magazines.  It was pretty awesome! Continue reading

Is EdTech an Epic Fail?

First of all, let me start by saying I love tech!  I embrace it and always stay on the lookout for new apps and new devices that can add value to my life, business, and activities.  Many of my friends ask me for ideas on what tech solutions might be a best fit for them.  This is precisely why I am writing this article.  The key to what I do for my friends is finding what tech solutions are a good fit.  The fit I am looking for is that which exists between lifestyle, habits, needs, and solution attributes.

Which brings me to education and edtech.  School staff and faculty often ask me how they can integrate technology into their curriculum and classes.  In some of those cases, they already have the technology purchased and need to know how to integrate it.  Unfortunately, this is often already doomed because the wrong question was asked.  This creates the proverbial problem of putting the cart before the horse.

ipad-schoolThe question we need to be asking is how can we best leverage technology to meet our objectives.  This question is radically different from the one that is most often asked because it suggests that technology is simply the tool driven by the existing objectives of the school.  Not only does this question position schools to enjoy the benefits of technology in alignment with their particular needs, but it also positions edtech entrepreneurs to develop and deliver more effective solutions. Continue reading

Children are Awesome. Let’s Keep Them That Way.

Kids are awesome, even when they don’t seem to be.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with them.  What we do and say to them are the only things that can ruin that perfection.  Alternatively, what we do and say to them can also make them even more awesome.

Kids just want to play, have fun, learn, be inspired, be heard, try new things, come up with great ideas, have those great ideas heard, be cared for, care about someone, run around, crash in and out of love, run passionately after crazy ideas, challenge the status quo, be given a chance to succeed, have someone believe in them, have someone find the genius in their ideas and words, have deep and meaningful conversations, be rebellious, be fearless, be vulnerable, and most importantly, be awesome.

Children are awesomeEssentially, kids are everything we want to be and spend lots of money to try to become through self-help books, coaches, psychologists, motivational speakers, conferences, workshops, etc.

As teachers, parents, and citizens, it is our opportunity and responsibility to help them become the awesome adults they can become.  It is our opportunity and responsibility to: listen to their ideas and problems; support them when they try and fail; encourage them to fall madly in love again after heartbreak; support their subsequent events after failure; give them a chance even when we don’t think they stand a chance (they will surprise us); help them believe in something again even after they were let down; not tell them I told you so; inspire and motivate them; redirect their rebellious behavior towards situations that need that kind of behavior; look for and encourage the genius in their words; teach them what they want to learn; help them find something they can be awesome at, even if just for the short-term; be delicate when they are vulnerable; buy them a burger and have conversations with them for hours; and most importantly, believe they can be awesome.

So it’s really up to us as teachers, parents, and citizens.  Children are ours to ruin or make great.  Let’s focus our efforts on the latter.  It’s really that simple.

Why are More Mistakes Critical to Success?

Previously, I wrote a blog post about how spectacular mistakes can lead to spectacular success.  Without letting go of fear of the former, we cannot have the latter.  In this post I want to discuss why we should get excited about making mistakes – many of them.  Perhaps it’s poor writing fashion, but I will risk giving away the punch line up front:  with every mistake we make we learn at least one thing that doesn’t work and have the opportunity to discover at least one correction.  If we look at it that way, our technique can only improve with every mistake we make, thus the more mistakes we make, the better off we are.

Taking a stroll through Central Park

Since moving back to NYC from St. Louis, I have had significantly more opportunities to spend time with my baby niece.  In the last few months she has been working on walking.  I am not sure there is any better example by which to observe the learning process.  Babies have no sense of self-consciousness thus they cannot be hindered or distracted by it.  Babies simply try and try again.  I have watched my niece walk along the walls, furniture, or while supported by both hands.  One day I refused to take her other hand and only extended a finger for her to hold on to – she complied.  She was doing fine and then she lost her footing and she fell – broke my heart.  I then realized, falling is the best thing that could have happened to her.  She took a misstep and failed at Continue reading

Learning Math in Real World Contexts

I was waiting for my pizza at a local pizzeria today and something struck me.  I have been reading Bruno Nardini’s, Portrait of a Master: Leonardo that covers the life of Leonardo Da Vinci.  There was a time in school where he became very unsatisfied with the way subjects were abstractly and vaguely taught.  He wanted something more concrete, something he could put his hands on, much like his personal studies of nature.

In a way, it seemed he wanted to learn with a purpose in mind, perhaps within a more concrete context.  Maybe he wanted to learn in a way that allowed him to see the application of the topic.  It then hit me, I’m often asked by my math clients – why do I need to learn this?  How will I be able to use this?  In a way, they are asking me the same thing Da Vinci might have asked someone of his class work. Continue reading