“The problem is we don’t understand the problem”

Aza Raskin, the talented user interface designer (and son of the original designer for Macintosh, Jef Raskin), shares a really insightful short story that suggests how we should go about tackling “deeply difficult challenges.”

Aza goes on to talk about a man named Paul MacCready who sought out to build the first human-powered airplane. From the article:

The problem was the problem. Paul realized that what needed to be solved was not, in fact, human powered flight. That was a red-herring. The problem was the process itself, and along with it the blind pursuit of a goal without a deeper understanding how to tackle deeply difficult challenges. He came up with a new problem that he set out to solve: how can you build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours not months. And he did. He built a plane with Mylar, aluminum tubing, and wire.

I think this perspective is useful when thinking about technology-based solutions to K-12 education. Modern instructional formats (like Academy123 and Khan Academy) afford scale, “failing quicker”, and iterating toward success.

Imagine “a process of ongoing improvement“:

  • 100,000 mini-videos, 2-3 minutes in length, in one subject (say, algebra).  For each specific topic (say, simple factoring), videos are recorded in dozens of different ways (teacher A, B, C. Easy, Medium, Hard. Instructional method X, Y, Z).
  • Each student is prescribed a customized path through those videos. The prescription changes on-the-fly.  Some students, for example might respond better to a male teacher, a female teacher, a young teacher (peer), and older teacher, etc.
  • Hundreds of videos are re-done each week, based on student results, attention data, and other analytics. The content gets better over time.
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Scaling teachers using technology

Issac Asimov, the famous Science Fiction writer, wrote an amusing short story (below) that describes a highly individualized and customized learning environment, while at the same time, reminds us how our existing education system is so outdated and inneficient (textbooks that students don’t read, 35 kids in a class, students grouped by age and not by ability, etc.).

Has technology advanced enough such that we can approximate, with sufficient “fidelity”, a real flesh-and-blood teacher?


Isaac Asimov – The Fun They Had