Excerpt: Harvard Physics and Y Combinator on defining learning success

(Salim Virani) #1

Here’s a excerpt from our book on Peer Learning - would love your feedback!

“When I started teaching, I never asked myself, ‘how am I going to teach?’ Which is strange, because that should be the first question you ask yourself when you do something new.” - Eric Mazur, Area Dean for Applied Physics at Harvard University

Harvard Physics

Premeds are not very kind to physicists. Eric Mazur knew that, but took the challenge to teach them when he started teaching Physics at Harvard. He developed an engaging lecture style, complete with death-defying demonstrations, and before long was one of the university’s top-rated teachers.

“I started to believe I was the world’s best physics teacher. It was an illusion that lasted many years.”

Then he came across a study that attempted to distinguish between memorization and understanding. It employed a simple test, the same real-world physics problems were asked before a physics course and after. If learning had happened, it was expected that there would be more correct answers afterwards than before.

The study had taken place across various universities in the US, and the results showed little improvement in students’ answer. No learning was actually happening.

“I thought, ‘Not my students.’ But I’m a scientist. If you make a statement, you better show the data.”

So Eric tried the test on his students.

And when he did, a hand shot up.

“How should I answer this? According to what you taught me, or how I usually think about these things?”

Despite Eric’s positive rating and high-performing students, his teaching wasn’t crossing the gap between memorization and understanding. His students weren’t progressing from knowledge to action.

Y Combinator

Startups are one of the best places to observe new knowledge being put to use. On top of figuring out a new product and how to sell it to new market, startup founders face the pressure of growing quickly and the threat of bankruptcy always around the corner.

Startup accelerators are support programs that generally support 10-15 startups with a goal of reaching an investment that would otherwise take a year or two. Startup accelerators aim to get them there in 3 months instead.

Y Combinator is the best performing startup accelerator in the world. Known as just YC in the startup community, it’s famous alumni are Dropbox, AirBnB and host of other household names.

YC set the model for the proliferation of thousands of copycat startups accelerators around the world. But it outperforms all of them. Ten years after it started with $200k USD, it’s portfolio was valued at over $30 billion. And it’s portfolio valuation maintains a roughly tenfold advantage over its nearest competitors.

Every accelerator director is aware of Y Combinator, and emulates it. But if you ask them why their program is 3 months long, or why 3 months is the default in the industry, they probably won’t know.

Paul Graham, one of the founders of YC explains:

"We wanted to learn how to be angel investors, and a summer program for undergrads seemed the fastest way to do it. No one takes summer jobs that seriously. The opportunity cost for a bunch of undergrads to spend a summer working on startups was low enough that we wouldn’t feel guilty encouraging them to do it. "

YC started with ts founders’ intention to learn how to be angel investors over a summer. The reason the program is 3 months long is that’s was the length of the summer break at university.

Most accelerators inadvertantly copy this and many other aspects of YC without understanding why, or challenging whether or not this design decision applies to their context or goals.

The proliferation of copycat accelerators starts around 2007, when the Techstars accelerator was founded. Techstars modeled itself on YC, but instead of YC’s fortnightly mentoring conversations with the fund partners and a weekly dinner talks, Techstars introduced a more in-depth workshop curriculum and “mentoring days” full of 30-minute round-robin talks with volunteer business advisors.

While YC eventually focused on 2 programs per year in Silicon Valley, Techstars propagated across US cities, and opened it’s playbook. So the Techstars model propagated around the world as the default accelerator model.

Most accelerator directors aren’t aware of these origins, and execute the default schedule of heavy workshops and lectures in their programs.

But at YC, the startup founders are far more in control of their time. They’re expected to attend the weekly dinner talk, but that serves less as a business school lecture and more as place for founders to share progress with each other.

“We encourage founders to treat each dinner as a mini Demo Day and to show each other and us what they’ve built that week. We’ve found these weekly deadlines tend to push people to finish things in order to show them off.”

It’s more of a competitive atmosphere, where founders feel peer pressure to show significant progress every week. The backdrop of that is the talk from an industry heavyweight, providing positive inspiration, some insider insight, and a contrast to their early-stage progress.

At YC, most of the critical learning happens in response to the fortnightly conversation with a fund partner. They help assess progress, and respond to the founders current challenges with introductions to people who can address them with their own experience.

"Whatever stage a startup is at when they arrive, our goal is to help them to be in dramatically better shape 3 months later. For most startups, better shape translates into two things: to have a better product with more users, and to have more options for raising money.

You can’t make people something they’re not, but the right conditions can bring out the best in them. And since most people have way more potential than they realize, they’re often surprised what they’re capable of."

Success is defined by what the learner becomes

Harvard Physics is a traditional, lecture-based university experience, where the students are locked to a preset curriculum. Y Combinator is a modern, practical educational experience, but the content is driven primarily by the learner.

In both cases, they succeed on a much deeper level than enabling the learner to regurgitate information.

Success is defined by the evolution of the learner, and measurable by their change in behaviour.

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