Never Stop Learning

If classrooms were run like companies, and companies were run like classrooms.

digital classroom learning

Eight years ago, I fell in love with teaching.

There was nothing magical about the moment — at least not in the way a teenager would have imagined a career defining moment. I had stood awkwardly in front of a room full of children in a slum village, and two hours later walked away with a giddy feeling and a desire to do this again someday.

From my first days as a teacher.

Over the course of the next year, I taught 3 classes everyday and dove headfirst into the messy, chaotic world of teaching. On some days, I almost quit, because I spent more time managing the energy of the children and stepping into their disputes rather than teaching them. But there were other days too, when we landed on a topic that completely captured their attention, making us loose track of time till it grew dark and they reluctantly left for home.

It was these days that kept me in the profession. There is something quite other-worldly about a mind that is primed and excited to learn and move forward. In a few months at the school, I became obsessed with making this state of learning an everyday occurrence in my classroom, instead of landing on it by chance.

There is something quite other-worldly about a mind that is primed and excited to learn and move forward.

But as I traveled around Pakistan and saw the state of learning for the majority of our students, my heart sank. I could build an oasis of learning in a slum in Islamabad, but was that as far as I could go?

Taleemabad was born out of a desire to confront this challenge. Could we gather teachers who had discovered the art of igniting curiosities, capture the essence of their skills, and take it to the population at large?

I transitioned from being a teacher to being the CEO of an ed-tech company. As we grew our team and expanded our work, we began to run into problems that we had neither predicted nor were we adequately equipped to solve. It was good to know how to teach, but how on earth was that going to reflect in a product? How was it going to get to the market?

But the problems had to be solved, and as we pivoted and twisted our way towards solutions, learning on the job became a necessity. We learnt how to how to use animation tools, how to understand and apply pedagogical theories, how to market our product through the right channels and how to track learning through diverse and multifaceted metrics. Teams and individuals teaching each other skills became a normal part of the routine.

While on some occasions our learning was directed towards solving problems, on some rare occasions — I wish it was more frequent — it became learning for the sake of learning. Someone taught a calligraphy class at the end of a long week, and someone took it upon themselves to teach interested peers how to sketch cartoons.

Orenda began to look like a classroom.

A calligraphy class at the end of a long week.

As the culture of learning-on-the-go grew, so did the problems associated with it. Learning is supposed to be an ongoing process, and no one can be an expert right at the start. We applied what we learnt immediately to the solutions that we were building, and this often meant that processes were improperly constructed at the start, and had to go through several iterations before they could completely work. This led — and still leads to — frustrations and calls of ‘why could we have not known this before?’.

While hiring experience to solve some of these issues is one part of the solution, the other focuses on a principle that I learnt as a teacher: that learning is never meant to lead to a destination. We often fool our children by saying that high school, or university, or post-graduate institutions will be the end of their hard times as learners. But that cannot be farther from the truth. Learning is a journey, and it is imperfect. While it is worthwhile to have a north star in this journey, you’re hardly going to arrive somewhere and say that you’ve reached the apex of your time as a learner.

Instead companies need to accept that learning is a messy, chaotic process — just like it is in a classroom. If you’re in the process of building something new, it will involve imperfection and frustration, and it will create broken things. Teachers are (or should be) on hand in classrooms to put students back on track when learning becomes painful. Executives should do the same for their companies.

Teachers are (or should be) on hand in classrooms to put students back on track when learning becomes painful. Executives should do the same for their companies.

While I run a company, I also continue to teach a class every morning. And while I have taken the principles from my classrooms to my workplace, I have taken principles from my workplace to my classroom.

The first principle is treating my students as my colleagues. In a similar way that co-workers work together towards a solution, my students work with me to create the product that will benefit them the most: an effective classroom. For starters, this means that they have an online portal that is anonymous and always available, where they drop pieces of feedback to improve their learning process. Sometimes it will be something benign, like a bee in the classroom (didn’t realize that could disturb learning but it did), and on other occasions they will express their nervousness for not feeling prepared enough for a specific part of the exam. This feedback portal also asks questions that any growing platform company would ask their users; how likely are you to recommend this to a friend (NPS), which feature is annoying, etc. It is also very candid; on one day when I pushed a bit too hard for everyone to participate, a student wrote in and said this:

 
Candid feedback, on things that might be obvious but often go unnoticed.

Net promoter scores are often regarded as a good way to gauge how well a ‘product’ is doing.

This leads to a co-created classroom experience that is more effective, in the same way that a product built with robust feedback is. In one classroom, the insistence on debate led to a ‘mock trial’ as a class, where students came prepared, complete with mustaches and coats (to represent certain individuals) and argue about two diametrically opposed viewpoints. They rigorously researched the issue and went away having learnt more than any normal class would about the issue.

A lawyer prepares to grill a ‘witness’, while another witness attempts to open a snack as silently as possible.

Side by side, the classrooms’ hunger for data as an engine of growth continues. Every student takes a gamified assessment every day, and the scores are mapped. If the highest scores for a classroom dip alongside a student’s scores — similar to day 2 in the diagram below, I probably need to redo the lesson. If a student has struggled while the class has soared ahead, what could be the cause? It is reason to investigate further.

Shrinking scores for all students? You probably need to teach better.

Ultimately, our challenge is to apply to classrooms some of the ideals we strive to create in company cultures, because children thrive on being treated as equals. In companies, we need to apply the same principles that we dream of in ideal classrooms, because constant learning is a source not only of growth but of satisfaction too.

Ultimately, our challenge is to apply to classrooms some of the ideals we strive to create in company cultures, because children thrive on being treated as equals. In companies, we need to apply the same principles that we dream of in ideal classrooms, because constant learning is a source not only of growth but of satisfaction too.

More importantly, for myself and for my colleagues at Orenda, the challenge is to take our dream of curiosity-driven, heartbeat-raising, table-banging learning to scale, for not just the students who have the resources to get to an oasis of good learning, but for every child in Pakistan who is born without that opportunity.

We may be far out from it yet, but one thing that we must do is to become ideal learners and students first.

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