A Ted Talk in Honor of International Education Week

“If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

International Education Week falls between November 17th – 21st, a time to reflect upon and cherish educational opportunities around the world. One of my favorite social entrepreneurs has a story that starts with studying abroad and follows his developing desire to change the paradigm of education in developing countries as he goes backpacking and learns more about what the poorest students in the world want the most. His name is Adam Braun, founder of Pencils For Promise. In the midst of protests, many developing countries carry a candle of hope because of organizations like PoP. This TED Talk outlines some of Adam’s story and also talks about what the US can learn from developing countries in education. Enjoy!


What Gives You Goosebumps?

“You can’t fake passion.” -Barbara Corcoran


As I finished mixing myself a cup of French Vanilla Coffee in my project office a couple weeks ago, I was promptly greeted by my first office kitchen tragedy: the office sugar packets were not in their usual place. As I swung open cabinet after cabinet in exasperated frenzy, a short man came to my rescue. Carrying a Sam’s Club, he pulled out a container marked “Njoy Pure Cane Sugar”. I hadn’t immediately recognized my savior and he acknowledged this with an introduction and clarification that he was on the client side of our project. As we simultaneously put the finishing touches on our coffee and had a friendly conversation about downtown San Antonio, he proceeded to ask me one of the strangest questions I’d encountered in a first meeting: “So, Kushaan, what gives you goosebumps?”

Laughing it off at first, I joked about how I was from the Northeast where we are “immune to cold weather”. Noticing his lack of amusement, I fumbled around for an answer until he saw that I was visibly confused. He then further explained his question: “I’m not talking about the goosebumps you get from the cold or a scary movie. I’m talking about passion goosebumps.”

He went on to expound on his theory of passion goosebumps by providing an example from his own life: how he found his passion for coding. It started with his father showing him HTML at a young age, checking out books from the adult section of the library as a teenager and spending summers building and taking apart web sites. “I knew it was what I wanted to do because every time I accomplished something big, I’d get goosebumps. Every time I read a new tag or trick I didn’t know in a book, I’d get an adrenaline rush. Every completed website gave me a burst of fulfillment. Goosebumps, when it came to my career and education, represented excitement.” He concluded that goosebumps were not the optimal barometer but a good way to experiment further. “I’ve had interns who have had trouble choosing majors. I tell them that if they are interested in a class to read a book or an article about the subject. If you get goosebumps, it’s a wonderful thing.”

Human beings are not impervious to biological triggers and involuntary reflexes – it’s what separates us from robots. What we can avoid, however, is confusion, misdirection, and a lack of purpose. What if we could use these biological triggers to help us figure out where we want to go? What if instead of just using goosebumps to determine if we’re cold or scared, we can help determine if we’re passionate and inspired? Passion is one of the hardest and loosest, not to mention most intimidating areas of your life to define. Goosebumps can be a symptom, a metric by which you evaluate the strength of your own passions. Ever since the conversation I had with this man, I can’t help but be self-aware of whenever I get these “passion goosebumps”, especially with books, articles, and YouTube videos. It feels cool.

Think back to your own life and what you consider yourself to be passionate about. What really gives you goosebumps?

We Could All Use a John Keating

“O Captain, my Captain. Who knows where that comes from? Anybody? Not a clue? It’s from a poem by Walt Whitman about Mr. Abraham Lincoln. Now in this class you can either call me Mr. Keating, or if you’re slightly more daring, O Captain my Captain” – Dead Poets Society

thank-youThe recent passing of Robin Williams left me in a bit of a nostalgiac lull, reflecting on his more famous movie roles and the intricacy with which some of his characters were designed. One of my favorite performances of his has always been his portrayal of John Keating, a poetry teacher in Dead Poets Society who taught his students to see the light of day and the value of carpe diem. Little did I know just how profound that movie I had once snoozed through on a rainy day in English class was, with the message it spread about education, love, and self.

From the beginning, John Keating was quite the unconventional teacher. In Keating’s class, pages were ripped out of textbooks, students were encouraged to start underground poetry clubs, and boys were inspired to love and pursue romance against all odds. In a world where teachers encouraged their students to pursue medicine and law, Keating focused on poetry, beauty, nature, and the idea of staying alive. He believed that the idea of education was to prepare students to think for themselves, to constantly look at things in a different way, to search for a “verse”, to cultivate your passions. He implored students to find their voice (the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all!) and to seize the hell out of their day.

One of Keating’s most famous quotes from the movie is hallmark advice based on his free thinking philosophy: “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

While the movie was released in 1989, many of the norms that Keating contested at the elite Welton Academy are still prevalent today. There are still many classrooms where free thinking is suppressed, students are designed to be submissive, and teachers are more likely to focus on lecturing then inspiring.

Even today, we could all use a John Keating. We could all use someone in the journey of our education and life, who opens our eyes away from conformity and leads us down our own paths. We could all use someone who wants to push us off a nest and see us fly. We could all use someone who challenges us to challenge assumptions. We could all use someone who tells us even in our toughest times, that we have the power to change the world.

If you haven’t already, check out the movie and celebrate a remarkable performance by Robin Williams. Rest easy, my captain.


TED Talk: How Child-Driven Education Works

I’m a huge fan of TED Talks and just wanted to take this post to share one of my favorites. Sugata Mitra is an education researcher who shows through this video the wonders of simple intuition and curiosity when it comes to education. One big problem in the system today is indifference; the beauty of this video is how children have a desire discover and learn in places where there isn’t even a consistent supply of running water or physical infrastructure. It’s now a few years old but still gold. Enjoy!

4 Things I Wish I Knew Before College

Like many college graduates nationwide, I’ve spent the last few weeks being fed anecdotes and exposes about what life is really like in the post-graduate abyss. I’ve heard words ranging from “scary” to “exciting”, “stressful” to “stimulating” or even simply “weird”. It’s easy to empathize with this anxiety and sense of the unknown that seems almost universal across the Class of 2014. Taxes, retirement savings plans, and insurance plans are about as comprehensible to some college graduates as hieroglyphics. The idea of finding our “passion” and our “purpose” looms as we try to remain “flexible” in the job search and justify our intriguing prospects for post-graduate employment.

A lot of people have been asking me one strange and daunting question, “What do you feel like you’ve taken away from college? What advice do you have for other students?” Yikes. It left me thinking back to what I didn’t know as a freshman. Disclaimer: I can’t claim to be an expert. I haven’t written any New York Times bestsellers or gotten any PhDs. Do not take these words as those of a specialist, preacher, or guru, but simply a student. If you are a high school student, college freshman or even a graduate like myself, I present to you a collection of lessons I’ve learned at the University of Maryland that I wish I knew earlier:

You Decide Your Own Vehicles For Success

What does success mean to you? For the longest time, I thought it meant getting a good job and making money. Standard. Through college however, I’ve gone on to expand my perspective of success and now I feel that my definition revolves around empowering and inspiring people. My sense of pride arises from teaching and helping others. Your definition of success will change, as will your habits. It’s not bad to take advice and learn some new useful habits, but don’t force something upon yourself that will not fulfill you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been recommended books about “What The Top Ten Most Successful People Do Daily.” If you strive to emulate your life around others, you’ll lose track of what works for you. Hell, you don’t even have to listen to the advice in this article if you don’t want to! If you write your best papers the night before they are due, some tips like you “should be more organized” or that you “should plan better” may not work for you. If you’re nocturnal and do your best work at night, embrace it. Different things work for different people. Personally, I worked best under pressure and was fine. If you like to multi-task, watch Netflix while studying and don’t find it to be remotely a detriment, do it! Find out what works best for you and don’t succumb to what societal pressure tells you is “the best way”. The best way is different for everyone.

People Are Your Greatest Resources

There’s a big myth that the most you learn in college will be from classes or textbooks. The best resources for education are in fact, your classmates and other students. Reach out and learn about what interests, hobbies, and passions others have. Think back to your own life. There have probably been one or two things you’ve been really passionate about that have come as a result of a conversation or a conceptual introduction by individuals. Cherish the differences between you and your peers. Always ask yourself “What can I learn from this person?” when you meet someone new. Maybe you’ll learn something about a new country, a new background, a new food, or maybe even a new form of dance. The possibilities are endless! Not everyone may interest you and not everyone may be your best friend; there is a strong chance, however, that you will find something unique in every individual that you have never seen before. If you find yourself isolated in your room, go down the hall and ask someone about his or her future aspirations. It’s way easier than it sounds! In 5 years, you won’t remember what you got on that economics exam but you will remember the relationships you built, the memories, and how people have impacted you.

Your Primary Barrier Will Be Yourself

I can’t apply to that internship because my GPA isn’t high enough. I’m not fast enough for intramural soccer. I’m too busy to rush a fraternity or join a club this semester. I’m not smart enough. I’m not qualified enough. So many students wake up and tell themselves they are incapable or unable to pursue something. I was a victim of this when I was an underclassman as well. I felt as a freshman that I was not old enough or proficient enough to apply to certain programs and try new things. Tell yourself this: It’s way better to live life with “oh wells” than “what ifs”. You apply to the internship and don’t get it. Oh well. You’re nervous to participate in a business case competition, sign up, learn a lot, but don’t place in the competition. Oh well. You won’t be plagued by thoughts of what would’ve happened if you hadn’t done the competition or neglected to apply to the internship. All of our life experiences, even our failures, can lead us closer to new opportunities. Don’t deny yourself an opportunity. Take a risk. The worst thing that can happen is you saying, “Oh well, this wasn’t for me. Time to move on”.

Embracing Uncertainty is Okay

Approximately 70% of college students will change their major atleast once. If you feel uncertain about life, academics, and your career, don’t let it get you down! There is no greater graduation cliché than “follow your dream”; a lot of people will ask you your major and what you want to be when you grow up. Keep into consideration that whatever your dream is right now, it might change. It might change in a year. It might change in a week. Allow it to. You don’t have to know what you want to do and there are just as many people who embrace many different careers, passions and purposes. One of the toughest realizations we have to grasp is that we don’t have to be good at everything. The hardest part about switching majors is to take a step back and admit to ourselves that what we have been doing will not contribute to our happiness. We are scared to remove ourselves from our dreams because we don’t want to admit we were wrong.  Keeping our goals open to change and expansion isn’t a bad thing. Learn some cutting-edge technology. Write a blog. Pick up the game of tennis or the art of Yoga. Embrace the possibility of change and take it year by year. One of my favorite quotes is “Not all those who wander are lost”. For someone who has changed their major close to nine times in college, this quote has resonated so much with me. As long as you are enjoying the journey, everything will work itself out in the end.

The biggest takeaway from college is that the real experience starts at the end of your comfort zone. Whether it’s meeting others, taking a class outside of your line of study, going to a Hackathon, or joining a club, make sure that you are able to grow within the four years you have. With the rise of tuition rates, there is even more pressure for you to get the most out of your college experience; make the return worth it for yourself. Congratulations Class of 2014!


Public Education: Can Marketing Fix What Funding Can’t?

The issue of public education funding has frustrated Americans for decades; education is an important slice of the public resource pie as billions of dollars have been invested into public schools to try and fix classroommotivatorstudent outcomes. In fact, in some cities, there have been thousands of dollars allocated per pupil. Shouldn’t all this money somehow improve public education? Shouldn’t there be a link between increased funds and test scores? Shouldn’t money spent on classrooms open doors for new and revolutionary resources to enter a classroom? Many Americans attribute a lack of quality education to school funding yet cannot unravel the mystery of the weak link between public funds and student success. Further, personnel and administration in school districts eat up a majority of the money that many believe are going to classrooms. What true connection does funding have to an improved education?

Imagine if you had a billion dollars to help improve education. How would you apply the money to effectively help out students? Would you spend per school? per teacher? Consider another thought: what actually makes for a good education? A school and a teacher are facilitators but the true motivation comes from within. A student needs to display the interest and desire to learn for everything else to fall in to place. The true problems in education arise not from a lack of money, but a lack of student drive and freedom in the classroom. In addition, the value a student places on his or her education can determine the effort that one puts forth in the classroom. The true solution is a change in attitude.

As we have seen in our history, a change of attitude in an individual is best achieved when there is a change of attitude in a culture altogether. Remember when kids thought smoking cigarettes was cool because all the celebrities smoked them in commercials? Or how alcohol and soda is portrayed as refreshing and fun instead of unhealthy? This is all rooted in marketing and it has historically shown to be nationally scalable. How can we use marketing in something like education?

  • Parental Involvement: Show parents that they need to be more involved in a child’s education and to foster a learning environment at home. In addition, they need to be actively involved in their local polls and dig deeper to make sure that local officials making decisions surrounding education are positively affecting every child in their community. Many parents are involved but there can definitely be improvement in something as government-driven as public education.
  • Stigmatization: Shows like “Freaks and Geeks” have shown that “brainiacs” are often unpopular and picked on in school. Popular culture has created a stigma around students who do exceptionally well in school and are passionate about learning. Students should know that learning is a beautiful thing that should be respected in any regard.
  • Failure: Fear of failure often precludes full effort and interrupts an intrinsic learning cycle. Failure is shown as something that is frowned upon in schools. In the real world, we learn that every failure is a learning opportunity. This should be advertised to children of all ages.

As we know, education is built on foundations where money can only contribute so much. Money cannot necessarily be allocated the same way in magnet schools, charter schools, and private schools. Ideas, however, can be universally enforced. Many are talking about new technology to bring to schools that can revolutionize learning; let us first market the basics.

4 Ways The “Hacker School” Is Changing Education

Like many things in life, education is not a black or white matter. Despite all our advancements in technology, there is no formula that can compute the exact resources we need to provide an optimal experience for all hackerschoolstudents, no device we can use to measure the precise amount of passion a student has for a subject, and no machine that can measure exactly how effective teachers are. The closest we can come is qualitative observation and the quantitative instruments like grades and standardized tests. Educators and schools are working everyday to come closer to the ideal “educational approach”.

One such example is the “The Hacker School”. The Hacker School is a three-month, full-time school for programmers in New York City. It is completely free and different from traditional schools. It has no grades, teachers or formal curriculum, yet it succeeds in cultivating new passions, building new skills, and positioning programmers for future success. Here are some great ways The Hacker School is innovating education:

1. Encouraging Mistakes

To quote Mahatma Gandhi, “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” In a regular school day, we are encouraged not to make mistakes. On a test or quiz, a mistake results in points off the grade. On a standardized test like the SAT, a mistake can be the difference between your dream school and your second choice. The stress to avoid mistakes creates an unsurmountable pressure that can distract a student from the purpose of learning. Instead of truly wondering why an atom is significant to human matter, one is instead caught up in the struggle of choosing Answer A vs. Answer B. At the Hacker School, mistakes in programming are not only expected, but encouraged. The lack of grades allows a student the freedom to mess up without negative consequence. With the collaborative environment and no grades to stir competition, students are more than inclined to help others out with their problems. The freedom to make mistakes allows students to focus more on what they got wrong and work on that specifically.

2. No Curriculums

The lack of a curriculum also allows freedom for students to explore exactly what they want. For every subject, there is a vast array of subdomains that students must also study in order to complete a course of study in that subject. For example, to study Math, one must study Geometry, Algebra, Calculus, Logic, Differential Equations, and Statistics. These are all slightly distinct with a strong chance that you might dislike one or more of them. Similarly, in a field like programming, there are many different functions one can accomplish with a knowledge of a programming domain. You can work in website design all the way to I-phone apps; this lack of curriculum allows students to create their own motivations for learning by enabling them to create their own schedule and courses of interest. It also allows students to learn at their own speed, and satiate their own interests.

3. Teachers are “Facilitators”

Facilitators don’t come into the room with a lesson plan in hand and an understanding of the exact schedule of the day. Instead, they are there to simply help if a student needs help. Most projects are student-led with students setting their own benchmarks. Facilitators appear simply to help students reach these benchmarks by their side, instead of dragging them along into a direction they don’t want or need. According to Mary Rose Cook, a facilitator at the school, many facilitators are students too. “We have our own projects as well — so we try to work on cool, interesting things, both to keep us occupied and excited, and to act as inspiration for other people at our school.”

4. Emphasis on Culture

“Culture” is now a buzzword at many companies hoping to emulate the successful environments of Google, Zappo’s, and the like; it is important for employees to feel like the company cares and is invested in their success. At schools, this is no different. To create a warm and inclusive environment, the Hacker School has also created rules to ensure that every student is valued. In addition to the ban on sexist, racist, and homophobic remarks, the Hacker School also has a ban on condescension. There is no putting people down, pointing out negative remarks irrelevant to the topic at hand and no “feigning” surprise (I can’t believe you have no idea what Java is!”). Not only does this allow teamwork to flourish, but it encourages students to return day after day. At the end of the day, there is no school without students.

The bottom line is that The Hacker School encourages autonomy, teamwork, and most importantly: freedom. Putting the education into the hands of the students creates a real-world simulation of the power of responsibility. You only learn as much as you put in.

To read more about the Hacker School, check out this article on Mashable!