Rodulfo is the co-founder of Laboratoria, an organization empowering women who dream of a better future to start and grow careers in technology. With training centers in Peru, Chile, Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia, Laboratoria works to achieve a more diverse, inclusive and competitive digital economy that can create opportunities for every woman to develop her potential. Laboratoria has trained more than 1,800 women, placing nearly 80% of them in tech jobs. Before Laboratoria, Rodulfo worked 8 years at Procter & Gamble in Venezuela, Chile and Panama. Rodulfo holds a bachelor in engineering with a master’s degree in Public Administration from Columbia University in New York.
When we started Laboratoria back in 2014, we wanted to offer young women who dreamed of a better future the opportunity to start and grow a career in technology. At the time, none of us had experience in education. Yet, there we were, launching an education venture with a social purpose. We immediately recognized the need to understand what exactly makes for an effective learning experience, and to build a job-oriented education model that was actually suited for the 21st century. Thus, we spent many of the early days at Laboratoria researching and experimenting, trying to build the best education experience we possibly could so that young women in Latin America could learn, in 6 months or less, all the technical and work skills required to successfully start a career in the tech sector.
Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful
One of our greatest surprises was understanding just how much learning is misunderstood. It turns out that much of what we did as students didn’t serve us well, and that a lot of the techniques educators put into practice today are actually counterproductive. Rereading text and cramming before an exam have proven to be amongst the least productive learning strategies. Highlighting while you read doesn’t help much either. And there is no empirical research to support the claim that people learn better when they receive instruction in a way that is consistent with their preferred learning style.
Yet, one of the most pervasive misbeliefs out there is the idea that we help students by making learning easier. As the authors in Make It Stick write:
“Many teachers believe that if they can make learning easier and faster, the learning will be better. Much research turns this belief on its head: when learning is harder, it’s stronger and lasts longer … learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow”.
In 1994, UCLA psychology professor, Robert A. Bjork, coined the term desirable difficulty precisely to explain that although a difficult (yet achievable) task might slow down learning initially, it actually improves long-term performance.
One of the most notorious ways traditional education tries to make learning easy is by teaching students a solution before presenting the problem. In a traditional and linear education setting, students are trained to mechanically apply a set of pre-packaged information to solve a predefined problem. Teachers present a solution to a problem and then ask students to replicate what they just learned. But, as everyone knows, that’s not how real life works. Outside of the classroom, the problem always comes first, and it forces us to figure out a solution with little previous knowledge. It’s a much more difficult process, and one that is inherently non-linear.
Studies of how memory and learning work have proven that trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when (or because) errors are made in the attempt. This is called the generation effect. In essence, we learn more effectively when we take control of our learning and figure things out for ourselves.
Work in the 21st century
Having students go through a non-linear learning process is also crucial for preparing them for a 21st-century workplace. The current education model dates back to the industrial era when, in the early 20th century, states began providing education to the masses and preparing vast numbers of students for factory work, focusing mainly on developing students’ ability to follow instructions. But most of today’s work is about finding new solutions to new problems and being able to successfully navigate uncertainty. Instead of endlessly repeating the same task over and over again, as factory workers did, today’s jobs are about testing new ideas, constantly validating hypotheses, and iterating.
According to The Future of Jobs Report of The World Economic Forum, the top skills which employers see as rising in prominence in the lead up to 2025 include higher-order abilities such as critical thinking and analysis, problem-solving, working with people, communication and self-management. These are the so-called 21st-century skills.
The challenges of non-linear effortful learning
Another key lesson in our history at Laboratoria is that these insights are not that easy to put into practice. Which explains, in part, why even though these findings have been well documented for decades, they have not been widely adopted.
The first challenge educators face when embracing effortful and non-linear learning is that students are poor judges of when they are learning well and when they are not. Students tend to misinterpret the ups and downs of effortful learning and the cognitive struggle of a non-linear learning process as a sign of poor performance.
A study from researchers at Harvard University showed how this takes place. It compared students’ self-reported perception of learning with their actual learning under controlled conditions in an introductory physics class taught using two distinct methods: i) traditional lectures (easy learning) and ii) active learning, where lectures were enhanced with frequent physics demonstrations, along with occasional interactive quizzes, conceptual questions, and group work (more effortful learning).
Results show that students in the active, more effortful classroom learn more, but they feel like they learn less. Researchers suggest that students may not realize that the increased cognitive struggle accompanying active, effortful learning is actually a sign that the learning is effective. Additionally, the cognitive fluency of lectures can mislead students to think that they are learning more than they actually are. This is known as the fluency illusion, which states that the easier we experience our learning, the better we think we are at it. As lead researcher Louis Deslaurier shared with The Harvard Gazette:
“Deep learning is hard work. The effort involved in active learning can be misinterpreted as a sign of poor learning. On the other hand, a superstar lecturer can explain things in such a way as to make students feel like they are learning more than they actually are.”
The second challenge is that there is a limit to the level of difficulty students can handle effectively. That is to say that not all difficulties, nor all degrees of difficulties, are desirable. For example, a non-linear learning process naturally involves some degree of stress, as students leave their comfort zones and take ownership of their learning by testing new solutions and hypotheses and going back and forth in their creative problem-solving endeavour. But when stress turns into anxiety, learning collapses. That is, unhinged difficulties are actually worse than easy learning. In other words, there is an optimal level of difficulty to maximize learning. Furthermore, this optimal level of difficulty is different for each student, and it changes over time.
In the words of executive coach and professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Ed Batista: “In short, stress can inhibit learning–and yet so many learning environments are needlessly stressful. I’m reminded of Hans Selye’s concept of eustress and the resulting awareness that some level of stress supports optimal performance, and beyond this level, performance declines”. Visually, he represents this as follows:
And so we have a dilemma. On the one hand, we know that non-linear and effortful learning is the best way for students to learn and prepare them for today’s jobs. On the other hand, however, students don’t necessarily perceive this as better, and educators struggle to tailor the experience to the optimal level of difficulty for each student at various moments in time.
Lessons from the field
At Laboratoria, we have experimented with non-linear education for several years now. Our learning model incorporates agile development practices into a Project Based Learning (PBL) approach. This means that students learn by completing projects (i.e. by solving problems) and work through each project in a series of sprints (a time-boxed period of 1 or 2 weeks) following a process that mimics that of an agile software development team.
Even though we have not yet discovered exactly how to entirely overcome the challenges of effortful learning (and probably never will), we have been able to reap a few key lessons (some of them by way of painful mistakes) that, we hope, can be useful for others.
Here are a few important lessons.
- Help students understand the science of learning
We invest a lot of time and effort in having students learn how effective learning really takes place before they start their learning journey. We recently introduced a “learning how to learn” course as part of the Bootcamp application process. This course covers a wide range of content about effective learning, including growth and fixed mindset, the illusions of learning (including the fluency illusion), the importance of lifelong learning and self-regulated learning, the metacognition cycle and effective learning techniques.
- Set clear expectations with a good onboarding
Just like when a new employee joins a company and the first few days are dedicated to cultural onboarding, the journey for a student at Laboratoria also begins with an onboarding process about our learning philosophy and culture. Most of us are not used to taking ownership of our learning and figuring things out for ourselves. We are used to lectures and following a standard curriculum laid out module by module that needs to be completed in a sequence. Students invest their first days at Laboratoria in getting acquainted with the mechanics of our education model and, most importantly, why it has been designed in such a way.
- Regularly measure student perceptions of learning
We also invest heavily in systematically understanding our students’ perception of learning along with other factors, such as student satisfaction, for every cohort on a regular basis. We have found that a good moment to do this is every time a student completes a sprint and a project. This data is used by the coaching staff to understand how to best support each student at that given moment, and it also serves as a prompt for students to reflect on their learning and identify ways to improve.
- Embrace individuality and self-paced learning
Students’ needs differ not only in terms of the optimal level of difficulty/stress. Each student has a particular set of talents and previous knowledge, a particular context, a unique history and distinct motivations. As a result, each student has a unique pace that optimizes their learning. At Laboratoria, we aim to provide a learning experience in which each student is able to learn at her own pace, and we are able to provide the “just-in-time” coaching each student requires.