Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Minimum Viable Instruction

At Zeal, we are pretty big believers in the lean startup approach.  The fundamental thesis is that you are constantly doing just enough engineering work in order to understand what your customer needs, by doing small experiments and analyzing the results.  You are building the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to allow you to test whether you understand your customer.  For example, instead of spending several months designing the neatest best game for student learning ever, you introduce small features and watch your user's access patterns to see if that seems to be compelling.  If it is, you add more and analyze again.  This is basically the scientific method applied to startups.   Engineering is a costly task for startups and MVP is designed to not waste engineering time by really understanding what the customer needs before building something.

Anyway, with that frame of mind, it's interesting to think about how teaching and learning works best.  In our current education system, we believe that the teacher is the repository of knowledge and they know what each child needs to learn.  Since assessments are laborious to create, grade and analyze, we do our best with the information we have to address the needs of each child.  But realistically, if you believe as I do that every child is significantly different in terms of their strengths and weaknesses, their learning styles, their social-emotional state all of the time, then your chance of reaching each child every minute of every day is low.  And that really is not the standard anyone is going for in classroom instruction, we kind of accept the inefficiencies because teaching 30 children at once gives us a lot of leverage and we can deal with some inefficiency.

That is quite different online.  Online is much more like a one on one session between the teacher and student continuously.  So if your online system works well, you are able to collect a lot of data on all of the child's needs.  Still, you don't really know what they need to learn without a lot of probing and you don't want to waste time lecturing them on things they already know or aren't ready to learn.  Putting this together with the lean startup approach of Minimum Viable Product, you can see the similarities between engineering and instruction.  This lean startup method is an iterative approach instead of a monolithic approach which we have seen in the past.  So what about instruction?  Instruction is also a heavyweight task.  It takes planning time from teachers and uses a lot of students time when they could be doing something else.

Online, there is really no reason to do heavyweight monolithic instruction.  Instead, you want to pose problems to students and provide minimum viable instruction to them to help them solve those problems.  That switch of the role of problem and instruction is one of the fundamental changes in online learning.  It is only possible because you have unlimited attention and analytic capacity applied to each child.  So you can test what they each need and give them just enough to keep going.

We actually see the concept of Minimum Viable Instruction in other areas, just not that often in the classroom.  Good sports coaches will often focus on a single thing rather than everything you need to know to be good at that sport.  A good golf coach for example focuses on just your swing tempo instead of tempo, positioning, grip, swing motion, etc.  This minimum viable instruction is possible because the coach has analyzed just your game and not a whole class and has decided based on experience the next crucial thing for you to learn.  I think that is the way that online learning will work best.


  1. Been following your blog for a while now. Congrats by the way. I have found several of your entries incredibly insightful specially your insights on your trip to India and tips for Entrepreneurs on how to navigate the "mess".

    Congrats on this new call. I would love to take a look at Zeal by the way whenever you are able to share. =)

  2. Great post, thanks John. In addition to really understanding customer before dropping $$ on development, the other reason to take MVI approach to instruction (online and offline) is to put cognitive load on students and let them take the lead in trying/puzzling/experimenting. Some of the people I learned the most from (both teachers and coaches) said the least to me.

  3. This is a fantastic approach to how the MVP overlaps in education. As someone who is navigating starting a blended approach in my classroom thanks for all your insights on this excellent blog.