Mastery-based Learning with Launch School

It’s a new week, so we have a new podcast episode for you. Matt and I spoke with Chris Lee of Launch School about his approach to online education. We discuss the different tradeoffs and considerations that come into play when a curriculum is being put together.

To my mind, mastery-based learning — where you don’t advance to the next stage until you’ve really mastered the topic at hand — really shines for things where you have some kind of longer-term goal. Just because it’s a good approach doesn’t mean it’s easy, though. In Chris’ words:

We started this to try to figure out education. It was not a money making endeavor. So to us, teaching became the engineering problem to solve. I was not a proponent of Mastery Based Learning before Launch School. Mastery Based Learning or Competency Based Learning is not unique to Launch School, it’s a well known pedagogy in academic papers. But it’s really hard to implement.

Think about a physical classroom. Mastery Based Learning means that a student gets to occupy a seat in that classroom for an indefinite amount of time. That’s a really hard promise to make when our schools are tasked to usher through students. It’s not about training students and making sure they understand every topic, but getting people through.

You can download and listen to the episode over on the main Sources & Methods website here.

Three Podcast Recommendations

I've been walking around more this past week, and have added some new listening material into my podcast quiver. So if you're interested in something outside your usual information diet, give these three a try:

  • Slate's Stranger Than Fiction. Conversations with science-fiction authors about the intersection of their writing with technology and the contemporary world. This podcast is no longer produced and there are only 6 episodes (dating back to 2013).
  • Pod Save the World. Conversations with people who were involved in American foreign policy decisions. This is part of a series of new podcasts put out by some former Obama-government staff members (aka Crooked Media). The foreign policy discussions are often interesting and they offer behind-the-scenes glimpses of how certain deals were made. So far we've heard about the Cuba and Iran deals made under Obama.
  • Arms Control Wonk. A discussion podcast about nuclear weapons. It's a fairly opinionated glance at some pretty down-in-the-weeds topics relating to nuclear security, particularly from the US perspective, but given that North Korean nuclear weapons are likely to be a big deal in 2017 this is a useful one to follow.

New Year, New Arabic-language Podcast

This year, in combination with my publishing a book about getting from intermediate-advanced level in Arabic, I wanted to find a way to stay committed to improving my own language. So I’ve started a mostly-Arabic-only podcast.

There are two episodes up already, both from the ‘Jordanian Dialect’ series. This series is recorded with co-host Lina Obeidat, my good friend and Arabic teacher of several years. (Book lessons with Lina on iTalki here. She’s also a regular contributor to talkinarabic.com’s Levantine materials).

During the first episode, we talked about the winter and the rain in Jordan (where we’re both based), and I learnt about the existence of a period of 40 days when the weather is much colder. In our second episode, we talked about taxis in Amman. We struggled to find many positive things to say about the system or the drivers of taxis, but tried to see things from their perspective. At the end, I learned a new proverb that was appropriate to our discussion.

In the coming weeks I’ll be adding more shows to the podcast. There will be a show focusing on Classical Arabic texts. There will be a show on Modern Literature. Potentially we’ll have a show for Egyptian Colloquial (sigh!) but that depends on my finding someone to host it (let me know if you’re interested).

I’m looking forward to recording more episodes. Please leave a comment over on Soundcloud with any feedback you might have. Also, subscribe on iTunes by clicking on this link or search my name and you should find it. The podcast is also available on Overcast. Just search the name and it’ll show up.

Kael Weston on Sources and Methods


Matt and I put out a new episode of Sources and Methods podcast today. We spoke to Kael Weston, discussing his time spent living in Fallujah, the importance of speaking the language of the place in which you work, as well as the political systems countries like the USA employ in far-off places like Iraq and Afghanistan. He also recently wrote a book, The Mirror Test, which is worth reading. You can find the episode over on iTunes or listen directly on the Sources and Methods website.

Four Colours


A few years ago, I read a book that changed the way I took notes. That book was “How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think” by Lion Kimbro. Thanks to my podcast, Sources and Methods, I had the chance to chat with Lion a few weeks ago. The episode will be out in November but I wanted to share one of the ideas that I’ve found most useful. He wrote about it in his book and we discussed it again on the podcast.

It involves taking notes with a four-colour pen. I’m talking about pen-and-paper here, not digital notes, though I suppose it might work there too with some tweaking. You use a different colour to ascribe different meanings to your notes. Thus, quoting from his book:

RED: Error, Warning, Correction
BLUE: Structure, Diagram, Picture, Links, Keys (in key-value pairs)
GREEN: Meta, Definition, Naming, Brief Annotation, Glyphs
BLACK: Main Content [p. 26]

Most notes will thus be in Black, but other things can stand out by sticking to the system outlined in the quote. It takes a bit of getting used to, including sticking up reminders on walls showing the colour scheme, but after a week or two it’s instinctual and really helps when revisiting notes at a later date.

Lion shares lots of other note-taking tips in our podcast, which I’ll post here when it’s out.

A short practical tip: ever since reading Lion’s book, I’ve been using a Bic four-colour biro which are quite easy to find in most stationery stores. Lion mentioned a different type which I’ve now been using for a week or two and have had a really good experience so far. It’s the Zebra Sarasa4 model (pictured above). If you want to get into taking notes using four-coloured pens, I’d really recommend it.