Monday 11 January 2010

A long thank you note!

Almost an year & a half back, I met an interesting family at the Bangalore airport. They were a middle aged couple with 2 kids. A boy named Akash, who was in Class 7 and a girl named Nidhi who was in Class 6. I think the dad was somewhere in his early 40s. I remember them today, because a simple little conversation I had with them has turned out into a really powerful idea in the education space.

I was talking to them & telling them about how I run a company called Vita Beans. They were naturally surprised that a guy who looks like a high school kid had started a company & they wanted to know more. And since I anyway love talking about my startup, I started telling them about how we started as a research project almost 2 years before & how we built our first simulation engine that simulates human behaviour in a variety of environments. We had used a myriad of research frameworks from neuroscience, cognitive science, artificial intelligence & fuzzy logic. They didn't seem to understand much except that we were tremendously successful in getting high accuracies & quality results from our work.

Somewhere down the conversation, the mother said something very interesting. She said "There is something I always wanted to know. You know when I take Nidhi with me to a grocery store or a shopping market, the shopkeeper tells me the price of all the items I have purchased before billing me.... Item1 - 30Rs, Item2 - 217Rs, Item3 - 125Rs & so on. And within seconds of him completing the list, my daughter looks at me & says - Mom, it's 1231 rupees. Now... I know she's right because she has developed a habit of doing that every time and she is always right. But the shopkeeper does not know that and so he takes out a calculator, punches in the numbers... Voila! 1231 rupees it is. He then gives me a smile & a complicated look that says - Wow, you have a genius for a daughter there!. And I'm all smiles & proud of her" she was already beaming at her daughter when saying this.

She continued "But then we come home & an hour later, she shows me her marks card & it reads - mathematics... 42/100. I don't know why but I suddenly loose my cool & start yelling at her - You're so dumb at maths. You need to work hard, I'm sending you to tuition starting tomorrow. I know she is good at maths, but I don't know why she scores less. I don't know what to do"

She then looks at me & says "You said you do all those stuff about human behaviour simulation. Do you understand why she scores less in exams when she really is intelligent?"

Frankly, I did not know! When we were in school, my younger brother too was something similar. He could remember the batting averages of every damn cricketer from 1983 to the present day. But his super memory didn't work as well when he had to remember his lessons. And I had no clue why! Neither did my parents.

I just shrugged, looked at the mother & said "I don't know why! But I'm very sure it has nothing to do with mathematics as such" But that got me thinking. When I came back, we discussed it in my team, we spoke to some of the professors working in the field of learning & cognitive sciences. We took time, but we tried to understand why Nidhi was scoring less at maths.

After a while, we found that we were not alone. A few other research groups have also been excited about the connection between learning & cognitive functions. We looked more into such results & came up with frameworks of our own to translate many of the research findings that we learnt into something that kids can understand & use. It seemed like we were finally able to answer - why is it that kids fare differently in situations which demand the use of same skills, but in different ways.

But before we converted our frameworks into some sort of a product, there was another challenge that caught our attention. This has been a problem which grown ups (read parents, teachers, adults) would most of the time not even acknowledge as something that is a problem. And that is - we, as kids, are inherently lazy. We are lazy to get up in the morning, we are lazy to iron our clothes & if there is an exam on that day, we are lazy to even have breakfast. We wait for our Mothers to spoon feed our breakfast as we feverously glance through our textbooks. In spite of knowing about our laziness, our entire system of education & learning tries to pull us out of this laziness before it can teach us something that can change our lives. A tough job, ain't it!

On the other hand, we are also super-active & enthusiastic about certain other things. Things which we enjoy doing, things which make us happy. Grown ups often cannot even understand our excitement in many cases. So we looked at these two contrasting tendencies in children & thought - why not build a tool that puts the kids in a fun & addictive gaming environment & weave the learnings into the environment so that they automatically pick it up as a side effect?

And so we started working on the design for a tool, called MindMaps. It is a cognitive tool that lets you profile & train your brain functions in an addictive & enjoyable way. The brain functions can be the ones like Memory, Attention, Problem Solving, Learning & Flexibility or they can even be skills like Speech, Maths & Vocabulary.

We have been working non-stop to convert our designs into a tool that focuses as much on user experience (if not more) as on the utility and usefulness of the product. The learning has been great so far & the first opinions from folks in the industry has also been exceptionally good. And somewhere in between the excitement - I feel like thanking the couple & their kids, Akash & Nidhi, who got us into this space an year and a half ago.

I don't know what the names of Akash & Nidhi's parents are! I never asked, they never told. But here's me saying Thank You! with all my heart.