First Derivatives and Learning


Publication date:

March 17, 2021


Don’t worry, this is not a piece on convincing you that calculus is useful. Of course it is! But that is not what I am about to get into.

Derivatives are something we all run into in school and for most of us this is where they stay never to be seen or heard of again. I am a bit of a math head and worked with derivatives for many years in my academic research. Beyond that, and the topic of my story here, I have lived my life by a first derivative: the first derivative of learning curves. These derivatives guided my learning journey and might inspire some of you to do the same. Trust me, you won’t need to take another math class to get the point and live by the same principle.

If you do not remember what the first derivative of a function is, stop right here. I want you to learn something. Go to Google and search for it (or ask Alexa, Siri or any other digital assistant you have come to trust). You are likely to find yourself quickly into Wikipedia with the calculus definition of the concept. Any wiser? Indeed, we can make simple things very complex. But that is a reflection of our focus on knowing and not on understanding. But that is a topic for another blog.

Whenever my learning curve flattened, I moved on. A flat learning curve means that its first derivative is close to zero (did you get that from your search?). When I left the Dean’s office at CEIBS, I went back to my academic perch at UST in Hong Kong to contemplate my next move. I had been working in China for a long time and I felt that there was little else to learn. Not that there was more ground to cover, but it would take a lot of effort on my part to squeeze any more learning out of that. Spending a fraction of that effort elsewhere might result in a better learning payoff. That is one of the reasons why I moved to Moscow to become the founding co-dean of MSM SKOLKOVO when the opportunity presented itself.

My friends in China were disappointed when I moved to Russia. They could not understand why I would go there after having invested so much of my time and efforts in China. The reason was simple: my China learning curve was flattening; i.e., its first derivative was getting smaller and smaller. In no way did this say anything about China and how I felt about the country. It was all about me and my hunger to know more and learn more. I was just looking for a steeper learning curve. Knowing little if anything about Russia, my learning curve there had a much higher first derivative. Curiosity had led me decades before to the most populous country in the world; now, it was to lead me to the largest country in the world. China huddles 1.3 billion people in one time zone where Russia has its less than 150 million people spread over eleven times zones. Talking about a country where the sun never sets!

Eager to learn more, I moved. The same happened when I left Russia five years later. There was plenty more to discover and learn in and about Russia but I was looking again for a steeper learning curve. The pursuit of a larger first derivative would take me to another, to me unknown, part of the world.

As an educator, how could I live my life any other way? If we are in the business of instilling values of learning in others, we should at least be willing to learn ourselves and make the necessary efforts to do so; i.e., get out of our comfort zones, move boundaries, explore and discover. That is where the first derivative of learning curves is the largest. It also brings perspective. After Russia and the Middle East, I went back to China as I had discovered a new-found inspiration to squeeze more learning juice out of the first derivatives there.

Living by the first derivative is a never-ending learning journey and one that rarely if ever disappoints.

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