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Champions of Learning

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

The Learning With series explores how different professionals learn. Through various interviews with inspiring people from different disciplines and all walks of life, we hope to uncover different insights and perspectives that can help us to learn, to live, and to love all the wonders that life has to offer.


In this article, we share insights from Dr Bror Saxberg who is the Founder of LearningForge LLC. Dr Bror is an expert in the field of the learning sciences. Previously, he served as the Vice President (Learning Science) at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and was also the Chief Learning Officer at Kaplan, Inc.


 

A long time ago, there was an argument between three friends: a monkey, a duck, and an eagle. Each one declared themselves the wisest and most able. After a while, the wise owl intervened and proposed a simple challenge made up of three tasks. The winner would be declared the wisest of the three. Each animal laughed and believed that they would win. However, when the owl described the challenge, they looked down and went away quietly.

“What were the three challenges?” asked the lion who was sitting nearby.

“The first was to climb a tree. The second was to swim across that pond. The third was to catch a rabbit in the open field.”

Each learner is unique.
 

The learning champions in school


Have you ever been chided for poor handwriting? Personally, I think ‘chide’ would be exceptionally kind given what my teachers creatively dished out. ‘Are those chicken scratchings?’ ‘Congratulations, you’ve uncovered alien code!’ There were numerous marks lost during examinations because of my illegible handwriting. However, no one ever threatened to keep me back for a year because of my handwriting.


When Dr Saxberg was in kindergarten, his teacher complained that he could not keep still and told his parents that this little boy would probably become a juvenile delinquent one day. When he was in first grade, his teachers and principal had a conference to discuss whether he should be held back for a year because they could not read his handwriting. Fortunately, one of Dr Saxberg’s teachers fought back and insisted that not only should he be promoted, but he should also be put into an accelerated learning programme.

In second grade, one of his teachers asked to meet him after class one day. Familiar thoughts and complaints swirled around Dr Saxberg’s young mind as he knew what it was going to be about. To his pleasant surprise, his teacher told him that she would give him a verbal assignment every week to replace his written work. It motivated him so much that he would visit the University of Washington library every week with his mother to borrow new books and present what he had learnt to the class every week.


Despite his early struggles, Dr Saxberg thinks back fondly on how he always had some teachers in his corner to champion his learning needs, even if it meant customizing the assessment modes to celebrate his strengths rather than highlight his weaknesses.


Dr Saxberg eventually went on to complete a B.A. (Mathematics) and B.S.E.E. (Electrical Engineering) at the same time, receive a Rhodes scholarship to pursue a Masters in Mathematics at Oxford, and finally graduate with a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an M.D. from Harvard Medical School (also done at the same time).


And he was almost kept back for a year in first grade because of poor handwriting!

 

The learning champions at home


Given Dr Saxberg’s unique and exceptional academic journey, I was curious about the source of his drive and learning techniques. He attributed this core drive and focus on effort to his parents.


From an early age, Dr Saxberg’s parents were wonderfully supportive of his learning and focused more on what he could do and his passions, as opposed to what he was not so proficient in and what they wanted him to do.


The constant challenges and rewarding of effort led to Dr Saxberg inculcating good habits that, in hindsight, really led to strong fundamentals in learning. As he put it: “It wasn’t like they were badgering or hectoring, they had the same kind of push to do more…whether you were doing well or not…that became the habit. I got to know early what it meant to keep pushing myself.”


As Dr Saxberg noted, when one looks at the careers and histories of many high-performing people, there is clear evidence of intense and deliberate practice.


Instead of forecasting how a 7-year-old child will be like when they are 20 or 30 years old based on their natural talent, it’s more instructive to look at their conscious deliberate practice.
 

The learning champions at the workplace


While serving in Kaplan, Dr Saxberg recalls how as Chief Learning Officer (CLO) he had a mandate to improve how people learnt and performed.


When asked if he wanted all the instructional designers from around the world to report to him, Dr Saxberg insisted that it would not be wise. The local instructional designers and managers understood the local contexts better and they should be allowed to carry out their work without too much interference. However, what they needed was a common language to discuss and push the learning sciences.


The CEO was very supportive of using the learning sciences to provide value for their learners and insisted that these new approaches were aimed squarely at improving the value for students as opposed to fleeting marketing gimmicks.

 

Being a champion for learning


After spending decades as a learning scientist and learning engineer, Dr Saxberg is now a fervent champion for being and nurturing better learners. But it started with understanding and knowing learners better. This means that learner-centeredness is crucial.


As Dr Saxberg put it: “If you want to put a bridge across the Singapore river, you can’t just take a bridge from the Hudson River. You have to look at the water flow, the weather, how the bridge will be used in Singapore. Then how will all of this change in 50 years.”


In being a champion for learning, Dr Saxberg is acutely aware of the need to continuously learn from his peers in both theoretical and practical aspects. While the research and theories are important for thought leadership, it is also crucial to keep a finger on the pulse on the ground. This has helped to keep him grounded amidst the technology changing at breakneck speed.


When I asked what else kept him grounded, Dr Saxberg laughed and said simply, “Family keeps me grounded.” He noted the challenges and irony of a learning engineer having to listen very carefully to his own children who have their own opinions about learning and success. In this aspect, Dr Saxberg has some useful advice for parents and educators:


“Problem-solving, instead of blaming, can really help the learner. In medicine, instead of blaming the patient for not taking his or her medication, the question is how to innovate around this problem to help them to stay organized.”

It may not always be easy to find a champion for our learning in school, the workplace or even at home. However, it is possible for us to adopt a relentless attitude of lifelong learning ourselves. This is the learning champion within each of us.



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