Your Greatest Strength: Weakness - An Interview with Dr. Ulrik Christensen


There are tomes written about the importance of playing to your strengths in life. In other words, find something you are good at then build your life and career around that very area. As for your weaknesses, don't worry about those. Bury them. As long as your good at something, you can figure out a way to make it your calling. It all sounds good, in theory. It sounds easy in fact. What if, however, you are missing out on a major opportunity, or many opportunities, that are buried within those perceived weaknesses? What if they are not weaknesses after all?

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Ulrik Christensen, one of the most interesting entrepreneurs I've met thus far. He is a doctor, a family man, and an entrepreneur who is changing the way we learn. I'm always inspired by people changing the world, and out of the hundreds of entrepreneurs I've met, Dr. Christensen, is arguably making the most impact. He's changing the way people learn, through adaptive learning. In short, adaptive learning finds the holes in each student's learning ability, then adapts the educational exercises so that the student can better understand the subject matter. Dr. Christensen is creating new winners in the world.

Through adaptive learning technologies, students who would have at one time been considered weak in a subject area, are now made to be strong. The impact of this is staggering. Think about your own life and your own career. Most likely you ended up working in a job that centered upon something you were strong at in school. You were good at math, so you ended up in engineering. You were poor at writing, so you swept that weakness under the rug and steered away from a journalism career. Under the new adaptive learning practices, your weaknesses may very well become your strengths. For future generations, this means greater opportunity as students realize that there are no strengths or weaknesses in any educational subject area, there are only different learning styles. The new rules of adaptive learning are changing the very fabric of the entire world. Under the old rules of learning a trajectory is set where certain individuals will end up being thought leaders, scientists, engineers, and even President of the United States. Under the new rules of adaptive learning, the players are all changing. The playing field is becoming even and new doors are opening. Under the old ways of learning our kids may have been best suited to work mid-level management for their entire lifetime. Under the new rules, they may actually be suited to aspire to their childhood dreams of becoming astronauts, doctors, or world renowned scientists.

Here are 4 lessons to a living life unleashed the Dr. Ulrik Christensen way:

Solve The Real Problem: Dr. Christensen is a medical doctor who has been doing research in education and learning technologies for twenty years. Originally, he had set out on a mission to develop new technology to address human errors in medicine. What he realized through his research is that the learning technologies he was creating had a greater calling than the very specific area he had been working on. The technologies could be used in education to make students more efficient and successful. Dr. Christensen says that the lesson here, especially for entrepreneurs, is to occasionally step back from your work to make sure you are solving the correct problem. Had he remained focused on the medical field, he may never have realized that the work he was doing had a much broader scope to help students around the world. As Christensen said, it's okay to switch your focus when you find that there is a greater, more important issue to focus on.

Perception is Not Reality: Dr. Christensen talked about how he was building a learning simulator and was testing the simulator with several students at a New York university. What was clear from the data coming through using the simulator was that the students did not understand the subject matter that was being taught. These were A students who were acing the tests because the curriculum centered around a "cookbook" style lab where they could follow instructions and regurgitate the answers, but nothing was being learned about the subject matter. Christensen says that he has a motto that he lives by in building his adaptive learning technologies: Garbage In; Garbage Out. In other words, for students, if the data points you use to judge yourself are off, then the results you receive are all but worthless. In this instance, if the labs you are following teach you nothing more than an ability to complete the exercises, then really you have learned nothing more than the ability to complete the exercises. You have not learned the very subject matter that those lab exercises were meant to teach.

The Truth About Weaknesses: In building adaptive learning technologies, Christensen has spent countless years researching the concept of strengths verse weaknesses. What his team learned is that there is a sequence to turning a weakness into a strength. To begin with, he notes that it is important to realize that weak learners find comfort in things they know. Therefore, in order to start to build that weakness into a strength we must pare down the learning to bring it back to a basic level where the learner knows and understands the concept. This starts by posing simple yet relevant questions that the learner can answer which starts to build confidence which the learner will use to build his understanding of the subject matter. As Christensen notes, in traditional education, usually when the student falls off the learning curve in a subject matter (where he has stopped learning anything), this is the time where it's important to re-sequence the learning. In other words, go back and start from a different point in the learning process. With traditional education, this rarely happens, as the original learning sequence keeps moving. In adaptive learning models, that student's lesson gets re-sequenced so that he can properly learn the subject matter instead of just sweeping it under the rug and calling it a weakness.

Unconscious Incompetence: Dr. Christensen notes that one of the greatest attributes to adaptive learning is the ability to help students understand their unconscious incompetence. He says that if we get students to move from unconscious incompetence (not knowing what they don't know) to conscious incompetence (acknowledging that they don't know something specifically), it helps them to understand the importance of learning. Interestingly, under traditional education, teachers are really good at letting students know when they are good at learning, but the current system needs assistance in helping students learn to acknowledge what they don't know. This is where adaptive learning comes in. Under adaptive learning there is a concentration on turning the student's unconscious incompetence to a conscious incompetence so as to spark both the need and urge to learn within each student.

Dr. Christensen is changing the world. He's not just doing it one student at a time, but rather in entire populations of students. Indeed, that which was most admirable was his mission. When asked why he cares so much, he said it's about the students. The fact that there are students who will graduate with higher degrees and in callings that they may have never even before considered under traditional education models, is what drives him to dedicate his life to adaptive learning.

About Dr. Ulrik Christensen: Dr. Christensen is Senior Fellow, Digital Learning for McGraw-Hill Education. He is also Executive Chairman for Area9 Group that among several other companies includes Area9 Labs (educational research and innovation) and Area9 Learning (corporate and organizational learning). Both of the latter are co-owned by McGraw-Hill Education.