Student Spotlight: Dr. Michael Lao Gives the Gift of Sight

Dr. Michael Lao has made it his mission to help the blind see. On an average day, he and his team perform more than 1,000 cataract surgeries in churches and schools. Not only does he travel around the Philippines to serve patients, but he doesn’t charge them a single cent. 

His passion to become a missionary developed when the devastating 2011 Japan tsunami flooded more than 200 miles of coastal land. “I was there during the tsunami, so I saw what it did,” says Michael. “I had a fellowship in Japan and saw how many people suffered. By experiencing this, I knew that a materialistic lifestyle was not for me. Life has to be about something bigger. Anything can be taken away from you at any given time. After that, I decided to become a missionary.” 

Michael began going from town to town, helping anyone with medical issues. He soon realized he would have to make this a sustainable effort. “Once I reached the age of 40, I told myself that I would completely stop charging patients. I started doing a lot of surgeries for free and needed to know how to make this a sustainable process. No one would ever have to pay and I could still cover all the expenses of surgery.” 

Everything fell into place when Michael’s patient, an 80-year-old farmer, insisted on giving him raw coffee as payment. “I like serving farmers and teachers because they’re the ones that are very underserved. They started giving me things like chickens, fruit, and vegetables. This one woman was going to go blind and had been turned away by three hospitals because she couldn’t afford it. I ended up saving her vision and she gave me raw coffee from her incredible farm in the mountains.”

At first, Michael wasn’t sure what to do with the raw coffee. “The funny thing is, I was a tea drinker and didn’t know anything about blends,” jokes Lao. He ended up bringing it to one of the best roasters in Japan and asked if he could please roast it for him. The roaster tried it and said it was the best coffee he had ever tasted. “I went back to that patient and she said she had more coffee. She had been picking it by herself in the mountains for years. She said she had neighbors that also harvested coffee and needed help with their sight. I started taking care of them and realized they were getting paid very low for their coffee. I said I would pay them double and they would be my patients for free. That’s how the coffee business became my thing.” 

Michael began selling the coffee in Tokyo and the funds drastically increased the amount of surgeries he could perform. “We ended up going to another area in the Philippines to serve those people. My patients took me to a cacao farm and my wife said, ‘Why don’t we try this, too.’ So, I started trading cacao in the same model. I had to study coffee like I was studying chemistry. I had to study chocolate fermentation of cacao like I was studying pharmacology. Of course it’s scary because you have to learn everything from scratch. The thing about being a missionary is that you’re not so scared to make mistakes. That’s life. You have to have the same mentality for business. You have to have the resilience and the grit to move on.” 

The resilience of Michael’s medical efforts to help patients has now turned into a work of art. Within two to three hours, he and his team clean and set up makeshift clinics in churches and schools. They can see more than 1,000 patients per day. “One cataract surgery would probably cost them 1,000 dollars. We do it for free. These people can’t afford these surgeries in our healthcare system. That’s unacceptable to me. So, we go to the people.” 

Michael is changing thousands of lives every day and has seen the miracle of receiving sight. “You do what you have to do to help people and every time you do, it’s a miracle. I couldn’t believe that people would crawl just to get to me. They cannot see. They have to crawl. So, I wash people’s feet and their hands. After the surgery, you start to see the miracle take over. They can be independent now and they start to cry. I always joke, ‘Please don’t cry because you still have sutures on.’” 

In order to impact the greatest number of people, he knew he would need as much business knowledge as possible. “I have to split my personality in two. I have a schedule when I am the CEO of a company and for the rest of the week, I am a missionary. You really have to have a strong mind to separate both aspects because one is about making money to sustain your efforts. These are hundreds of thousands of people that need our help. My company has 20 people, but it’s not about that. It’s about the people you impact; The farmers, the teachers, the fisherman. If I can’t fight for them, who will?” 

Michael realized that Quantic would be the perfect option to gain this business knowledge and pursue his Executive MBA. “Quantic gave me my shot and taught me a lot of things on the business side. Quantic is a multiplier. Whatever I learned from Quantic, I can multiply and serve more people and encourage other people to do the same.” 

Now, in his free time, Michael continues to expand his missionary work. He is helping to bring doctors together and develop solar power and fresh water innovations for communities. “We’re harvesting clean water, producing vegetables, and using the same free surgery method. I keep telling them that they will find the courage to move forward because they are directly seeing the stakeholders, which are the patients. Once you see them, you get enough courage to do anything to help.”

Today’s Inspiration from T.H. White

“Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

― White, T.H., The Once and Future King. New York: Putnam, 1958.

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Today’s Inspiration from Jiddu Krishnamurti

children with teacher
Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born till the moment you die is a process of learning.”

~Jiddu Krishnamurti

Krishnamurti on Education, Conversation 43

Herb Simon on Learning and Satisficing

This is the first of two posts delineating the pedagogical approach of Herb Simon, credited with inventing the field of AI, for which he won a Turing award in 1975.

This is the first of two blog posts delineating the pedagogical approach of Herb Simon, the man credited with inventing the field of artificial intelligence, for which he won a Turing award in 1975. Simon was a polyglot social scientist, computer scientist and economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He later won the Nobel Prize in 1978 in economics for his work in organizational decision-making.

Herbert Simon in front of blackboard
Herbert Simon, Pittsburg Post Gazette Archives

“Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.” –Herb Simon

Among his many accomplishments, Herb Simon was a pioneer in the field of adaptive production systems. He also identified the decision-making strategy “satisficing,” which describes the goal of finding a solution that is “good enough” and which meets an acceptability threshold, as opposed to “optimizing,” which aims to find an ideal solution.

Simon believed that human beings lack the cognitive resources to optimize, and are usually operating under imperfect information or inaccurate probabilities of outcomes. In both computer algorithm optimization and human decision-making, satisficing can save significant resources, as the cost of collecting the additional information needed to make the optimal decision can often exceed the total benefit of the current decision.

We live in a world where overwhelming amounts of information are at our very fingertips. Every month new educational software offerings are on the market. You can find tutorials to fix anything in your house, learn a new language for free, find lessons that teach you to dance, and watch video lectures from top universities in the topics of your choice.

I like to think of myself as a polyglot learner: I would love nothing better than to just take a year, or two, or ten, and learn as much as I can about everything. But unfortunately, I have limited time. How do I know which tutorials, lessons, and classes are worth the commitment of my time? How can I find a satisficing solution to the problem of becoming a more well-rounded learner and human being?

In Simon’s words, “information is not the scarce resource; what is scarce is the time for us humans to attend to it.” At Pedago we’ve been inspired by thinkers such as Simon to build a learning solution that makes the most of the scarce resource of your time, by employing curated streams of bite-sized lessons; rich, explorable connections between topics; interactive learn-by-doing experiences; and just the right amount of gamification. We want to enable you to craft your own learning experience, so that you can, as Simon would say, positively influence what you do and what you think.

Stay tuned for the second post in this series as we examine Simon’s modeling of human learning.

 

Tinkering Toward Learning

Given how useful the tinkering approach is for keeping learners motivated, how do we apply a similar approach to a subject like Finance?

man holding bicycle
By Artaxerxes (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
My friend Alfredo builds bikes as a hobby. He started by replacing a broken chain on his own bike. Then he upgraded his brakes. After a few more repairs, he understood the whole bike system well enough that he could gather all the parts and build one from scratch.

Experienced programmers generally learn new languages in a similar way. We get assigned to a new project for which there is an existing codebase that needs to be maintained or extended. Everything is mostly working, but something needs to be tweaked or added. So we tweak it. After working on five or ten features, we know the new language well enough that we could start a new project ourselves.

In more traditional educational environments, however, we tend to learn things the other way around. We start with simple, contrived building blocks and slowly work our way up to the point where we can comfortably manipulate a more complex and realistic system.

For example, a course that teaches the principle of the “Time Value of Money” is likely to start with a question like “if someone offered you $90 today or $100 a year from now, which one would you take?” This is, to say the least, an unrealistic scenario. But it is an introduction into the concept. After working through a number of similar examples in order to allow the student to master the math, the course will hopefully move on to a more reasonable explanation of how this concept is used in practice.

By Anna reg (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-at], via Wikimedia Commons
By Anna reg (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-at], via Wikimedia Commons
Not that it was a bad course. I actually quite liked it. But this would be like if Alfredo had first worked on pedals, then wheels, then built himself a unicycle before moving on to gears and brakes. It would have been years before he had anything he could ride on. Knowing Alfredo, he would have had no hope of staying motivated for such a long time with no bike to show for it.

Given how useful the tinkering approach is for keeping learners motivated, how do we apply a similar approach to Finance? It turns out this is difficult to do because it often involves risking real money and waiting years to see any results. What a learner really needs is a safe environment to develop intuition around the long-term consequences of her decisions and to discover for herself the places where she needs to dig deeper.

At Pedago, developing alternative approaches to teaching tough topics is what we’re passionate about. Stay tuned over the coming months to see us tackle similar problems.

 

This post has been updated to include a clearer example. Thanks to Earthling for the feedback!

Today’s Inspiration from Benjamin Bloom

“After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is:  What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.”

~Benjamin Bloom, educational psychologist

Dweck, Carol S.  Mindset: the new psychology of success.  New York:  Ballantine Books, 2006.  65-66.

Today’s Inspiration from Seymour Papert

cartoon owl sitting on book“I do not wish to reduce mathematics to literature or literature to mathematics.  But I do want to argue that their respective ways of thinking are not as separate as is usually supposed.” ~Seymour Papert.

Papert, Seymour.  Mindstorms:  Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas.  New York:  Basic Books, 1993.  39.