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The Value of Inquiry and Exploration with Yuying Chen-Wynn

Hi, Yuying. Nice to see you. I’d love for you to introduce yourself please. 

So my name is Yuying. I’ve been a product executive for about 20 years now. I started in pure tech and now I’m in my passion space which is ed-tech for the last 7 years working across K12 and also for adults I’m working towards the higher ed space.

Wonderful, thanks for chatting with me today. You were sharing that you have three kids, ages 11,15, and 13.

Yes exactly.

So tell me, if you can think back to when you were 11. What was going on in your learning life? How was your reputation in school? How did teachers see you and how did you see yourself?

I moved to the US when I was 10. I didn’t speak a word of English and I was dropped into the middle of Texas. So, major culture shock. It took me 10 months before I was able to speak any English. At age 11, I was right at that transition of having some fluency.  So my teacher’s expectations of me were based on my standard test scores, which were really low. I wasn’t really fluent and my dictionary looking up wasn’t that fast when I took that test. As I acquired the language fluency, my capabilities started to show up. I was being shuffled between the not progressing classes so well, into the honors and back and forth. My schedule was looking really confusing to the counselors because some of them would end up in honors and others were way behind, and every time I switched one they would try to put me back in the same slate. So, it was confusing from their point of view. I wasn’t really paying attention. I don’t think I thought of much at the time. I certainly didn’t think I was smart, and didn’t think I was dumb. I think I was just floating around. 

If we’re defining learning as going from not being able to do something to being able to do it. How would you say your learning style was as a kid, and what messages were you getting about learning?

I was really left alone by my parents. I was just dropped off at the public library for hours on end. Most of my learning was self directed towards what I was interested in. I either just read things, or signed up for classes randomly and just followed through. Very exploratory, and looking back I think it served me very well, because I just got to chase after what I thought was interesting at the moment.

Does that translate now in your working life? How has that style changed or maintained now, as you develop in tech products. 

Now that I think about it, it has definitely carried over. I have a lot less time is the biggest difference, but if I have time, I just go in these spurts of whatever it is I’m interested in right now and I kinda binge. It used to be books, but now it’s YouTube or podcasts, or what have you. Whatever topic I’m on I kinda just binge and absorb and summarize for myself and move on to the next one. 

Sweet, I imagine that served you well as you moved from product to product. 

Definitely, because learning a new language has always been my favorite part. When I first started in language learning products, I really dove into the cognitive sciences and the learning aspects of language, second language, what native was coming from, and what was your current fluency. All of that. I’m fascinated by anything completely new when I’m diving into the domain. That fast ramp-up, also that different point of view because you’re new to it, can bring you product insights that those already in it deep for a decade may not see. 

What a great point. Well why don’t we do it like this because we don’t know how we usually do it. 

Yeah, exactly.

Do you see that your kids get the same exploratory opportunities? What does learning look like for them?

I will say that I started off as a very typical tiger mom. I used to assign them “homework” if I felt like school work wasn’t enough. You have to do this, you have to do this many pages of this then you earn iPad time by doing these things and I was very against screen time, it was highly regulated. The pandemic kind of changed it, because it had no bandwidth for that type of discipline. After a while, what I noticed is that on their own, they were actually discovering things that I didn’t know about. Really high quality content on YouTube for channels around science, psychology, cooking, history, etc. Now, I am at the point where they need the freedom to explore. Once they show me what they explore, then I help them filter, then I give my opinion for which one is high value and which one isn’t. But, I will tell you that it was a struggle because they could find great things but when they started showing me things far beyond what I was actually exposing them to, I was like “okay.” I’ve got to let them go on their own so they become more than me. 

What a nice way to put that. If you could pick one kid or all of your kids, how do they think of themselves as learners, and has that shifted anything for them?

We actually recently did this exercise. I had them write down what they’re good at. I think both my older and my second wrote down they’re really good at learning anything. I was like “wow, really, okay, that’s cool.” The thing is, sometimes you realize, letting them just go on their own at their own pace and what have you. Whatever their own judgement is and they can decide that they’re successful, but I think that part is key. If they think that they can learn anything, I think that will fundamentally serve them better in life than a lot of other fundamental specific knowledge. 

Yeah, sure. What messages do you see them getting in school about themselves?

Across the board, not as a positive. My oldest comments on one particular teacher who has a very strict grading. Like, if you’re a minute late there’s no excuses, no makeup, you just get a zero on things. So his grades reflect Bs and Cs sometimes, and I’m like, “that doesn’t make any sense, I know your ability is above this.” The grading is wonky. We did resolve that one, but some of these because of the rules particular teachers put behind the grades. If I was just looking at the grades, I would be concerned about his abilities in a couple of areas, which doesn’t actually reflect directly. 

Do you feel like that translates for him? Is he able to see beyond that, and not have it impact his self-perception of learning? 

It hasn’t impacted my oldest. He has the advantage of being the oldest. So within his sibling’s social group he’s always been ahead, so it doesn’t impact him as much. My youngest also happens to be my only girl. It does impact her when she does a project wrong, or if she doesn’t quite get a grade, it really impacts her. I think it’s partially being a girl, partially her brothers always haze her. Then you get a judgement from teachers on top of that. She really takes it to heart, so I’ve been working on boosting her on just a couple of things all together. It does impact different kids differently. 

What do you say to her? How do you work with her? 

We’ve been trying to get her to develop a thicker skin. We work on both, with her brothers we can tell them to be more encouraging when they do things that are not great, we make them turn it around, etc. But, I also tell her that in life, not everybody’s going to say great things. You have to figure out what’s going to help you get better. Some things have nothing to do with you, and they’re just venting. It’s kind of just talking through specific incidents because she’ll come home crying because someone said not the best things about her. 

That’s hard. Yeah. What do you wish other people knew or thought about when they were thinking about their kids’ perception of themselves as learners?

I do think that the kids’ confidence, in that they can learn something, is the most crucial thing, if I look at their growth. Even less than what they actually master. But that confidence can serve them throughout everything. Even despite scores sometimes or other feedback, it’s hard especially for high achieving moms like myself, we tend to very much look at that in a way goin “You get this award if you get all As, you need to be here (in your grades) and all this stuff.” The thing I try to focus on overtime they bring home a bad score is “Do you know what you got wrong, and do you know what you’re going to do differently?” Not focus on the lowest scores. My point is its fine to make a mistake, but you need to learn from it. Don’t just keep moving on or ignore that it happened. It’s tough to keep going, but it’s most important. 

In your work now, being a mother to kids who are school age and learning and having been a school aged kid who’s learning what do you think schools get right about learning and messaging on learning?

 I have this perspective, the Chinese education, versus the US education. My kids were in China for 5 years through elementary school and now of course middle and high school in the US. In comparison, the US school system does a lot more project work much earlier. A lot more collaborative work, which I think is really key because when we go into when they truly learn something, it’s really all in the application. Will they try to make something of it? Describe it themselves, or create a diorama or whatever that is. That is a lot more prevalent at a much younger age which I do really enjoy. The second one actually is the amount of free time and freedom that they have with the system. My son was telling me about a project that he asked me to remind him to finish today. It was a project that the teacher said they can set their own due date. It’s an assignment of current events and you do a presentation around it. This kind of concept in the traditional Chinese education system is unheard of, but that kind of freedom engages them. I get to pick what I’m interested in and talk about that. These are the trends that I really like with what I’m seeing. 

Thank you for sharing that. If we were to ask your daughter. Who are you as a learner or how do you go from not knowing something to knowing how to do it? How might she answer that? 

Oh my gosh, I don’t think she could articulate. But, when she has a particular interest she goes after it because that’s what we try to foster. Right now, they all start with YouTube videos, so she’s really into cooking right now and so is her brother. They watch the expert levels and kinda binge on those to figure out if they’re really interested, then they would go and try it. The good thing about her, and I do think it’s a big part of her learning style is trying it. Actually hands on doing things. She always gets upset when she messes up, so I help her through that. I think she has a fairly consistent style. I don’t think she knows how she learns but I see her learn quite a bit. She also decided to take up French because they wouldn’t allow it in school, so she started Duolingo on her own. 

That’s so cool, I love that. Is she able to speak? Can she get out some phrases?

Not yet, but I did tell her when I took French 101 three times so she feels confidence.

That’s great. Sweet. This is all very interesting. Any last thoughts about learning as a kid and how it impacts working and creating as an adult?

If when you learned as a kid you just had fun and was excited about learning new things, the best thing we can do is to try to keep that. I will say it’s not very often to find people at work who still do what I do. It’s not just work related, I decided I wanted to learn to sing the blues. You get a lot of people who admire you for it, but then you say “Just try it, I took an online class. I’m not good at it, I suck at it. I’m just doing it because I thought it might be fun.” But somehow when you get to adulthood a lot of that random learning or fun just trying things, it goes away. The biggest thing is to keep it, I think. 

That’s a great reminder. I feel like the pandemic has brought back some of that for folks. I’m taking an herbalism class right now, I learned how to play the piano while I was pregnant. It had nothing to do with work at all.

Yeah exactly, maybe the pandemic kick started more of the adults learning. Not in the up-skilling, not in the re-skilling, just learning for learning’s sake. 

Great, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.

No problem, this has been fun.

Yuying is a Chief Product Officer in the EdTech space with a passion for applied-AI to improve learner experience and scale for growth. Ms. Chen-Wynn bridges the gap between education and parenting as a personal mission. She is the mother of 3 kids 11, 13, 15 and worries everyday about preparing them for an unknown future.  She is also a competitive ballroom dancer.

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