Bror Saxberg, Learning Engineer
Imagine the typical background of a chief learning officer for a company that develops educational curricula and tools for K-12 students. Perhaps a former teacher or school administrator? An expert in child development, educational psychology, or instructional methods? Electrical engineer surely would not come immediately to mind; neither would mathematician, computer scientist, or physician.
Bror Saxberg (BSEE 1980) is a dispeller of preconceptions who has applied an extraordinarily diverse background to the challenge of engaging students in learning, with the goal to unleash the potential of any developing mind. In 2000 he helped found K12, Inc., an e-learning company that is now the largest provider of curricula tools to virtual charter schools, to parents who home-school children, and parents who want to complement what is being taught at traditional schools. K12 went public in December 2007, trading on the NYSE, with annual revenues now expected to exceed $300 million. In June 2009, he began a new assignment as chief learning officer for Kaplan, Inc., a $2.2 billion revenue provider of lifelong education, with programs for K-12 students and schools, post-secondary education, and professional training.
Saxberg himself is a case study in potential unleashed. While finishing his UW EE and math degrees, he won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, where he earned an MA in mathematics. He followed that with SM and PhD degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT, and then topped off his educational odyssey with an MD from Harvard Medical School.
At his core, though, Saxberg says he is an engineer. “I rely on scientific research about learning and minds, but I use it to solve real problems. I am, essentially, a learning engineer.” He would like to see more people in education approach learning — even at undergraduate and professional levels — with an engineering mindset. “As with any engineering task, we should ask, ‘What is the science behind this? How do we use that science to make robust learning environments? How do we measure learning progress over short and long time frames?’ Education cannot be defined by a few numbers; still, we shouldn’t shy away from objective information to improve the student experience.”
Saxberg says there are stumbling blocks for traditional education. First, he sees an information gap. “Teaching and curricula are not yet informed by existing high-quality empirical research on how learning works.”
Second, he notes that not all learners have access to the teachers and environments that could help them work hard to master material effectively. “The best teachers are able to orchestrate learning so that all the students are challenged and making progress,” Saxberg says. He likens good teachers to the best music directors. “There are high notes and low notes in the same orchestra, but all the music comes out in a coordinated way — and all the players find different challenges as they play together. In addition, not all musicians play at their best in large groups — we need the equivalent of string quartets, even a-capella groups, around academic subjects to take advantage of students’ skills and interests to drive learning through practice.”
Third, Saxberg has noticed that teachers vary greatly in their topic or pedagogy expertise in domains they’re teaching. At any level of education, without additional support, this makes it hard to get reliable outcomes for students with different teachers — and it may be very challenging, too, for teachers with more limits to get more students excited about these subjects.
K12 and Kaplan address these issues by designing curricula and training materials to assist teachers (and others) in customizing education and helping students achieve mastery, especially for students for whom traditional methods have not been as successful.
One of the most satisfying things for Saxberg during his time at K12 was hearing from many 8- and 9-year-old girls that science was their favorite subject. “These kids see science as investigating their world, digging in the dirt, projects in the kitchen, tied to theories developed by people about how the whole world works, and they get excited about it. As they overcome challenges, they feel successful, and that translates into higher performance and greater interest in the subject matter,” he says.
Saxberg’s interest in EE sparked as a teenager while helping his father with his hobby of building stereo equipment. “I loved learning how these gizmos worked, putting parts together, and hearing beautiful music come out.” His math interests also originated at home. His mother and father (Borje Saxberg, who recently celebrated his 50th year teaching at the UW Foster School of Business) regretted they had never mastered mathematics at the level they wanted, and provided their sons with opportunities to learn as much as they could.
Saxberg suggests engineering students take “as much math as they can stand” because school provides almost the only time engineers can think deeply about theory — the world of work prioritizes the quick over the exact. “Deep exposure to mathematics gave me an enormous toolkit to engage and understand the principles and problem-solving of engineering,” Saxberg notes.
He also emphasizes that it is important to do what you love, what you think is important. “Don’t feel constrained by the academic boundaries of engineering — that’s just a starting point. The world needs people able and willing to work on hard, important problems — the world needs engineers in every area.” Saxberg plans to keep on as a "learning engineer” — working on the hard problems of education with creativity and care backed up by science and technology.
Saxberg lives with his wife, Denise, daughter, Siri, and two sons, Tor and Haakon, in the Washington, D.C. area.