As soon as my kids were old enough to stop squirming through a 70-page story, I made sure to read them Roald Dahl’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. I had two reasons. First, it’s wondrous and incredibly well-crafted – better than Dahl’s greatest hits, in my view. Second, it was the basis for a fun and hopefully profitable long con.
Released just last week on Netflix – a whimsical Wes Anderson take with his typical celebrity cavalcade (Ralph Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley) – Henry Sugar tells the story of a playboy who “had never done a day’s work in his life,” drifting like seaweed – not bad, not good, “simply part of the decoration” – through wealthy enclaves like Nassau and St. Tropez. To conquer the deadly boredom of wealth and idleness, Henry Sugar gambled. One rainy Saturday afternoon at a friend’s estate, having drawn the low card and forced to sit out high-stakes canasta, he wandered into the library. Dismissing Balzac, Ibsen, and Voltaire as boring rubbish, he was about to leave when his eye was caught by a cardboard-covered exercise book sticking out a little on the shelf.
The exercise book belonged to John Cartwright, a doctor in Bombay, and is an “Interview with Imhrat Khan, the Man Who Could See Without His Eyes.” Thus begins a tale within a tale as the story shifts to Cartwright’s spellbinding report. Khan really can see with his eyelids sealed shut, bread dough pressed into sockets, and so many blindfolds, sheets, scarves, and turbans around his head that he can hardly keep his balance. He’s able to bicycle through traffic, thread a needle, and shoot a tin can off a boy’s head. How does he do it? Dr. Cartwright reports Imhrat Khan’s own words, now a dizzying tale within a tale within a tale. He’s taught by a yogi to concentrate upon a single object for three and a half minutes without his mind wandering or other thoughts creeping in. His chosen method is to light a candle, stare into the black part of the flame right at the center, and focus on his chosen object (his brother’s face) for as long as he can. While most practice regularly for a decade or longer to achieve the requisite level of concentration, Imhrat Khan does it in only seven years. One side effect is an inner sense of sight that allows him to make out objects with his eyes closed, including an ability to see through playing cards.
Zoom out to the gambler reading Dr. Cartwright’s report: “Well, well, well. Now that is extremely interesting,” said Henry Sugar. For the first time in his life, Henry Sugar has a goal and pursues it diligently. Utilizing Khan’s candle method, in just a year Henry Sugar can concentrate on a single object – his own face – for over five minutes. He’s a prodigy. When he tests himself with cards, shapes and symbols become evident after several minutes. But he won’t have minutes in a casino; four seconds is the limit. So he trains for another two years. When he’s able to see through a card in less than four seconds, he’s ready for blackjack. On his first night in a casino, he makes £6,600.
It all seemed so real: Cartwright’s “true and accurate report” (signed and dated); Dahl’s frame around Henry Sugar’s story (“now, had this been a made-up story instead of a true one, it would have been necessary to invent some sort of a surprising and exciting end for it… but this story is not fiction. It is true”) and his one disclaimer (Henry Sugar is a loving pseudonym bestowed by the accountant and make-up artist who reach out to Dahl to get Henry’s story told). My kids were captivated: “Is it true? Can people really do that?” they’d ask. “Of course,” I said. “With enough training, you can do anything.” Then for years, when we’d play Clue – and when they were old enough, poker – I’d attribute my victories to an ability to see through cards. “Henry Sugar did it in three years,” I said. “It took me four.” Not long ago, I caught my youngest focusing on the back of a playing card for five minutes like his life depended on it. Their belief in Henry Sugar has outlasted Santa Claus.
Let me tell you another true story about a gambler, one from the land of Imrhat Khan. Byju Raveendran grows up in Azhikode on the coast of Kerala. He trains as an engineer and takes a job with a UK shipping company when some friends ask for advice on taking the notoriously difficult entrance exam for the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). He works the problem, develops a system, and scores 100%. Then, alongside his wife Divya Gokulnath, he founds an online math coaching business. He’s in such demand, he’s able to fill large auditoriums and stadiums, then begins developing apps with video lessons and interactive quizzes to reach even more students. His best students flock to join the team. At its peak, Byju’s sells learning apps and hardware to millions, becomes the world’s most valuable edtech company, and is seen on TV by billions as an official sponsor of the 2022 World Cup.
The gambling was how he did it. Byju Raveendran raked in over $5 billion in equity and debt from some of the world’s leading investors, over half of which was spent acquiring a wide range of edtech businesses. He also engaged in heavy-handed sales practices; representatives would tell parents “your kids will end up poor like you” if they didn’t buy. Sales were matched by heavy-handed accounting practices, recognizing revenue from streaming services upfront rather than as services were delivered.
Byju Raveendran couldn’t see without his eyes but must have thought no one else could see what he was doing. But his accountant did see. After the company began missing payments to lenders, Deloitte resigned along with three independent board members. Meanwhile, an unpaid $1.2 billion loan led to a lawsuit and an allegation that $533 million of Byju’s cash was entrusted to an obscure fund manager whose office address is a bustling International House of Pancakes in Miami. Last week Byju’s missed a deadline to report FY ’22 financials and the company is expected to cut as many as 5,000 jobs.
Byju’s has been accused of being a scam. It’s not the only one. In the U.S., Charlie Javice founded Frank to simplify financial aid for college applicants. But in her haste to make millions, she invented millions of users by hiring a data scientist to manufacture a spreadsheet with four million rows. She was sued, then arrested this spring.
Just as new investment into the sector has collapsed – HolonIQ projects global edtech investment will end up around $3.5B this year compared with $20.8B in 2021 and the lowest on record since 2016 – edtech seems to be getting a bad name. But as staring into a candle flame for years is a somewhat inefficient way to learn, it’s important to recognize this is a tale within a tale. Zoom out and you’ll see that after decades of exaggerated outcomes – “success porn,” in the words of Glenda Morgan – edtech is finally shortening the time to see through things.
The fundamental problem facing every classroom teacher is how to help a diverse cohort of learners – all at different levels of understanding and ability – meet or exceed stated learning outcomes. As few students are empty vessels who develop skills and capabilities solely from being on the receiving end of content (reading, lectures) and as those who can aren’t likely to be left behind anyway, a better approach is to privilege the application of learning over content delivery: attempting a task with a desirable level of difficulty, struggling, perhaps failing, adjusting, and trying again. This is active – not passive – learning and is the algorithm each teacher should strive to optimize. The constraint is that there’s only one teacher per class and limited time; according to a recent Department of Education report, teachers spend less than half their working hours interacting with students.
In analog days, active learning meant discussions dominated by a handful of gunners, infrequent photocopied quizzes, and awful group projects hoping students might teach each other. But today, edtech is allowing teachers to spend their time on more active learning. For example:
Complementing more effective teaching is the vision of personalized learning – your own digital teacher at your side every second of your learning journey – which has been with us almost as long as The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (1976). With generative AI, it’s now here:
Edtech is also improving content delivery itself. MasteryPrep – a provider of learning loss remediation to over 500 school districts, with a focus on end-of-course exams – is leveraging generative AI to dramatically accelerate the development of state-specific curricula.
In the spirit of Roald Dahl, when I sat my kids down last week to watch Wes Anderson’s take, I made sure to bring pen and paper. “What are you writing?” they asked. “Just taking notes to see if there are any additional tips on how to see through cards faster – I’m not at casino-level yet,” I replied.
What Anderson’s short film and Dahl’s story depict is not a gambler using a new skill to become fabulously rich. Because once Henry Sugar is able to see through cards, he’s no longer interested in making money. The famous scene is Henry Sugar throwing the £6,600 into the street, one note at a time. No, Henry Sugar wants use his power for good and travels from casino to casino, country to country, disguised by Hollywood’s top makeup artist so he never appears as the same person twice. Over a period of 20 years, he sends £144 million in winnings to a Swiss bank account that establishes and funds 21 orphanages around the world.
Henry Sugar is a story about education. Training opens up worlds we never thought possible. And seeing through things allows us to make out the truth through fallacious logic and fancy rhetoric; it’s about understanding motivations and not taking things at face value, which should inure us to cons both short and long. But for Dahl, education is also inextricably connected to morality. Once we’re able to see through, morality appears like – for Henry Sugar – “slowly, magically, but very clearly, the black symbols became spades and alongside the spades appeared the number five.” So I hope you’ll pardon the yarn I’ve been spinning for my kids. The goal wasn’t to canonize concentration so they’d be able to break the bank, but rather because it’s often transformative.
Likewise, the overwhelming majority of edtech founders create and grow useful products because they were educators (or connected to educators) and saw a need to help students see through things. And thanks to their good work and the emergence of generative AI, edtech is finally poised to realize its longstanding promise.
As technology makes learning more efficient and effective, what would be even sweeter than (Henry) Sugar is if educators set aside time to address another problem: the unhappy recent finding that fewer students than ever are reading for fun. Reading (true) stories like Henry Sugar.