Archive for Learning:

October 13, 2010

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Learning, Rigour

Surely You’re Joking: Feynman on Learning, Textbooks and (un)Common Sense

“First figure out why you want the students to learn the subject and what you want them to know, and the method will result more or less by common sense.” -Richard Feynman, 1952

The concept of real learning can be easy to describe but difficult to achieve.  The work of Richard Feynman provides an interesting case study of the value starting with ‘Why’, and where to take things from there.

Why’, ‘What’…. then ‘How’ The name Caltech tends to conjure the image of highly talented, motivated students, but in 1960 it was clear there was a problem. The standard two-year introductory physics course offered to freshmen and sophomores was actually dampening their enthusiasm.  The classes offered the usual necessary foundational topics in physics, but for students who walked the university in with visions of quantum mechanics, it was more than a slight let-down.  There was not a lot of connection made between what was presented in classroom lectures and where modern day physics was heading.

Feynman recognized that what was missing was the ‘Why’ – the meaning, the reasons, the endgame, if you like, that stemmed from these foundations.  Without a sufficient ‘Why’ the ‘What’ and the ‘How’ are destined to go astray.  So from 1960-1962 he delivered what are now known as his Lectures on Physics.   They were presented to the entire introductory physics class, but the content was geared to spark the curiosity of the most advanced students (with the intent being that practice problems within their recitation sections would shore up practical understanding for others).  The lectures often presented, if sometimes only in a summary manner,  concepts beyond the students’ current understanding, giving them a window into where their studies could take them.  It was the kind of window that a standard, linearly presented course in physics did not provide.

The  Lectures were not (at the time) an unqualified success.  Feynman recognized that the somewhat spontaneous nature of the lectures meant that there was not time for sufficient front-end preparation of practice problems that were to be provided by the instructors of the recitation sections.  Advance preparation is always a key “cost” to consider when looking at non-linear, inquiry-driven learning; it is also key to its success.  Despite the need for better preparation to allow for more effective practice problems, those students who ‘got’ the concepts were inspired and motivated in ways they would not have been otherwise (as were the many graduate students and professors who attended the lectures).   In principle Feynman’s Lectures were on the right track, in practice, he was aware of the improvements and changes needed to make his approach effective (better opportunities for practice and support).

Surely You’re Joking… Evaluating Textbooks

In the book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, there is a memorable chapter regarding a time in the 1960s when Feynman was asked to help review math textbooks for the State of California’s school system.  The whole story is worth reading (being both disturbing and entertaining) and can be found online.   The experience proved to be a bit of a shock for Feynman as he went through book after book. All the texts tried to embody the kind of real learning that Feynman himself strove to provide, but each one was guilty of a serious shortcomings: inaccuracy, poor terminology, and ridiculous problems.

The root of the issue for all the texts was a sort of artificial rigor that was created to meet a list of criteria, as opposed to lessons rooted in true fundamental understanding and applicability.  Additionally, despite the names of ‘experts’ listed as authors of textbooks, the actual mass assembly process used by publishers tended to involve many authors of limited knowledge and skill; the names experts were every bit as much window-dressings as were the aspirations to suggest the course was rigorous and correct.  It is an example of expediency and costs driving content.  Creating meaningful learning takes time, effort, and deep understanding of a concept.  (Sadly, having been on committees that review Math and Science texts, I can vouch for the fact that little has changed in the intervening decades.)

Feynman immediately recognized the lack of both substance and of meaningful practice in the books.  In this case, the ‘Why’ for learning was: to meet standards generated by state bureaucracy.  This made it unlikely that the ‘what’ or ‘how’ of learning were going to to be any more meaningful; if there is no real goal, it’s unlikely there will be meaningful practice; expedient checking off the boxes becomes the priority goal, taking precedent over deep learning.

Three Easy Pieces

When comes down to it, providing the opportunity for real learning is quite simple, at least in principle:

Remember the Why Context matters.  ‘Why’ you are learning something drives everything else from motivation (it’s your ‘elevator pitch’), to sense-making, to methods.

Front End Preparation Good learning requires sufficient front-end preparation that students have worthwhile opportunities to practice and learn.  This is how they make understanding their own.  Lack of advance preparation leads to a lot more box checking and micromanagement.  Yes, it’s more work at the beginning, but if the goal is learning, not just ticking things off the list… Rigor Needs to Be Real, Not Just Window Dressing Rigor for rigor’s sake can lose track of the ‘why’ and become another form of “box-checking”.  When you know the ‘why’ you have the chance for meaningful teaching based on deep knowledge.

August 17, 2010

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Knowledge Management, Learning, Rigour

Information Filtering: the adaptive capacity of the human mind

Each time I’ve read something about “information overload” and how we need better external filters, it’s left me with a vague sense that we are over-looking the obvious.  And it really is obvious, once you stop and think about it:

Human minds are born to filter.

More than that, they are born to build very sophisticated, constantly evolving filters.  You know this intuitively; if you’ve ever taken a walk with a one year old child, they will stop and see every detail – every variation in grasses, or tree leaves; they stop to evaluate every sound, to admire every insect.  You don’t do this; your brain has learned to filter.

There have been a number of studies on infant language development.  A recent study looks at the filtering strategies employed by 18-24 month olds as they work to distinguish and learn individual words from the ambient noise of conversation. A study back in the 1990s looked at how very young children (around age 2) had already learned to filter the normal variations of pronunciations within their native language, but would respond to extremely subtle variations of pronunciation in sounds that were not present in their native language.

Those are some pretty complex filters developing in very young minds.  And our filtering abilities grow and develop throughout our lives; we filter staggering amounts of information every day.  Don’t believe me?  Step outside and turn off your filters.  Try to catch how many ambient sounds, scents and visual details your brain has routinely learned to dismiss because they do not require action – they are background noise, safe, uninteresting.  Thousands of inputs filtered out every second.

You really notice the amount of daily filtering you do if you move to a new environment.  Your brain doesn’t know what sounds or smells it can safely ignore, nor what normal weather patterns look and like, nor which insects it can allow you to simply overlook, what social cues are relevant.  So your senses are bombarded with a much higher level of detail; it can be overwhelming (and exhausting).   But over time your brain builds new filters for the new environment.

To some extent we are starting to see this evolution in our increasingly information saturated 2.0 world.  On first exposure our mental filters are as overwhelmed as they would be if one moved from Duluth to Mumbai.  Over time our filtering ability evolves; we do, after all, have minds capable of the complex  and unceasing inputs of the natural world.  But as we deveolop our media filters, we do have to take care that we are filtering well.**

**e.g.  Simon Bostock discussed an important article, Six Views of Embodied Cognition which, among other things, looks at the cognitive strategies (often short-cuts) we use when time pressured.  If those pressure driven strategies are employed consistently over time, it seems possible they may lead to over-filtering so that it becomes habitual to merely skim the online information stream, instead of selectively reading certain items with the same level of attention one would give to reading a good book.

August 5, 2010

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Learning, Social Media

Company Policy

I was asked, recently, about the advisability of including the Blog function in a Sharepoint implementation.  The answer to that lies in a question, the same primary question that needs to be asked if your business is looking Twitter, Yammer, an in-house wiki, or a host of other Social Media tools.  The question is a simple one:

Is it your company policy to hire stupid people?

I’m guessing the answer to that question is “no”; that your HR policy is to hire talented, capable, highly motivated professionals who want to excel in their careers.  Assuming that is the case, then there are some other questions to consider:

Do you want to leverage the talents of your workforce to achieve the greatest business results?

Do you want employees to have access to the best in-house knowledge to support their performance?

Do you want to increase efficiency and productivity?

In this case, I’m guessing the answer is “yes”.

So, if you’ve hired intelligent, motivated adult professionals, maybe you need to let them be just that.  Given the opportunity, it is likely a good portion of them will have expertise and insight that they want to share.  And if that expertise is shared on an in-house blog or wiki, then that means the next time someone needs input or advice they’ll be able to track down the experts in the business instead of taking Hobson’s Choice, merely asking the person at the water cooler or in the office down the hall.  And as questions get asked, it’s good odds that more and more of the most needed information will end up on your blog or wiki so that the experts only have to put it out there once, not in twenty separate conversations.  More efficient for the information seekers; more efficient for the information sources.

Now, of course it is not that simple.  It’s easy to fritter away time on blog posts, micro-blogging or wikis.  It’s easy to spend too much with social media and not enough time on projects.  But you and the rest of your organization face this already, with phone calls, email, the internet, impromptu conversations in the hallway….  Wasting time is a product of people and the company culture, not of tools.

In the same way, success of Social Media tools will also hinge on your business culture.  If you have a culture of information hoarding, or of viewing “failure” as worse than inaction, then the best tools in the world will not be effective in leveraging the knowledge and talents of your employees.   Because, as was said before, your employees aren’t stupid.  They’ll contribute and innovate in direct proportion to what your corporate culture really values.

April 19, 2010

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Knowledge Management, Learning

The Forgotten Filter

I heard it again today – a colleague protested: “There’s too much information!”

Call it what you will:  “information overload”, “drinking from a fire hose”…  however you phrase it the complaint is universal.  And so are ideas for how to manage the deluge.   One of the key tools is filters, and by filters, I don’t mean the ones in your email inbox, but the incredibly perceptive, flexible filter of the human mind.

Experience and awareness of goals and needs will go a long way toward effective filtering when you try to decide which of the 200 links coming in on your twitter feed are actually worth clicking on, let alone which ones are worth reading in detail. But a filtration system on one end of the information stream will only be able to do so much.

Think about the water system – you may have a filter on your tap at home, but that filter is designed with the assumption that there are some really substantial filters “upstream” at the water company.  That upstream filter is critical; it can remove a lot of materials that would otherwise quickly overwhelm the downstream filter at your kitchen sink.

A key to reducing the information overload for our employees or clients is to work on building our own “upstream filters”.  This isn’t a new idea.  Years ago, in the early days of listservs, high membership lists would periodically send the users a reminder: “Before you post, ask yourself:  do 500 other people need to read this?”  That’s still a valid question, and businesses using social media internally or externally can benefit from applying it.  Sometimes that email, post, or tweet is relevant or will build relationships, but other times, it probably really only needs to go to a few people, not to a whole list of followers.

There are fantastic opportunities for serendipity in the unexpected things that are buried in the information streams;  some good upstream filtering would do a lot to improve the signal to noise ratio and make those hidden treasures easier to find.

March 16, 2010

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The Right Tool for the Right Job

The other week, I ran right up against the familiar old truth: “Context Matters.”

Specifically I learned how much context matters when you don’t have clearly defined terms in a discussion where the participants have vastly different filters.

There was some truly valuable dialogue going on among #lrnchat participants about training versus learning.  The thing that struck me was the profoundly visceral reaction the word “training” generated in some of the participants.   And then I realized that we were looking at the same word from very different perspectives.

When you’ve spent time working in fields where “training” means learning critical skills like how to use a full face respirator and then practicing until one can get it on and sealed within the critical time frame, training is viewed as, perhaps, dull but necessary, because when you really need those skills you won’t have time to “google” them.

So it’s easy for me to forget that for some training means eight or 40 or 100 hours of classroom time with tedious lectures on the “mandate of the month”, with most information forgotten before you leave the classroom.  In a context like that, I can see where the word training would be viewed with a high level of disdain.

The trick is not to throw the baby out with the bath water.  Training has its place, but that place is finite (and limited) in scope, at least when the goal is learning.   Training is an optimal medium for those essential foundational skills that should be instinctive so you can think about the big-picture, non-automatic details.  A first-responder will often say quite simply “my training kicked in”.  This is true; training is for the things you need to be able to do on instinct so no time is lost, no mental energy wasted on mechanics when it is needed for decision making.  Just ask Captain Sully.

Even in less dramatic contexts, I think that the real beef with “training” is when it is training without learning, without application, without context.  Skills become natural and efficient from practice.  And a limited amount of training, done right, can lead to not only better productivity, but better job satisfaction .    If someone struggles with some of the basic functions of manipulating a spreadsheet, they have less time and attention available for the higher level analytical activities: forming insights and identifying opportunities.

The key is to bypass the temptation to apply one-size-fits-all formal training for all learning needs.  Providing learning opportunities for those who need them, when they need them allows an organization to meet the needs of both the business and the individual employees in a form that provides immediate relevance and application. Training builds skills; learning builds understanding.  Both have their place.

It’s all about context; about “the right tool for the right job”.  Sometimes you do need specific universal training.   Employees in a chemical plant need to know what to do in a fire; many business have mandatory compliance training.   In those cases you do the training, but make it real, relevant and time-effective.   What is key is assessing when you need specific training and when your organization is better served by providing opportunities for learning.

March 3, 2010

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Deja Vu

There is some interesting conversation going on in the elearning world this week.  Respected voices such as Harold Jarche, Jane Hart, Jay Cross, Jane Bozarth have been tossing around terms like “Social Snake Oil” and “Informal Snake Oil” as they discuss how Social and Informal Learning are being latched onto by software vendors and being sold simply as “out of the box” software solutions; ignoring the difficult, but valuable,cultural and process changes these powerful approaches can bring to an organization.

The more things change…

I think they are quite right in their concerns; and I think it is something that we’ve all seen coming for quite awhile.  In fact, it’s a discouragingly familiar, if predictable scenario.

A few months ago, some familiar themes starting showing up in articles and blogs and they jogged my memory.  I went into my files and pulled up some old emails and notes from the 1990s when I was debating the potential of Computer Supported Collaborative Work (CSCW) with some colleagues.   What was interesting to see was the similarity of how things played out over a decade ago to the current discussions regarding Social and Informal Learning.  Back then there were the thought leaders who could see all the promise, potential and pitfalls of CSCW.  But, as a growing circle of practitioners picked up on the message, there was a tendency of some to focus on the promise of CSCW, without systematically addressing  the complexities of implementing it in real world situations.  Then there were the businesses who were looking for a “quick win”, and for whom it was easy to get caught up in the optimism and not deeply evaluate if the “Business Solution of the Month” would address their goals and work in their culture.    Then there were the software companies who created impressively functional (for the era) CSCW tools, but who marketed them as solutions rather than as tools to facilitate business practices.  It’s easier to pitch a quick fix than to create and implement change.

It’s a pretty universal story.  From CSCW, to ERP, to Social and Informal Learning, the pattern remains the same.   Always a great concept, that along the way gets filtered down and over-simplified to the point where it’s pitched as a mere software solution.  Then all too often the huge investment fails to deliver on the promise.  The new process is good; the business objective is good; the software is good; but the whole process of selection and implementation was all wrong.   The net result is that repeated failures of technologically supported process/cultural changes leave people cynical about future innovation and initiatives.

But there is good news…

The reality is that the Social Learning communities already have the solution to this long running problem of failed initiatives.  We have the tools to get people out of their functional silos; we have the expertise and motivation to get thought leaders, practitioners, business leaders and software companies talking  (Dare we say, Collaborating?, Engaging in Social Learning?)  so that the right problems are being addressed in the right way.    There are a large number of professionals more than willing to engage with business leaders, ready to learn what we don’t know about their realities; we want to practice what we preach.   And maybe just this once we’ll have an initiative that doesn’t get binned as a failure, but actually delivers on its potential.

February 22, 2010

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Just enough? Or not enough?

Tony Karrer posed some interesting questions over at the Learning Circuits Blog; he was looking “Instruction in an Information Snacking Culture”.

Information Snacking worries me.  Not that it is entirely bad; it is in fact critical to recognize those times when you need “just enough” information to go on with; and equally key to recognize what is “just enough”.  Where problems crop up is when things shift from selective “snacking” to a practice of getting most of one’s learning from quick, surface level skimming of information.  I’ve encountered this in a variety of learner groups and the result of constant snacking is often that the habitual snacker not only has not developed the patience to consider complex ideas, but worse they have either not developed any interest in deep understanding or have lost that interest.  Those effects make me realize that the phrase “information snacking” is the perfect descriptor.  With food we all benefit from snacking occasionally. But the person who makes a steady diet of snacks can lose all appreciation of, and interest in, a well prepared dinner.

This is concerning to me for a couple of reasons.  Primarily I can see this approach leading to a new kind of “assembly line” worker, not working with mechanical parts, but limited in their work to only handling the snippets of information that are necessary to performing their function.   The second concern goes well beyond the workplace.  If a person becomes habituated to getting their information from sound bytes, whether that be 140 character tweets or a casual perusal of the first few lines of a blog, they can lose the ability to ask hard questions, and lose the interest in learning the deeper story.  That makes lives much less rich and interesting.  It also leaves people ripe for manipulation via emotion and propaganda.

With the advances in information availability in this Web 2.0/3.0 world, it seems painfully ironic that there is a growing tendency to shy away from in depth analysis.   We have all the ingredients for a rich feast of learning, but if we access it mainly in the form of snippets and quick skims, we’ll never be able to assemble that information into first rate knowledge.

Perhaps instruction in this age of a super-abundance of information primarily requires giving learners an experiential understanding of when to snack, and when they have to do the hard work of digging deeper.  The brain resists hard work, but perhaps understanding when and why it is necessary will provide the motivation to move beyond snacking and into true knowledge.

February 18, 2010

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Infinite Bricks

collection of building bricksAnyone who’s been around children knows that over time they will likely accumulate a collection of those little plastic building bricks; and that the number of bricks will rapidly approach infinity.

Businesses are in a similar situation when it comes to information.  If they want to build and share organizational knowledge, they must manage not only a superabundance of information, but also an ever growing selection of tools available to share and record that information.   Email, Sharepoint, wikis, blogs, Ning, Facebook, Twitter, Yammer and a host of others clamor for attention, not to mention the policies and practices that need to be developed regarding the use of those tools.

I’ve noticed that when a child has infinite building bricks, there are several ways things tend to play out.  Some take one look at the colorful pile of potential spread out on the floor and are so overwhelmed that they walk away and look for a simpler project with fewer decisions.  Then there are those who take a small, carefully selected collection of bricks and work with those, ignoring the rest.  Creative masterpieces can come from simply limiting the pieces available and letting ingenuity supply what is needed to build the desired object.   A few children, by virtue of having a master plan for some massive and complex structure (and the time and fortitude to pull it off), welcome the abundance of materials and are able to make use of the whole pile.

When it comes to managing and sharing information to build knowledge, businesses are stuck in a middle of an ever growing pile of “bricks”.  Walking away and doing nothing is generally not an option; but the other choices remain.  A business can carefully select a limited number of media tools, and help its employees learn how to filter information effectively; keeping the structures for information handling and sharing simple.  For other organizations, there may be motivation to create the big master plan, and then jump in and build a knowledge sharing organization that is massive in scope and complexity.  When would someone make this investment?  Perhaps when they are trying to create new market spaces and innovation and creativity are key to success; or perhaps when the old business approaches no longer works and the innovation is needed to survive.

Knowing the goals is paramount to making sure that the right approach is taken, and the right resources are made available.  Utimately the key to managing information is to have as clearly defined a strategy for building and sharing knowledge as there is for any other critical business function.


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