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21 Jun

Abraham Maslow studied self-actualized people–highly evolved people, you might say, advanced in their thinking, sophisticated in their humanity, expressive, expansive, generous, loving, confident, healthy, gifted, alert–and what made them special. In particular he focused on the way they perceived.

He thought they knew things in a different way, which he called B-Cognition, short for Being-Cognition. In B-Cognition, the individual perceives the object as if the individual were part of the object. A loving, universalizing, interrelated way of knowing. Knowing the object so well that you discover in it yourself, or links to yourself, and through those links, you intuit more links–to everything.

A way of looking or knowing that encompasses the object’s existence and your own existence and so is also a kind of being, hence the name. A way of knowing that radiates love, joy, contentedness, acceptance, appreciation, forgiveness to those in contact with the individual.

The great people manage to exist in B-Cognition; the rest of us get in there now and then: in the process of artistic creation, listening to music, in meditation or in mindful moments, walking in the woods, in a moment of “flow,” or generally, in moments of being teased out of routine cares by things.

Maslow distinguishes B-Cognition from D-Cognition, which we all use all the time, to my everlasting chagrin. This is Deficit-Cognition, perceiving in a way that separates the looker from the looked-at. Judging, categorizing, assigning relative value, assessing relevance, bracketing off, determining usefulness or beauty, investigating logical truth, etc.

D-Cognition is the lens through which we see each other and the world: “To what extent is this thing useful to me?” we are asking at some level every time we perceive anything. Or perhaps the question we ask ourselves has another form, too, coming from a position of anxiety: “Will this thing impede or injure me? Expose a vulnerability?”

If you pay attention to the flicker of thought in your mind and in the faces of others as you meet them in the street or in the office (imagine doing this!), you’ll see D-Cognition at work. Instantaneous judgements and rankings and assessments and associated thoughts and anxieties well up with every glance, no matter how fleeting.

I think D-Cognition is basically the only perceptory apparatus of the workplace, which is logical, I suppose, because the prevailing idea at work is that we are practical, efficient, and attuned to the bottom line, and we need to judge, judge, judge, judge. Or be judged. 

In aesthetic and academic circles I think there might be a little more room for B-Cognition. A scholar writing about Wordsworth, for instance (I picked him on purpose!), I hope, is (or was at some point) motivated by a B-Cognition-like experience of (or with) the text. Of course she then writes about it and has to defend her writing against other scholars and other interpretations and in creeps D-Cognition.

Maslow’s study of perception connects with other similarly-oriented ways of thinking. My personal saint and philosopher, Henri Bergson, always sought “pure perception,” for instance, which was to be achieved by intuition, a penetrative, organic, knowing-from-within, like B-Cognition.  I remember writing in my Master’s thesis decades back about the experience of using intuition on a text and hypothesizing that at some point down in the trenches of that perception you were seeing yourself or seeing an interplay between yourself and the text that changed both. Some kind of quantum effect.

B-Cognition is also a good way to describe the goal of mindfulness and meditation, very popular now (and deservedly so) in our frazzled, overloaded, hyper-material, people-argue-with-each-other-on-TV, tabloid-y culture.  These activities, coming out of the Buddhist tradition, focus your attention to your inner experience of life in the moment; and one of the key points, as you come to know yourself, is to come to know yourself as existing in a kind of suspension of selves, one big oneness. Mindfulness chips away at the unhealthy personal and interpersonal effects of D-Cognition and aims to get you to the place where you can radiate in all directions the kind of contentedness and love that Maslow’s modern Buddhas did.

B-Cognition and mindfulness also align with Constructive Developmental Psychology, which I’ve mentioned a few times, and in particular with the fabulous 5th stage of Robert Kegan’s hierarchy of epistemological sophistication.  This is the stage where your interest in being a “self” fades and you begin to take very seriously other selves and relations between selves. You laugh happily at your own fallibilities, which you would never do if you were trying to keep your you-ness intact.  And of course they align with all those wonderful, inscrutable, contradictory, healing messages from thinkers and artists working along the same lines. Walt Whitman, of course. Maybe something in the Cubists. Etc.

I like the path Maslow took — starting with a psychological investigation more or less according to the way of Western science (although feeling perhaps more like archaeology than psychology?), he ended up confirming what he was seeing by drawing similar connections to thought in non-western-scientific containers: religion, philosophy, aesthetics, literature.

One last point that I think is key. In B-Cognition, we have the data of D-Cognition, plus much more. It is not that we suddenly lose our ability to discern or to think; B is not intellectually inferior to D. Those D-data are all there, but contextualized, re-membered, put back together, held together with contradictory information, resolved, understood in a different way by an epistemology at a higher order of complexity. A small piece replaced in a big puzzle.

For myself I’m about getting more B-Cognition to the people. At work, in life. On a personal level, on a local level, on a national level. B-Cognition of others, and maybe more importantly, of themselves. Appreciation of B-Cognition. Restitution of wholeness and relatedness in the deconstructed and compartmentalized lives of people.

The Sluice

4 May

There’s a thing I’ve found that a lot of people want in their lives but don’t have. Today I’m calling it the information sluice. Other times I’ve called it an epistemological entry vector and other, even sillier, names.

The idea is that in an age of change you need lots of data about your environment and your options, and these data have to be a kind of stream or flow rich in nutrients that is both constantly regenerating but also getting processed, evaluated, the good stuff noted, and pulled out, and built upon. Like an oyster filtering specks of food out of the ocean or a classic newspaper clipping service on a massive scale. Or the baleen of all the whales together, or some kind of moisture collector system perched on outcrops of rock in a romantic desert on the planet Dune, or, in my new way of looking at it, as if it were a sluice.

You can pan for gold painstakingly in the stream alone with your hole-y overalls and your one little pan that doubles as your complete set of table china, and you can might pick up a little gold dust. That’s the analog grammarian’s way of prospecting, maybe.

But you can also build a living channel to direct a big onrush of water to slowly wash the hillside away and you can create some filters in that sluice to net the fish, as it were. Put a weir in your sluice. And you can have some people watching and tending and regulating the flow and adjusting the filters, or the stakes in the weir, learning which size mesh to use, etc. That’s the Corpus Linguistics gold mining method. That’s gold prospecting at volume.

The bad part of this sluice metaphor is of course that in the real world this kind of mining destroys the earth. The good part of the metaphor, though, is that there’s a flow and it’s constant and refreshing and it generates a lot of dirt, but wondrous good stuff, if you tend it, and you’re attentive in your tending, comes out of that dirt. And you wouldn’t get that wondrous goodness by just sitting around camping or watching TV or panning in the old way, staying on the surface, that is. And of course this is not real earth we’re talking about but rather the hillside is of ideas, an inexhaustible mound, and the gold is not gold but the invaluable, discomfitting idea, the game changer, the second idea that adheres to a first and makes a connection, etc.

A workplace with a sluice has a group–or everyone–involved in the process of gathering and sorting and sharing info. This gathering could be conducting primary research, it could be reading other people’s research, it could be reading blogs, it could be site visits and talking to people, it could be taking notes at community meetings, it could be listening to feedback when you give a talk. It’s probably a smorgasbord that combines formal and informal kinds of knowing across disciplines, mixing the sublime and the ridiculous, and mixing now and then, because the good ideas are not going to be in the places you’d expect. You have to look where you don’t want to look. The ideas that change the way you think about things aren’t going to pop up comfortably pre-categorized within an existing system. They’ll misbelong, like jokers in the card deck, and they’ll have been discarded or ignored by people playing according to Hoyle.

A key part of all this is the conversation between the sluice-tenders. For one, no one person can filter as much as three or four or five, so more learn faster over all than their individual parts, if they share. For two, the other people serve as the necessary feedback on your own filtering: confirming whether your mesh is set correctly, etc. For three, it’s more fun when you learn with other people. This conversation and sharing requirement is important to talk about, because it’s hard. It’s relatively easy to have a one-person sluice. But it’s hard to build it up between several people, and it requires more investment in communication and willingness-to-be-affected-by-others than I think most people expect to make except in their personal relationships, if even there.

Which may explain why it it seems most people don’t experience work as a sluice-tending, weir-adjusting, gold-gathering process. Some people seem to want anything but a flow of new, possibly discomfiting data (although they probably wouldn’t mind if someone else managed the data and delivered them in safely wrapped packages like a lamb chop from the butcher’s). They are happy to simply camp by the creek (and maybe not even prospect at all). But many people do want the sluice, and often they feel alone in the wilderness, intuiting that there’s a limit to their pan-prospecting, but not knowing where to find the partners to aid in the construction of the torrent (and maybe even a little afraid of that torrent themselves).

But I suspect that sluices are on the way. I talk too much about what age it is. I’ve said it’s the Age of the Gums, the Age of the System. I’ll do it again and predict that this will be the Age of the Sluice. In a recent post I noted the trend in the business community to see people’s ideas as a thing to cultivate and grow and tend and respect, as a forester loves a forest of pine–that’s a pro-sluice mentality. At an IT Governance meeting on campus the other day I was delighted to hear a broad-based outcry for a kind of “marketplace of ideas,” through which everyone could know what everyone else was doing–that’s a pro-sluice idea, too (I’ll blog on this particular event later).

Before I leave you, three additional thoughts.

1. It’s Recursive. A weird thing about this sluice — when it really works, what comes out of it changes the people using it, and changes how it works itself. Or you might say, the person-sluice hybrid evolves. On a simple level you can see that happening when people adjust the filter mesh for better results. But this kind of double-loop learning has infinite possibilities for spiraling evolution into unknowable complexities. So we have to see the sluice as a thing to some degree turned back upon itself and always in the process of becoming something else. What would that something else be? A sluice that evolves into a sluice of sluices, a meta-sluice? A sluice that fills the mound of ideas back up, that discovers, evaluates and creates? A sluice that takes away its need to be there, like self-absorbing stitches? I am not sure. Let’s find out.

2. This is what all those smart people do. You know those Ted talkers and Steve Jobses, people who are always popping up with wisdom and new ideas and opening your mind to something–they have found a way to have a flow of ideas pouring through, they are looking for good ones, and when they find them they hold them and start to layer others on as they come in. Doing it makes you better at doing it. This is how they are able to keep generating their Ted talks.

3. Having ideas is an artistic skill. Alan Kay says learning to have great ideas is a mastery skill like any other, like playing an instrument, say, and if you put in 4 – 5K hours, you’ll get there (this from a NITLE talk I summarized in a recent post). As he said, “A good idea is really improbable, but you won’t have any if you filter too early.” The trick is learning to adjust the filter and increasing the probability by accelerating the flow. The fine arts reference is meaningful–artists know all about this sluice idea. What does a painter do, sit around waiting for an idea to pop up and only then get out her paints (the gold-panning method)? Or does she paint a lot and consistently and every day, and discover in her flow and volume the nuggets that become the elemental matter of her personal periodical table? Ask Stephen King or Anthony Trollope: it’s the second option.

4. In another way the sluice is a replacement of school. Your formal education is kind of like a sluice that someone else filters, pointed at you. You wake up every day and have ideas dumped on you; isn’t that the general experience? That’s bad in ways–as in it’s a kind of teacher-centric focus on content that the progressive pedagogy movement has decried for a long time–but in others it’s not bad. Having the intuition or habit of what a flow of ideas is, learning to feel a passionate need for that flow, sense that that flow is related to your personal growth, that’s all good. For many these feelings are lost when they shift to work, and they desperately want to replace them, and I think that’s a salutary impulse. The trick is, of course, to see also that you need to be the sluice-tender, not just the passive recipient, because the thing you’re changing is your way of knowing, not the cumulative amount of knowing you do.

Whither Higher Education? 16 Ideas.

1 May

Whither higher education in the global, digital, flat world of today and tomorrow? It’s the cocktail party conversation topic du jour. My pick of 16 thoughts on the subject:

  1. We’ll Pay to Be Members: Education will be seen as something you pay for regularly, before and after you draw on it, like life insurance or a membership to a benevolent society or tithes to a church; although there won’t be an “after”–in the future we’ll never stop learning;
  2. Disaggregated Learning Bits: The “feel” of participating in higher education will be disaggregated, with much more involvement of crowd-sourced-like components and entrepreneurial thinking (and perhaps funding), in which people in all walks of life will play equal parts (as in Jim Groom’s “proto-MOOC” which is both in and outside of a university);
  3. Control to the Students: Students will have a greater role in shaping and selecting the components of their education; course catalogs will take on the dynamic feel of stock markets or some other wide-scale selection and value-confirming interface; students will be allowed to drop and add components as they feel they should; students will write components that other students use; students may even sometimes teach teachers; and that’s OK because of number 4, below;
  4. More Sophisticated Learners: Students will be much more sophisticated about how learning works and more aware of their own learning (we’ll encourage this with “how to learn” structures of all kinds), so they’ll be much more thoughtful in the selection and creation of their educational components, more conscious of whether they’re learning or not, and much more demanding; they’ll move away quickly from things they don’t like; also they’ll be of every age and culture and life experience;
  5. End of Bankers Hours: Hours of synchronous instruction, where it remains, will spread across the clock and will include times 16 – 32 year olds are mentally active (midnight to 4 am) as well as times the rest of us are; the work day for staff and faculty will be replaced by widely distributed work-chunks popping up throughout the calendar and clock;
  6. Faculty and Staff Will Phone It In: Faculty and staff will increasingly work from home and spend minimal time on campus, and that’s good, because we’ll be able to draw on a greater variety of people, and have access to wider skills, and people will be able to live where they want (like among beautiful grasslands) and still work for schools elsewhere (like in the city); where I talk about the end of the four-year student residency below, I also mean the end of the life-long residency for many faculty and staff;
  7. Work and Learning will be Similar: It will be less easy to distinguish education from work and vice-versa (and that’s good, in that we’re retraining the entire workforce to be effective in the digital, flat, global age, even as we’re training students to be similarly effective); and there’s a lot both work and formal learning can learn from each other; and people will be shifting in between each mode constantly;
  8. On-sites are Brief and Intense: Residential experiences will only happen at key points–bookends, or for particular parts of a sequence, but won’t be constant throughout the learning cycle, which will let us move many more people through the campus, as through a hotel or a resort and give more access to a campus experience to more people; it’s the end of the four-year residency. But don’t worry: you can still get that community feeling from brief stints: remember summer camp?;
  9. It’s About the Culture: More emphasis will be placed on creating and assessing the “culture” that supports and surrounds learning (this will complement our focus heretofore–on learning as a thing that happens in the head of the student); this means more investment in (and assessment of) faculty and staff learning and more attention to community-enriching things like faculty-student interaction studies or assessments of workplace dynamics; we’ll consciously try to craft a “learning organization” (or Argyris “Model 2”) culture in our schools and workplaces;
  10. Roles Will Be Fluid: There will be less differentiation between what have been seen as fixed roles: most staff will have some greater hand in instruction; students will increasingly teach each other (through tutoring, etc); and faculty may even play student-like roles more happily; instruction will be seen as a collaborative partnership of multiple people;
  11. Massive Retraining Will be the Norm: We’ll be constantly ready to retrain all staff and faculty at a moment’s notice in the various new processes and forms dictated by shifting market conditions and incessant innovation;
  12. We’ll Cultivate Ideas: We’ll see our own internal creativity and ideas as perhaps the key component of long-term institutional success and we’ll build systems and cultures to support, generate, and encourage ideas, the testing of new models, entrepreneurial thinking, innovation laboratories, etc.;
  13. We’ll Share with Other Schools: We always said we would, but now we really will–collaborate with other schools. In shared infrastructure (LMS, Information Systems, shared skill positions, shared risky innovation environments) and in shared academics (you offer French and we’ll offer Greek), but we’ll try to keep a wrapper of core institutional identity around the things we offer and do;
  14. Feelings Will Guide Us: We’ll describe a certain kind of institutional “feeling” that should exist in the learning that happens under our auspices, and this will be the thing that we’ll use to vet new structures and courses, which are likely to be formally radical;
  15. We’ll Analyze Stuff: We’ll make much more use of Learning Analytics and Corpus Linguistics sorts of real-time analyses and dashboards to better understand (in meaningful ways) how our students learn and to adjust our pedagogy in response (and we’ll share these analyses with the students themselves);
  16. We’ll Archive Everything: We’ll invest significantly in the infrastructure that archives and retains (and makes analyzable) the intellectual record of the institution–and we’ll interpret this “record” broadly, to include conversations, written work, emails, course syllabi.

About Customer Service

2 Mar

Once I was covering the phones on a Sunday at an instructional technology help desk. I got a call.

“I have a problem,” said the person on the other end, and he began to describe his experience. It was a basic problem, and I knew before he even said three words how to fix it.

The person was talking a lot more than was necessary, but who doesn’t do that? What are we to do, talk to each other in beeps like R2D2? I waited patiently. When he gave me a place to talk, I told him in the most direct way I could how to fix the problem. “You just need to click the button at the bottom of the screen,” said I. (Or something equally simple).

There was a pause, and he said, “but I had this problem.” And he told his story again. As he was talking I reflected. Is he describing to me again the very problem we just solved, and even using the very same words? He was indeed. Had he not heard the solution? Apparently he had not. Maybe I hadn’t been clear? Or maybe I had been too pithy! Maybe I needed a little more narrative, I thought. A little more humanity. So when I was given a space in which to talk, which took a while, I took another approach.

“I think I understand your problem. I’ve had it myself! The design of the interface is lousy. These software designers today, oy! Feels like you ought to have a drop-down menu at the top. But when you roll around up there with the mouse, nothing to be seen. You could be rolling around there forever and get nothing. And when you don’t see what you want, you feel lost. And you wonder, ‘What am I to do?’ And nobody wants to ask that question. Happily, there is something you can do–a button on the bottom of the page! If you click on it, your problem will be fixed! I know, I didn’t believe it at first, either! Don’t ask me why or how, but that’s where it is. And you can use that little button as many times as you want and it just fixes, fixes, fixes. And you’ll never have the problem again! And after a while you get used to the button, and your hand mechanically clicks it, and you forget you ever had the problem in the first place. And the ripple fades and the surface of the pond is smooth.” (Or something like that).

And then there was another pause. And he said “but I had this problem,” and he described the problem for a third time.

Then as I sat listening to the problem again, I reflected more. Or more accurately, something happened in my brain similar to the famous heart-growth moment of the Grinch. “He doesn’t want the problem fixed,” I thought. “Is that possible? Then what does he want? Why did he call? What can I even do? What can I say? What is the purpose of this conversation? Who is this person? Who am I? Why are we on the planet together?” Etc. And a thought did eventually come to me. So when I had the chance to talk again, I tried another approach still.

“That is frustrating,” I said.

“Yeah,” he answered, with a sigh. “Yeah.” Then there was a pause. “Thanks,” he said, and hung up.

Leaders of Learning Organizations

17 Oct

I recently posted on the characteristics of learning organizations, which I excerpted from chapter 20 of Edgar Schein’s lovely book Organizational Culture and Leadership, which is in general a must-read for anyone who believes in the first sentence of paragraph two of this blog post (and how could you not, really)?  In any event I now want to talk a little bit more about what Schein says in that chapter regarding the leaders of learning organizations, which is interestingly different, I think, than a lot of assumptions we make about successful leaders.

First of all, the background. Schein assumes (as many do) that organizations and people who are committed to “perpetual learning” are the ones that will be successful in an era of unpredictable change (our era, that is).  He notes a paradox–that organizational culture is normally a stabilizing force that resists change, made up of internalized assumptions about what it takes to be successful, and which individuals are understandably reluctant to revisit once they’ve worked them out. But learning, of course, requires the surfacing and adjustment of just such assumptions. Uncovering and changing these assumptions, which Schein calls “unfreezing” the culture, requires “disconfirmation, a process that is inevitably painful for many,” and that releases a lot of anxiety, the very thing the culture evolved to defend us from in the first place.

The leader of the learning organization has a sort of double responsibility to both encourage this discomfiture and pain and to be a salve–to also provide, that is, a kind of temporary stability to replace the structure previously provided by the now-obsolete cultural assumptions. As a leader, says Schein, you must be as it were half out and half in your organization (my words). Out to gather the perspective and alternatives and disrupting information, in to help people work through them. You need “the capacity to surmount your own organizational culture, to be able to perceive and think about ways of doing things that are different from what the current assumptions imply;” you need to be “somewhat marginal” and “somewhat embedded in the organization’s external environment.”

But you also must be half-embedded in your own environment, play an “anxiety-containing” role, putting people at ease, providing emotional reassurance and stability during the natural rise in anxiety that occurs when people learn, creating a space that is “psychologically safe,” where people can be temporarily vulnerable. Schein reminds us that you can’t get people to learn unless they want to; as he says: “learning and change can not be imposed on people. Their involvement and participation is needed in diagnosing what is going on, in figuring out what to do, and in the actual process of learning and change.”

A key side note is that in the world of change the leader herself may not really know what the right answers are; therefore a kind of cultivated naiveté (my phrase), or a spirit of “humble inquiry,” is needed, which allows and encourages information to come from all parts of the organization. The front-line staff member is just as important an information gathering point as is an executive, but the executive needs to be open to that.

For those that hate the touchy-feely, navel-gazing quality of self-improvement, look out. This is what you need on an individual and group level if you want to learn perpetually. Schein notes that as counseling and psychotherapy help individuals learn about themselves, learning organizations could benefit from similar kinds of activities, like group counseling, as it were, or “training and development programs that emphasize experiential learning and self-assessment.” Lots of experiments in a culture of intense self-awareness, not normally part (I suggest) of the average workplace.

On another side note, it seems to me that even in a perpetually-learning organization, we can’t be surfacing and changing all assumptions all the time; that this needs to be an iterative process; that we’d only really address at any given moment a limited sphere of assumptions that seem to be holding us back in a particular, focused area.  Otherwise it would be too chaotic even for me, which is saying something. This is why Schein makes a point of telling us it’s about surfacing and changing “some of the group’s assumptions” (emphasis mine). Not all.

So, my summary. The leader of the learning organization has to be half-out and half-in, a provocateur on one level (with a benign an holy purpose in mind of course), and a conciliator on another. She has to use the existing culture to get buy in to change the existing culture, and this in successive and continuous cycles. She must be humble and open but also visionary and determined, precipitous and calm, strong but also lovable; she must cause pain (indirectly) and slake it. She has to do for the organization what psychotherapy does for the individual–help make it a thoughtful, reflective, adaptive, aware, adjustable, learning team. Isn’t that different than the general image of leaders, on the one hand the driving, type A model of a CEO? Or on the other the imminently competent operations manager rising through the ranks to much-deserved leadership position? And it sounds challenging! But also so very fun.


Learning and Babies

16 Sep

I recently peeked at the first few chapters of Gopnik, Meltzoff, and Kuhl’s The Sceintist in the Crib, a review of their research into early childhood cognitive development.

It’s fun stuff.

Ends up, according to Gopnik et. al., that babies are not awash in a sea of undifferentiated sensory phenomena of all sorts, unable to focus in any way, conceptually or visually, and not knowing the difference between a sack of potatoes and “skin-bags” (otherwise known as people). Nor are they Freudian expressions of all the unrestrained psychoses that adults have learned to sublimate. Neither is every behavior they show caused either by animal instinct or gas.

Gopnik’s experiments show that from birth infants are putting intelligence to use, understanding more of the world than we would expect, making hypotheses about the rest, and systematically testing and adjusting those hypotheses. They are preprogrammed to recognize people, they can imitate facial expressions even immediately after birth, and they even understand things surprising well, being conditioned to look for the edges of things, knowing rules like “things get smaller at distance,” and being able to mystically associate the feeling of something (say, a bumpy pacifier) with its visual representation. This seemingly intentional quest for knowledge on babies’ part and their make-assumption-and-test method is more like a scientist’s approach than anything else (hence the title of the book).

Gopnik suggests infant early childhood learning consists of three interconnected parts, each more substantial than we would have thought: innate knowledge (children come with a lot more information than we ever knew); a drive to learn and an intelligence actively engaged in learning (as opposed to conventional assumption that their mind is just a kind of passive mushiness); and people programmed to provide the right kind of tutelage. On this last point, Gopnik notes out how our own innate ability to make nonsense sounds as we “flirt” with infants inperceptibly shifts to what she calls a “sportscaster’s play by play” by the time the child is a toddler–“that’s a chair, Johnny!” It ends up even the older sibling plays a key instructive role in his or her ambivalent relationship with the infant.

That three-pronged system–innate skills, intelligence seeking to learn, and helpful tutelage–starts to feel like a kind of ecosystem of enculturation hardwired into people, kicking in almost automatically, and more complex and thoughtful than we could have devised had we tried.

In any event, I find it all inspiring, and I suspect somewhere in that natural ecosystem is a model for successful learning later in life, should we choose to adopt it. (Gropnik may make this point herself later in the book–I’ve only read the first 3 chapters so far.)  We’ve already apparently extrapolated the entire scientific enterprise from the intuitive approach babies take to their confusing world; so there may be other nuggets of worth in there somewhere.

The Future of Learning: a Mini-Memoir

8 Aug

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the Future of Learning institute, sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Programs in Professional Education and Project Zero; the ideas and energy were wonderful–many thanks to the organizers.  I list some of the things that “stuck” with me from the experience.

Games are good.  It ends up games model integrated, formative assessment, inspire intrinsic motivation, and allow for student-driven, project-like learning “quests.”  So says Barry Fishman of the University of Michigan School of Education. But they can also serve (!) as a kind of structuring metaphor for learning contexts. Barry Fishman designed his course on games to be a game itself. Designing games is in itself a deep, immersive learning experience: whole schools now are built around game design (see the Quest to Learn grade school in New York City). Although I don’t know of a school that is itself a game–to take Fishman’s idea one degree further–now that would be neat.

Good standardized assessment is possible.  Zak Stein of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Developmental Testing Service suggests standardized tests can be based on learning theory (ends up they’re not) and on what learners know (as opposed to what experts think they should know) and can be transparent and formative and integrated into the curriculum and thereby give quick feedback right back into the learning process, and not be scary, high-stakes, black-box things. His non-profit group works with schools essentially (in my retelling) to build a ladder of concepts in a given field by conducting an exhaustive process of ethnographic interviews with learners at every level. Then a series of accessible assessment instruments is designed for all the different levels on that concept ladder. The kicker is that taking the assessments essentially looks and feels like regular old quotidien classroom learning, so they’re not scary, and you don’t stop the class to take them; because they’re transparent and immediate, they can show the students where they are comparatively and what the next steps in their progress should be. Students can even jump to the next step.  Or the step beyond that!  (Why not?)

Disabilities are co-located. David Rose of the Center for Applied Special Technology was passionate in pressing home the point that disabilities are contextual. That the environment–or a given communications medium–is part of the problem. Perhaps the problem. And that it should share the burden of adjustment. That disabilities aren’t so much an individual’s fault as a circumstance. Reading problems are often problems with print media but not other forms of communication; ADHD problems are often co-located in the environment which the school and the classroom impose and aren’t problems outside of schools, etc.

Stress is bad. David Rose, Zak Stein, and others also referred to recent findings that physical problems can be caused by stressful learning environments–damage to the brain, ulcers, etc. Sometimes it’s the high-stakes nature of a particular assessment; sometimes an environment is more stressful because of a learner’s predisposition; either way it’s not simply that we learn less well but than we can actually be damaged. Anyone would say it’s illogical to let the measurement of a thing or the environment we create around a thing destroy the thing we’re hoping to develop. Reflecting cursorily on my own experiences of education, work, and life, though, I note that stress is pretty much the coin of the realm, and I fairly gasp in horor at what we may be doing to ourselves.

It’s all about globalization. Perhaps the challenge of the age is globalization, or how you get along in this world where relatively insular cultures with their own rules are thrown together with groups whose rules are different.  In other words, how do we help ourselves evolve to not just tolerate but collaborate with people from other cultural settings?  Because if we don’t collaborate, the earth is effectively doomed . . . In any event, I’ve decided in my impetuous way that basically anything worth learning should also be seen from a global perspective wherever possible. My example is Todd Elkin’s wonderful Shelter Project: Elkin didn’t just teach his local students, say, building design techniques. He asked them to entertain a variety of questions in a global context.  Among them: to imagine sustainable structures using the kinds of materials used in shanty-towns and tent cities the world over; to understand more deeply the housing and living conditions in the world and the causes that shaped them; and to collaborate with students from other places in the world who lived in such towns.

The studio is the answer.  If you read the old posts on this blog, you know I’m a fan of studio learning, which I sometimes refer to as the “atelier” model, using a fancy French word. I was happy to hear Lois Hetland talk about her work researching the qualities of mind artists develop–and the advantages of thinking and learning that come from working in a studio culture. Now I am even more obsessed with applying the studio model wherever I can. As David Perkins notes (page 180, Making Learning Whole), it’s a model that’s probably applicable anywhere you can find a way to make the thinking going on “visible” (imagine various white boards, display screens, sticky note exercises replacing painting with oils).  Wouldn’t I love to work in a workplace-as-studio?

The FOL format is neat. The Future of Learning institute is like the Project Zero Classroom institute in that it has an interesting hybrid format.  Morning plenary sessions by leaders in various learning areas are followed by elective “mini courses,” or 2-hour interactive immersions in a variety of areas from gaming to studio thinking to learning in the workplace. In addition you also have time to meet with a small group of people in more informal ways–and you’re encouraged there to discuss ideas that came up from mini courses and plenaries as well as developing a question or project of your own.  It’s a nice balance of opportunities to absorb information more or less passively with opportunities to engage and process.  A hybrid format like this would probably work well in a variety of other settings. Like school or the workplace.

Project Zero people are worth knowing. The people who go to Project Zero institutes (in my experience) are different than those I know from various higher education organizations. They’re more commonly k-12 teachers and administrators, or curricular specialists or researchers who work with k-12 teachers; they’re more deeply familiar with progressive pedagogy (such as the “Teaching for Understanding” movement that grew out of Project Zero); and they have a wonderful commitment to improving their teaching and improving learning in general. More of the higher education teaching and learning community should gravitate their way, in my opinion: there is a rich future world of shared experiences begging to be engendered . . .

Is Everything Learning?

28 Jul

I’ve been advocating for a while the idea that we organize the workplace as a learningplace, taking advantage of what we know about how people learn to shape the norms and expectations of what we do on the job.

But understanding things as learning seems to work in all sorts of other interactions and environments. That is, looking to see if core elements of learning are there, and if they are, then asking whether applying pedagogical principles might not improve the thing examined.

What key elements? Well, there would need to be some important knowledge to be created, some individual(s) that could develop, some behaviors that needed to change, some feedback that could be given, some hidden assumptions to surface and adjust, some key outcomes to identify, some important agreements to make, some vulnerabilities to protect, some mentor there to help, some community to share, etc.

These elements pretty much appear in anything people do? That’s what I’m starting to think.

Take your doctor-patient relationship. There’s a little team of two people, one with amazing knowledge about the rules of health and one living in a body. One is used to solving medical problems and one less used to it. Both need to solve the problem. The two have to work together; both have important but incomplete information. Success requires both to share, build on the other’s knowledge, discover and apply ideas together, talk, trust. Hypotheses, testing, reflection, and feedback are in order. Basically it’s a little learning community. A class, a seminar, a tutor-tutee relationship. But does it feel like a seminar? How elusive the hallowed bedside manner, how brusque and condescending doctors can sometimes be, how scared the patient. How we all zoom in and out of appointments leaving things unsaid, how you never really step back and ask “What are we doing here? What is our goal?” or hear a doctor say “how did I do?” All things normal in a team that knows its goal is to learn. So there’s probably room for some of the things we know about learning to help this particular team learn better.

Another example: change management, the great bugaboo. It’s the problem any group will encounter that has the temerity to undertake something new–the fact that people sometimes have a hard time doing new things. Well, change management is learning–the individuals involved have to understand the new thing they’re to do, and be helped getting there, along the way jettisoning some outgrown assumptions, just as if they were learning Physics 101. The reason change is a bugaboo is that we try not to think of it as learning; we just want to snap our fingers and boom! People change. Imagine a professor in Physics 101 thinking something like that? Physics 101 in five minutes? It’s probably silly. Silly in the classroom, silly in the change management context. Probably not how people learn.

When you think about it, almost everything important is learning, and could therefore benefit from applying some of our classroom-honed truths. Particularly things that people do together and that require communication and seeing things from multiple perspectives. Like relationships. Teams. Government. Parenting. Negotiation. Problem-solving. Or, in other words, life.

Is there ever a time you’re not learning? When you could just be, say, or do? Maybe just performing after you’re finished learning? I’m not sure there is.

Things like meditation and prayer try to get to you stop thinking and interpreting and just be. When you do it, you discover that you’re in tune with your body, your environment, your feelings. You’re calm, you’re spiritual, you’re balanced. And yet all that stuff is a kind of information that feeds back into you and changes or influences your behavior and your beliefs. Starts to sound like learning, man!

And about doing. In theory people like professionals might learn something, then just function at a high level thereafter, coasting along in the performance of their skill. In actuality, though, you probably can’t really separate doing from learning. You need to do to learn; that’s what’s behind active learning, experiential learning, constructivism. Learning is essentially doing and reflecting again and again. If the professional hasn’t got some kind of feedback loop going on, then his or her performance seems unlikely to become or remain consistently good. He or she is probably learning even while doing.

But let’s just say for the sake of argument that there is a thing you could learn to do as it were mindlessly with minimal reflection or feedback or adjustment. Just automatically and repetitiously and consistently. And that the unreflective mechanical work would be sort of reassuring or comforting, like playing solitaire. Or watching Murder, She Wrote. Ok, I admit this happens and that this sort of mechanical activity might not benefit from being viewed through the lens of teaching and learning. But the rest of our activities probably do.

So what does this all mean? What happens if we see everything in life (except watching Murder, She Wrote) as a learning activity, applying what we know about how people learn?

Well, we’d start to realize we needed to support people’s learning, that it couldn’t happen fast. We would slow down the leap from problems to solutions wherever we could. People would need to try out ideas and be wrong a lot. We’d have to encourage that. We’d need feedback all over the place. We’d try to make our thinking visible wherever we could. Assumptions would need to be on the table. Painful self-awareness a daily event. We’d know being vulnerable would be key and so we’d build trust in everywhere we could. In fact, my growth would depend on me helping and engaging with people around me as much as it did me doing things by myself. A general shift from the dog-eat-dog high school gym atmosphere of much of human activity into something more like a cross between a support group, a writers workshop, a chess club, kindergarten, and an NGO.

In short, radical change for all places. But behind it all the wonderful idea that the organizing principle of everything is growth, development, discovery, and becoming.

Pedagogical Space and Political Space

18 Jul

I am reflecting on the difference between pedagogical and political space. I tend to prefer the former; I don’t think you can escape the latter. My thoughts below.

Pedagogical space is where people organize themselves to learn. It has what they call “psychological safety.” You can be vulnerable and wrong. In fact, that is the point–to be wrong, to reflect on it, and to adjust. You do messy things like encounter challenging new information and try to make sense of it, or surface your assumptions (things you believed but didn’t know you believed) and adjust them. All with a group of people doing the same thing. There is multi-directional communication, but it isn’t out of control: everyone gets a chance to (and has to) talk; no one person dominates. Reflection and feedback are the coins of the realm. Not just “I love it or I hate it” feedback, but careful, generative, constructive feedback that tells you what you understand well and where you can think a little bit more. File assessment under the feedback category: in pedagogical space, assessments are going all the time–informal, formal, and in-between–of your learning, of the group’s learning, of the teaching, of the interaction, of the value of the information the class is working on, on the goals of the course. Oh, and you buy in and have say, but you also have responsibilities. You have the chance to CHOOSE to be in the space, and to choose the particular way you’ll go about your learning (from a discreet list, likely), but you also have to help uphold the norms. Pedagogical conversations incline towards wondering–sharing data with proposed interpretations. Finally, pedagogical space leaves more capacity in its wake (because people learn, are more developed, have relationships, know better how to learn).

Political space is different. The goal isn’t to learn, it’s to influence or control. Communication is generally unidirectional–from the person who wants to do something to the people who are suposed to let her; the communication is minimal (just enough to get approval) there is little chance for feedback. When feedback happens, it’s stilted, shrunken, a critique (with an ulterior purpose) or a sycophantic agreement. There is less choice–you’re there because it’s your job, say, or it’s the place you use to tell people what to do. Vulnerability is to be avoided (because people will use that to divert your plans), and the last thing you want to do is reflect on your own assumptions. You also desire not to be wrong, and not to admit it if you are. Your gaze is outward, towards the external world you intend to change. There is no real assessment of the team or its conversation or its purpose–if there is assessment, it’s usually of the product of the work of the team. Political conversations incline towards the dogmatic–positions or interpretations without evidence. And, finally, political space leaves the same or less organizational capacity in its wake.

Having said all this you probably can’t have all one or the other, and any group or conversation probably only leans one way or the other. Neither is completely bad or good. Political space, for instance, is what you want when you don’t need to learn, but just need to act. It’s efficient. On the other hand, if you want your team to do some new work it’s never conceived of before, or grow in some important way, or takle a challenging new problem, political space isn’t going to work on its own. Political space does seem to be the societal default, but it doesn’t need to be; by contrast, it seems the great leaders use pedagogical space to great advantage to convey their message. One thing that does seem clear: the people involved need to know what space they’re in. A part of the team following the rules of one when the rest of the group is in the other would be awkward. So maybe the ultimate goal is to let the team pick the one you want based on what you are trying to do, and be open about it.