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Chris Jernstedt on Learning

12 Jul

Chris Jernstedt, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, spoke Monday at the Learning Organization Academy. My summary of key points:

Learning Organizations Should Map to the Brain

If we really want to build learning organizations, they should of course take into account how the brain works; fortunately, we might already be heading in the right direction: chris notes that the literature on organizational growth and change is remarkably consistent with how the brain operates.

Learning Should Include Thinking, Feeling, and Interacting

The brain’s major regions focus on three key areas: social (watching what other people do, emulating it), executive (making decisions, plans, interpretations), and emotional processing (feeling and dealing with how we feel about things). All three are integral to how the brain works; all three should be a recognized part of a learning organization (consider to what extent cognitive / executive thought is privileged now in most organizations and higher education).

Memory and Learning are Active

“Memory and learning are something you do,” said Chris. Rather than files retrieved from an efficient archive, the process of remembering is more similar, for Chris, to an archeological dig (!). Each memory is a product of reconstruction and re-interpretation (!) of a bunch of scattered bits. And the same for learning: rather than receiving knowledge as a jukebox might receive coins, we’re actually building the things we know association by association.

The Brain is Not Neat

“The brain is built to be sloppy,” Chris said. There’s a trade-off between the kinds of mental structures and processes that make for efficient memory and the kind that allow for creativity; the brain allows some sloppiness and inefficiency so we can make new connections, associate unlikely things, invent our way out of a tight corner. But in exchange we’re imperfect warehouses.

Engage or Forget

The most important thing in remembering or learning something new is to use the information actively. Engagement is even more important than overall time spent. Talk about it, write about, do something with it. Otherwise it’s gone in 24 hours, says Chris; 60 to 80% of your learning should require you to be engaged, he said; and he therefore suggested we use symbols to capture the key points of his talk (writing or images). He also stopped every few minutes to challenge us in groups with a provocative question or two. “The person doing the talking is the one doing the learning,” he said.


The brain uses prompts and incentives to help it learn. Prompts relate to its powerful predictive ability: to survive we need to know what effects follow from what causes; we’re so good at associating effects with causes that after even one highly-charged cause-effect sequence, the brain will subsequently predict the outcome of any similar cause and feel and act as if the effect had happened, even if it hadn’t. Every time you see a certain person, they frown at you? After a while you start to feel frowned-at just by thinking of that person. Good learning understands this strong promptability and tries to unpack and discharge prompt-associations that impede learning, and kindle positive ones that encourage it.

The Three Rules of Feedback

Incentives work on the other end of the cause and effect sequence–a positive outcome makes the brain feel good, and it remembers what it did to get that; then it’s more likely to do that thing later. This process is what makes feedback work so well; as long as feedback is useful, consistent, and rapid, you can effectively learn just about anything. Including to control anything the body does–even lowering high blood pressure certain degrees at your will, slowing down or speeding up your digestive tract, or keeping sperm (if you have them) from swimming. These body-related learnings require a biofeedback monitor of some kind and are done in the lab, but still: if you can control the speed at which food passes through your intestines, you can make all sorts of changes in any of your behaviors.

Transfer Requirements

For learning in one situation to be called upon in another, thus achieving the famous holy grail of “transfer,” Chris notes that the first situation needs to be as simliar as possible to the second. And practicing it three times before the transfer helps, too.

Extrinsic Motivation Doesn’t Work; Neither Does “Espoused Theory”

No change will come of telling people what they should do, says Chris. Rather, you have to “give them what they want when they do it.” A useful and speedy reward or some kind of feedback that tells their brain that what they just did was good. A second problem with extrinsic motivation is that the brain isn’t fooled by rhetorical positions, claims, values statements, plans, that are different than the real behavior of the individual who promotes them (see Chris Argyris’ famed “espoused theory”). People’s brains will “see” that a given leader isn’t listening to them, even if he or she espouses an open-door policy (and maybe even if they consciously believe that policy).

Stories are Important 

According to Chris, the story you create is more powerful than truth. If you’re given some pictures and told to tell “false” stories about them (that is, stories that don’t truthfully reflect the contents of the pictures), you’ll remember the stories and not the pictures themselves. Which suggests how important it is that we include stories and narratives in our understanding of the workplace environment.

The Unconscious is Powerful

“Most of what you do,” says Chris, “is unconscious.” As much as 98% (!).  Chris referred to research that shows our brain can solve math problems well before we actually know it. The conscious mind, driving to a speedy conclusion, or incapable of processing all the data, can even impair the whole brain from working: Chris noted a study that showed people who were given some minor task to occupy their conscious mind actually solved complex problems faster than people who were consciously thinking about the problem, showing that the brain has a way of drawing on problem-solving capacities we don’t know about. “The brain knows,” said Chris. The way you tap into this power is to give yourself time. Add periods of unscheduled time into the routine; places for reflection, etc.

Deciduous Scissors

11 Jun

We recently made up a game called Curly Cravings for our grandmother for her birthday.

Here’s how it works. You make three teams. Your team is given a noun, an adjective, and a problem randomly selected from hats filled with pre-populated items of the respective categories written on slips of paper by players in advance. You’re required to conceive of a solution to the problem you draw that makes use of the noun and the adjective you draw. You then give your solution to another team, who draws a picture of it, and then to a third team, who dances it. All the while, you’re drawing and dancing other people’s ideas, too. At the end you have a “Curly Craving,” which is the 3-part combination of an idea, a picture, and a dance.

For more information, here’s a link to the instructions; and the “Picto-Instructions” image from those instructions is below. Note: the instructions make intentional use of alternate English spelling conventions adapted by our game-development team.

By way of example, in the legendary first game, one team was asked to solve the problem “Keep People From Killing the Animals” using the adjective-noun team “Slippery Eyeball.” The solution involved a rapidly moving eyeball keeping watch on all would-be animal killers, and flashing them to sleep with a powerful wink method immediately prior to the act of killing, at which point the animals would escape. We’ve lost the remarkable picture drawn of this solution, but we remember still the actor in the role of an wild, but gentle, animal grazing contentedly, the actor playing “Eye” and his dramatic wink, the actor playing a hunter overwhelmed by drowsiness even while in the very midst of aiming his rifle.

Some things I like about the game:
  • It’s an exercise in constrained problem solving. You inherit problems and try to solve them with components you have no real control over the selection of. In this way it’s like life.
  • It makes you creative. You put together things that generally don’t belong, which is the essence of creativity. “Deciduous Scissors,” one such unlikely combo, was a favorite noun-adjective pairing from another past instantiation of the game. There’s a mad-libs-like, surreal quality to the combinations and the solutions developed from them that helps people escape, as it were, from the dictatorship of conventional psycho-realism and its social restrictions, fixed attitudes, beliefs, group think, anxieties.
  • You care about other people’s ideas. You receive the ideas of other people, and you interpret them by drawing. You interpret someone else’s interpretation by dancing. This has a funny way of making you feel like the solutions are part of you, too. In this way Curly Cravings draws on the core power of other idea-sharing structures, like World Café facilitation methodology.
  • Memory is engaged. You’ll never forget a Curly Craving once you’ve drawn it, danced it, or seen it danced or drawn. Something about seeing my friend Richard (name changed to protect her identity), for example, embodying the role of a Deciduous Scissors as it “healed” a Rusted Combine-Harvester (played by me) will never allow itself to be forgot.
  • It’s inclusive. Curly Cravings uses verbal, visual, and kinesthetic thinking. As such people of almost any age and learning style can be involved.
  • Nobody wins. Even though the instructions say “vote on best” at Step 6, everyone essentially wins, because they’ve contributed part of each solution or its representation. Also, by the time you get to voting, everyone has had to dance, which serves as a kind of positive cathartic moment. After the dance, the voting is an emotional denouement and nothing more.

But the thing I like about it the most? It’s very much unlike work.

In the average workplace we generally don’t dance, draw, or combine unusual things. We generally don’t hand off our naked new ideas to others for safekeeping, nor do we act as stewards for someone else’s thoughts. On the contrary: new ideas are more likely seen as destabilizing threats to our status quo that we mush squash or commandeer.

The world, however, is slowing realizing that workplaces which overly reinforce a status quo are at a disadvantage in a context of change, when learning, experimentation, and risk are all to be foregrounded. We’re realizing we need more ways of developing new insights, creative solutions, and unexpected combinations, as silly as they may at first seem; and we need to treat these insights and sometimes-crazy thoughts, these Slippery Eyeballs, as carefully as we might treat babies, because they might just grow into the bold strategic plans that reinvent our work and reshape our industry, etc.

Use Curly Cravings at work? That sounds crazy . . . until, that is, you imagine yourself replacing the random problems like “Keep People from Killing the Animals” with an equally difficult problem that’s relevant to your work, or until you imagine replacing the randomly-chosen nouns and adjectives with resource components you have in place at work or skills your staff happen to have, etc. Then you begin to see that the solutions people playing this game might develop could be the kind of thing that helps you rethink the way you do work. It might even be the kind of place you would think of adding the “repeat” to lather and rinse (to refer to a famous case of creative problem-solving in the shampoo industry).

So maybe we won’t see Curly Cravings itself, but I suspect we’ll see a proliferation of similar kinds of simple processes designed to help us conceive of and honor new ideas. And won’t they be fun to play? I hope they keep the dancing part.

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.

About the Future of Work

3 Apr

Malcolm Frank of Cognizant and William Taylor of Fast Company gave complimentary key notes at the Olin Innovation Lab #6 last evening; both touched on changes they see happening in the workplace today; I concatenate and summarize them here.

  1. Growing Ideas. Organizations are beginning to understand they need to invest in and cultivate the “ideas” in their workplace as a routine part of their work; ideas are to be managed with different methods than the industrial processes that allow you to make stuff. In part, you have to involve staff in the creative thinking that fuels the strategic direction of the organization—things like “ideation” platforms and “idea stock markets” are de rigeur.
  2. The Hive Mind. Organizations need to encourage and capture ideas from whatever direction they come, from any individual in the team, from partners, from customers. They’re entering into new relationships with staff and customers and other partners to find these ideas—an example is “prosumer” relationships, where customers actually help you design your services (as in helping you build an app). In part this puts a kind of network of minds at the service of the organization where before there was a limited hierarchy of thought.
  3. Email RIP? The way we interact with information at work needs to come to feel like our interaction with information outside of work. As Frank says, “Monday morning needs to feel like Sunday night.” That is, we need to be mobile, engaged, interactive, inventing ways to do things, and choosing our content streams at work, just as we do at home. Old enterprise apps like Email and LMS are insufficient.
  4. Removing the Place from Work. Virtualization of the organization will continue: because you don’t need to be in the same space to collaborate, workplaces will continue to increasingly allow for mobility, outsourced jobs, work-from-home; these things allow you to draw from a bigger pool of workers working in different places. And there’s less overhead.
  5. The New “IT Stack.” The changes above are built on a new, four-part constellation of IT tools and ideas, or “IT Stack:” mobility, social tools, analytics, and the cloud. Organizations will begin to build on these tools to engage their customers, organize their staff, manage their innovation, allow the virtualization of their organization.
  6. It’s About People. Changes to move in the directions above require IT innovation linked with cultural change, and lots of attention to the people and the relationships; idea stock markets will flop, for example, as tools to let people think together, if people don’t want or understand how to think together.
  7. It’s About Millennials. This change can be seen as a shift from a Baby Boomer management mentality–of genius at the top and heavy control, epitomized by Steve Jobs–to a millennial model of collaboration, entrepreneurism, risk-taking, sharing, experimentation, exemplified by start-up cultures.
  8. It’s About How Work Should Feel. All of the above implies that attention will need to be paid to the culture of the workplace, to the way staff minds are engaged, to the “feeling” of working well together—workplaces that engage their staff in the design of their work will be more successful.
  9. Radical is the New Normal. In the traditional economy, everyone was basically equally competent, and the way you distinguished yourself was in some incremental process improvement that gave you an operational advantage. In the new world, the successful model is to rethink the business model; your competitors will be changing the rules of the game as quickly as they can. In that context being operationally competent and seeking incremental improvements won’t distinguish you but will lead to failure. You have to radically change the way you do things–regularly–just to be in the business.

Liaisons, Collaboration, Cooperation, and Soup

12 Jan

I was invited to talk to a group of wonderful library, IT, and teaching and learning center staff at UMASS Boston in early December; they are thinking about new ways to organize their community liaisons, and they asked me for my two cents.  I loved every minute of it; they were enthusiastic, engaged, reflective, fun. And here’s what I said, somewhat abbreviated.

When you look up the definition of liaison, you get what you’d expect. A person who interfaces between two organizational units to “ensure unity of purpose.” That makes sense. But I like some of the more obscure meanings of the word, too, like “any thickening for soups, sauces,” such as cream. Liaisons should see themselves as binders and thickeners. Liaisons, you are cream. Hold that thought.

I then worked with Lee Shulman’s definition of collaboration, as “a marriage of insufficiencies” (see “Communities of learners and Communities of teachers,” Mandel Institute, 2007, freely available online) and the well-known contrast in education thinking between collaboration and cooperation.

Cooperation, in my recap, is how you work together in a static environment. Your roles are defined, you basically perform consistently: you do things together that you don’t have to do together, you do them for convenience, and you don’t need to communicate much, because you all know your part. Collaboration, on the other hand, is the inverse. You do things together that you can only do with other people, because the goal is lofty, and none of you is sufficient to the task. It’s improv rather than reading scores, it’s sailing a boat in a storm rather than having a transaction at a bank window, it’s risky, it makes you vulnerable, you’re aware of and processing together all sorts of environmental factors and responding dynamically; there are feedback loops on top of feedback loops, and there’s a massive emphasis on communication.

I proposed four hypotheses related to collaboration and cooperation:

  1. In an environment of change, collaboration becomes more important.
  2. Collaboration is required for group adaptation.
  3. Collaboration builds relationships.
  4. Liaisons may be the best positioned to collaborate of all the people in the entire planet.

A brief explanation of these: I decided that in our fluid, changing environments, we have to collaborate to be successful, that that collaboration is the only way to get a group of people to do something differently, that it’s the best way to build relationships with peers (because you have to have each other to survive), and I suggested that it’s the role of the liaison, in particular, to effect collaboration. Because the liaison is by nature half in and half out of the group. Relationships–a tying-together kind of thing, in other words, a thickening of the soup, bringing us back to the cream idea. N’est-ce pas?

Some notata bene I felt it important to add:

  1. Collaboration is politically vulnerable.
  2. Collaboration works best in a community that appreciates it.
  3. Confusion about when cooperation or collaboration is more appropriate freaks people out.
  4. Collaboration takes a lot of time. And the groundwork is invisible. And it’s occasionally hard to explain.
  5. Collaboration (and learning in general) is anxiety provoking.
  6. Collaboration builds on cooperation and is a ground for it.

Explanation: basically collaboration comes at a cost: being highly unstable, political unwise, and anxiety-provoking; we should not jump into it without knowing the costs. The best of all worlds is when your enlightened boss, school, organization know(s) what it means to collaborate and unleash(es) you to do it, with all that it will consequently entail for you and them, including lots of short-term inconveniences, because they want the long-term payoff.

Another two points I think worth making.  First, it’s probably wrong to contrast these two approaches, which really need each other. I can’t really collaborate if we haven’t been cooperating or if I can’t subsequently evolve that collaboration into a cooperation.

Second, every organization at any given moment should be running some mix of collaboration and cooperation. Lean towards cooperation in the calm periods. Lean towards collaboration in the crazy periods. Whatever the case may be, it is important that everyone on the team knows what that mix is, and who is doing what. As a kind of natural collaborator, I see all the time the quite remarkable stress caused when peers assume I should be cooperating, and I’m collaborating. If you’ll have a particular person do one or the other, it would be good to let everyone know it, and to know the ramifications thereof, and to say a blessing on them.

As a tantalizing concluding device, I’ll leave you with this little association table I concocted–eight, arbitrarily chosen, other ways of expressing the same sort of dichotomy I develop here between collaboration and cooperation:

  1. Transactions vs. Virtual Circles
  2. Linear or Causal Systems vs. Complex, Dynamic Systems
  3. Departmental or Compartmental Views vs. Institutional or Holistic Views
  4. Consistent Performance vs. Inconsistent Creation
  5. Bergson’s Intellect vs. Bergson’s Intuition
  6. Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset (see Carol Dweck)
  7. Red Ocean vs. Blue Ocean
  8. IQ Test vs. Zone of Proximal Development

The Vygotsky Challenge

23 Nov

I was reading an article on Lev Vygotsky, the influential Soviet psychologist, and I was struck (again) by his emphasis on the social context of learning, and by what that implies for the way we organize ourselves in education.

In contrast to the individual orientation that permeates just about all organized learning, Vygotsky stresses the importance of focusing on the supporting structure, the social context, the scaffolding around the student.

According to Wertsch and Tulviste’s “L.S. Vygotsky and Contemporary Developmental Psychology” (in An Introduction to Vygotsky, 2nd Ed, Routledge, 2005), “mental functioning in the individual can be understood only by examining the social and cultural processes from which it derives” (60). Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, for example, which famously describes the area between what the person has learned and can learn (with help from teachers and adults and friends and culture) is not so much about improving individual learning, but rather about improving the social and cultural context in which that learning happens. In other words–you can improve the individual’s learning by focusing on the larger group (63).

This is about as revolutionary a thought as can be imagined for schools.

Generally speaking, institutions of education are designed with the goal of improving students as individuals. Everything we do is organized around individual students, from enrollment, to advising, to assessment, to grades. If we think about culture at all, it’s also student focused; how faculty interact with students. How students interact with students–in the classroom, in the dorm, in student clubs.

Nowhere do we really think to a similar degree about the larger culture of the institution. How faculty and staff and students as a collective whole, say, talk to each other, help each other, learn together, share ideas. Whether we trust each other. Whether we all get to have input, say, to identify institutional problems together. Whether we solve our problems together, etc.. In other words, we think a lot about assessing individual student learning, but we don’t really think about assessing the context around that learning.

Just as a simple little example, consider the amount of energy–resources, planning, assessment, time, space, books, chairs, etc.–that goes into just one regular college course. Then think of the corresponding amount of investment we make in the development of a given faculty or staff member. A faculty or staff member might get a few workshops and a retreat or conference in a given year, but there is no commensurate institutional investment in planning and guiding and supporting and assessing such learning. A student gets a teacher, a curriculum, an advisor, expectations, a dean, a dorm life supervisor, and on and on. Faculty and staff might get part of a manager or a chair and someone to review an activity report; but they of course get so much less support in their own development that I feel silly making the comparison. And that’s just thinking of faculty and staff themselves as individuals, and not taking into account their social context, which gets even less attention still, and which, after all, is the real point.

If we take Vygotsky to heart, we should be thinking precisely about how our faculty and students and staff–all of us–work together, share, think, learn, develop–as a community.  Observing and assessing and understanding and improving the bigger culture should be a priority, and doing it well should translate into vast gains for students. For a better culture will make a bigger zone of proximal development.  (I should note that many have developed Vygotsky’s idea here further, but it has not significantly penetrated into the DNA of our organizations. Yet.)

So that’s what I call the Vygotsky challenge: as we’re thinking about redesigning our educational institutions to better help students learn in this the rambunctious digital age, we should also think about how we assess and improve the culture around them, which means focusing on the “other” people hovering around the school’s halls, and on how we all talk to and treat each other. Such a focus will be a wonderful boon for those mysterious non-student people (who will feel that it’s finally OK for them to learn and develop, too) and, ultimately, help the students. Maybe as well as or better than anything else we might do from within the traditional, individually-focused paradigm?

We might one day even go so far as to no longer distinguish between students and staff and faculty, who are, after all, just learners at different points on the continuum, but I’m perhaps getting carried away.

Jason B. Jones and Hacking Education

24 Oct

Jason B. Jones, co-editor of ProfHacker and co-organizer of THATCamp New England, spoke at Brandeis University Friday last. My summary of his ideas is below (I invite other attendees to add their thoughts in the comments section):

  1. The genesis of ProfHacker. Jason described the origins of his famous blog, which shares the experiences of teachers and learners as they hack, or tweak, or tinker about with various aspects of their teaching and learning. Profhacker was born in the desire to create a solution- and sharing-focused culture, where it is ok to admit to problems and challenges, from the mundane to the sublime, but where people also share solutions. In this sense ProfHacker was meant to diverge from various dysfunctional ways of dealing collectively with change and individual development: either not to share anything, or to reveal no personal problems (and thus be invulnerable to critique), or to dwell overmuch on problems without taking any personal responsibility (to complain a lot, that is).
  2. On the idea of the “hacker.” Faculty (and other) hackers should not be seen as War Games-like reclusive super geniuses with tormented souls, or people who break into systems for fun, to change grades, or to sell credit card numbers to the Mafia; rather they are just regular people who try little things out and share their experiences. Humble projects. Like hooks on the wall where you need to hang your keys. Perhaps, though, they are unusual in one way–in that they allow themselves permission to change the world around them.
  3. On systems. Jason B. Jones noted that the understandable desire on the part of school administrations to install centralized academic systems of various kinds (like the ubiquitous learning management system) almost guarantees the systems won’t be used by faculty, because they won’t be conceived of and developed out of a deep understanding of real, individual need; additionally, they tend to squash a culture of experimentation. As Jason noted, “a solution for your faculty that your faculty have to then figure out how to use is one that will not be used.”
  4. “You need to be willing to try stuff.”  Instead of imposed, centralized systems, Jason argues, we should encourage and allow and grow a culture (like ProfHacker) in which faculty and students try out and share any sorts of software programs, tools, gadgets, or processes they think can help their teaching and learning. Jason considers the faculty’s right to explore and discover and to help their students discover meaning in idiosyncratic ways to be a fundamental part of their academic freedom. Jason also notes the challenge in growing this culture: “willingness to fiddle,” says he, “is a surprisingly rare trait.”
  5. Letting 1,000 Flowers Bloom, Part A. What if teachers actually ditched the LMS or other imposed systems and started using any tool they felt appropriate? Wouldn’t it a) be horrible for the students to have to learn a new tool in every class and b) be difficult for I.T. and other units to support? The answer is no and yes. No, says Jason, it wouldn’t be horrible for students to have to learn lots of different tools, but realistic–it is actually the current state of the adult and professional world that we all are constantly learning a variety of new tools and processes; it is thus reality; it’s less safe (see point 7 below) than a centralized system, and therefore likely more engaging for students. Most importantly, students would learn the skill of quickly learning new tools, which you might say is one of the most important skills there is.
  6. 1,000 Flowers, Part B. To answer the Flowers question subset b, I have to channel Jason a bit (since I don’t think he directly addressed this point), but my sense is that he would say something like this: yes, it would be hard for a traditionally conceived I.T. support relationship to cultivate a thousand flowers planted without their permission. If, that is, we assume the I.T. staff need to learn everything in advance, train everyone before they need the tool, support them in the use of the tool, and implement every tool discovered by any faculty member or student in such a way that it could be used reliably by everyone. But that idea of I.T. support is fairly well exploded; not only can I.T. not know all needs in advance, or develop related training, but not many would come to such training (see my post on the death of the workshop), and (as Jason noted, in point 3 above on systems), if, as in the traditional way, I.T. staff found and imposed a centralized system that didn’t grow out of user need, it would be likely to be unused.
  7. On sandboxes and safety. Jason sees behind systems and much of classroom learning an understandable desire to be consistent and fiscally responsible, and also a desire to provide people a safe place to learn and explore. However, safety, for Jason, is not pedagogically effective. Students, says he, “need access to the actual working conditions of actual academics,” and to be able to make actual things. Actuality is not safe, it ends up. And, safe environments, like abridged texts, like busy work, like a paper whose only audience is the professor, feel inauthentic to students, and less meaningful. As a result they disengage. On the other hand, if there is some risk, if the “world” will see the paper, if there’s a chance for an embarrassing mistake, etc., students are more likely to think the work matters, and to care about what they do, and to learn.
  8. On Nimbleness. Jason notes a recent trend in which faculty are called on by their institutions to be nimble, spunky, responsive, to do more with less, to experiment. He suggests these calls for nimbleness bear with them the implicit call for danger and are therefore inconsistent with institutional desire for safety and consistency (but they are also good in the sense of point 7 above). Nimbleness, he notes, is associated historically with pirates, thieves, and scofflaws, such Calico Jack of “Jack be nimble” fame.
  9. On the agreement. Jason refers to the tacit agreement of the classroom–that the professor will teach in conventional ways and assign a conventional amount of work in exchange for students showing up and more or less willingly going through the motions. He notes that when you start to hack your course, and try out new things, students may think you’re breaching that agreement.  You should expect to engage them in conversations about why you are doing what you’re doing, or to see some resistance at first.
  10. That There are Still Rules. Jason also noted that even in a more authentic, less safe classroom, a hacked classroom, even in a culture of experimentation, where conventions and assumptions are questioned, there is still a need for rules and some kind of guidance. He offerred a change he made in his own teaching as an example. He noticed that students weren’t taking very good notes in class–in a sense, they weren’t seeing the activity in the classroom itself as part of the information they should gather and study in their learning. So he assigned them in groups to collaboratively write summaries of class discussions on a course wiki. At first it didn’t work; the blank white of the wiki page scared students into silence. But when Jason provided guidance in note-writing and distributed a helpful template, then the logjam was released and students began to work together to make sense of the assignment.

Learning Organization Academy

16 Oct

I want to describe a new professional development opportunity I’m helping develop. Because it is going to be hard work and fun for 25 or so lucky people, and because you might fairly yearn to participate.

It’s called (at the moment) the Learning Organization Academy; and it’s being organized by Colleen Wheeler of Wheaton College, Gina Siesing of Tufts University, Daniel Wilson of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero research institute, and yours truly. NERCOMP has generously agreed to provide the seed money for our first year.

The genesis was a lively and creative focus group session we held at the NERCOMP 2010 annual conference, where participants–mostly library and I.T. staff in education–quite vociferously demanded (to our mild surprise but to our glee) a program to help them add to their sometimes drab (they reported this) work more opportunities for learning and fun (for me there’s no distinction there, I should point out).

The result is the Learning Organization Academy, a novel program designed to support–meaningfully support–an individual or team as they conceive of, develop, and implement a project specifically designed to increase learning at work.

It works like this: around 25 individuals (whom we’ll begin recruiting shortly) will join us, bringing with them a goal or an inquiry question or an inspirational idea related to learning–an idea that is both personally and deeply compelling (that they be intrinsically motivated is key, because the work will be hard) and that promises a cultural benefit for the organization if developed into a project and implemented (which is what they’ll do).

Participants will attend a one week summer institute in July 2012, where they will get a decent grounding in the workplace learning research (and there is a lot of it out there, and it’s quite accessible, and also quite empowering and fun); be led through a series of creative games and interactive activities to help them to instantiate or explore the key themes in the literature; and spend time developing and articulating their projects with a variety of influential and creative thinkers hanging around right there to give them feedback. They’ll then work to implement that project over the subsequent year, with the support of a coach, who will meet with them (virtually mostly likely) regularly, helping to prompt them and remove obstacles in their path, and in addition with quarterly, 1-day, re-energizing workshops, where the entire cohort collectively meets, shares their lessons learned, and troubleshoots projects.

At the end of the year the projects and their results to that point will be written up and published for the world to see and use as it sees fit.  Why not be part of open education?

Some of the things that are neat about this process (for me):

  • Since the projects emerge from both personal and organizational need, there’s a chance for people to address things they really care about; and that is motivating, as is being encouraged in general to change the conditions of your environment–thinking you can’t change the world is the most depressing thing there is. Another name for this program might be “hack your work;”
  • Learning cultures are in the best position to thrive in an era of change, and they’re more rewarding for the individuals in them, if more challenging (in my opinion); but they are hard to create, and this inter-institutional, highly supported structure seems a good way to start to design them incrementally and collaboratively and wisely;
  • Re-inserting a little theory in our workplace is great on a lot of levels–it adds an intellectual fulfillment that work life sometimes lacks (sorry, but it’s true), it gives context to the work we do, and, in the case of my beloved academic support profession, it reconnects our library and I.T. organizations with the academic work we support but often don’t engage substantively;
  • We use a unique, “Neapolitan” content style in the program that probably should be patented, and that can be amazingly energizing–a 3-part combination of kinetic keynote speakers; game-like, hands-on interactive events; and work on personal projects. We think this makes our events more meaningful, engaging, and encourages better learning than traditional professional development structures. At the very least, I can fairly confidently claim in my enthusiasm that participants are unlikely to be bored, which is a claim a lot of learning environments would hesitate to make.
  • The Learning Organization Academy also attempts (as a few other fine programs do) to address with coaching and follow-up meetings one of the key problems with traditional professional development–that it’s hard to transfer what you learn back to your workplace.

For all the abstract references in this post to the newness of this project and to the wonders of “learning,” and for my breathless praise of fun and games and energy, it ends up (from my preliminary investigations) that most organizations, leaders thereof, and staff therein, are probably already thinking of projects that would qualify and benefit wonderfully from being supported by the Learning Organization Academy.

What do I mean?  Well, any project or idea that seeks a transformational or aspirational change in normal operations or communications or in general responsiveness to change or in opportunities for individual and team development is probably a perfect fit–so, things like these:

  • new forms of “horizon scanning” (knowing what strategic directions to explore before they explode to disrupt your life);
  • new ways of encouraging reflective learning “after” projects (sometimes known as “after battle assessments”);
  • new ways of collaborative planning, like bottom-up, consensus strategic planning (!);
  • ways of training people in structured feedback (so crucial to developing a learning culture, as in throwing out the old “How to Kill Ideas” methodology);
  • ways of developing ongoing “innovation laboratories” (or building in innovation or ensuring operations don’t consume all organizational resources–isn’t everyone thinking about this?);
  • ways of encouraging experiments and praising failure (a key element in learning organizations).

And so on. In short, many things most forward-looking people are probably already wishing they were doing or even actually getting around to doing are the kind of thing we hope to help them do. The point is that these transformational changes are not that easy, and the Learning Organization Academy gives your organization a leg-up; when the inevitable pushback comes from the existing culture, you’ve got an external coach, a cohort of peers, and a deep pool of research to back you up.

So there’s the idea, and it’s coming to a professional development organization near you (NERCOMP, I mean). Webpage, recruitment emails, brochures, town-hall conference calls, dog-and-pony shows at interested campuses, bumper stickers, etc., are on the way.

In the meantime, if you’re interested, feel free to let me know; we’ll be open to applications from just about any organizational context, I think, though we’ll likely privilege (probably by decreased tuition) non-profits, the education sector, and NERCOMP members.

Inductive Program Development: Rules and a Corollary

31 Aug

I think we often approach new programs or new interventions or just any new thing in what I think is a backwards way. We want to have it assigned or endorsed or approved or deduced from overarching principles before we do anything. Or we want to have it fully planned out.

Maybe we are trained to think this way as children by watching parents and teachers, who often seem to have everything worked out in advance. The curriculum is in place before the first class starts; Dad knows what’s for lunch before I even know what lunch is, etc., so we start to get a sense that somebody somewhere thinks everything through, that this is the way it always works, that there is a kind of overarching superstructure of planning approval or procedural rectitude maintained by a select group of mysterious people, maybe, which might be symbolized like Justice or Liberty by a statue of a woman in a billowing robe holding in this case not scales but a Gantt chart, etc.

The problem is, I don’t think you can really plan like this very often. In any human environment there are too many moving pieces, too many interconnected, inter-influencing nuances to be able to sort and distill. The times you can prepare exhaustively are outweighed by the times you can’t by a ratio of 2041 to 7, according to my figures. But the feeling of needing to apply procedural rectitude, which works well for the 7 things, still hovers over the 2041 things, and that tends to be detrimental. “You want to do what?” People are always saying. “And you haven’t taken into account this particular detail I just thought of?” Whereas what they probably should be saying, 2041 times for every 7 times they don’t, is “How could we possibly know all the possible variables and outcomes? Let’s try it out!”

I am here to advocate the opposite to this top-down approach: what you might call Inductive Program Development, which has three rules (one of which is also a principle), an unexpected effect, a corollary, and a literary referent. The basic idea of Inductive Program Development is that instead of waiting to establish a direct line between a conceived action and high-level principles and permissions, answering all possible questions, you just see if you can do a little bit of it. Not a whole lot of it, mind you, but just enough to prove whether it works or not, which is rule one: just dip in your toe.

Inductive Program Development replaces the pre-planning and vetting always expected by everyone with a different criterion, which I call the neatness principle, and this is rule two. The neatness principle decrees that if somebody says “Wouldn’t it be neat if we did Z,” then that means you definitely should do Z. As fast as you can, before you convince yourself not to. That was rule number three that just went by: act fast.

You want an example. OK. One day you’re walking down the street and you think, Wouldn’t I love to take a class on amazing and novel subject X? But X doesn’t exist or isn’t offered? And I’m not qualified to teach X? And there is a process through which new courses must go to be approved? And maybe I’m not really even in the education sector at all? OK. Render unto Caesar: let the normal processes be followed wherever that needs to happen pursuant to X coming to be understood by all as a good thing. In the meantime, somewhere else away from that place, you should just write the X syllabus. Maybe with a colleague. Then find someone to take the class with you. Maybe it’s not a class per se. Maybe it’s more like a club at first. Maybe it’s a syllabus draft at first. In any event, writing it would be fun, and make you learn more about it, and afterwards you would have a more structured idea about what X is and how to go about learning X. And if people started taking your class with you, you would have some data towards the validity of the syllabus that might then influence the course approval process.

Which brings me to the unexpected effect. By a weird transmutation of the laws of physics that happens in the Inductive Program Development approach, by not waiting for a thing to be approved or connected to the strategic plan, you usually end up actually discovering that very connection or influencing that approval. If you just do a little bit of the thing, you’re learning more about it, you’re getting information that lets you iterate and improve it, you’re able to reflect on it, you’re forming all sorts of connections and associations, you’re continuing to live and see how it might fit into other areas, and you’re working your way into procedural rectitude, backwards, through the emergency exit. Similarly to writing the outline after you write the paper.

Can I just say that the paper with the ex post facto outline almost has to be a better paper than the one with the outline a priori? But I digress.

Inductive Program Development corrects a gross unfairness that has been perpetuated forever. People when they look at your cute little activity without any plans around it are wont to judge it by comparing it to a fully-fledged plan, yet that is an asymmetric and unfair comparison. What they should compare the fully-fledged plan to is the plan you will subsequently induce from and around your cute activity. When you’re in inductive program development mode what you’re doing is committing to string together an activity with associations and thoughts and experience and perhaps other activities and future plans and principles and feedback in an cyclical way, like drafting a paper, until you have produced a beautiful and comprehensive program that is already actually in effect and doesn’t need to be approved. This is how you should see your little test: not as an isolated, whimsical or willful, unexpected, and disconnected thing, but as a thing that will have its connectedness grown around it organically as you go forwards. It is by the value of the connected and comprehensive program it will one day become that your program should be judged–that’s where your program can be compared fairly to the 7 plans fully fleshed-out according to the laws of the billowing-garmented specter of preparatory rectitude, etc. And your program will actually triumph in that comparison, because, as I said, you really can’t plan for everything and so you have an advantage–you aren’t limited to what you can think of in advance, but you’re spurred by actual life to observe and record and reflect upon the complexities and vicissitudes and swirling saliences of human activities as they happen and grow and inter-engender each other. I’ve belabored this a bit too much.

Let me go back to the neatness principle for a second. By going with somebody’s instinct that the thing will be “neat,” you’re building in intrinsic motivation and learner-centric learning into the activity. You’re also privileging curiosity and risk over stability, though the risk is mitigated by the keep-it-small rule. You’re telling people “our primary purpose is to experiment with and engage the world around us. And figure out how to make it better; not be guardians of similitude.” You’re building into the environment discovery, wonder, creation, and you’re removing obstacles to these. The more I think about it, the more that feeling of “it would be neat if . . . ” or “what would happen if . . .” (which is another way to say it) seems to be the beginning of everything good. I should blog about that.

When you think of everything that is laudable about developing a program in the inductive way, you might ask yourself why we ever plan the other way. Why we would bother to try to understand all things in advance and not just jump in and know we’ll work it out later? Witness Tolstoy, who in War and Peace suggests that in repelling the Napoleonic invasion, the most effective people were those who didn’t try to understand or make sense of things happening around them but just acted according to their self-interests, in their local theater of operations, according to their skills and knowledge. (This is the literary referent.)

I won’t go so far as to say we shouldn’t ever plan. Or imagine how things will unfold. Or visualize the future. (Ha!) Of course we should! But we should also be OK with plans that are more like a documentation of wonder than a prediction thereof. A plan can be more like an ethnographer riding in a sidecar, if you will.

And now to the corollary, which I offer in place of a conclusion. It’s an adaptation of the 80/20 rule, which famously says that everything is mostly something. My adaptation of this, which you might call the Wedaman rule, is that what you’re doing is 80% OK. You already know most of what you need, most of the things you do will be good, most of the times you take risks you’ll succeed; if you jump in, you’ll be 80% fine. So try it out!


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