Paul Kirschner, grumpy optimist

kirschner link imageI’ve just read a short interview with Paul Kirschner in the Learning Scientists blog. Kirschner is an education researcher and co-author of Ten Steps to Complex Learning, a challenging but insightful book about which I wrote a series of posts some years ago.

A few parts of the interview that stood out for me:

If a learner doesn’t enjoy the learning experience, even if it’s effective and/or efficient, they won’t do it. The same is true for teaching: that is it must also be effective, efficient, and enjoyable for the teacher because if a teacher doesn’t enjoy the teaching process, even if it’s effective and/or efficient, they won’t do it.

Kirschner is talking about formal education, though I think this absolutely applies in the world of organizational learning and development as well. I strongly believe in the value of learning by doing, and of using realistic, rich practice problems — but in my experience if an organization hasn’t done those things often, people can resist such approaches because they don’t “look like” good training, or because they seem unnecessarily difficult, or because the learner is eager to get to the point (as he sees it) and wants to be told what to do and when to do it.

…Sweller’s cognitive load theory suggests that you should not present the exact same information in two modalities – for example, reading directly from a slide… And yet, many researchers who should know better will still do this. The best way to translate research is in your own teaching – why did you study it if you’re not going to use it?

Kirschner’s presenting Sweller’s redundancy principle here as an example. I’d extend the target group from researchers to practitioners: learning professionals should look for ways to put into practice the theories they espouse — or at the least to ask themselves why they practice what they practice.

From Sweller’s 1999 paper:

Many multimedia instructional presentations are still based on common sense rather than theory or extensive empirical research. Visual formats tend to be determined purely by aesthetic considerations while the use of sound and its interaction with vision seems not to be based on any discernible principles.

(Managing Split-attention and Redundancy in Multimedia Instruction — Kalyuga, Chandler, Sweller)

The interviewers asked Kirschner how to challenge misconceptions in education. On the one hand, he encourages those who train teachers to connect their research to something that teachers have experienced — in other words, to find a starting point based on where the teacher has been.

“Don’t ever say ‘because research shows X’ — this is a conversation killer.”

This is a marvelous point for a researcher to make, and one I need to put into practice more often. I’ve gradually learned not to argue with advocates of learning styles, in part they’re no more interested in freelance criticism of what they believe is effective than I typically am.

A sidebar in the post says that Kirschner describes himself as “an educational realist and grumpy old man.” That may be the case, but in the interview and in his writings, I note as well his search for evidence and his optimism that practitioners will adopt strategies and techniques based on that evidence–and will experience success when they do.

Mark Twain, Stewart Brand, and what to call “remote work”

In The Diaries of Adam and Eve (“translated by Mark Twain”), Adam writes at one point:

The new creature names everything that comes along, before I can get in a protest. And always the same excuse is offered—it looks like the thing. There is the dodo, for instance. Says the moment that one looks at it one sees at a glance that it “looks like a dodo.” It will have to keep that name, no doubt. It wearies me to fret about it, and it does no good, anyway. Dodo! It looks no more like a dodo than I do.

Names do stick, though as Stewart Brand observed, names associated with technology gradually fade.

We have only another decade or so of carrying on about computers as the big new bad/good thing. They’re about to disappear from view the way motors did. Engines were cause for wonder and speculation when they ran ships and railroads.

Motor? Mouth!
CC-licensed photo by Josh Minor

Nobody called the automobile or truck a personal railroad, but that’s what it was, and people still were impressed. Then motors got smaller and disappeared into lawn mowers, refrigerators, toothbrushes, wristwatches, and nobody…speculates now about what motors will become or worries much about what they are doing to human dignity or economic inequality.

I think perhaps the coming of personal computers was slow enough — starting with the Altair in 1975 and slowly accelerating with the Apple II in 1977 and the IBM PC in 1981– that we’re still talking about “computers,” though that’s shifting. Everyone knows what you mean by a laptop or a tablet.

The speed of technology in phones is such that “smartphone” is starting to sound a bit quaint, like “automobile” for “car.”

I was at the Institute for Performance and Learning’s symposium in Vancouver last week. In his session, Steve Blane argued for “elearning” as a term (no capital L, no hyphen), much the way he’s seen “e-mail” turn toward “email.”

I’m not entirely sure of the latter, but I agree with the spirit. In fact I’d like to stop talking about e- things generally, except perhaps to distinguish one subset from another. Elearning, however spelled, is a format for encouraging learning.

Which is why I so much enjoyed Michael Erard’s Remote? That’s No Way to Describe This Work in the New York Times. He and his wife moved from Texas to Portland, Maine; she manages a geographically dispersed team, and he is a researcher for an organization in Washington DC.

They found a number of people in Portland in similar positions, and in looking to form a community, wondered what to call such people.

  • Remote workers? “Such a headquarters-centric label.”
  • Telecommuters? “Such a dial-up-era feel.”
  • Virtual workers? “As if the work is somehow less tangible…than in traditional offices.”

It was at the first face-to-face meeting my wife and I had with Creative Portland representatives (we had been communicating by Facebook) that a new label came to me: We “work in place.”

It’s worth reading the linked article for Erard’s full discussion. As he points out, it’s worker-centric. And it carries a connotation of the work that suits you in your circumstances (assuming, of course, that you’re not frantically scrambling to make ends meet).

Less weak each week, or, what I’ve learned from Damian Roland

I’m lucky in that I’m connected to a lot of smart, generous people in my field or closely connected to it. A great deal of my professional (and personal) development has come through those connections. When I think about the next opportunities or challenges I’d like to encounter, I may not be sure of the details, but I do aspire to accomplishments like these people achieve.

Sometimes, though, I get real benefit from people whose specialties are much further removed from my own — lawyers (and more than one barrister in the UK), nanotech scientists. Even a well-done Twitter parody account (of which @AngrySalmond is a lapidary example) brings unexpected insight and ideas.

That’s something Damian Roland has done for me. I honestly don’t recall how I first learned of him — most likely through a retweet. He’s a  specialist in pediatric medicine in the UK, and “a passionate believe that education exists to be shared.” To that end, he participates in #FOAMed, a movement for Free Open-Access Medical education.

One thing that Roland does on his blog is to post WILTW — “What I Learned This Week.” As of this writing, he’s got 101 posts in that category. (This week’s is “Children’s Experience of Emergency Care as a Measure of Quality.”)

This kind of reflection is aspirational for me — as with going to the gym, I know it’s a good idea, but I don’t manage to pull it off that often. That means Roland’s regular reflection is inspirational as well. It goes with James Clear’s idea of committing to a process, not a goal.

I’m trying out some new or modified processes to encourage reflection and exploration. (One of them, which I’ve been calling “the tool of the month,” has me consciously trying out one new or unfamiliar tool over the course of a month.

I’m not necessarily going to write a post or review about it, but I’m going to kick it around to see how it works in my own life. An example of small but very welcome results with the first tool, IFTTT (If This, Then That): I’ve learned how to:

  • Have my phone automatically set itself on mute at 10 pm.
  • Have it set itself to 30% volume at 6 am.
  • Have it lower itself to 10% when I connect to the wifi at work.
  • Have it set itself to 80% when I connect to my home wifi.

(I tend not to carry the phone around the house, and so I’ve often missed calls and texts because the sound was off or nearly inaudible. That doesn’t happen any more.)

 

 

 

Experience: the outcome of trial

An image I saw on Twitter last week turns out to be the work of Hugh MacLeod, @gapingvoid:

information-knowledge-400x314

Many people have come up with their own take on this, often adding a third panel. I might put one on the right, fewer dots and more motion or flow: knowledge being applied, which is how you build skill.

There’s a gap between knowledge and skill, though:

Good judgment comes from experience.
Experience comes from bad judgment.

I’ve always liked this saying. I try to remember when it matters that the bad judgment doesn’t have to be yours in order for you to harvest the experience.

And that leads to one of the best experiences I’ve had recently. In a private setting, one colleague I respect shared a portion of a project that’s underway, and asked for candid feedback.

I saw the posted request during the workday, when my link to the wider world is my phone — not the best tool for musing, editing, and commenting. And, to my embarrassment, I forgot about the request until the weekend.

That’s when another colleague I respect did offer critiques — thoughtful, specific ones — and encouraged others to do the same. She pointed out that the original sharer was “practicing what he preaches” by inviting comment.

Well.

I’m not always comfortable offering public critique, even in the context of a small group. I know the theory; I just need to practice overcoming this reluctance.

I had been thinking about sending private comments, but decided to trust the sharer and the process by posting in the group’s forum. It wasn’t easy for me to get started, but it felt good when I got into it.

Experience, I see, has its roots in Latin: the verb experirimeaning to try, to risk, to test. I’m glad I got a little more.

 

Bear in mind: results first, tools second

I’ve worked on a lot of technical training: how to forecast warehouse inventory orders, how to create mockups of proposed software, how to write flood insurance policies. Programs like these are a complex version of working with tools to produce specific results.

To navigate that complexity, to keep on track while designing training, I find it helpful to frame the purpose in a single phrase. And as a phrase, I think this:

Producing retirement estimates using the ViaComp system.

is better than this:

Using the ViaComp system to produce retirement estimates.

The distinction’s clearer if, when asked what the training’s about, you drop the last clause:

Producing retirement estimates.
Using the ViaComp system.

What comes first in the longer versions is what’s assumed to be the most important. In English, word order matters. That’s less true in a language like Finnish, where word endings matter much more. Here are some examples, thanks to my friend Riitta Suominen:

Bear in mind
CC-licensed photo of a karhu
 by Guido Gloor Modjib

Karhu söi miehen.  (The bear ate the man.)

Miehen karhu söi… (The bear ate the man [and not the berries].)

Miehen söi karhu… (The bear ate the man [while the wolf ate the rabbit].)

Emphasis in Finnish comes from word order and case endings. In English, to make the distictions clear in print, I have to add visual emphasis.

For those learning goals above, dropping the ending was a way for me to emphasize how distinct they are, the better to choose the right one for the training program. 80% of the time may be spent using the ViaComp system, but what we’re really doing is producing retirement estimates.

Would I ever choose “using ViaComp to produce retirement estimates” as the one-sentence summary? Sure — for example, if we were changing from the Acme Pension Suite to ViaComp. The emphasis would be on how to use ViaComp so you can accomplish the same work as in APS.

Even if the organization is switching systems, though, what matters to the learner (far more than the underlying system) is the work that gets done. And most of the time, you’re not switching. You’re expanding the skills of people who already handle other pension-related tasks, or you’re helping newcomers become productive.

Neither one of those groups cares much what the system’s called, what server it’s on, or similar infra-facts. They do care about their jobs, which means they care about immediate context. How you describe learning goals is an entry to that context, as well as a beacon during the design process.

Results before tools. Worth bearing in mind.