Communicating with Vowell

Today’s Washington Post has a piece on author Sarah Vowell. Among other things, she was the voice of daughter Violet in The Incredibles, and has just published a book about the Puritans in New England.

I liked the way she talks about things. About the Puritans (who argued endlessly among themselves), she said, “It’s my ideal of America. I don’t liek a coherent group, I like an unruly group.”

Vowell spent many hours reading documents from the early Puritans (like John Winthrop, who founded Boston). I know the puzzling pleasure that comes from reading source documents from times past — however biased or limited they might be, they give a flavor that’s hard to duplicate.

She also makes striking analogies: “The Old Testament Israelites are to the Puritans what the blues was to the Rolling stones — a source of inspiration, a renewable resource of riffs.”

In this period where unexpected software materializes each day, where new technology constantly extends our reach, I think there’s value in the past as well. I don’t mean returning to classrooms and slate blackboards — more to the explorations and the efforts made long ago.

In 1977, I attended the Programmed Learning Workshop at the University of Michigan. Even then, programmed learning had built up a terrible reputation based on “teaching machines” and agonizing, step-by-step approaches to independent learning. Fortunately for me, the workshop’s founders included people like Dale Brethower and Geary Rummler, deeply committed to a systems approach (and a systematic approach) and giants in the field of performance improvement.

When computer-based training on mainframes exploded on the scene, principles from that workshop served me as they continue to. Involve the learner. Use developmental testing. Avoid on-page (or on-screen) lecture.

It’d be interesting to work with Sarah Vowell on a learning project. When she was a music critic, she says, she adopted “a personal moratorium on what I call inter-rock analogies.” She didn’t want to compare Soundgarden to Nirvana — she wanted to compare them with “a pastry, or something that was just more interesting.”

She wouldn’t be using a phrase like “music 2.0.”