Working/Learning carnival: the latest session

Ceol agus craic.The Irish word seisiún means a casual gathering where people play (mostly traditional) music.  Sessions are often instrumental, but there are singing sessions and mixed sessions.

As The Field Guide to the Irish Music Session says, it’s a way to celebrate a common interest together in a relaxed, informal setting.  You don’t fret about what’s the right thing to do–you pick it up along the way.

Sessions are at least as much for the musicians as for anyone who happens to drop in to listen. Which is as good a way as any to think about this edition of the Working/Learning blog carnival:

  • Karyn Romeis starts with “a bit of a rambling romp” (her words): Learning?  Work? Her own passion for learning is such that she doesn’t think it should be separate from her job, and even prompted her to form her own consultancy.
  • Manish Mohan has taken up a new instrument and shows what he knows in Twitter, Twitter Everywhere…
  • The anthem of Ireland is Amhrán na bhFiann (The Soldier’s Song)—martial, but less thoughful than  Richard Nantel‘s post, Dinner Conversation Turns to War.  In part he’s examining a dilemma: preparing people thoroughly to build skills they may never have to use.
  • Clark Quinn’s post fits right into the spirit of a session: Do What You Love, Love What You Do.  One thing he examines is the question of what makes learning fun, and therefore someone you want to do.  He’s not talking about rubber chickens or noisemakers.
  • Jane Bozarth builds on a 24-year tradition: a group of people who are determined to “stamp out bad training.”  In asking Wherefore Passion?, she’s looking at what makes people passionate about their profession.
  • Shanta Rohse is aware that you don’t read sheet music during a session.  Digital Literacy: Reading Signs along the Way is her exploration of what skills learners need if they want to join in successfully.  Workplaces should take note: if you don’t encourage engagement, people may go elsewhere to engage.
  • Cammy Bean has a great title for her contribution: Learning to Work, Working to Learn.  She’s got a rare break between urgent projects and is using the time to see what she can see.  There’s tinkering, inspiration, revisiting, documenting–she’s busier than when she’s busy.
  • Joan Vinall-Cox‘s A Little Learning Is… looks at the path she’s followed thanks to “little learnings” over time.  Colleagues, like the other musicians in a session, help us learn more and see how much more we can learn.
  • Ken Carroll considers early-career epiphanies leading to An Enduring Insight.  Not “what are the structures of the English language,” for example, but how can we help people learn a language?
  • Tradition is an important part of a session, as is the renewal of the tradition in today’s world.  Dave Lee joins the carnival with My Grandfather’s Advice, where he looks at how his own career has developed in no small part because of that advice.
  • Sessions aren’t supposed to be complicated, but they benefit from skill (which can include the mastery of complexity — like  Davy Spillane on the uilleann pipes).  My own post, Analyzing Tasks with Paradigming, gives examples of techniques I’ve used to make complexity…well, if not less complex, then easier to grasp.

CC-licensed photo of a seisiún at O’Neill’s in Manhattan by JimmyOKelly.

Blog carnival? Isn’t it Lent?

Just when I thought I was in, they pull me back out.

(Updated 3/16: if you’re looking for the current Working/Learning blog carnival, it’s over here.)

When your to-do list includes the item “check to-do list,” it’s time to get things up to date.  For me, one of the best ways to learn a lot quickly is a blog carnival.

If you haven’t seen one (where’ve you been?), that’s a periodic anthology.  One blogger acts as the host, posting descriptions and links to a bunch of other blogs.  Each participating blogger offers his or her contribution to the carnival’s overall them.

An example? I’m a fan of the Encephalon carnival (neuroscience and psychology).  It’s in its 65th edition, with a dozen or more blogs taking turns as the host.

So I’m resuming the Working/Learning blog carnival, which started here last year.  The theme’s simple: work at learning; learning at work. If you can get a blog post to fit into that tent, then why not take part?

I’ve got tips for participants, but the quick summary is:

  • Write a post (ahead of time, even, if your blog software allows it)
  • Send me a description ahead of time (dferguson at strathlorne dot com)
  • Send me the permalink to the post

I’ll write the “host post” and have it appear on the day of the carnival.  If you’re in a collaborative mood, mention the carnival in your post, and link back to the host post (so your readers can find the other participating blogs).

Don’t be shy.  A carnival’s not only a good way to read blogs you might not ordinarily see, it’s not a bad way for other people to read yours.  March 16th.  That’ll leave you free for St. Patrick’s.

And if you’re thinking you might like to host the carnival (usual schedule: third Monday of the month), we can manage that too.  Let me know you’re interested, and I’ll enroll you in the six-week host course induct you into the mysteries tell you what you’d like to know.

“Reopening” photo by luckygirllefty, used under a CC license.

Training as a last resort

This post is my contribution to the October edition of the Working / Learning blog carnival, hosted at the Xyleme Learning Blog.
(What’s a blog carnival? Details here. If you blog about learning in a work setting, or about working deliberately at learning, you should take part.  Don’t be shy.)

In a recent post, Beyond Training, Harold Jarche (in one of his comments) gives his rule of thumb: “Training is the last resort, when all other performance improvement alternatives (which are usually cheaper) have been discounted.”

Instead of “discounted,” I might have said “examined.”   Otherwise, Harold’s highlighting a dilemma that corporate and organizational training departments (by whatever name) have been struggling with decades.

Here’s the deal: there are all kinds of ways to instruct efficiently and effectively.   You can design (as Bob Mager and Peter Pipe said more than 30 years ago) criterion-referenced instruction so you don’t waste people’s time “teaching” them what they already know.   You can sequence, you can use increasing approximations of the real-life job, you can avoid war stories and nice-to-know.   You can avoid spoon-feeding.  You can emphasized hands-on, problem-based exercises.

Is it what you want me to know, or what you want me to do?But… a lot of the time you don’t have to do those things.   How much of “training” is a kind of corporate Clearasil applied to the zits of a counterproductive computer system or an alleged process that’s really the business equivalent of the cowpath that became a paved street?

How much of what some subject-matter expert or department head thinks people really oughta know (or, worse, really oughta wanna know) actually matters?

It may be that people don’t know this stuff (whatever “this stuff” is).   It’s less clear that traditional training is the way to change the outcomes.

For many people, the father of “performance improvement” was Tom Gilbert; I had the chance to meet him several times, and his thinking has permanently influenced my own.   Some time back I quoted his model for creating incompetence.   Consultants Joseph and Jimmie Boyett published a crisp article (PDF) explaining why the performance-improvement model makes sense.

It’s worth a look; it tracks with Harold’s point about training as a last resort.   In essence, Gilbert would approach a performance problem (a gap between the results you want and the ones you have) like this:

  • Do people have the information they need?
    (Notice, that’s not “do they know?”   Gilbert is talking about information about how to perform and about how well you’re doing.)
  • Do they have the instruments they need — tools, methods, technology, whatever?   You can train pharmaceutical workers in all kinds of good manufacturing practice, but if (as at one location I worked in) people have to walk from packaging line A to line B because line A doesn’t have the right kind of scale — and you’re measuring residue in fractions of a gram — you risk not getting the accuracy you claim you need.
  • Do you have incentive systems to support the performance you need?   If the customer comes first, do you punish people for not completing their end-of-the-day paperwork by a set time?   If your speeches are about relationship selling, are the annual award winners the salespeople who pushed product?
  • Only after examining these other influences on performance would Gilbert ask whether people have the skills and knowledge to perform.   As the Boyetts say,

By correcting deficiencies in information, instruments, and incentives first, you make sure you don’t end up training people to use tools that could be redesigned, or to memorize data they don’t need to remember, or to perform to standards they are already capable of meeting and would meet if they knew what these standards were.

I love working in this field; I get excited when people in client organizations produce better results on the job.   What has mystified me since I read Mager in grad school and Gilbert’s Human Competence in the late 1970s is why otherwise sensible organizations waste millions of dollars (and millions of worker hours) trying to talk or PowerPoint or click-enter or multiple-choice people into worthwhile results.

Photo of criterion-based traffic test by Birger Hoppe.

Learning: linking up, or working out?

This post is part of September’s edition of the Working / Learning blog carnival.   This month’s host is Michele Martin of The Bamboo Project blog.  (And here’s info about the carnival in general.)

Cammy Bean is “auditing the auditor’s version” of a course on connectivism.   She referred to a post by Christy Tucker, “Does learning grow or is it built?”   The question’s based in part on Stephen Downes’s contention that understanding is “the process of making connections,” and that the “connectionist networks” are not built (like a model) but grown (like a plant).

Christy’s post, and the many comments, got me thinking about this build/grow concept.   It’s certainly true that whatever learning is, it happens in the brain — electrochemical processes leading to new brain cells, stronger connections, increased pathways — as in the old notion “the neurons that fire together, wire together.”

The drawback, from a learning-at-work standpoint, is that we don’t know and can’t do much at the level of the individual neuron, or even the level of a whole bunch of them.   I’m not saying Stephen’s wrong, but I’m thinking build-versus-grow is a bit of a distraction.

Especially since, as with most Metaphor Parties, we all bring our own recipes.

Just growing...I make an analogy with the musculoskeletal system (though to look at me, you’d conclude that must be pure theory on my part). Here’s what I mean:

You can just go about your ordinary activities, and even without strenuous work or deliberate exercise, way down there at the cellular level, you’re going to get new muscle cells and you’re going to strengthen existing ones. Eventually that has an effect on the larger, organized systems we call muscles.

In infancy and childhood, we’re not doing much directing of that process; we’re not activity choosing which set of muscles to work on.   Yet in a fashion that parallels things like acquiring language, we gain in our musculoskeletal ability.

Deliberately building

We know that we can, if not build, at least focus and concentrate our efforts.   We can set out to increase out physical ability — and it turns out that working enough with muscles has an effect on bone, too: strength training (working with weights) not only increases the capability of muscles (nice way to avoid “grows” or “builds,” huh?), it can increase the capability of related bones.

That’s why strength training is beneficial for elderly people: their bones get stronger — more so than if they continued only with everyday activity.

It’s just an analogy; the brain is far more complex.   I just see these potential parallels in the musculoskeletal system:

  • Whether you just happen to do a lot of physical labor, or you work out, in certain circumstances you increase both cardiovascular capacity and  strength.
  • Increased cardio and strength, in various combinations, lead to overall fitness and increased health (decreased anxiety, increased endorphines, lowered stress, etc., etc.).

The connection?  Learning may grow in a way we can’t do much about at the cellular level.   But, particularly in the world of work, it’s obvious that we can find ways to make concepts clearer, to organize information, to create sequencing or scaffolding that can help an individual learn better.

Can you learn French by being dropped in the middle of Aix-en-Provence with 5,000 euros and a suitcase?   Sure.   But you might learn faster by having someone who can model and demo (as Downes says).   You might also benefit from knowing that nearly all French nouns ending in <i>-tion</i> are feminine — something I only found out this year, despite years spent trying to improve my French.

I don’t mean for a moment that corporate training departments or learning organizations have the answer.   For one thing, there isn’t the answer.   For another, inertia is one of the strongest forces in the universe — and not just for the training/learning professionals.   How many managers and how many workers still see live classroom delivery as the preferred way to learn?   How many busy people resist formats that seem too open-ended because they’re unclear about the process or the outcome?

No answers from me here.   I’m glad to have even a small part in this wide discussion.

Both photos by tyfn.

Career choice, or, wherever you go, there you are

I once heard DNA co-discoverer James Watson speaking at a lecture. Referring to some research, he said, “We thought we were being stochastic, but we were just guessing.”

I’d like to think that I’m integrative, but mostly I just happen across unassociated things. Like, for instance:

Michael Feldstein at e-Literate has a guest post by Jutta Treviranus. You Say Tomato… looks at designing the user-experience interface for distributed learning. Treviranus notes that UI designed is often left to programmers and often happens at the end of the development process.

As part of her work with the Fluid project, Trivarnus and her colleagues “have found ourselves at odds with common or traditional notions integral to pedagogy, software design, user interaction design, usability, and accessibility.”

The Fluid approach to user experience design and usability testing is also at odds with standard or commercial UI design methods. These methods assume that the user really doesn’t know what is best or what they want. Users are not self-aware, what they report doing is not actually what they do and asking users what they might want does not lead to innovation because they extrapolate from what they know and are most likely to ask for a faster horse carriage than a car. Consequently the assumption is that any proposed design requires extensive user testing with objective observation and data gathering from a large number of representative users.

(I’ve always felt a bit sheepish about tinkering with my off-the-shelf software — I have created buttons In Word to prevent tables from breaking within rows, to insert section breaks, and to print just the current page. That’s pretty low-level customization, but a lot more than the average person tends to do.)

Rosalind Franklin in 1955The apparently unrelated item that came to mind as I read this was John Tierney’s article in Monday’s New York Times blog, A New Frontier for Title IX: Science. (Title IX is the U.S. law barring sexual discrimination in education, and till now has applied mainly to sports. The article deals with the question of similar discrimination in science.)

Lots of things I didn’t know (it’s an ever-growing list):

  • In the U.S., 50% of med students, 60% of biology majors, and 70% of psychology PhDs are women.
  • Less than 20% of physics PhDs are women.

Tierney cites research by David Lubinski and Camilla Persson Benbow suggesting that the differences in choice of field may have more to do with an individual’s preferences than overt discrimination. Similar research by Joshua Rosenbloom and Ronald Ash made this less-than-astonishing conclusion:

…Information technology workers especially enjoyed manipulating objects and machines, whereas workers in other occupations preferred dealing with people.

Once the researchers controlled for that personality variable, the gender gap shrank to statistical insignificance: women who preferred tinkering with inanimate objects were about as likely to go into computer careers as were men with similar personalities. There just happened to be fewer women than men with those preferences.

What struck me (for this post of my own) was not the gender gap per se, but the connection between the object-manipulators in IT, and the end-users of software that Treviranus discussed in her user-interface post.

And I figured a post combining user interface, open source, and potential on-the-job discrimation might stir up a thing or two.

Photo of Rosalind Franklin (whose X-ray images helped lead Watson and Crick to their model for the structure of DNA)
from the National Library of Medicine.