Thursday, December 21, 2006

Supply vs. Demand Learning

I'm sure I'm not the only one to (re)stumble upon great stuff that had been forgotten from a previously read book. It's, at once, an exciting and frustrating experience for me - great in that I have a sudden rush of an "oh, YEAH!" reminding, but bitter in that I'm (once again) faced with how poorly I'm dealing with the challenge of my own information management efforts (which I see as different from my personal knowledge management, which, due to its being "personal" and "knowledge", doesn't really need "management, per say - it's who I am). I digress...

In reskimming JS Brown's terrific The Social Life of Information, I was reminded of a simple but important way to frame one of the common mistakes made in Instructional Design.

"Learning is usually treated as a supply-side matter, thought to follow teaching, training, or information delivery. But learning is much more demand driven. People learn in response to need. When people cannot see the need for what's being taught, they ignore it, reject it, or fail to assimilate it in any meaningful way. Conversely, when they have a need, then, if the resources for learning are available, people learn effectively and quickly."

So simple. So obvious. So often ignored.

What Instructional Designers (and those in charge of Training/Education, both at the academic and corporate levels) should always keep in the forefront of their minds is Motivation, Relevance, and Need. And I don't mean from the teacher's/organization's perspective - it's all about the learner, no matter how much we may twist and turn and stand on our heads to convince ourselves otherwise. Remember the old saying about leading a horse to water? The sooner we deeply embrace this fact, the sooner we'll stop burning time, money, effort, and goodwill trying to force that which isn't wanted.

The trick is to design to the "sweet spot" where what has been prescribed as necessary overlaps with what the audience wants. And it's not as difficult as one might initially think.

One way is to simply start each course/module/unit/section with a brief context-setting story or example that establishes (in the learner's mind, not the designer/instructor's mind) how the content that follows is important and relevant to the learner's world. BOOM! Suddenly the "sweet spot" overlap grows larger! It's certainly not rocket science, but the concept of establishing the WIIFM clearly and in a compelling/memorable fashion is so frequently ignored, there seems to be a need to provide (another) reminder.

The question is, will it be the last time the ID community requires this fundamental prompt?

Unfortunately, I'm guessing "no".


I'm really not sure. Probably because it's easier to simply copy/paste an old "preaching" design than to craft a new custom "teaching" design.

Math + Science = Value?

Roger Schank is at it again...

In his latest posting he goes against the conventional wisdom tide (big surprise..HA!) and argues that the old saw solution to all of the US's educational woes resting in teaching more math and science is simply misguided. He argues (my paraphrasing) that we are missing the forest for the trees in this obsession with more facts/figures/formulas.

The typical argument for why math & science are valuable is that they help students "learn how to think and reason". While I agree that this end may, in fact, be achieved through math and science exposure, it's a bit like arguing that a class in creative writing is valuable because it helps students to spell better. Sure, it's a side effect, but (a) is the end substantial justification for the means?, and (b) are there better, more direct methods of achieving the same end? Certainly there are a variety of routes towards the goal of "more people who can think", other than making everyone endure mandatory math and science classes that have questionable real-world relevance to most.

In the spirit of disclosure, I admit to having a background that is grounded in math and science (engineering and CS) and to reading the occasional math-related book for leisure. I like math and science and feel like my life is richer because of them. But here's the rub....

I probably would have taken about the same math/science courses, regardless of what was mandated, because I was interested in it! To force students who don't have similar native interests or vocational wishes that require such skills/knowledge to take much more than "daily survival skills math" (which probably tops out in middle school or early high school), under the guise of "teaching reasoning/logic" is simply a waste. A waste of time and energy on both ends of the experience (teacher/district time and money that clearly too rare and precious to squander, and student time and energy invested in something with so few tangible dividends), and a waste in the poisoning of any future interests in math/science these students may someday develop because of the bitter experience that this lock-step, decontextualized, forced-feeding results in.

As is Roger's way, he often argues to the extreme of the spectrum ("you couldn't get me to go back to college if you pointed a gun at me!" - Audio intro to Engines for Education) to provoke thought that leads to something more "reasonable". I add this latest rant of his to the same stack of his previous, controversial postings, but that doesn't discount or dismiss the validity of his core argument -

We do spend too much time/energy/money teaching things that are (supposedly) "good for you" via methods that would be as recognizable to George Washington as to George Bush, not because there is any real evidence or justification for it, but rather because it's familiar ("that's what I went through and I didn't turn out so badly, so...") and it's easy (what other rationale is there to explain the prevalence of multiple-choice questions/testing?).

It's time we revisit WHAT we teach, based on WHY it's of value to the core of the student population living in the 21st century, and HOW that material is best taught, and release old, pre-conceived notions of the answers that are based in the past.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Proactive New Year's Resolution

I've watched from the sidelines for too long and I'm resolving to make a change.

Although my tech knowledge is limited and rusty, I am a big advocate of 'learning by doing', so I suppose it's time for me to practice what I preach. This blogging effort is in conjunction with an effort to create and experiment with a website, so we'll see if I've bitten off more than I can chew!

For now, I'm planning on using this site as a means to capture my thoughts on a variety of topics, but probably mostly regarding technology-based learning and leveraging storytelling (business narratives) as an effective tacit knowledge transfer technique. I'm figuring if no one else ever reads these entries, it'll serve as an "idea net" for me, at a minimum. With any luck, a few items will catch others attention and they'll be kind enough (provoked enough?) to post comments that'll help to further expand/solidify my thinking.

So... here goes nothing!