Thursday, April 26, 2007

Learners Are "Bulletproof"

(originally posted to Tata Interactive Systems' blog)

The title of this entry was inspired by a passage from Craig Wortmann’s terrific book, “What’s Your Story?”. It speaks to both how communication has shifted in recent years and the ineffective nature of the way we often attempt to teach.

Just as lengthy memos were replaced by brief emails, which were, in turn, overtaken by IMing and SMS (thanks to increasingly powerful mobile phones/devices), the way we converse and communicate is becoming more and more staccato’d . Increasingly, we are speaking to each other in fragmented facts and bullets instead of descriptive and nuanced narratives. In pursuit of speed, we have traded away “rich/engaging/compelling” for “fast/efficient/familiar”. In many ways, this is a fool’s bargain, and it’s beginning to show.

Q: What is the longest standing, most tried-and-true, and instinctually natural way of passing knowledge from expert to novice?

A: Leave your laptops, Powerpoints, and Blackberries behind… Forget about books, manuals, and job aids… It’s the ancient art of storytelling.

I’m planning to post a series of entries about the power of Story in Instructional Design in the coming weeks/months, but I figured this observation regarding bullet points was a good place to begin the journey. It speaks to the importance of context and the way we process, store, and recall information.

When you tell someone a set of facts and figures, it can make a temporary impact, but it’s usually quickly forgotten as decontextualized white noise. What’s lacking is meaning and relevance to the listener – in order for something to be understood at a deep level and retained for more than a few days (hours?... minutes!?...), there has to be a personal connection made. Something that relates the new information to old, personal, previously understood information. Something that refines, extends, contradicts, augments, or otherwise changes the existing set of cases and rules that exist in the learner’s mind. Without this comparative review and adjustment, any ‘learning’ that may occur will ultimately be fleeting.

So, we need to move away from the expedient habit of disseminating data in meaningless bullets and rediscover the importance of context, which can be created in the form of stories.

Here's a short and simple example to illustrate the difference.

Consider the following bulleted fact:

  • “Corporate earnings were 3.2 billion (dollars/yen/euros/pounds/rupees) in 2006.”
What does this data point tell you? What image do you have in your head about this company’s standing? What do you understand now that you didn’t understand before? What meaning has this information given you?

OK – now review the following 12 charts (with the red “dot” marking 3.2 billion):

Instantly, and without conscious effort, you probably told yourself a “mini story” to process and comprehend the data represented in each chart. You couldn’t help yourself. Is 3.2 billion a good thing? A bad thing? Status quo? For each chart above, you easily created a plausible tale of “what’s going on” that is grounded in your previous experiences (firsthand and vicarious). This instinctual tendency is part of who we are, at a fundamental level. It provides a compelling insight into how our brains work, and suggests ideas for leveraging this cognitive habit to our instructional advantage.

Imagine the final step in this example chain - instead of being given a bulleted fact, or even a graphical chart, you are provided a compelling narrative of the events that influenced a company's fiscal performance. Maybe a story of how a small oil and gas company played a role in one of the largest bankruptcies in US history? How recognizible and well-understood are terms like "securities fraud" in the post Enron/Worldcom era? Why? Because stories were told - stories of greed, arrogance, fraud, trust, loss, and ruin - that brought obscure accounting terms and practices out of the textbooks and into the personally relevant world of everyday people.

Stories help to add meaning to new data. Meaning is a critical element in increasing retention. Without retention, there's no hope for application.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Power of Numeracy and Estimation

I'm a big fan of the ability to estimate and to have a "feel" for numbers. In this day and age of data and info overload, I think it's important that people (specifically, young people) are able to comprehend and process figures that are thrown at them by the modern media. Without it, we become vulnerable to either becoming alarmists at minor things, or complacent when major changes unfold.

For me, a hugely influential book in this area was "Innumeracy" by John Allen Paulos.

It's not uncommon at all to hear people say things like, "A million... a billion... a trillion... it's all the same to me!" or (with a odd sense of pride), "I'm not a numbers person / I've never been good in math / I don't 'do' numbers". We've all heard (uttered?) similar phrases on a regular basis, and don't bat an eyelash.

Yet, imagine the absurdity of hearing someone loudly and proudly proclaim, "I never 'got' that Alphabet thing - all those vowels, consonants, and letters are just too confusing for me!", or "Reading just never made sense to me... leave that stuff to the professors who are in love with their books."

Why is it that illiteracy is universally seen as a serious issue that must be combated (and I think it should), and yet very little is said about innumeracy?

We need to take an active role (especially with our children) to curb this "proud ignorance" and help to establish numeracy as an important foundational element of being a citizen of the world in the 21st century. If you wouldn't dream of skipping more than a night or two of reading your child a story, why not also make it a priority to regularly ask them to engage with numbers (figure out which of two items is a better buy at the store, estimate how many hours/minutes/seconds it is until their next birthday, or figure out how many cents per hour they'll need to save to be able to afford that toy they want)?

It's not that anyone really cares about "how many ping pong balls would it take to fill this room?" or "how many ants are in our front yard?" (I'm the first in line to rail against teaching/learning meaningless facts and figures, but that's a topic for another day's blog :-) ); it's certainly not about getting the "right" answer, either. It's about becoming comfortable enough with numbers that you can make sense of what's "big" and "little" in our daily lives (whether that's the cost of ignoring global warming, money lost in government waste, or just how rich Bill Gates really is.)

One of my favorite efforts in this area was "the power of adding another zero" that was illustrated by Charles and Ray Eames in their "Powers of Ten" video (and Philip and Phyllis Morrison in their book of the same name).

This whole posting was inspired by a chance browsing discovery of a "Powers of Ten '07 (in Flash)" site done by Nikon, called Universcale.

It's creative efforts like PoT and Universcale that help to make numbers, size, and the power of exponential growth (up and down) more relevant and tangible to people.

A few quotes to close:
The reason that children learn a language in a year or two is because it is an environment. There is no reason why physics and mathematics cannot be given the same environmental codification and learned with the same speed and ease.
--Marshall McLuhan

There are three kinds of people in the world - those that understand mathematics and those that don't.
--Ron Zellner

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

OLPC and the Future of Learning

The above is a video of TechTalk given by one of the brains behind the One Laptop Per Child project at Google. Although I'm far enough into the half-life of my university learnings to have a great deal of the geektalk in the presentation go over my head, I can appreciate/understand just enough to be thoroughly wowed. I also *really* liked the context that the speaker took the time to establish in the first 5 mins regarding how the root of the project is about Learning, not Technology.

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative has been lauded and ridiculed by various groups since its inception, but it seems to be plugging along towards becoming a reality (thanks to the help of some very bright and innovative people).

All I can say is "bravo!". It's truly inspiring to see an idea as big and (potentially) groundbreaking as this grow from concept to an implemented product before our very eyes in a very short (relatively speaking) period of time. I struggle to imagine an effort that has more potential for fundamental change and empowerment than what these guys have bitten off.

I remember being deeply inspired, many moons ago, the following Apple print ad:

It's embarrassing how quickly time gets away from you and how everyday life pushes youthful aspirations to the side. Does it need to be that way? I'm not THAT old (yet), so why not embrace the old "pick battles big enough to matter but small enough to win" adage and try to make a mark (beyond "I saved company's money")?

Last weekend I attended my 4th FIRST Championship event. It was amazing as usual.

Yesterday, I emailed the guy heading up the FIRST Lego League in the Atlanta area. I'm going to do my best to "be the change I want to see in the world" (Gandhi).

Wish me luck.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Innovation, Failure, and Learning

(originally posted to Tata Interactive Systems' blog)

CNBC has started a new 5-part series on Innovation called, "The Business of Innovation".
The first episode ("Innovators and Iconoclasts") has already aired, but is available online here. It's really quite good, with interviews with many well respected figures from the business and innovation arena. Well worth the time to watch the 4 segments...

So what does this have to do with learning?

Although the series is hosted by Maria Bartiromo, she is assisted by Roger Schank, well-known educational provoker and Artifical Intelligence/Cognitive Science expert. From my perspective, he steals the show (full disclosure: I studied under Schank at Northwestern's Institute for the Learning Sciences).

Consider these snippets from the episode's opening:
  • Innovators don't really fit in very well (with others)
  • Nearly everyone starts out as an Iconoclast (a rule breaker) - little kids don't know the rules; they do what they want to do.
  • Failure is KEY! You have to be failing and failing again.
  • Big companies are always trying to hire people who were in the top 10% at Harvard, under the assumption that they are good. What Harvard graduates are good at is... Harvard.
  • You want someone original from Harvard? Try the BOTTOM 10%. Those kids are smart enough to get it, then decided they weren't playin' the game.


The connection here (among others) is that we need to be willing to experiment and fail in order to break the mold of "what everyone else is doing" or "how it's always been done". If we aren't willing to reach out beyond what's known and assured, then we'll just get more of what we've got.

Failure has such an unfairly bad rep - companies (generally) hate it, employees (mostly) avoid it, recruiters rarely ask about it. Yet it's the home zip code of where learning occurs. If you do something and succeed, all that tells you is that what you already know works - it provides confirmation, but no growth/learning.

The primary time real learning occurs is when we do X, expecting Y, and Z occurs instead.


Discomfort and surprise result! Motivation to find out what the hell happened arises! A new case for your storehouse of experiences is added to your wetware! And a few new synapses are connected! - Learning has occurred!

It's exactly this kind of semi-contrarian stance that has made Roger who he is. Love him or hate him, it's tough to ignore him and the points he makes.

Do yourself a favor and do a quick Google on "Roger Schank" and read what he's written/said, as well as the responses he's generated (pro AND con). I guarantee you will find yourself shifting in your seat and thinking more deeply about some "common/accepted knowledge" than you probably have recently.

Here are a few to get you started:

Shift Happens

(originally posted to Tata Interactive System's blog)

Scott McLeod, of the Univ of Minnesota, recently reworrked and posted a version of a presentation that Karl Fisch created called "Did You Know?". It's really quite good on several different levels (globalization, learning, change, the future) and is worth a view (~6 mins).

Several of the themes resonated especially loudly for me, being an eLearning specialist working for an Indian firm, as well as being the (proud) father of a six year old boy. The world we are living within TODAY is amazing and changing incredibly fast, but it all (may) look like "the good old days" to my son in the same way that today's workforce reflects upon how things were, not in the 1930's, but in the 1830's (or maybe the 1730's!).

The current day statistics and facts he cites are pretty amazing (or scary, depending on your risk profile and comfort with change). And although it's always dangerous business predicting the future (as witnessed by Charles Duell's prediction, as Commissioner of US Patent Office in 1899, that "Everything that can be invented has been invented."), even if only a portion of the forecasts in the latter portion of the presentation are just partially true, we STILL will be in for a wild ride...

(It seems like some of those predictions may have been based on Ray Kurzweil's research on "The Singularity", and how exponential change is powerful but subtle before you hit the "knee of the curve", where change becomes noticable (which is where he claims we all sit currently). He says that we'll experience a century's worth of progress in the next 25 calendar years, and 20,000 years of progress(!) in the next 100 calendar years. Hold on tight...)

So what's the relation to Learning and Development? The scent of it abounds, even if it's not explicitly stated. We must prepare to live/survive/excel in a world that will be changing more rapidly than ever. And in a world of change, it is the person who has learned how to learn who will have the advantage. We need to stop focusing on teaching fact/figures/answers, and begin to embrace the ability to analyze/sythesize/adapt. Good teaching and learning strategies will be at the core of success tomorrow, regardless of the details of what that vista ends up looking like.

In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.-- Eric Hoffer

I've been cheating...

It looks like I've failed in my New Year's Resolution a mere few weeks into '07, but it's not so... I've just been seeing another blog :-)

I've been posting to my current employer's blog recently, but have decided that I really ought to cross-post here, as well.

So, with that in mind.... Keep on reading!