Jesse Lee Eller: Mapping the Way to Successful Learner-Centric Design

June 2, 2014

Many of us try to open doors for learners. Jesse Lee Eller, a trainer-teacher-learner whose instructional-design efforts always strive to keep learners front and center in the process, uses those doors in a somewhat different way: to create low-tech high-impact storyboarding maps that keep all of us who are working with him on track in our collaborative instructional-design efforts.

“I’m a visual learner,” he explained when he recently introduced me to his innovative way of assuring that learners remain at the center of all that we do together. “These charts help me keep track of everything we’re doing.”

Eller--Door[1]--2014-05-20Eller’s tools to sketch flexible first-draft storyboards of learning modules are wonderfully simple. He starts with a blank door in his studio/apartment, post-it notes, felt pens, and, when the process advances a bit, pieces of tape and large sheets of paper that most of us more frequently use as flip-chart paper with sticky backing. In the early stages of the process, he prints out text from Word documents provided by his subject matter experts, cuts the text into pieces that can be taped to his door to show where they will be incorporated into online lessons under development, and places post-it notes with questions he expects to address as he completes his part of the instructional-design process for online learning modules.

Once he has arranged and rearranged the notes on a door, he begins to formalize and reassemble the map he is creating by transferring it onto the pages of flip-chart paper that are connected into a continuous top-to-bottom sheet to be hung on those same doors and shared with his instructional-design partners.

What helps maintain the focus in his design process are the headings he jots onto those top-to-bottom sheets reflecting his own commitments to facilitating learning and supporting learners: “Hook ME! Get my attention,” “What Do We Already Know?”, “Where Are We Going? (What’s in It for Me?)”, “New Info,” “Example/Show Me!,” “Assessment,” and “Summary.” Those headings provide the working space for efforts that eventually produce storyboards to be used by his partners creating online videos and other instructional materials. And this is where the process begins to feel familiar, for the headings unintentionally mirror several of the nine “events of instruction” that Robert Gagné outlines in The Conditions of Learning (p. 304): “Gaining and controlling attention,” “Informing the learner of expected outcomes,” “Stimulating recall of relevant prerequisite capabilities,” “Presenting the stimuli inherent to the learning task,” “Offering guidance for learning,” “Appraising performance,” and “Insuring retention.”

Engaging with Eller and his instructional-design door hangings can be wonderfully stimulating. Where many of us understand and apply the guidelines that Gagné and others have provided, Eller’s questions and prompts continually remind us that we need to foster engagement with learners if we’re going to serve our learners well. Seeing that reminder to “Hook ME!” consistently reminds us that if we don’t immediately provide an engaging invitation to the learning experiences we are preparing, our learners will see our products as just another set of exercises to complete, set aside, and forget the moment they have completed a lesson. “Hook ME!” provides one of the most important reminders we can receive at any stage of learning development: we’re writing to an audience we need to keep in mind; that audience has plenty of competing calls for its attention; and we must be competitive in attracting members of that audience to what they, those for whom they work, and those they ultimately serve in their workplaces expect us to facilitate—meaningful, useful, and memorable learning experiences.

Eller--Door[2]--2014-05-20It takes a bit of time to completely appreciate how flexible and useful Eller’s system actually is. Looking at the text and post-it notes on the doors throughout his studio immediately and implicitly reminds us that the early stages of storyboarding require lots of thinking and rethinking, so the convenience of being able to move blocks of text and comments on post-it notes around keeps us from locking ourselves into a specific plan of action too early in the design process. Moving those blocks of text, notes, and headings onto large sheets of paper that can be hung on doors or walls moves us a bit closer to developing a useable roadmap for the learning experiences we are crafting; it also proves to be amazing resilient as a way of making information available to others: collaborators working with Eller in his studio can easily contribute to the process by moving elements around on the sheets of paper; those who are responsible for transferring those rough drafts into PowerPoint slides to further finesse the storyboarding process can physically carry the rolled-up sheets to paper to their own offsite workspaces. And those of us who don’t have time to visit Eller’s studio to retrieve the rolled-up sheets of paper can access them through digital photos Eller quickly takes and forwards as email attachments. Having seen one of those door-hung maps and becoming familiar with the instructional-design process it represents, most of us can easily keep one sample in our own workspace and use it to format text provided by subject-matter experts for other learning modules.

The door-hangings that Eller and those of us collaborating with him are using may not replace the posters, photographs, and artwork we hang to stimulate our creativity in our workspaces. But creating and developing those rudimentary and flexible storyboard templates upon our doors provides an effective reminder that doors to learning can be used in many different creative ways to serve our learners well.


Learning Magic in Moments of Improvisation (Learning With Our Learners)

May 9, 2014

It’s far more than sleight of hand, this act of learning alongside our learners. It’s as delightfully magical for the way it occurs at the most unexpected moments as it is for how it rapidly produces small and large shifts in our own training-teaching-learning approach. And the stimulation that accompanies that level of collaboration in the learning process is one of the most consistently rewarding aspects of formal and informal learning opportunities we are likely to encounter, I was reminded again yesterday morning.

Oldenburg--Great_Good_PlaceI didn’t even, when the moment of magical learning began, know I was walking into a classroom; I thought I was actually walking into a neighborhood café—the sort of Ray Oldenburgian third placeThe Great Good Place—where we meet friends, interact, and walk away the better for having set aside the time for exactly that sort of encounter. But that morning quickly and unexpectedly turned into a far deeper and richer learning experience that a friend and I had expected to produce.

It began when I spotted the friend and sat at the restaurant counter to join her for a cup of coffee while she was eating breakfast. Commenting on how nice it had been to see her engaged in journaling as joined her, I inadvertently opened a door to a wonderful conversation about how she wished she had more time to write and how, more importantly, she wished she could find a way to combine her love of writing with work that produced an income.

“Want to play a game?” I asked. “It takes about two minutes and is a great learning exercise I know that helps people find what’s eluding them.”

Not wanting to skew the results or lead her in any specific direction other than helping her identify the sort of work that might combine her varied interests, I didn’t tell her that this simple exercise I had leaned in a creative writing class many years before had served me well in helping learners achieve a variety of goals including creating branding/marketing slogans for their personal businesses; crafting mission statements for their organizations; and even finding a name for a volunteer-driven community-based project that was so perfect that participants were still discovering lovely nuances in the name a couple of years after they shaped it. I also didn’t tell her that I used a two-minute time limit for the exercise because experience showed that most people and groups were winding down after 90 seconds and that two minutes was generally all it took to complete the most important element of what we were doing together.

Hearing her agree to accept the challenge, I told her to use her journal—I have generally used blank pieces of paper when working with individuals and paper on flipcharts or large whiteboards in classroom settings when working with groups—and take no more than two minutes to write down every word—no editing allowed—that came to mind when asked to think about the question “What makes me happy?” (When working on the mission statements, I’ve asked those learning the technique by using it to write down every word that came to mind when they thought about their organization; when working with those crafting marketing slogans, I’ve asked them to write down every word that came to mind when they thought about what concrete results they wanted to help their clients produce; when I worked with colleagues in the volunteer project, I asked them to think of every word that came to mind when they thought about the site on which the project was to be completed.)

Fountain_pens--2013-02-05I knew magic was about to occur when my friend/learner actually began jotting words down into her notebook even before I had a chance to start the timer on her smartphone. And it continued to take shape when I realized that, after 90 seconds, she not only was still writing as quickly as her hand and pen could place ink onto paper (with no slowdown in sight), but was also writing from left to right and top to bottom on the page rather than doing what every other learner had done before—simply throwing words helter-skelter all over a page or flipchart or whiteboard so the words could be grouped thematically later.

As the two-minute mark approached, I recognized I had my own unanticipated moment of leaning to address: stop the exercise as planned or respond to her obvious engagement and complete immersion in what she was doing by ignoring the timer and seeing where additional time would take us. After she finally raised her head five minutes and fifteen seconds into her wonderful stream-of-consciousness flow and asked if her two minutes were up, we both had a good laugh before beginning the process of reviewing what she wrote to see if she could spot meaningful connections between those apparently disjointed words and phrases. And as she read back what she had produced, I felt another moment of leaning magic unfolding: not only had she written down numerous nouns, verbs, and adjectives, but she had actually jotted down words reflecting what she was thinking as she wrote comments along the lines of “oh, this isn’t working” and “oh wait there it is.” Not only had she produced the most richly complex record of a learner’s thoughts I had ever seen in response to this simple exercise, but she had reminded me of something no trainer-teacher-learner can afford to ever forget: set the rules, then break them as soon as they become a hindrance to the learner’s learning process.

When we were finished with the review, she told me how helpful the exercise had been in identifying things she knew innately but hadn’t consciously acknowledged, and confirmed that she had learned enough to strike out on her own by returning to the results, running the same sort of exercise using individual words that resonated strongly with her from round one, and creating the sort of pithy summary of what would most appeal to her so she could try to match that statement with work that would reward her far more than what she currently does. And I, in turned, told her that the simple act of running that exercise with her and watching all that she produced had revitalized and freshened a tool I had long enjoyed—and now magically, unexpectedly, and inspirationally, would use with even more enthusiasm for learners who would never know how much that she as learner-teacher had contributed to their learning process—and a wonderfully adaptable tool to help them on their journey.


Preparing Learners…For the 20th Century?

September 5, 2013

Students, faculty, and administrators at Wyoming Catholic College are voluntarily, collectively, and enthusiastically engaged in an unusual approach to the use of contemporary technology, a Yahoo!News “Born Digital” series article reports in the following terms: “No cell phones allowed: Some colleges ban modern-day gadgets.”

Yahoo--Born_Digital“Also banned…are televisions and access to most websites in dorm rooms,” Ron Recinto writes in his article about the small liberal arts college. “Administrators allow only limited Internet connectivity throughout the campus, so students can do online research.”

It’s a fascinating contrast to the approach taken by another school with strong spiritual roots—Abilene Christian University, in Texas—which was the first university in the United States to provide incoming students with smartphones. It’s also a fascinating response to a problem described by a Wyoming student as “our inability to genuinely communicate at a human-to-human, face-to-face level,” and an interesting approach to the school’s stated “primary educational objective” of offering “a traditional liberal arts education that schools the whole person in all three dimensions—mind, body, and spirit.”

And while I couldn’t help but feel drawn to and impressed by the school’s description of its rigorous intellectual standards and broad-based curriculum embracing “history, imaginative literature, writing, reasoning, oratory, Latin, art history, music, mathematics, natural science, philosophy, theology, spirituality, outdoor leadership, and horsemanship,” I am left wondering whether the approach of agreeing to prohibit the use of cell phones except in extremely well-defined situations really is an effective way to help contemporary learners respond to the problems they believe technology fosters and the challenges technology produces.

The college’s dean of students, for example, explains that the policy helps eliminate the temptation to disengage from face-to-face interactions by answering cell phone calls and text messages as if “people you aren’t with are more important than the people you are with.” He also is quoted as suggesting that “We’re allowing a freedom and a vacation from all that so that students can work on something different: true friendship, true virtue, true study.”

What all of this seems to miss—at least as described in the Yahoo! News article—is a greater, far more dynamic learning opportunity: the chance to develop first-rate 21st-century person-to-person and online communication skills, friendship, virtue, and study by discussing, adopting, and maintaining nuanced forms of positive behavior in our onsite-online world rather than simply agreeing to remove bits and pieces of contemporary technology from an apparently wonderful learning environment.

Wyoming_Catholic_CollegeHelping students develop practices that prepare them for effective engagement in a highly-collaborative, globally-interactive world where tech tools can, if used judiciously, foster incredible levels of creativity, innovation, and collaboration seems far more responsive to contemporary learning needs than simply removing widely-available tech tools from their daily lives. Helping students develop habits that encourage them to control rather than be controlled by their tech tools seems to offer greater long-term benefit to them than having them, during this phase of their formal education, withdraw from what is commonly used in the world they inhabit. And helping students define, develop, and maintain digital literacy to remain competitive and effective in the contemporary workplace seems to be a more productive approach to their intellectual and societal development than setting aside the tools those workplaces and that society expect them to be able to effectively use.

I’m not at all unsympathetic to the challenges the Wyoming Catholic University community is attempting to address. As my own friends, colleagues, and learners know, I’ve traveled similar extremes over the past several years, having gone from having little interest in using laptops, cell phones, and social media to being someone who works face to face and online with learners across the country to help them adopt new technology and social media tools in their professional and personal lives. I’ve gone from holding a strong preference for face-to-face learning to an evidence-based belief that the best of online learning can be every bit as engaging and effective as the best of face-to-face learning. I’ve gone from not having a cell phone to having an admittedly old cell phone—a friend disparagingly refers to it as a “cellosaurus”; a (fairly up to date) laptop; and a tablet that provides me with levels of connectivity and engagement at a deeply personal and professional level I couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago.

What I’ve also developed, with continual experimentation as a trainer-teacher-learner, is a sense of when to set the technology aside so that I don’t miss that human-to-human contact the Wyoming community seems to crave. By consistently paying attention to people rather than technology, I believe I’ve had the richly-rewarding benefits of experiential learning to become even more adept at nurturing the person-to-person connections that make life worth living—on as well as off campus.


New Librarianship MOOC: Partnerships in Creativity, Innovation, and Learning

July 25, 2013

The further we move into R. David Lankes’s “New Librarianship Master Class”—a massive open online course (MOOC) under the auspices of the University of Syracuse School of Information Studies— and his book The Atlas of New Librarianship, the more obvious the overlap between librarianship and the entire field of training-teaching-learning becomes—which makes me wonder why I don’t see more interactions and sustainable collaborations between colleagues in the American Library Association (ALA)  and the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and others involved in the professions those two associations represent.

New_Librarianship_Master_Class_Logo“All of New Librarianship is about knowledge and training,” Lankes reminds us in his online lecture on the role facilitation plays in knowledge and training and throughout his book. “Everything we do is about helping people develop their own knowledge.”

But it is his follow-up comment in the lecture that particularly resonates for those of us who work both with library colleagues and with colleagues in other organizations where learning is facilitated: “I think a lot of instruction in libraries should be about things within the community and not about the library itself”—an idea I’ve supported consistently through a “Rethinking Library Instruction” course for ALA Editions.

In the same way that learning facilitated within libraries ultimately is at least as much about serving community members’ needs as much as it is about making library services and resources accessible, the learning facilitated in other organizations is at least as much about customers and clients served as it is about the learners who are employed by those organizations. If trainer-teacher-learners are reading, hearing about, and talking about anything these days, it is about how we are fostering a learner-centric approach to our efforts. That learner-centric approach can be most productive when it helps learners themselves make connections between what they are learning and how it helps them serve others. So as we bring that back into the context of librarians and other members of library staff who are offering learning opportunities that move far beyond a focus on bibliographic instruction and explicitly address libraries and their staff as partners within the communities they serve, we have yet another reminder that there is plenty of room for, and much to be gained by, greater collaboration between the trainer-teacher-learners in libraries (i.e., almost every member of library staff who interacts with those relying on libraries and librarians as trusted resources) and the trainer-teacher-learners who serve other organizations and constituents without ever realizing that partnerships with library staff can expand the successes of what all of us are attempting to facilitate.

And it goes beyond that, beyond the learning process: It is, Lankes suggests, “about bringing people to action”—a theme he explores extensively in the course and in The Atlas: It is about being outside of our organizations, being visible within the communities we serve, and being part of the conversations that shape the directions our communities take.

Our role as facilitators—librarians as facilitators, in the context under discussion by Lankes, and trainer-teacher-learners as facilitators in the broader context I’m pursuing here—is critically important. And this role provides another example of the common ground we share: Librarians, Lankes says, are constantly learning and “need to be constantly learning”—a statement that is equally true for anyone involved in helping others learn.

That necessity to continually engage in learning reveals another challenge that is, at the same time, an attraction for many of us: The requirement that we provide stimulating environments for learning and innovation while, at the same time, being willing to learn alongside those whose learning we are expected—and have offered—to facilitate. We don’t necessarily have to know about everything that is going to take place in a learning environment such as the makerspaces that are becoming increasingly prevalent in libraries, he suggests, but we do have to be willing to learn with the learners who are working within those spaces: “This idea of creating a safe place for experimentation, for innovation, is part of what librarians need to do,” he adds in a lecture on facilitation and environment, and the same applies to trainer-teacher-learners outside of physical and virtual library (and other learning) spaces.

“What we need to think about,” he continues, “is our physical spaces and our digital spaces: ‘How can we create inspiration? How can we create an environment where people instantly walk in and feel smarter, or feel part of something great, and know that they are part of something great, and not [be] intimidated?”

The ultimate payoff for libraries and librarians, he concludes, is that “Libraries are safe places, but they are a safe place to come up with dangerous ideas. They are a safe place to come up with revolutionary ideas. They are a safe place in which we can plot the future greatness of a community that may need to overthrow the norms of community.”

And that, for me, is as fine a description of what any great training-teaching-learning endeavor I’ve ever seen or helped facilitate can offer. And produce.

N.B.: This is the fourth in a series of posts inspired by the New Librarianship MOOC.



Christopher Alexander and the Architecture of Learning: When Systems Collide (Part 1 of 2)

June 19, 2013

Architecture quite clearly can offer an inspiring framework for teaching-training-learning—an idea that becomes obvious as we read between the lines of Christopher Alexander’s latest book, The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle Between Two World-Systems.

Alexander--Battle_for_Life_and_BeautyAlexander, whose extensive writings have been coming our way for more than 40 years, always writes first and foremost of his architectural endeavors. The books, however, are far more than explorations of his chosen field. Whether we’re reading some of his earliest works, including The Timeless Way of Building or A Pattern Language, or immersing ourselves in the 2,000 pages of his more recent four-volume The Nature of Order, we always find ourselves in the company of someone who looks beyond his own craft to see how it creates a world that works better—a phrase familiar to those of us who are active in the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD).

Making a world that works better is at the heart of almost any endeavor worth pursuing, and Alexander’s thoughts on the subject as it pertains to architecture often resonate for those of us continually striving to make training-teaching-learning something that results in a more beautiful, cohesive world.

At the heart of The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth is a compelling description of a challenge any trainer-teacher-learner can understand: the conflict between creating something that fits a predetermined template and uses the same approach everyone else uses just because it’s all we know, and creating something that meets the unique needs of each situation and set of clients (learners) we are called upon to serve.

In The Battle, Alexander describes an almost epic struggle to complete a project using what he calls System A—“…a type of production which relies on feedback and correction, so that every step allows the elements to be perfected while they are being made…”—rather than System B—“…a type of production that is organized by a fixed system of rigidly prefabricated elements, and the sequence of assembly is much more rigidly preprogrammed” (p. 19).

This clearly parallels the struggle we face in training-teaching-learning endeavors. We have abundant evidence that trying to rush learners through the learning process in the shortest period of time possible produces little more than test-based learning that is forgotten or quickly cast aside by learners who find little reason to apply newly-gained skills and knowledge to situations that do not support the use of those skills and that knowledge. We also have abundant evidence that densely-packed PowerPoint slides filled with far too much information for learners to absorb serves only to allow instructors to prove that they delivered the information they were meant to deliver—regardless of whether it results in the behavioral change great training-teaching-learning is expected to produce.

There are numerous beautifully-written, artful passages in The Battle that make us want to keep turning those pages as if we were reading a best-selling suspense story or a dramatic novel with characters we have come to love and care about. But in this case, the characters are compelling because we have come to understand their aspirations; are rooting for them to succeed; and become emotionally involved when they discover they have been betrayed and stand at the edge of a precipice from which there appears to be no escape—just as our learners understandably feel betrayed if we do not design the flexible, interactive learning opportunities that foster their—and our—successes in workplace learning and performance and other learning endeavors.

“Be patient, and take this in slowly,” Alexander counsels us at one point in his narrative (p. 394). If we take his advice and linger over that line itself, we realize how much of value that single line imparts to us in terms of all we dream and think and do. More importantly, we slowly and deeply begin to assimilate the lessons he imparts; see ways to translate them into training-teaching-learning and any other creative endeavor we commit to undertaking; and remind ourselves that books as inspiring and rewarding as The Battle require far more than a single cursory reading if we want to absorb all that the writer is offering us.

Next: Christopher Alexander and the Architecture of Collaboration (Applying “The Battle” to the Volunteer-Drive Community-Based Hidden Garden Steps Project)


Revisiting Our Recent Wicked Past: Malcolm Brown, John Cleese, Creativity, #etmooc, and Light Bulbs

February 28, 2013

If we want to learn at a deeply significant and long-lasting level, we clearly need to keep re-walking familiar paths while remembering, each time we recreate those journeys, to look at them as if we’ve never seen them before this moment.

This becomes more obvious than ever to me earlier today when I have an unexpected opportunity to re-view EDUCAUSE Director Malcolm Brown’s stimulating “Ideas That Matter” presentation from the New Media Consortium Horizon Project Summit on the Future of Education held in Austin, Texas in January 2013. I enjoy the presentation when Brown originally delivers it. I take notes that I reread with fresh eyes a few days later. But it isn’t until I watch the newly-posted video of that discussion of the creative process needed to address wicked problems—those complex and ambiguous problems requiring innovative approaches—that I see how much my perspective on the topic has evolved over the period of a single month.

What makes the viewing of that video transformative is that it places me, in a very visceral way, in two distinct yet interwoven moments and frames of mind. The original moment, environment, and frame of mind is the one created by the act of being part of a summit where all attention is focused on a single, spectacular theme—the future of education. The contemporary moment is the one that is here and now, just one month later, when I continue to be part of a group absolutely transformed by participation in #etmooc, the Educational Technology and Media massive open online course (MOOC) that Alec Couros and others are currently offering through March 2013.

etmoocBrown, like Couros and his associates (his “co-conspirators”), lays the foundations for explorations without establishing a clear vision of the outcome. We know we’re going somewhere, we know it’s going to be a journey well worth taking, and we know we’re going to experience unexpected pleasures along the way, but we have no idea what the destination is until we help create it through our own participation. It’s a learning process, and the most successful learning processes are those that the learners themselves—ourselves—help define, create, and complete. We allow for successes far greater and more significant than we can envision at the beginning of the learning process; we create an expectation and acceptance of the possibility and likelihood of failures along the way; and we create the most wonderfully odd juxtapositions that in and of themselves serve as the sandboxes capable of producing results worth seeking.

Brown, at a key point in his presentation, draws our attention to John Cleese’s lecture on creativity—a spectacularly entertaining and thought-provoking presentation that was originally delivered in 1991, yet continues popping up via online links with great regularity and proving itself to be as timely today as it was more than two decades ago. Being onsite with Brown means that we experience Cleese second-hand; watching the video of Brown’s presentation provides the invitation (consider it a command performance) to take the time to actually relive Cleese’s lecture in the moment, in juxtaposition with what Brown is offering. And we’re all the richer for this opportunity to re-walk both those paths again as frequently as we allow ourselves to be drawn to them, just as we’re able to re-walk some of the paths we’re creating, visiting, and revisiting through the various platforms that #etmooc uses (Blackboard Collaborate presentations; blog postings; live tweet chat sessions; postings in a Google+ community; and a variety of other settings limited only by our own imaginations and the amount of time we have to give to our continuing education efforts in a vibrant community of learning).

But let’s stay with a key point that Brown makes by quoting from Cleese’s earlier yet virtually contemporaneous presentation: creativity “is not a talent; it is a way of operating.” Every time we creatively pull ourselves back into an inspiring learning moment by re-reading our notes, or re-viewing an online presentation, or re-reading a blog posting (and, perhaps, adding to what is already there by posting a new comment that draws the original blogger back to what he or she wrote days/weeks/months/years ago), we keep our learning moments alive, productive, and fertile.

Jumping from Brown to Cleese also takes us deeper into that fabulously Cleesian world where he begins by telling his audience (which, thanks to the video, now includes us in the sort of wonderfully synchronously asynchronous moment that I’m attempting to create with this article) that he can more easily explain humor than he can explain the creative process. Then proceeds to do both by talking about creativity while continually interrupting his own presentation with a seemingly endless string of light bulb jokes. Then finds a way to connect the learning dots by helping us understand how the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated ideas (like creativity and light bulb jokes) can move our minds from a comfortably closed state (that is antithetical to creativity) to one open to unexpected possibilities (which provides a field where seeds of creativity can sprout, grow, and thrive). He makes us laugh repeatedly by reminding us how important these absurd juxtapositions are, and then producing more of them to prove the point. By the time we leave Cleese and Brown, we have strengthened our ability to engage in the process—and even make sense of the sort of juxtapositions I calculatingly create in the headline to this article.

N.B.: This is the fourteenth in a series of posts responding to the assignments and explorations fostered through #etmooc.


Arts Integration, Creativity, and Effective Learning

August 30, 2012

There are times when something crosses our desks (or, in this case, our computer monitors) and absolutely makes us sit up straight, amazed that what we so strongly believe has been supported so eloquently—which is what happened when I saw the “School Transformation Through Arts Integration at Bates Middle School in Maryland” video produced by Edutopia.

This is an absolutely and stunningly beautiful example of what so many of us have been proposing for years: learning where subjects are seamlessly integrated with each other is spectacularly rewarding, and the arts have an undeniably important place in this process.

The six minutes it will take you to watch that video may be among the most transformative you’re going to have for quite a while if you’re as moved as I am by what it provides: an incredibly intimate view into a learning environment that was hemorrhaging faculty and was rife with disciplinary problems. A vision that learning could somehow be better than it was in that setting. And the wonderfully touching imagery of learners engaged in learning at levels many of us only dream of fostering.

It’s all there for anyone who cares to see it. But that’s not enough. What the ongoing experiment at that middle school suggests is that when we stop looking upon learning in terms of the chunks of time stolen from our “real” jobs or obligations rather than in terms of how we can bring meaning to what is learned, we’re already on a life-changing road to creative approaches to effective learning.

“We gotta find a way to reach all kids,” John Ceschini, executive director for the Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance says early in this all-too-brief video. I would suggest that trainer-teacher-learners need to broaden that heartfelt manifesto to “We gotta find a way to reach all learners regardless of age, background, and setting.”

It’s not that I believe I’m going to completely incorporate painting or sculpture or ballet into my next social media basics course. But I do know that the underlying commitment to draw what we already know and love into what we are beginning or continuing to learn is a well-established educational precept (think about Robert Gagné’s nine events of instruction) and one well worth considering every time we sit down to design a learning opportunity, deliver it, and then look back to see how effective we were in providing something meaningful. Whether it is onsite or online learning that we’re pursuing, it needs to include the playful, the challenging, and the potentially discouraging possibility of failure that so often comes when we are experimenting with something that is not completely familiar to us or comfortable for us.

And that idea, in itself, helps us understand one of the larger ramifications of “School Transformation Through Arts Integration.” By allowing us to see those young learners tackling subjects that can just as easily produce failures as they can produce success, the producers of the video have reminded us that learning always involves risk. It’s an inherent part of the learning process that we unsuccessfully try to ignore when we focus on the quizzes, exams, and certifications that sometimes make us want to pursue easier learning opportunities rather than running the risk of failing at something more challenging.

So while you may not see the arts incorporated into every learning opportunity I help design and facilitate, what you can expect to see is even more of a commitment to draw upon creative endeavors when I’m working with the learners who depend on me as they struggle to acquire the skills and knowledge that help them succeed in an increasingly competitive world. And I hope that by watching that video, you too will be inspired to promote and pursue a better integration of the arts and creativity into all you do.


Jonah Lehrer: When Writing, Creativity, and Imagination Go Too Far

August 1, 2012

For those of us who write, the news that a very talented and successful writer has been discredited because of his or her own unethical actions is something that hurts us all—professionally as well as personally. At a painfully obvious level, it fuels the arguments of those who want to see inaccuracies and bias in every piece of nonfiction writing or broadcast reporting they encounter. So the news that Jonah Lehrer’s best-selling book Imagine: How Creativity Works has been withdrawn from the market by its publisher and that Lehrer has had to resign from his position as a writer for The New Yorker is very bad news, indeed.

From what has been reported to date, Lehrer’s first completely inexcusable mistake in Imagine was to fabricate quotes and add a made-up sentence to an actual quote from singer-songwriter Bob Dylan—an amazingly bad lapse of judgment given that much of the material with which Lehrer was working in Imagine appears to have already provided ample support to points he was making about how the creative process works. He then reportedly compounded the error by engaging in an extended game of obfuscation over a three-week period with writer Michael C. Moynihan, who documented the initial fabrications and his exchanges with Lehrer on the subject in an article published in Tablet Magazine this week. Lehrer’s work, furthermore, has been questioned and criticized by others, including a reviewer for The New York Times who raised plenty of questions about Lehrer’s conclusions drawn from research he cited after an earlier reviewer for the newspaper had praised the book.

What made Imagine so appealing to so many of us when it was released earlier this year was that Lehrer’s writing was so clear and crisp; his summaries of numerous research studies seemed well supported through citations in the book’s endnotes; and his conclusions seemed to be consistent with what we had seen from other writers and studies. It inspired us to recommend the book in our own reviews and essays and to connect Lehrer’s work to fields in which we work, as I did in a piece written for the American Society of Training & Development (ASTD) Learning Technology online community of practice.

So the news that this apparently wonderful, engaging, and thought-provoking book has, overnight, almost completely disappeared from bookstores and websites, and will apparently only remain available through libraries or on the shelves of those of us who obtained copies before the publisher’s understandable recall, is extremely dispiriting.

I’ve never before faced the situation where a book has been recalled after I had so favorably written about it and also used it as a jumping off point for the sort of piece I wrote for ASTD; the news that the book had been pulled, therefore, left me wondering how to handle a revelation like that one in an age where we can actually withdraw our online reviews and even ask that an online article be withdrawn. The dilemma sent me back to re-read the brief online review I posted on a few sites and to also reread that ASTD article. And when I was finished, I walked away with extremely mixed feelings: on the one hand, I felt that what I had been inspired to write for the ASTD posting still had value, so I’m not going to ask that it go the way of the book itself and be withdrawn; on the other hand, I have already deleted the online reviews since it seems silly to offer any type of rating or critique for a book that a publisher has pulled back.

Ultimately, because I do still believe the book as published had—and still has—value in making us think creatively about the science of the creative process—even though, by Lehrer’s own admission, he was irresponsibly creative in imagining quotes for attribution—I’m going to keep an earlier blog posting online, along with an acknowledgment that the book has been withdrawn—as a reminder of how a good book could have been a great book if the writer had been faithful to the basic precepts of accuracy in nonfiction writing. As a reminder that the act of writing in an onsite-online world exposes us to greater scrutiny—and more assurance of comeuppance when deserved—than anything we’ve ever before experienced. And as a reminder that when a member of our extended community of writers takes a terribly wrong turn, the rest of us need to Imagine ourselves in that position—and avoid it at all costs.


Jonah Lehrer: Creatively Imagining Solutions

June 19, 2012

Imagine a book with an approach so creative and so playfully appealing that we run out and buy it, devour it, look for interviews with the author, and then dive into the promotional video as well as other videos because we discover depths in the work that we suspect we’ll never grow tired of exploring. Then realize you don’t have to imagine it, because Jonah Lehrer has written it.

Reading Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works pulls us onto familiar turf—the study of creativity, how the brain works, how we resolve the numerous challenges life tosses our way, and how we as trainer-teacher-learners can more effectively fulfill our potential. It also takes us down some intriguing paths by creatively using storytelling to help us understand how much effort is required to produce what so often appears to be an unearned flash of brilliant insight.

As Malcolm Gladwell so effectively does in Outliers: The Story of Success, Lehrer continually shows us that it’s practice that often can be found at the base of those divine moments of creativity we so admire.

“Creativity shouldn’t be seen as something otherworldly,” he writes near the beginning of his book. “It shouldn’t be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other ‘creative types.’ The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code. At any given moment, the brain is automatically forming new associations, continually connecting an everyday x to an unexpected y.

Drawing from research into the way the brain works, he helps us understand what we can do to nurture our own creative impulses.

“When our minds are at ease…we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere”—a practice we can foster in our students through the learning opportunities we provide. “In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we’re trying to solve….It’s not until we’re being massaged by warm water, unable to check our e-mail, that we’re finally able to hear the quiet voices in the backs of our heads telling us about the insight. The answers have been there all along—we just weren’t listening” (pp. 31-32).

There’s plenty here for those steeped in adult learning theory as proposed by Malcolm Knowles in The Adult Learner and Robert Gagné in The Conditions of Learning.  In the same way that Knowles and Gagné encouraged us to recognize that learners progress by building upon what they already know, Lehrer looks into the way our brain functions and he reports that a newly created thought is “transmitted back to its source—those pleasure-hungry dopamine cells in the midbrain—so the neurons learn from the new idea. ‘We call that a recursive loop,’ [Earl] Miller says. ‘It allows the system to feed on itself, so that one idea leads naturally to the next. We can then build on these connections, so that they lead to other, richer connections’” (pp. 67-68).

Those steeped in the theory and reality of the way we approach change—ranging  from Everett Rogers and his seminal work Diffusion of Innovations to Dan Ariely and his Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions—will be equally intrigued by the insights Lehrer provides through his summaries of brain-based research. Taking something as simple as the transformations we undergo as a result of traveling to new places, he observes that “[w]hen we get home, home is still the same. But something in our minds has been changed, and that changes everything” (p. 130)—an observation that presciently captures what happens to us in the course of traveling with Lehrer through Imagine.

By the time we finish reading the book, we recognize that something in our minds has changed. Reading and trying to solve the brain teasers he provides early in the text makes us more aware of how we approach problem-solving. Reading about how Yo-Yo Ma, Bob Dylan, Milton Glaser, and many others diligently approach their craft helps change the way we approach our own. And reading how creative teams that aren’t completely inbred and, at the same time, are not completely composed of individuals who have never worked together before makes us more aware of the successful learning teams we have been lucky enough to join.

Yet even as he works to show us the magic behind what so often appears to be creative legerdemain, Lehrer is smart enough to know that even though we are making great strides in understanding the science behind our creative processes, there is still something innately human about retaining a sense of awe when we explore this subject: “Creativity is like that magic trick. For the first time, we can see the source of imagination, that massive network of electrical cells that lets us constantly form new connections between old ideas….There will always be something slightly miraculous about the imagination.” (p. 251).

N.B.: For a look at how Lehrer’s book can guide us in developing effective communities of practice, please see “Imagine, Creativity, and Communities of Practice” in ASTD’s Learning Circuits online publication. And for information about the publisher’s withdrawal of Imagine, please see this updated posting.


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