Burning Wallets and Learning Magic

April 24, 2014

I really wasn’t very surprised this morning when Garret DePass’s wallet burst into flames as he opened it up to retrieve a business card for me. After all, DePass is a “closeup illusionist”—what most of us refer to as “a magician.”

Garret DePass

Garret DePass

And in the course of our conversation in a neighborhood coffee shop here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, we realized how much our work has in common even though it starts from very different directions. In magic, as in learning, some of the most exciting moments are grounded in the unexpected and the engaging. In magic, as in learning, we arrive with expectations that, when set aside, produce something memorable. And in magic, as in learning, each revelation leaves us viewing the world a bit differently than we did before the transformative moment occurred.

It’s possible, DePass suggested, to overthink magic—just as it’s possible to overthink learning.

A friend of his, he recalled, suggests that “magic as an art has no aim; it’s all about just being magical.”

Continuing with his own reflections on that idea, he added, “Should we put a message to magic? No. The magic itself is enough.”

And that’s when my own DePassian moment of revelation magically occurred. While we are (understandably) asked to document results in learning to justify learning in business terms and I don’t at all disagree with the idea that learning can and often should produce something quantifiable, I believe we miss what DePass and his colleague would refer to the “art” of learning. Recognizing that learning can sometimes just be about learning actually paves the way to produce more concretely justifiable results.

Many of us involved in training-teaching-learning know the pathetically meager results our efforts produce. Resources including The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results (second edition written by Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock, and Andy Jefferson) document the obvious problems and offer an engaging roadmap to creating learning opportunities that produce positive results. But in our rush to produce those “metrics” that are meant to justify the time and expenditure invested in supporting workplace learning and performance, we forget the foundations for some of the most enduring and memorable school-based learning experiences we’ve had throughout our lives. Our best and most effective learning facilitators were those who reached us where we needed to be reached, inspired us with curiosity and appreciation for the value of learning, and helped shape us into the successful and avid learners we became in the course of becoming valuable in our workplaces and beyond.

When we learn how to learn and, more importantly, develop a deeply-rooted appreciation for the learning process itself, we are nurturing a skill that helps us become successful in the lifelong learning efforts that keep us competitive and sought-after in the challenging world we inhabit.

Sleights_of_MindIt’s hardly a new idea that magic and learning are inextricably interwoven. Illusionist Kevin Spencer’s wonderful paper “Hocus Focus: Evaluating the Academic and Functional Benefits of Integrating Magic Tricks in the Classroom” offers a fascinating exploration of the topic. A #lrnchat conversation form February 21, 2013 (transcript retrievable by using “magic in learning” as the search term in the site search window) produced an engaging hour-long online exploration of the topic. And Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, in their book Sleights of Mind, review the cognitive neuroscience—the neuromagic—of how our brains process the magic tricks we see.

Pulling all of this back to DePass and his burning wallet brings us back to one more of those unexpected moments where magic and learning overlap. He and I were meeting, at a the suggestion of a shared colleague, so he could learn more about the possibilities open to him if/when he and his wife decide to move from Denver, where they currently live, to San Francisco. Still relishing the sight of that burning wallet, I decided to extend the moment by telling one of the waiters—who had not seen the now-extinguished flames—that we wanted another glass of water as soon as he could bring one to us; before he could turn away, DePass demonstrated the immediate need by reopening and reigniting his wallet. As soon as the waiter stopped laughing, he asked DePass whether he was free this coming Saturday afternoon and explained that he wanted to explore the possibility of bringing a bit of close-up illusionism to his seven-year-old son’s birthday party that afternoon. And as if by magic, we all learned that DePass’s possibilities here in San Francisco were far better than even he might have imagined.


Learning Social Media With Our Learners Revisited: Tweetorientations

March 14, 2014

Less than a year ago, Betty Turpin (librarian at the International School of Stuttgart) was completing a four-week online “Social Media Basics” course I had designed and was facilitating for ALA Editions. Now she is introducing me to innovative uses of the social media tools we explored with her course colleagues.

Betty Turpin

Betty Turpin

Twitter is at the center of a story that should be tremendously inspiring and useful to any trainer-teacher-learner. Betty is maintaining a wonderful Twitter feed (look particularly as the series of tweets that began appearing on February 13, 2014) to help prepare students for participation in a dynamic study-abroad program and project designed to produce concrete results: “planning, managing, and implementing an entirely new school library, and assessing a sustainable automation system in a fully-contained setting” while earning full credit for two courses (“Managing Library Automation Projects” and “Seminar in Information Resources and Services for Special Clienteles”), a promotional flyer confirms. Betty’s use of Twitter also made me aware of what she is doing; we used Twitter for an initial interview about her efforts before moving the conversation into email; and I suspect we’ll both continue using Twitter to post updates as she continues orientation-by-Twitter—an idea I suspect many of us will eagerly look to apply into our own training-teaching-learning efforts.

Her summary via email shows us what has developed:

UNT_Logo“The University of North Texas [UNT], your alma mater as well as mine, has a study abroad program for graduate library students. I participated as a student four years ago in Kyiv, Ukraine. Last year I tagged along to a school in Moscow, Russia, for my own professional development. I graduated from UNT in 2012, but as you might imagine, professional development for English-speaking librarians overseas is a bit hard to come by. This year, I am the sponsoring librarian and the students are coming to work for me at my school in Stuttgart, Germany.  I’ve also arranged for the students to start-up a library at a new international school in Karlovy Vary, CZ.  The school will open its doors with its first students in August, 2014. The library and opening day collection will be put into place by UNT’s Dr. [Barbara] Schultz-Jones, Professor Debby Jennings, and their team of 20 graduate librarians.

“Dr. Schultz-Jones has been running this program for ten years, more or less…When the team started getting themselves organized for this year’s trip, I decided to use a social media platform to help pass on some of the information they might either need or want for their trip.”

International_School_of_Stuttgart_LogoTwitter became Betty’s tool of choice because she saw it as a way to build excitement; as a resource that could be easily managed on a day-to-day basis; and as a conduit to concisely provide valuable tidbits orienting the learners to the International School of Stuttgart, the city and its culture, and general library issues they will need to understand before they dive into their project of creating that new school library in the Czech Republic, she explained.

“Students get overwhelmed thinking abt. an overseas visit. Bits of info at a time work better, hence tweets,” she added via Twitter.

The feed she maintains is charmingly effective. It begins with an invitation to engagement (“Welcome, UNT Student Librarians! Pls follow me. We’ll tweet info., photos, and exciting news from Germany until you are HERE! Tchüß!”); continues with introductions to wonderful resources, including the school’s website and to the Visible Thinking site, to prepare them for the work they are about to begin; and includes tweets designed to facilitate online interactions among the learners themselves. Understanding the value of imagery, she is particularly good at incorporating colorful photographs into those tweets, showing everything from playful images of the people the learners will meet at the school to a picture of one of the chairs available to them. This is a level of orientation so far removed from the deadly-dull introductory information dumps so prevalent in student and workplace learning today that it almost begs to have its own training-teaching-learning nomenclature: Tweetorientations, anyone?

And there’s more: her feed, in addition to nurturing a community of learning, also has the potential to easily be organized into a newly-formatted reusable learning object—perhaps part of a larger custom-designed orientation manual or virtual textbook that could include tips and observations from the learners themselves—if she ultimately decides to collect the entire series into a Storify document or a PDF to be accessed by the UNT students or anyone else interested in Stuttgart and the International School.

For now (as Betty notes), she has a very small number of followers on Twitter. But I suspect that will change when our training-teaching-learning colleagues realize how effectively she is using Twitter. And what a great example she is setting for the rest of us.


On Learning, Testing, and Being Tone Deaf

September 20, 2013

There are plenty of reasons to believe that multiple-choice and true-false tests are among the worst ways to measure whether learning is successful; in the best of circumstances, they tend to measure only the lowest levels of learning achieved, and in the worst of situations they leave respondents without any acceptable responses from which to choose. Yet we seem to remain tone deaf to concerns and criticisms voiced by educators for decades and continue to rely on them.

From Skley's Flickr photostream at http://tinyurl.com/machqej

From Skley’s Flickr photostream at http://tinyurl.com/machqej

The multiple-choice/true-false approach is pervasive in much of what we encounter day to day within and outside of the world of learning. Surveys often incorporate these methods to make tabulation of the results easy—after all, it can easily be argued, we can’t afford to engage in more personalized labor-intensive methods of collecting data (e.g., reading short- or essay-length responses)—although there are signs that mechanizing the testing and grading process in ever-more sophisticated ways is increasingly becoming possible.

But relying on mechanical methods so obviously produces mechanical results that I believe we need to question our own assumptions, be honest about what those assumptions are producing, and seek better solutions than we so far have managed to produce.

A couple of recent experiences helped me understand the frustrations and weaknesses of multiple-choice/true-false testing at a visceral level: taking two very good and very different massive open online courses (MOOCs), and responding to a survey that relied solely on multiple-choice responses which, because they were poorly written, didn’t provide any appropriate responses for some of us who would have been very willing to participate in the project to which the survey was connected.

etmoocLet’s look at the MOOCs first: #etmooc (the Educational Technology & Media MOOC developed and facilitated by Alec Couros and his wonderful gang of “conspirators” earlier this year) and R. David Lankes’s “New Librarianship Master Class” (a MOOC developed and delivered under the auspices of the University of Syracuse School of Information Studies). #etmooc, as a connectivist MOOC (where learning, production of learning objects including blog posts and videos demonstrating the skills that learners were acquiring, and online connections between learners were among the central elements and testing was nonexistent) nurtured development of a community of learning that continues to exist among some of the participants months after the course formally ended. The New Librarianship Master Class, grounded in the more traditional academic model of documenting specific learning goals, relied more on standardized testing to document learning results and offered less evidence that learners were using what they were learning.

The frustrations that some of us mentioned after struggling with standardized questions that didn’t really reflect what we had learned and what we would be capable of doing with that newly-gained knowledge resurfaced for me last night as I was trying to complete in an online research survey. Facing a series of multiple-choice questions, I quickly realized that whoever prepared the options available as responses to the survey questions had underestimated the range of experiences the survey audience had—was, in fact, tone deaf to the nuances of the situation. Opting for results that could be scored mechanically rather than requiring any sort of human engagement in the tabulation process, the writer(s) forgot to include an option for “other” to catch any of us whose experiences didn’t fit any of the options described among the possible multiple-choice responses—which, of course, meant that at least a few of us who might otherwise have been willing to provide useful information abandoned the opportunity and turned to more rewarding endeavors. (And no, there wasn’t an opportunity to simply skip those questions-without-possible-answers so we could stay involved.)

Abandoning a potentially intriguing survey had few repercussions other than the momentary annoyance of being excluded from an interesting project. Being forced to respond to standardized tests that don’t accurately document a learner’s level of mastery of a subject is obviously more significant in that it can affect academic or workplace advancement—and it’s something that is going to have to be addressed in those MOOCs that don’t take the connectivist approach—which raises a broader question that need not be answered within the confines of pre-specified options on a multiple-choice test: why are we not advocating for more effective ways and resources to encourage and document learning successes in both onsite and online settings? Expediency need not be an excuse for producing second-rate results.


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)


Annie Murphy Paul: Exploring the Ultimate Learning Space

July 11, 2012

Those of us fascinated by learning and how we are affected by the places where learning occurs find ourselves exploring a wonderfully unexpected learning space in Annie Murphy Paul’s Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives: the womb.

It is Paul’s contention, throughout this well-researched and thought-provoking book and the “What We Learn Before We’re Born” TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk she gave on the subject in 2011, that we haven’t given nearly enough attention to all we learn and acquire in those critical nine months before we enter the world. Origins is a great first step in filling that gap.

Organized into nine chapters representing the nine months of the writer’s second pregnancy, the book takes us through tantalizing views of the latest research into what we learn and how we are shaped in utero—a somewhat different classroom than the ones in which we usually find ourselves. And one fascinating aspect of this particular journey is the number of parallels we find between that pre-birth learning space and the more familiar ones we inhabit. There is, for example, the Month Two exploration of how what our mothers eat while they are carrying us affects the lifelong tastes we develop and acquire; those of us involved in training-teaching-learning can quickly make the literal connection between proper nourishment and a learner’s ability to absorb what is offered in a learning opportunity, and we can also see the figurative elements of how what we are offered in the womblike setting of a physical or virtual learning space helps us develop a favorable or unfavorable response to the learning morsels we consume.

Paul’s Month Three explorations of how tremendously stressful situations—the 9/11 bombings, the Northridge, California earthquake in 1994, World War II-era siegesaffect mothers and the children they are carrying remind us that significantly less stressful situations can have significant and long-lasting effects on a learner’s ability to absorb and retain information. Her Month Six explorations of how a mother’s emotional state might have significant lifelong physiological impacts on her developing child parallel the positive and negative effects an instructor-trainer-facilitator’s moods and approaches can inspire or discourage in a learner’s intellectual development. And the concluding chapters leading us to the moment of her second child’s birth remind us of a variety of physical and emotional elements that teach the unborn child what to expect upon entering the world just as we, as facilitators of learning, convey important messages to learners about what they can expect and might accomplish once they leave our learning spaces and re-enter the world in which they live and work and play.

One of the more poignant moments comes at the end of chapter eight, when Paul recounts her experience of being jostled on a crowded subway train, losing her balance, and seeing the fruit and vegetables she has just purchased in a farmers market go careening up and down the aisles: “I look around helplessly, feeling like a child lost in a thicket of pant legs and skirt hems. Then one set of hands after another drops an apple into my bag. From the far end of the car, a piece of my fruit is handed from one rider to another until it reaches me. Another set of hands pulls me up and gently guides me to a seat. In that moment I don’t feel gawked or gaped it, embarrassed or self-conscious: just cared for, and grateful” (p. 223)

If we, as trainer-teacher-learners can provide the same sense of support, encouragement, and safety that Paul and her not-yet-born child found in that crowded subway, just imagine the sort of learner we will send back into the world from the womblike learning spaces we are capable of creating and sustaining.

As the writer herself observes, “…if we take care in how we think about prenatal influences, they may add another layer to our understanding of who we are and how we got to be this way” (p. 195). And if we continue exploring the parallels between what learners learn in utero and what they learn in classroom, we should be well on the way to helping build the sort of world our efforts can nurture.


Jay Mathews: Work Hard, Be Nice, Find Inspiration

June 18, 2012

Those of us engaged in training-teaching-learning are perpetual sponges—a form of existence that sometimes produces rewards in places where we least expect to find them. We would not usually seek guidance and inspiration for our adult-learning endeavors, for example, within the pages of a book about an innovative set of charter schools. Yet that is exactly what awaits us in Jay Mathews’ Work Hard, Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America.

Let’s just acknowledge this up front: Mathews, as a long-time education writer for the Washington Post, displays an enviable ability to produce a real page-turner on a topic far from the top of the average person’s reading list; the narrative flow is far more engaging than much of what we find in contemporary novels, and the emotional engagement he fosters has us rooting for his protagonists and feeling the occasional personal losses he documents. And as he chronicles the story of Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin’s journey from being two inexperienced yet idealistic, highly energetic, and incredibly persistent Teach for America alums to running a successful and Charles Bronfman Prize-winning chain of charter schools—the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP)—nurturing disadvantaged children, he tells an archetypal tale that any trainer-teacher-learner can appreciate.

When we read of Feinberg and Levin’s efforts to find appropriate learning spaces for their young students, we are reminded of the challenges we sometimes face—and must remain committed to overcoming—in finding (or creating) onsite and online learning spaces that work for the adults we serve. As we read about how they recognized their own limitations as educators and how they pursued the best mentors they could find, we see patterns and practices that serve us day to day as we sponge up what we lack by learning from the trainer-teacher-learners we admire.

As we absorb the wonderful story of how they engaged their youngest learners in actions to shame reticent school district officials into action—thereby providing a lesson in civics by inspiring the students to engage in civic action—we have an extremely important example of the importance of providing learning opportunities that are grounded in experience that puts what is being learned into action—experiential learning at its best.

It’s not all rosy in Work Hard, Be Nice.  Mathews and his interviewees do not shy away from acknowledging the occasional small and large failures that sometimes come from overzealous actions—which makes the book even more valuable to those of us applying its lessons to our adult-learning endeavors. There are also reports from critics of the KIPP approach and from those who attempt to denigrate KIPP’s reported successes—higher test scores than seen among similar groups of students not attending KIPP schools, a willingness to spend much more time in classrooms than other students spend—by questioning whether it’s a learning model that can and does work for all members of its target audience.

We are, however, never in doubt as to where Mathews himself stands on the issue of whether KIPP is worth studying: “Over time, the debate about KIPP among educators has grown, full of misinformation and misimpressions because few of the people talking about KIPP schools have actually seen them in action,” he writes (p. 281). And he fully intends to continue exploring the KIPP model, he adds: “In the search for the best schools, I still have a lot of work to do” (p. 317).

And if for nothing other than the tenacity that Mathews and his subjects display in Work Hard, Be Nice, the book deserves—and needs—to be on every trainer-teacher-learner’s reading list. For inspiration. Assurance. And sponge-worthy material.


Rethinking Learning and Learning Spaces (Pt. 3 of 4): Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It

March 15, 2012

After devouring developmental molecular biologist John Medina’s Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School and author-presenter-entrepreneur Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams (What Is School For?), we’re almost left with no other choice than to continue our rethinking by turning our capital-A Attention to Cathy Davidson’s Now You See it: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.

It’s not just that Davidson is an engaging, thoughtful, and thought-provoking writer; she also is a justifiably admired educator (former vice provost for interdisciplinary studies at Duke University) who clearly puts her attention on the learners she serves. And she has plenty to teach all trainer-teacher-learners about what we’re doing right as well as what we’re failing miserably to achieve.

Her goal, she tells us right up front, is to provide “a positive, practical, and even hopeful story about attention in our digital age” by exposing us to “ research in brain science, education, and workplace psychology to find the best ways to learn and change in challenging times” (p. 6). And she delivers. Convincingly.

Starting with a summary of an experiment that shows how much we miss around us by focusing too closely on certain details because we have learned to block out the overwhelming amount of stimulation that routinely comes our way, Davidson suggests that our learning process needs to include at least three steps: learning, unlearning, and relearning—and the sort of collaboration that allows us to rely on others to help us see what we otherwise would miss.

Now You See It walks us through that process. We travel with Davidson through studies of how gaming can effectively be used in learning. How engaging learners in the learning process by making them partners—as she did in an innovative course called “This Is Your Brain on the Internet” —recreates the learning experience to produce tremendously positive results (including a sense of empowerment so productive that the learners actually scheduled an innovative class session while Davidson was away on business, much to her delight).

There are also wonderful stories illustrating the difference in attitudes between young learners—in a failing magnet school—faced with posted written rules (“Most of the kids are too young to actually read, so I assume this sign is as much a symbol as it is a message,” she quips) and with young learners in a demographically similar school that “exemplifies the best in public education” (p. 97). The classroom in the better school offers us a lesson relevant to learners of all ages: the room “is alive with life and spaces and animals and computers and interesting things, great stuff to look at and do things with” (p. 98)—a reminder that if we’re going to create effective learning spaces, we have to make them as interesting as the lessons we are trying to provide for learners of all ages.

It’s difficult to single out specific high points in a book so full of them, but one of my favorites is the entire seventh chapter—“The Changing Worker”—which provides a series of portraits of those who are providing the sort of workplaces requiring the type of creative, attentive, inquisitive, and flexible learners we need to be preparing whether we’re working in K-12, at the college and university level, or within workplace learning and performance (staff training) programs.

And that, Davidson consistently maintains, is what we’re currently missing in our learning and our learning spaces: we are relying on 19th- and 20th-century models that were appropriate for 19th- and 20th-century workplaces even though we’re clearly in that very painful yet dynamic transition to learning that supports a 21st-century digital workplace and world: “In one generation, our world has changed radically,” she writes. “Our habits and practices have been transformed seemingly overnight. But our key institutions of school and work have not kept up. We’re often in a position of judging our new lives by old standards. We can feel loss and feel as if we are lost, failed, living in a condition of deficit” (p. 291).

Fortunately for all of us—and for the learners we serve—she offers plenty of guidance. Examples. And encouragement. Those of us who take the time to read—and reread—what she offers in Now You See It, giving it the Attention it deserves, may be able to help others past those feelings of loss and deficit and failure. And help ourselves as well.

Next: Rethinking With the Authors We Are Reading


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