Rethinking Learning and Learning Spaces (Pt. 1 of 4): John Medina’s Brain Rules

March 8, 2012

Although the brain often seems to be the most overlooked tool in trainer-teacher-learners’ toolkits, great writers like developmental molecular biologist John Medina are doing a lot to move us past that oversight through books like Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.

In the process, they’re encouraging us not only to become better at reaching learners effectively, but also to rethink much of what we’re doing. And where we’re doing it.

Medina is never less than completely engaging, and his 12 rules about how the brain functions in learning are drawn from well-documented research, his own very funny observations, and his continual call for more research to help fill in the numerous gaps we still have in our knowledge: “This book is a call for research simply because we don’t know enough to be prescriptive,” he disarmingly admits (p. 4).

Among the rules he documents: exercise boosts brain power (so why are we sitting here reading this when we should be stimulating our brains through physical activities?); every brain is wired differently (a theme recently explored by many others including Norman Doidge, Bruce Wexler, and Nicholas Carr); stressed brains don’t learn well; and stimulating more of the senses simultaneously will stimulate more effective learning. He not only covers these in positive, thought-provoking ways in the book, but extends the learning—our learning—into a 45-minute video on his website to help us viscerally understand another of the brain rules: we don’t pay attention to boring things.

This is not a book for those comfortable with the status quo; in fact, Medina clearly expects us to approach his work with minds completely open to ideas that might initially strike us as ludicrous, e.g., setting up treadmills in our offices so we can stimulate our thinking by running in place while reading our email on laptops. (He doesn’t, however, comment on what the act of running on a treadmill at work—or, by extension, in an academic learning environment—says as a metaphor for much of what we do!)

Because we learn best through repetition at regularly timed intervals, he further suggests that the learning space of the future should have us engaged in “review holidays”—time off from the introduction of new information once every three or four days in formal learning settings so we would be “reviewing the facts delivered in the previous 72 to 96 hours…Students would have a chance to inspect the notes they took during the initial exposures, comparing them with what the teacher was saying in the review. This would result in a greater elaboration of the information, and it would help the teachers deliver accurate information. A formalized exercise in error-checking soon would become a regular and positive part of both the teacher and student learning experiences.” (p. 144)—and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be incorporating similar open-book/open-note reviews in workplace learning and performance endeavors to foster greater success among our learners.

In the world Medina is encouraging us to imagine (and create), we would also be encouraging learners by taking advantage of the ways multimodal presentations enhance learning—oral presentations combined with visual support combined with appropriate fragrances since fragrances that are appropriate to a learning situation provide a mental anchor for better recall.

Most of all, he concludes, we need to create spaces that inspire and sustain curiosity as opposed to the age-old model of lecture halls where learning is an instructor-centric endeavor: “I firmly believe that if children are allowed to remain curious, they will continue to deploy their natural tendencies to discover and explore until they are 101” (p. 273), he writes.

Even the places where we learn how to be better instructors need improvement, he continues: “I envision a college of education where the program is all about brain development…Students would get a Bachelor of Science in education. The future educator is infused with deep knowledge about how the human brain acquires information…This model honors our evolutionary need to explore. It creates teachers who know about brain development. And it’s a place to do the real-world research so sorely needed to figure out how, exactly the rules of the brain should be applied to our lives” (pp. 276-278), he writes.

And with Medina as our inspiration, perhaps we can help create this. To the benefit of learners everywhere.

Next: Seth Godin on “What Is School For?” (and how should it look?)


Bruce Wexler, Our Brain, and Learning

October 28, 2011

Bruce Wexler’s Brain and Culture, Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change, like Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself, literally opens our minds. A highly detailed research-based view of how our brain works, Wexler’s book is essential reading for those of us immersed in training-teaching-learning.

“People selectively perceive and more highly value sensory input that is consistent with their internal values and organizing schemata,” he tells us early in his wonderful research-based book (p. 4). “People selectively affiliate with like-minded individuals, and forget and discredit views and information inconsistent with their existing beliefs”—an idea that goes a long way in helping us understand why we sometimes encounter intense resistance while trying to produce training-teaching-learning experiences that have long-term positive results.

It’s as much about how we’re wired as anything else, Wexler and Doidge seem to agree. And there’s nothing simple about any of this. Wexler’s experiments suggest that our emotional reactions can change the physical connections within our brains—an idea that reminds us of the importance of fostering emotional reactions within our learning opportunities instead of relying solely on a rational fill-‘em-with-information approach. An experiment involving subjects’ reactions to videotapes of “an actress smiling and talking about happy things” not only made the subjects happy, but created “functional links among regions in their brains” that were “very different than when they watched videotapes of an actress crying and talking about sad things and felt sad themselves,” Wexler reports  (p. 34).

And there’s more. His comments about the importance of providing environments that are stimulating rather than sterile, documented through what he calls “enriched-environment experiments,” tell us that animals “raised in relatively impoverished environments have smaller brains, with the reduction greatest in the cerebral cortex and unrelated to differences in body weight. There is less protein synthesis in multiple regions of the cortex, decreased area of synaptic contact among neurons, and decreased numbers of the axonal and dendritic branches that functionally connect neurons” (p. 51). What this might suggest is that we’re on the wrong track with many of sterile learning labs and drab workshop settings that remain prevalent in training-teaching-learning today. It also makes some of us long for those wonderfully colorful kindergarten classrooms where we were surrounded by images and displays of our classmates’—as well as our own—work. Creating more of the interactive media labs where so much innovative learning seems to be taking place today may help us prove in visceral terms what Wexler describes in his book.

He further builds a case for paying more attention to our actual learning environments when he reports that studies “in both cats and monkeys have found that animals raised in enriched environments perform much better on tests of frontal lobe function than animals raised in less stimulating environments”  (p. 52).

Those still relying on lectures as a primary way to help learners acquire knowledge might want to reconsider their approach in light of Wexler’s comments on how imitation (suggesting interactivity as opposed to passive intake of information) “has such great developmental impact because it is consistently operative throughout the moment-to-moment unfolding of everyday life” (p. 115). “Imitation is a primary developmental process, and is evident when children imitate animals during play as well as when they imitate and acquire silly idiosyncrasies of those near to them…” (p. 117).

Play, he continues, “appears to affect cognitive development, even in rats and even when the play is primarily motoric. The role of play in human cognitive development may be greater because it lasts for years rather than days, is highly varied in nature, and includes activities that are primarily cognitive and essentially social. Here then is another avenue for social and cultural influence on important aspects of brain development” (pp. 132-133).  None of which is news to successful workplace learning and performance (staff training) professionals. But it does help us to better understand the physiological underpinnings for what our guts have been telling us for so long in our roles as trainer-teacher-learners. In biological terms, he suggests, “the whole of formal education is perhaps most appropriately seen as a human extension of play” (p. 66). And I suspect our learners will be grateful and more successful than they already are if this is a reminder that we take to heart.


Brains: Our Learning Tool in Action

July 8, 2011

Trainer-teacher-learners seem to explore almost every aspect of the learning process imaginable. And yet there’s a basic tool we all too often overlook: the brain itself. Which is a terribly embarrassing oversight since we are, without it, literally nothing.

Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself offers a great starting place for those of us interested in plugging that gap in our knowledge. It is firmly rooted in the physiological basics of how brains learn and adapt—literally changing, as our experiences change, through the process known as neuroplasticity.

Those willing to take the time to read the entire book will follow Doidge’s explorations documenting how a variety of terribly challenged people have overcome tremendous physical and psychological disabilities far beyond the day-to-day issues confronted in our training-teaching-learning efforts. There are, for example, case studies showing nearly miraculous recoveries by a woman who felt as if she were perpetually falling, a man with severe stroke-induced impediments, a woman who had been written off as “retarded,” and a woman who literally grew up with half a brain.

Trainer-teacher-learners with less time to spare can move right to the heart of Doidge’s writings on the physiology of learning by diving into the third chapter, “Redesigning the Brain”—a fascinating and game-changing exploration of the work on neuroplasticity completed by University of California, San Francisco professor emeritus Michael Merzenich.

In one particularly dense yet well-synthesized passage, Doidge helps us understand how neuroplasticity and learning come together in the work that trainer-teacher-learners facilitate: “…Merzenich invoked the ideas of Donald O. Hebb, a Canadian behavioral psychologist who had worked with [Wilder] Penfield. In 1949 Hebb proposed that learning linked neurons in new ways. He proposed that when two neurons fire at the same time repeatedly (or when one fires, causing another to fire), chemical changes occur in both, so that the two tend to connect more strongly. Hebb’s concept—actually proposed by Freud sixty years before—was neatly summarized by neuroscientist Carla Shatz: Neurons that fire together wire together” (p. 63)—which, to bring this all home, simply means that when neurons fire together during the learning process, our brain creates connections that turn ephemeral potential learning experiences into the long-term behavioral changes that effective learning is meant to produce.

The converse, Doidge notes, is also true: “…Neurons that fire apart wire apart—or neurons out of sync fail to link” (p. 64).

Understanding the basics of neuroplasticity helps us understand the challenges our learners face. There are, for example, times in our lives—early childhood being one that is easily and commonly recognized—when learning appears to be easier for us: “Language development…has a critical period that begins in infancy and ends between eight years and puberty. After this critical period closes, a person’s ability to learn a second language without an accent is limited. In fact, second languages learned after the critical period are not processed in the same part of the brain as is the native tongue,” Doidge notes (p. 52). But this is far from an excuse for those who believe they simply are too old to learn new tricks—or more substantial lessons; the more we and our learners remain open to new experiences, the easier it is for us, physiologically, to maintain our brain’s plasticity—which translates into an ability to continue learning.

“Merzenich thinks our neglect of intensive learning as we age leads the systems in the brain that modulate, regulate, and control plasticity to waste away,” Doidge writes. “In response he has developed brain exercise for age-related cognitive decline—the common decline of memory, thinking and, processing speed” and his efforts are producing noteworthy results (p. 85).

The conclusions for those of us involved in workplace learning and performance or any other educational endeavor are obvious. If we want to help our learners, we have to make them aware of what it takes to expedite learning. And in a wonderfully circular way, we have the documentary proof here that the more we continue to learn, the easier the learning process remains. Which is great news in a world where the need for learning is continual and those who either are unwilling or unable to continue learning are at a distinct and potentially life- and career-threatening disadvantage.

“Just doing the dances you learned years ago won’t help your brain’s motor cortex stay in shape,” Doidge suggests. “To keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus. That is what will allow you to both lay down new memories and have a system that can easily access and preserve the older ones” (p. 88).

“Plasticity,” he assures us, “ is a normal phenomenon, and brain maps are constantly changing” (p. 61). It’s clear that one of our many roles as trainer-teacher-learners is to do all we can to make learners aware of this situation so they take advantage of the possibilities it offers.


Our Brains on News and Learning

June 17, 2011

Jack Fuller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, proves with his book What Is Happening to News that all of us involved in workplace learning and performance need to read far beyond the artificial walls surrounding our field of play.

While the book ostensibly leads us through the well-documented crisis and evolution of contemporary journalism, its focus on how our brains absorb and cause us to react to all the stimulus we encounter is perfect reading for anyone involved in training-teaching-learning.

As James Zull (The Art of Changing the Mind) and many others have already done, Fuller starts off with explorations of how our brains actually learn. His third chapter, “Models of the Mind,” is particularly helpful both in its brief survey and its description of the physiological reasons why practice makes perfect: “the connection between neurons strengthens through the coincidence of their mutual firing. As the neuroscience slogan has it, ‘Cells that fire together wire together.’ The more frequent the coincidence, the stronger the connection” (p. 34). For Fuller, that helps explain why repetition of statements through the  media we use has a long-term impact on how we perceive the world; for trainer-teacher-learners, it’s a first-rate reminder that being aware of how our brains work puts us in a position to be more effective in fostering the sort of learning experiences that produce positive effects among our learners and all they serve.

Fuller again, within the context of a discussion about contemporary journalism, reminds us that much of what we are facing is far from new: “We are not the first era to sense that distraction has altered our ability to think,” he observes as he notes that one of our seminal journalists, Walter Lippmann, documented the same effect in 1921 (pp.57-58).

And when he moves into a section on “the inundated brain,” he offers a thought worth quoting not only to those interested in why news reporting focuses so much on negative stories but also to those of us interested in knowing what happens to learners who are attempting to do too many things at one time: “Time  pressure alone also increases cognitive challenge and emotional response. Some studies have shown that when given tasks under severe deadlines, people use  more negative information—which suggests that negative emotions are in play—than when doing the same task without being time pressured. Multitasking and information overload, too, increase the challenge to the brain’s processing resources. And when a person’s information processing capacity is stressed through information overload or multitasking, she is more likely to rely on emotional cues and use social stereotypes in making decisions about another person” (p. 61).

Where Fuller’s analysis of our approach to the news really comes to life for trainer-teacher-learners is in his exploration of how we have moved from a dispassionate to an extremely passionate or emotional approach to journalism, as any of us recognize when we think of the difference between classroom lectures and highly interactive, skillfully facilitated learning opportunities: “The curve has shifted toward emotional presentation,” Fuller notes in exploring how news is commonly presented now. “The fact that you can’t find a new Walter Cronkite on television today is no fluke. The dispassionate approach embodied by Cronkite does not attract the audience that it used to. Walter Cronkite was lucky to have worked when he did… Today he would be cancelled. So, by the way, would Walter Lippmann” (p. 72).

And so, I would suggest, would any of us who insist on approaching learning as a one-way instructor-to-learner enterprise when our communication tools and our expectations are all directed toward the collaborative experiential approaches that social learning environments and tools along with social learning itself inspire us to seek.


Innovator’s Mindset MOOC (#IMMOOC): Preparing for a Future We Can’t Yet See

October 3, 2017

The experience of immersing myself in the third season of George Couros’s #IMMOOC (the Innovator’s Mindset massive open online course) continues to take me down intriguing, dynamic, transformative paths well worth exploring. This exploration of innovations in training-teaching-learning with co-conspirators from all over the world (connected via live, interactive YouTube presentations; a drinking-from-a-firehose rapid-fire Twitter feed and weekly tweet chats with a learner’s guide; interactions on a course Facebook page; cross-pollinating blog posts such as this one, where conversations continue; and probably myriad other learning threads I haven’t yet discovered) is high-energy, high-level learning at its best. And the very act of participating stimulates the types of innovation the course itself inspires us to explore.

Couros--Innovator's_Mindset--CoverContinuing to “read beyond the pages” of the printed copy I have of The Innovator’s Mindset, for example, I once again viscerally feel the difference, this afternoon, between the act of simply reading a line of text and the act of enriching our understanding of that line of text by going back to the source that inspired the thought behind that line. Reading Couros’s one-line summary of Simon Sinek’s talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” from TEDx Puget Sound in 2009 (in Chapter 1 of the book), I was left with the following perfectly serviceable idea: “…he [Sinek] explained that all great organizations start with their ‘why’ and then move toward the what and the how.” I had a vague idea of what that implied. I was perfectly ready to keep reading to see where Couros was going to take us. Then I remember how much I enjoyed taking advantage of the access online resources provide to deeper levels of reading/thinking/learning last week, during Week 1 of this six-week course. So I stop watching the clock and worrying about whether I have enough time to take another deep dive. Take the 18 minutes required to actually watch that TEDx talk. Re-view parts of it. Take notes on my laptop. Then transfer those notes into a rough draft of this piece-in-progress.

By the time I am finished, I have an ocean-deep appreciation for what Couros is trying to convey and, more importantly, what Sinek, in his TEDx talk, calls “The Golden Circle”: circles within circles (sort of like the circles within circles of learning in which I’m currently engaged). Sinek’s Golden Circle is comprised of a small, middle one having the word “why”; a middle circle containing the word “how”; and a larger outer circle holding the word “what.” He explains that by starting with the word “why” when we address someone with whom we are trying to make a connection, we are engaging deeply-embedded brained-based feelings and motivations that hook our intended audience. Make those audience members part of our dream. And invite them to actively be part of making that dream real.

By reading that line from Couros and then watching the video and then looking for related resources (including an online reproduction of The Golden Circle), I have gone from seeing an almost throw-away line of text morph—through this blended on-page/online approach to reading—into something that is becoming a memorable extended two-hour moment of transformative learning—simply because I give it the time and effort it so obviously deserves. And by the time I reach Sinek’s concluding lines in that TEDx presentation—“…those who lead, inspire us. Whether they are individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to…”—I realize that simply having read that line without having heard the preceding 17 minutes of set up (as you are doing at this moment) would have meant the words had far less impact and stickiness than they had as a result of my mini-deep-dive into what Couros described in a subsection (“Have Schools Forgotten Their Why?”) in his chapter “What Innovation Is and Isn’t”—part of our reading for #IMMOOC this week.

future-u_logoAs I finish reading the first chapter of The Innovator’s Mindset, I circle back to one of the opening sections and reread the words “We need to prepare kids for jobs that don’t exist”—a theme I’ve been exploring for many years, most recently with my colleague Jonathon Nalder at Future-U. I think about how this course is preparing me for actions I hadn’t even thought would exist for me as a result of becoming part of the #IMMOOC community. And I hope that if you have the time and inclination to do so, you, too, will create training-teaching-learning-doing opportunities you might not yet know exist—by reading the book and joining whatever part of the #IMMOOC community you can find as you read these words.

N.B. — This is the third in a series of posts inspired by Season 3 of #IMMOOC.


Clark Quinn: Learning, Nomenclature, and Fomenting Revolution  

May 21, 2015

Clark Quinn, a colleague through #lrnchat and ATD (the Association for Talent Development), is certainly not the first to say that he is mad as hell and to urge us to not take it anymore. Nor is he the first to suggest that the nomenclature we use to describe what we do in what is generically called “training” is far from adequate, or that our event-based approach to learning is often a frustratingly ineffective approach to making a different in a learner’s life, or that it is time for a new manifesto to set things right.
Quinn--Revolutionize_L&D--CoverBut Quinn, in his well-researched, highly- and finely-nuanced book Revolutionize Learning & Development: Performance and Innovation Strategy for the Information Age, does far more than recycle old rants. He effectively draws upon the experience he and his colleagues bring to our workplace training-teaching-learning efforts. He builds upon research-based evidence to show where we continue to go wrong in workplace learning and performance (staff training) efforts and how we might change our course(s) to the benefit of those we serve. And he adds to the dynamic literature of training-teaching-learning-doing in a way that encourages reflection as well as action.

“I am on a mission,” he tells us on the first page of the preface to the book. “The stuff I had railed against a decade ago was still in place. I was, quite frankly, pissed off. I decided that I simply had to make a stab at trying to address the problem….I am not temperate in this [first] section, I confess; on the contrary, I may be tarring with too broad a brush. I am not apologetic, believing it better to be too harsh and raise hackles than to have no impact. Reader beware.”

signorelli200x300[1]The issues he tackles are numerous—not the least of them being the inadequacy of the jargon we use. As Lori Reed and I noted in our own book (Workplace Learning & Leadership; ALA Editions, 2011), there are numerous terms used to describe the training-teaching-learning field and those playing in that field; each term, furthermore, overtly as well as subliminally affects the way we approach and engage in our work—which, of course, is why it’s important that we eventually find the right vocabulary: terms that not only accurately and concisely describe what we do, but also guide us toward successful efforts supporting our workplace colleagues and those they ultimately serve. One of the most visible and well-orchestrated recent attempts to update our vocabulary came a year ago when the American Society for Training & Development rebranded itself as the Association for Talent Development for many reasons—not the least of which was a desire to emphasize the result (developing the workplace “talent” of employees) rather than the process (i.e., training/learning). Quinn, whose book was co-published by Wiley and ASTD one month before the ASTD-to-ATD transformation was announced, suggests that we move from our industry jargon of “learning and development (L&D)” to “performance and development (P&D)” for the same reason: to place a focus on the results of our efforts (employee performance in the workplace) rather than the process leading to those results. Neither approach strikes me as completely satisfactory, for “talent development” as an industry descriptor then suggests the less-than-perfect and far-from-inspiring term “talent developer” (instead of “trainer” or “learning facilitator” or any other equally-inadequate term we might also incorporate into our lexicon to guide us in our work). I continue, in my own work, to use the less-than-perfect hyphenate “trainer-teacher-learner” to capture what I believe is a trinity of terms summarizing important facets of our work—but I quickly acknowledge that it misses one of the key attributes Quinn calls to our attention: a focus on what learners do with what they are learning. If workplace learning and performance is—as so many of us believe—a transformative process that should lead to positive action, then the words we use to describe it should also reflect and acknowledge the inherent goals driving the process.

When we move beyond the nomenclature and into the real focus of the first section of the book (“Status Quo”), we find that the author has taken a playful yet devastating approach to describing the state of our industry. The subheadings to Chapter 3 (“Our Industry”) seem to be the result of an effective game of free-association—one that helps make the case for joining the revolution: “inadequate”; “event-ful” (in the negative sense that learning opportunities are treated as isolated events rather than part of a larger learning process that produces positive results for learners, their organizations, and the customers/clients/patrons they ultimately serve); “disengaging”; “antisocial” (in the sense that they underutilize the social media tools that are so important a part of our workplace efforts); “rigid”; “mismeasured” (in the sense that evaluations don’t measure meaningful results from training-teaching-learning efforts); and “no credibility,” among others. If that isn’t enough to make us grab our pitchforks and burning brooms so we can storm and burn the antiquated castles of training/L&D/P&D, perhaps we need to check to see if any of us still has a pulse.

The book (and Quinn), of course, offer us far more than a pessimistic document that would leave us wanting to slit our training-teaching-learning wrists. His second section explores research-based evidence on how our brains react to and absorb learning opportunities—in contrast to what many of our current efforts actually provide—and reminds us that informal learning opportunities, the use of communities of learning, the use of existing resources rather than always seeking to design new workshops and courses, and recognition of the benefits of mobile learning as part of our learning landscape stand to produce far better results than we currently produce.

ATD_LogoHis section on aligning learning with workplace needs provides a great example of what he is attempting to foster: by incorporating case studies and reflections by several of his colleagues (including Jane Bozarth, Allison Rossett, and Marc Rosenberg—people familiar to us through our involvement with ATD, #lrnchat, the eLearning Guild, and other first-rate learning communities), he reminds us that even a book like Revolutionize Learning & Development can serve as a gathering place for colleagues to meet, talk, learn, reflect, and develop effective plans of action.

The final section (focusing on a “path forward”) works well with a short set of appendices to help us reflect on core competencies and practices that better position us to be part of a process of change within our workplace training-teaching-learning (and doing) efforts.

“This book is not a final answer,” Quinn says up front (p. xxiv). “There are answers in many of the component areas, but the integration is new, and a book is a limited endeavor.”

He leaves us with an open invitation to join the discussion through RevolutionizeLnD.com; the “Serious eLearning Manifesto” that he, Michael Allen, Julie Dirksen, and Will Thalheimer have posted; and his ongoing series of posts in his “Learnlets” blog. And there are, of course, the continuing opportunities to be part of the conversation and action through participation in #lrnchat (Thursdays, 8:30 pm ET/5:30 pm PT), T is for Training, ATD, and our numerous other communities of learning and action.


Location, Location, and Location: Hanging Out and Learning With Samantha Adams Becker and ATD

May 17, 2014

Being in the same room with my friend, colleague, and co-presenter Samantha Adams Becker earlier this week along with colleagues from the Golden Gate Chapter of the Association for Talent Development (ATD)—formerly the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD)—required a combination of technological sleight of hand; some knowledge of the neuroscience of the brain, learning, and magic; and plenty of practice.

Horizon_Report--2014-CoverWhat helped make the evening intriguing was that Samantha, in a very real sense, was not more than a few feet away from me in San Francisco for our “Ed-Tech, Learning, and NMC (New Media Consortium) Horizon Reports: What’s In It for Us..and Our Learners” discussions with local ATD colleagues while simultaneously being more than 1,850 miles away, in Baton Rouge.

I’ve been learning how to be in at least two places at once ever since colleagues and I, in fall 2007, used Skype to connect a colleague from Ohio with an onsite audience in San Francisco to show how the use of free online tools could effectively and viscerally bring people together in ways that simulate face-to-face conversations—think of it as telepresence without costly investments. I continued the experiment  with Skype in a different context for a virtual face-to-face just-in-time lesson in using Excel and PowerPoint two years later to help a friend prepare for a job interview she was about to do. Racheted it up a bit more via Skype by bringing two offsite colleagues into an onsite presentation for ASTD Sacramento Chapter members in May 2011. And returned to the experiment with Samantha in June 2012, shortly after Google Hangouts became available as a way to viscerally connect individuals regardless of geography: she was co-presenter, from New Orleans, for an onsite session I was facilitating in San Francisco’s East Bay Area for ASTD Mount Diablo Chapter colleagues.

We knew we had exceeded participants’ expectations—and our own—when I managed to step out of the room unnoticed while the Mount Diablo Chapter members were interacting with Samantha; rejoin the conversation from outside the room by logging into the Google Hangout via a tablet I was using, and briefly talk to her about how that interaction by tablet was an example of how smartphones and tablets were allowing us to engage in a variety of m-learning (mobile learning) opportunities regardless of whether those opportunities were asynchronous or synchronous—which is what the ATD Mount Diablo Chapter event had become at that moment.

ASTD_to_ATDOur latest collaboration with members of what is now the ATD Golden Gate Chapter included some interesting twists, and those interested in how to duplicate the experience have plenty to consider. Basic equipment includes a desktop or laptop computer; webcams (mine is built into my relatively lightweight Toshiba Portégé laptop); ability for us to hear each other (both of our laptops have small built-in speakers that produce high-quality audio output when hooked up to an onsite speaker system), and she usually doesn’t wear a headset or have any other visual cues that would remind people she is not physically in the room; a small, portable back-up speaker system that can be hooked up to my laptop in case the onsite speaker system isn’t working properly on the day or night of a presentation; and a projector and screen (or blank white surface) to project Samantha’s video feed from the Google Hangout in a way that made it easily and clearly visible for everyone onsite.

Onsite rehearsal time is critically important. When using a site for the first time, rehearsals can extend from an unusually short 45 minutes if all works well—it rarely does—to as much as two two-hour sessions if intensive trouble-shooting becomes necessary. (We once had to solve an unexpected Internet connectivity problem by ending one very frustrating two-hour session so I could obtain a 4G hotspot device and make arrangements to purchase enough online time with that device to carry us through an additional rehearsal and the live event itself.) Rehearsal includes checking sound levels from various points throughout the room, locating the best position for the webcam so it captures enough of the room for Samantha to be able to see as many participants as possible, and trying to create the least-intrusive tech set-up possible: the point is to create a set-up which has participants looking at the projected image of Samantha, me, and each other as much as possible so that the technology quickly fades into the background—which, thankfully, it generally does!

Sleights_of_MindUnderstanding how our minds process visual and audio information also helped us more effectively take advantage of creating the illusion of presence even though she was physically in Baton Rouge, so reading the section on ventriloquism in Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde’s book Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions. The key element here is understanding that our brains process sound the same way they do when we watch movies in a theater, matching sounds with images to make us believe the sound is coming from the screen rather than the speakers, so we always attempt to have speakers unobtrusively placed as close to the screen as possible and match the sound level as much as possible to the level of my own voice onsite.

We have also come to understand that worries about lack of synchronization between what participants hear and see (as when lip movement is ahead of or behind what they hear) is not as important as many of us might assume. Macknik and Martinez-Conde convincingly demonstrate, in their book, that we focus on an extremely small part of what is in our overall field of vision. Extrapolating from what they show, we realize that the only time participants notice discrepancies between sound and lip motion is when they focus their visual attention on the motions of the speaker’s lips onscreen. If they are looking at Samantha’s eyes, or at me, or at anything else in the room, the illusion of presence is not at all interrupted.

Our onsite-online blended presentation this time also carried the experiment one step further. To control and limit potential bandwidth problems, Samantha and I were the only two participants in the Hangout; other offsite participants received the program feed via a separate remote-viewing option that Chapter members routinely provide. If offsite participants had wanted to ask questions, the person monitoring that external feed would simply have repeated questions to Samantha and me, and we would have responded orally so the outgoing feed carried the response from the room to the offsite participants.

But all of this is just a prelude to the real magic that occurs through this type of learning experiment/experience: it’s a perfect match of content and delivery method for everyone involved. We were introducing participants to current trends, challenges, and developments in educational technology that affect them and their own learners, and we were facilitating discussions on the topic through the use of relatively low-cost technology that they themselves could immediately use if they chose to do so. We had cobbled together a smart classroom to show how relatively easy a task that could be. We learned from the questions they asked as much as they learned from the presentation we offer.

Emergency responders needed for e-learning trauma?

Emergency responders needed for e-learning trauma?

Most importantly, it became another example of the power of learning opportunities that are engaging. One of our most rewarding discussions came from participants’ observations that e-learning/online learning experiences generally are far less engaging than they should be and almost leave learners requiring the assistance of trauma-unit personnel—which made us laughingly agree that one service ATD and other learning organizations could provide would be an e-learning trauma/paramedic service to minister to those who had suffered through traumatically bad learning experiences online. We also used our ersatz smart-classroom set-up to exchange ideas about how to address digital literacy challenges among ourselves as trainer-teacher-learners as well as among the larger group of learners we all serve.

The conversation came to an end with the all-important confirmation that everyone in the room felt as if Samantha had been there with us in our blended onsite-online learning experiment—and in every significant way, she had been! The technology we have and the technology that others are continuing to develop creates magnificent opportunities to meet and interact with first-rate colleagues and provide effective learning opportunities—as long as we focus on each other and see the technology as the background tool that facilitates learning, communication, interactions, and meaningful collaboration.


ASTD International Conference 2014: Connectivity, Learning, Augmented (Emotional) Reality, and Phoning It In

May 7, 2014

As the Association for Talent Development (ATD)/American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) 2014 International Conference & Exposition) reached its conclusion this afternoon, I couldn’t help but think about how much I forced myself to learn from it—by not being physically there.

ASTD_to_ATDI thought I had pretty much drained the learning pool over the past few days by experimenting with virtual participation via social media tools and the conference backchannel. My own increasingly-immersive participation over the past few days had included interactions with onsite and offsite colleagues extending across Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and blog posts. I had even watched and tweeted a live online broadcast that made me feel present yesterday afternoon at the formal announcement that ASTD was officially transformed, at that moment, into ATD after 70 years of successful operation as a first-rate training-teaching-learning organization; the experience became more visceral this morning when onsite attendees used Twitter to share numerous photographs documenting that all conference signage had been changed overnight to reflect the change of name.

But it didn’t occur to me, until this morning, that I had overlooked the use of one more piece of technology—one so familiar that I had completely overlooked it. The moment of revelation and experimentation came when I was again reading and reacting to tweets from the conference. Among the flood of messages was one from Walt Hansmann, a long-time ASTD friend and colleague with whom I’ve presented, brainstormed, learned, dined, laughed, and groused countless times. (In fact, it was through Walt that I met Larry Straining, whose Facebook posting a week ago sent me down the path of more creatively and intensely experimenting with learning through virtual-conference attendance; ATD/ASTD really has been and continues to be pivotal in helping me understand what a small world we all inhabit and serve.) So there was Walt, tweeting about the fact that he was already wearing a new ATD pin while I was on the other side of the country thinking, “If I was there, I’d be wearing one of those, too.” And then it dawned on me: all I needed to do was try to reach him on his cell phone. Which I did. And the ensuing conversation led to his assurance that one of those pins would work its way across the United States and into my hands sooner than later.

ASTD_ICE_2014That combination of tweeting and calling may have produced the virtual-conference-attendance equivalent of the joys and rewards of meeting and learning from each other in conference hallways. More importantly in terms of the virtual-conference experiment, the call carried us back into cross-platform conference participation as he immediately posted a tweet (“@paulsignorelli @trainersleaders may not be @ #astd2014 physically, but he is sharing via SoMe [social media] and just called to touch base!”) while I was tweeting my own response to the phone conversation: “Oh, technology, with all your lovely variations: just briefly joined @WaltHansmann at #ASTD2014—via a phone call. #NoLongerLeftBehind.” I was also, at the same time, responding to another tweet suggesting that Dan Steer’s tweets had made the tweeter sorry to have missed the conference—to which I responded, “made me feel closer to it.” We closed the circle on that conversation when Dan himself—whom I’ve never met face to face—used the “favorite” option on Twitter to acknowledge my appreciation for all he had done to carry the conference far beyond the physical site of the conference.

This exploration of how we might more creatively incorporate the use of social media tools into learning opportunities benefitted from a wonderful combination of resources. The fact that many ATD members are adept at synthesizing content via backchannel interactions on Twitter is an essential starting point; they were the portal to the conference for me and for others who were attending from a (physical) distance. ATD’s first-rate conference app made it possible to monitor the conference schedule and access some presenters’ conference materials; that helped me see and understand what others were reacting to onsite. Having a tablet meant I could turn this into a mobile-learning/mobile-conferencing experience at times by following the backchannel feed even while I was using public transportation here in San Francisco to move from appointment to appointment when I wasn’t at home using a desktop/laptop combination. And the encouragement of training-teaching-learning colleagues provided what a successful learner needs: a great community of learning and engaged personal learning network that supports the learner’s process and explorations.

There was a time, for me, when having that stimulatingly immersive experience face-to-face with conference colleagues—call it “conference high” for lack of a better term—concluded with a sense of melancholy that came from knowing I was about to leave them and wouldn’t see them again for anywhere from six to twelve months—until we were reunited for the next intensely inspiring set of learning interactions that we found through our shared conference experiences. The bouts of melancholy diminished noticeably over the past few years when it became obvious that we would be “seeing” each other far more often through our shared use of social media tools, conference calls, and interactions via Skype and Google Hangouts. But I found a different, yet parallel, sense of melancholy setting in this afternoon for the first time as we said our virtual good-byes. And I realized that it wasn’t just the coming and going of friends who interact, then are apart for considerable periods of time, that used to cause that melancholy. It’s the fact that a well-run conference or any other sort of convocation is, in and of itself, the catalyst—a special meeting of friends and colleagues to creatively explore, at a very human level, what is important to all of us; it’s a form of augmented reality that might best be described as “augmented intellectual and emotional reality.” It deepens the emotional connections that draw us together. It ignites all that is most worth cultivating within each of us. And it reminds us that without those shared community-building moments of engagement regardless of whether they are onsite or online, we would be far less than what we are.

N.B. — This is the third of three interrelated articles inspired by the ASTD/ATD 2014 International Conference & Exposition in Washington, D.C. For two additional views of the virtual conference attendance experience, please see Kent Brooks’ Twitter Activity at #ASTD2014 Through Monday May 5 [2014] and Michelle Ockers’ My #ASTD2014 Backchannel Experience.


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.


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.


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