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.


New Year, Old (Unfinished) Learning Business

January 11, 2013

Senge--Fifth-Discipline_CoverIt’s no secret that the most successful organizations have a commitment to continuous learning. We see this in the annual celebration of BEST Award winners through the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD). We’ve read—and reread—Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization and walked away with a clear understanding of how the development of communities of learning is a winning proposition. We’ve inhaled and absorbed The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results by Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock, and Andrew Jefferson, so we know that simple actions can transform one-time learning events into a cohesive learning process that makes learning stick.

And yet we don’t have to go very far to see that workplace learning and performance (staff training) efforts still are seen by many managers and employees as something that we have to do when we really should be doing our jobs—a diversion away from work.

It’s not difficult to understand how we’ve reached this point. Many of us feel as if the pace of work continually increases with little compensation, so we find ourselves trying to do more with less and less discretionary time while recognizing that something has to give. And let’s be honest: there are plenty of staff training offerings that are more deadly dull than the list of ingredients on the side of a bag of potato chips—workshops or webinars offered to meet a legal or company mandate, or thrown together at the end of a budget year so we’re not left with unexpended funds in an organizational training budget. We and our learners are tired of being forced to look at PowerPoint presentations with cheap clip art and far too much (unreadable) text, delivered by instructors who are trying to cram too much content into too short a period of time—whether it’s face to face or delivered via an online asynchronous course which, by the way, keeps crashing because there’s a disconnect between the technology used by the instructor and the technology used by the learner.

On the other extreme of our learning landscape, we have first-rate learner-centric offerings that creatively meet our organizations’ and our own learning needs—yet we almost feel guilty for taking advantage of those opportunities because it means we leave our colleagues short-handed while we’re away from our worksite.

That, I believe, is the small but essential bit of unfinished business we need to address, and the beginning of a new year gives us an admittedly artificial opportunity to take a new look at this long-standing workplace challenge. Each of us—from highest level executive to least-motivated member of our organizations—needs to work toward seeing training-learning as an integral part of all we do rather than continuing to support the myth that learning is a diversion, something apart from work that needs to be quickly completed and checked off a to-do list so we can literally get back to work.

If learning becomes a recognized and cherished part of work, we’re taking a significant step toward developing first-rate communities of learning all around us. This, in turn, provides more motivation to make each of those learning opportunities as professionally polished as the products and services provided by the best organizations we can find. It also makes us better, more deft, at serving those who rely on us.

We’re not going to change the face of learning in a single year; transformational success stories along the lines of those told in Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons take a commitment to decades of changing attitudes and procedures. But if we do begin by fostering a greater appreciation for the magnificent results that engaging training-teaching-learning offers, and recognize that work and learning are completely intertwined rather than somehow in opposition to each other, we may be closer to completing another piece of unfinished business.


Training Trends, Learning Outcomes, and Setting More Productive Goals

February 10, 2011

When we look at trends and predictions for workplace learning and performance (training) in pieces such as Training Industry, Inc. CEO and Founder Doug Harward’s recent article posted on TrainingIndustry.com, we find an intriguing combination of potentially positive changes and misdirected attention.

The positive elements include predictions that “total spending for training services” will increase by seven to nine percent in 2011; “the role of the learning leader” in organizations is changing for the better; “learning technologies are becoming social, collaborative, and virtual”; and “learning content will be transformed for easier consumption”—situations many of us have already been seeing or can, without too much thought, accept as likely.

Sources including the ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) “2010 State of the Industry Report” confirm that training remains a well funded industry in some ways even though many of us note and lament reductions in training budgets: “U.S. organizations spent $125.88 billion on employee learning and development  in 2009” (p. 5)—the year during which the data in the 2010 report was gathered. The eLearning Guild’s “Getting Started with e-Learning 2.0” and co-writers Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner, in their book The New Social Learning: A Guide to Transforming Organizations Through Social Media, provide support for the idea that social media tools are already making a positive difference in fostering learner-centric training. And interviews that Lori Reed and I conducted for our forthcoming book on trainers as leaders (Workplace Learning & Leadership) document the increasingly important roles workplace learning and performance professionals are assuming in developing, delivering, and evaluating effective learning opportunities.

One particularly interesting assertion among Harward’s predictions is that learning leaders are becoming solutions architects or learning architects—“someone who designs innovative approaches for employees to access knowledge, when they need it, in relevant chunks, no matter where they are.” This, he suggests, moves them/us closer to the role of consultant—a role which trainer-consultants including Peter Block (Flawless Consulting) and the late Gordon and Ronald Lippitt (The Consulting Process in Action—particularly Chapter 6) have abundantly described in their own work when they write of internal and external consultants (long-term employees as opposed to those hired for well defined projects with specific beginning and end points).

As was the case with Training Industry, Inc.’s report on “How to Promote the Value of Online Training Within Your Organization,” however, there is a bit of myopia among the predictions. The proposal that “metrics for learning will be based on content access, view, involvement, and downloads” rather than “how many students attended a program” doesn’t appear to provide a significant and positive change; furthermore, it ignores the larger issue to be addressed: is all this workplace learning leading to positive change for learners, organizations, and the customers and clients they serve? The unfortunate answer, as documented elsewhere, is an emphatic “no.”

More importantly, this proposed shift in focus misses the larger mark because it still makes no attempt to engage in the levels of assessment suggested in Donald Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels™ Evaluation Model, Robert Binkerhoff’s Telling Training’s Story: Evaluation Made Simple, Credible, and Effective, or Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock, Andrew Jefferson, and Richard Flanagan’s The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development Into Business Results—those measurements of workplace learning and performance’s real results in terms of positive change.

There is much to admire in what Hayward writes. There is also obviously much room for seeking trends that, in his words, “will reshape the training industry” in a significant and sustainable way. All we have to do is keep our attention on the learners and those they serve. And set even more productive, measurable goals.


Transformative and Reflective Life-long Learning (Part 1 of 3)

January 25, 2010

Listening to Maurice Coleman’s T is for Training interview with Bamboo Project blogger Michele Martin about learning, Web 2.0 (online social networking), and a variety of other topics, I was struck by a passing reference she makes to the need for reflection in learning: “One of the things that I find from a learning perspective that is often missing is the whole notion of reflection. We’re just not really great with reflection…and social media, to some extent, can support it…”

What’s notable is not that someone is lamenting the lack of reflection in contemporary learning, but that so many of us recognize and comment on it yet somehow don’t seem able to foster it to a large degree in workplace learning and performance programs.

It’s not as if we’re unaware or it or even unsure as to how to proceed. Those of us familiar with Fort Hill Company’s efforts to create comprehensive leadership training opportunities which draw managers/supervisors and learners together before as well as after learning events take place know that there are great models to be followed and adapted. The Fort Hill Company model is also well documented in Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock, Andrew Jefferson, and Richard Flanagan’s book The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results; a follow-up manual (Getting Your Money’s Worth from Training & Development) written by Jefferson, Pollock, and Wick is designed to help managers/supervisors and learners better apply what is offered through face-to-face or online learning opportunities.

But the moments of what Jack Mezirow calls “transformative learning” and “critical reflection” seem few and far between in most programs we see and oversee today. Learners often have to fight to obtain release time from work—the very idea that learning is somehow disconnected from or not an integral part of work hints at how deep-rooted a problem we face here—and then often return to worksites where what they learned is not accepted, nourished, or supported. Worse yet, the time to even practice what is learned is seen as a luxury rather than an essential element of the learning process.

As Martin says in different words in her T is for Training interview, one benefit of online learning is that course participants can “engage with and reflect on the course content,” Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt note in Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom (p. 129)—a book which is as fresh and timely as when it was published more than a decade ago. (An updated version was published in 2007.)  The process of making reflection a part of learning, they add, “is a vibrant, dynamic process that is typically not completed when a course ends…the first experience with this process creates a hunger for more and sets the stage for participants to become lifelong, reflective learners” (p. 130).

It all becomes personal—as learning should be—and transformative when we immerse ourselves in a combination of face-to-face and online learning experiences, as I did over the past couple of years. Regardless of whether the courses were online or onsite, the best were the ones that left me hungry for more. Made me continue reading and thinking about books like Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations and Lon Safko and David Brake’s The Social Media Bible: Tactics, Tools, and Strategies for Business Success long after the courses and projects requiring them had ended. And make me appreciative that trainer-teacher-learners like Martin, Palloff, Pratt, and the others mentioned in this article are still among us to remind us what we can accomplish when we are reflective.

Next: Personal Learning Environments and Feral Learning


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