Rethinking Learning and Learning Spaces (Pt. 4 of 4): Rethinking With the Authors We Are Reading

March 23, 2012

Let’s take a quantum leap in rethinking what a learning space is. Without abandoning anything that is already effectively in place, let’s think beyond the physical classroom. Past the online learning spaces we inhabit now via platforms including WebEx, Skype, and many others. Let’s think about a world where learning spaces can be almost anything that facilitates learning. And then laugh when we realize how full circle we have come.

At least one idea comes sharply into focus as we move through the rethinking process via books by John Medina, Seth Godin, Cathy Davidson, and others, including Bruce Wexler: the “places” where we learn are in a dynamic state of change, and they all benefit from being stimulating rather than static. When we look at what Michael Wesch is doing at Kansas State University and documenting on his Digital Ethnography site, we see engaged and effective learning facilitated by an engaged teacher-trainer-learner. When we turn to the YouMedia project at the Chicago Public Library, we see a learning organization blending online-onsite learning in incredibly innovative ways. When we see how colleagues are using LinkedIn discussion groups, live online conversations linked together via Twitter hashtags like #ASTDChapters or #lrnchat or #libchat, or through Google+ hangouts, we see our idea of learning spaces expand even further since each of them creates a sort of space where learning can and does occur.

When we consider how effectively wikis are being used to draw teacher-trainer-learners together asynchronously to actually produce learning objects like the annual New Media Consortium Horizon Report, we can see those wikis as learning spaces. When we see how individual blog postings on topics ranging from various learning styles to learning in libraries include extensive links and references and serve as self-contained online asynchronous lessons, we have further expanded our horizons. When we use smartphones and tablets as conduits to sites such as Smarthistory while we are standing in front of a work of art in a museum, we viscerally understand that the learning space is a blend of the museum gallery and the website and the device since they combine to provide a more comprehensive learning opportunity than would be possible without that combination. And it’s just one small additional step to move ourselves to the concept of blended learning spaces along the lines of the onsite-online social learning centers a few of us are promoting, or to see the newly created TED-Ed site as a dynamically innovative learning space.

But there’s still one obvious oversight, and it comes to our attention as we rethink what knowledge is through books like David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know, which examines our move from print-based knowledge to online knowledge. Or Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which suggests that using the Internet is rewiring our brains in ways that make it difficult for us to read book-length works. Or William Crossman’s VIVO [Voice In/Voice Out]: The Coming Age of Talking Computers, which is predicated on the author’s belief that text and written language will be obsolete by 2050. The oversight for many of us may be in not seeing that books themselves (in print as well as online) remain a form of learning space—a place where we encounter other trainer-teacher-learners, learn from them, react to the ideas being proffered, and even, at a certain level, engage with them through our reactions to their work and through the conversations they inspire. Which makes it tremendously ironic, as I have repeatedly noted, that these wonderful thinker-writers still are drawn to express themselves most eloquently within the very containers—the books—they think are being replaced by other options.

If we were to travel down a similar path of overlooking what so clearly remains before us, we, too, might look at all that is developing and lose sight of a valuable learning space: the physical learning spaces that have served us in the past and will continue to serve us well if we adapt them and expand them—and ourselves—to reflect and respond to our changing world as well as to our learning needs. And our desires.


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?)


David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know: Ideas, Expertise, and Knowledge

February 19, 2012

Since knowledge is the playing field for trainer-teacher-learners, an entire book exploring the theme of knowledge is a much appreciated gift for us.

David Weinberger’s gift—Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room—is everything we’ve come to expect from him: engaging, thought-provoking, introspective, and even gently self-effacing.

As we consider the bodies of knowledge we must assimilate in the course of preparing learning opportunities for others, we gain a lot through Weinberger’s ruminations on the nature of knowledge at a time when knowledge is far from defined solely by what is between the covers of books or peer-reviewed journals. It “is becoming a property of the network, rather than of individuals who know things, of objects that contain knowledge, and of the traditional institutions that facilitate knowledge,” he writes (p. 182).

This is placing us in a “crisis of knowledge,” he maintains. We have to face the fact that the “Internet simply doesn’t have what it takes to create a body of knowledge: No editors and curators who get to decide what is in or out. No agreed-upon walls to let us know that knowledge begins here, while outside uncertainty reigns—at least none that everyone accepts. There is little to none of the permanence, stability, and community fealty that a body of knowledge requires and implies. The Internet is what you get when everyone is a curator and everything is linked” (p. 45) and yet that is where many of us currently turn for knowledge.

We can’t read Weinberger’s book without thinking of how often we are faced with the challenge of trying to distill large amounts of information into the all-too-short learning opportunities we are asked to design and deliver. We can’t, furthermore, proceed with designing and delivering those learning opportunities without acknowledging the diverse sources of information and range of differing opinions available to us. Which is why a book-length exploration like Too Big to Know offers such a valuable opportunity to pull ourselves away from the day-to-day challenges we face, reflect a bit upon those challenges, and look for ways to make some sense of all we are encountering so we can help our learners do the same.

It’s not as if we haven’t been down this road before (and won’t need to go there again). Weinberger, in fact, acknowledges traveling a path followed by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Weinberger, like Carr, writes a book that in some ways argues against the continuing existence of books as containers for our most highly valued knowledge—then acknowledges the irony of putting his knowledge into a book.

“I am aware that it is at best ironic, and at worst hypocritical, that I have written a long-form book, available only on paper (or on paper’s disconnected electronic simulacrum), that is arguing for the strengths of networks over books. My apology is of the unfortunate sort that does not justify the action so much as humiliate the perpetrator, ” he says (pp. 96-97).

And this frank admission—like a similar one from Carr—is part of the reason why we would be making a huge mistake by laughing at the discomfort he has created for himself instead of diving into this thoughtful exploration of the state of Knowledge with a capital K (p. 44) in a world where print and online resources continue to dynamically exist side by side.

“Long-form writing is by no means unnecessary or ‘dead,’” he acknowledges. “But the fact that it is improved by being placed into the Net’s web of connections means it is being dethroned by that web as the single best way to assemble ideas” (p. 116).

And having read Too Big to Know, we stand closer to assimilating those ideas—for ourselves as well as to the benefit of the learners we so often strive to serve.


Nicholas Carr, the Shallows, and Reflective Learning

July 1, 2011

An author who begins his book on “what the Internet is doing to our brains” by admitting that he is rarely able to “immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article” raises an obvious question in the mind of even the most lackadaisical reader: So how were you able to write a book inspired by your lengthy article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and how is anyone who uses the Internet going to be expected to actually read it?

Fortunately for all of us involved in training-teaching-learning, Nicholas Carr managed to persevere and even address those obvious questions near the end of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. And, in offering us that book, he provides an engaging look at how the neuroplastic nature of our brains is helping us adapt to the flood of information the Internet brings our way—something we need to understand if we’re going to effectively work with the learners we are serving.

“The very existence of this book would seem to contradict its thesis,” Carr disengagingly admits (p. 199). “If I’m finding it so hard to concentrate, to stay focused on a line of thought, how in the world did I manage to write a few hundred pages of at least semicoherent prose? It wasn’t easy.” He even, at that late point in the book, softens the case he makes throughout the book by writing, “The question, really, isn’t whether people can still read or write the occasional book. Of course they can.”

But by then it is too late for us to quibble. Through his lucid prose and by consistently introducing us to a variety of sources documenting how we absorb information, he builds a strong case for the argument that what we are doing as we quickly jump from Internet site to Internet site leaves us skimming the surface—wading ineffectually through those shallows he cites in his title—rather than engaging in the sort of reflective learning that the act of reading books often supports.

Those of us who do not have trouble reading (or writing) long articles or books would suggest to Carr that he appears to be right on target in explaining how our brains change physiologically in response to the constant inundation of information. Furthermore, he builds a strong case for his contention that quickly leaping from one website to another in a frenetic race through an enticing array of hyperlinks leaves us with little time to reflect upon and absorb the writing in any one article we encounter.

And yet—as usual—I find myself focusing on people as much as on technology. I find it as hard to blame the Internet for what we are doing to ourselves as I would find it hard to blame television or radio or videogames for the shallowness that is so often apparent in our intellectual lives. What I’m actually seeing here is yet another opportunity for trainer-teacher-learners: the opportunity to call our learners’ attention to all that Carr documents and work with them to counteract the shallow learning curve this sort of leaping produces.

It really is no different than the effort our best teachers made, during our academic careers, to help us develop effective study habits. If we accept Carr’s thesis that we’re undercutting our own ability to read and absorb material because, like kids in a candy shop, we’re always racing off to the next bright and shiny bit of information the Internet offers us, then the answer is to help interested learners find ways to slow the process. Step away from the hyperlinks. And spend a little more time in the uninterrupted pursuit of reflecting upon the more thoughtful pieces of writing that come our way—like The Shallows does—so we can have our learning cake and eat it too.

If “information overload has become a permanent affliction,” as Carr asserts (p. 170), then we as trainer-teacher-learners need to play a leading role in acting upon that diagnosis and showing our learners—while reminding ourselves—that slowing down a bit will bring us long-term benefits including reduced stress levels, higher levels of creativity, and more productive approaches to the challenges we face in our work and personal lives.

We don’t really have to go down the unnecessary path of making this an either-or choice between reading books and reading online materials. We can and should continue using the Internet and all those fabulous hyperlinks when they serve our needs. We also can and should continue recognizing that immersion in a printed or electronic book while fending off distractions does require effort on our part.

As Carr notes, it isn’t easy. But it is rewarding enough to be well worth the effort. As anyone who made it this far into this article can probably confirm.


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