How We Work: Asking the Right Questions—And Then Doggedly Pursuing the Answers

September 29, 2017

Don Bennett, a friend whose work and play has included making music and architectural models for a very long time, once suggested that we make the mistake of thinking that work and play are two different things.

“Man,” he suggested with an impish gleam in his eyes, “is never happier than when he is picking berries.”

Don Bennett

And although I don’t combine the work and play of picking berries nearly as often as I should, I was thinking of Don again this week when a colleague interested in expanding his writing and training efforts asked a series of questions about what leads some of us to the successes we have. The implicit short form of my answer was to share Don’s advice to make work and play as seamless as possible. The longer version took the two of us down a path of thinking about simple, yet essential, moments and actions that move us closer, ever closer, to the world of our dreams.

When I think about what has given me the moderate successes I’ve had using my writing and teaching-training-learning skills, I think about the unwavering long-term commitments I’ve made to and the decades of effort I’ve put into developing those skills—something Malcolm Gladwell captured so well in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Writing, for me, is something requiring a very serious, meticulous, dogged approach—yet it also involves a great deal of playfulness.

I’ve been writing since I was a teenager. I wrote daily news stories for the campus newspaper at UCLA, which was tremendously valuable experience in terms of learning how to write quickly, effectively, and engagingly (not that I always do that). Writing seems to be one of those passions embedded in my DNA: it gives me pleasure, drives me to continue working, and connects into virtually every other endeavor I pursue.

The same is true for me in my teaching-training-learning endeavors, the instructional-design work I do, the work I do as a social media strategist, and the consulting work that is fully integrated into nearly every moment of my days of work and play.

I also, as I told the colleague who was asking questions, benefit tremendously from ongoing, first-rate mentoring from very supportive colleagues. Without the support of those fabulous, generous, altruistic mentors—some who are peers, some who are much younger than I am, and some who have many more years of experience than I’ve managed to acquire—I wouldn’t have the breadth and scope of knowledge that I attempt to bring to work and play. With all of this goes a lifelong commitment to learning, accompanied by a rich, ever-expanding community of friends and colleagues who are there to support and encourage me on a daily basis.

This carries us quite a way down the road of responding to my colleague’s questions, and leads to the all-important question of how to identify topics that would be well-received by my (ever-changing) target audience. My own approach involves lots of reading (my friend/colleague/mentor Jill Hurst-Wahl consistently teases me about my inability to carry on a conversation without dropping titles of the numerous books I seem to always be devouring; I can hear her saying “See? See? What did I tell you?” as she gleefully points to my mention of Outliers earlier in this piece). Lots of listening. And, most importantly, close attention to the reactions my work produces (positive as well as negative). A simple process I follow involves identifying ideas that seem worth spreading (very TED of me, right? my influences are showing again), then researching them, discussing them face to face and online with colleagues, and writing about them. If an idea proves productive, I continue working on—and with—it; if it doesn’t, I put it on a back burner to see if something might come of it later in a different context or with a different approach.

A commitment to continue learning is obviously a key element of the approach I take. Every informal and formal learning experience has proved useful to me at some level. Earning a B.A. in Political Science nourished my passionate interest in politics, social movements, community, collaboration, history, and positive social change. My M.A. in Arts Administration (a degree for nonprofit arts organization administrators) gave me transferable business skills that continue to serve me to this day. My MLIS (Master of Library & Information Science) degree more closely connected me to what was and is happening in Library Land—one of the primary countries in which I travel. And the numerous workshops, webinars, online courses (including connectivist MOOCs), and conferences I attend reinvigorate me while also reminding me what it feels like (in the best and worst of learning situations) to be in the learner’s seat; this helps keep me from subjecting others to what has troubled me about how we approach training-teaching-learning-doing.

A final, essential element that seems to produce wonderful results is to be flexible, responsive, and attentive—to listen and then react. Many years ago, when I was looking for opportunities to write more book reviews than I was producing at that time, I unexpectedly met the editor of a monthly book review publication. We were at a conference and were chatting about the possibility of my submitting reviews to him. Without thinking, I blurted out the question, “What unfilled niche can I fill for you?” That led to a number of very interesting book review opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise sought, and taught me the importance of asking that question of any potential or current client. Very simple. Very effective. Very playful. And it produces enough work to leave me with time to go pick some berries if that’s where heart leads me.

N.B.—Thanks, Jeff Marson. for inspiring this piece through your wonderful questions.

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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.


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