Jesse Lee Eller: Mapping the Way to Successful Learner-Centric Design

June 2, 2014

Many of us try to open doors for learners. Jesse Lee Eller, a trainer-teacher-learner whose instructional-design efforts always strive to keep learners front and center in the process, uses those doors in a somewhat different way: to create low-tech high-impact storyboarding maps that keep all of us who are working with him on track in our collaborative instructional-design efforts.

“I’m a visual learner,” he explained when he recently introduced me to his innovative way of assuring that learners remain at the center of all that we do together. “These charts help me keep track of everything we’re doing.”

Eller--Door[1]--2014-05-20Eller’s tools to sketch flexible first-draft storyboards of learning modules are wonderfully simple. He starts with a blank door in his studio/apartment, post-it notes, felt pens, and, when the process advances a bit, pieces of tape and large sheets of paper that most of us more frequently use as flip-chart paper with sticky backing. In the early stages of the process, he prints out text from Word documents provided by his subject matter experts, cuts the text into pieces that can be taped to his door to show where they will be incorporated into online lessons under development, and places post-it notes with questions he expects to address as he completes his part of the instructional-design process for online learning modules.

Once he has arranged and rearranged the notes on a door, he begins to formalize and reassemble the map he is creating by transferring it onto the pages of flip-chart paper that are connected into a continuous top-to-bottom sheet to be hung on those same doors and shared with his instructional-design partners.

What helps maintain the focus in his design process are the headings he jots onto those top-to-bottom sheets reflecting his own commitments to facilitating learning and supporting learners: “Hook ME! Get my attention,” “What Do We Already Know?”, “Where Are We Going? (What’s in It for Me?)”, “New Info,” “Example/Show Me!,” “Assessment,” and “Summary.” Those headings provide the working space for efforts that eventually produce storyboards to be used by his partners creating online videos and other instructional materials. And this is where the process begins to feel familiar, for the headings unintentionally mirror several of the nine “events of instruction” that Robert Gagné outlines in The Conditions of Learning (p. 304): “Gaining and controlling attention,” “Informing the learner of expected outcomes,” “Stimulating recall of relevant prerequisite capabilities,” “Presenting the stimuli inherent to the learning task,” “Offering guidance for learning,” “Appraising performance,” and “Insuring retention.”

Engaging with Eller and his instructional-design door hangings can be wonderfully stimulating. Where many of us understand and apply the guidelines that Gagné and others have provided, Eller’s questions and prompts continually remind us that we need to foster engagement with learners if we’re going to serve our learners well. Seeing that reminder to “Hook ME!” consistently reminds us that if we don’t immediately provide an engaging invitation to the learning experiences we are preparing, our learners will see our products as just another set of exercises to complete, set aside, and forget the moment they have completed a lesson. “Hook ME!” provides one of the most important reminders we can receive at any stage of learning development: we’re writing to an audience we need to keep in mind; that audience has plenty of competing calls for its attention; and we must be competitive in attracting members of that audience to what they, those for whom they work, and those they ultimately serve in their workplaces expect us to facilitate—meaningful, useful, and memorable learning experiences.

Eller--Door[2]--2014-05-20It takes a bit of time to completely appreciate how flexible and useful Eller’s system actually is. Looking at the text and post-it notes on the doors throughout his studio immediately and implicitly reminds us that the early stages of storyboarding require lots of thinking and rethinking, so the convenience of being able to move blocks of text and comments on post-it notes around keeps us from locking ourselves into a specific plan of action too early in the design process. Moving those blocks of text, notes, and headings onto large sheets of paper that can be hung on doors or walls moves us a bit closer to developing a useable roadmap for the learning experiences we are crafting; it also proves to be amazing resilient as a way of making information available to others: collaborators working with Eller in his studio can easily contribute to the process by moving elements around on the sheets of paper; those who are responsible for transferring those rough drafts into PowerPoint slides to further finesse the storyboarding process can physically carry the rolled-up sheets to paper to their own offsite workspaces. And those of us who don’t have time to visit Eller’s studio to retrieve the rolled-up sheets of paper can access them through digital photos Eller quickly takes and forwards as email attachments. Having seen one of those door-hung maps and becoming familiar with the instructional-design process it represents, most of us can easily keep one sample in our own workspace and use it to format text provided by subject-matter experts for other learning modules.

The door-hangings that Eller and those of us collaborating with him are using may not replace the posters, photographs, and artwork we hang to stimulate our creativity in our workspaces. But creating and developing those rudimentary and flexible storyboard templates upon our doors provides an effective reminder that doors to learning can be used in many different creative ways to serve our learners well.


Malcolm Knowles, The Adult Learner, and Revisiting Cherished Resources

October 3, 2013

Reading the sixth edition of The Adult Learner (in which Elwood Holton and Richard Swanson further build upon what Malcolm Knowles wrote in the first four editions) reminds us why the book justifiably carries the subtitle “The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development” (added to the fifth edition)—and why a seventh edition is also available.

Knowles--It’s thoughtful. It’s thorough. It’s engaging. It acknowledges its limitations. It surveys a variety of other seminal learning texts produced over a period of several decades and leaves us with nearly 40 pages of additional resources to explore. And, most importantly, it reminds us of how consistently we have identified and sought solutions to the challenges learners of all ages face and also reminds us how far we still have to go in effectively responding to those challenges.

Current calls for finding alternatives to our antiquated approach of facilitating learning through lectures, for example, seem to place us at the cutting edge of contemporary training-teaching-learning efforts—until we reread (on p. 44) an educator’s call, first published in the Journal of Adult Education in 1940, for change: “Not only the content of the courses, but the method of teaching also must be changed. Lectures must be replaced by class exercises in which there is a large share of student participation…” (Harold Fields, acting assistant director of Evening Schools, Board of Education, New York City). Fields might have been fascinated by what Michael Wesch accomplishes through experiential learning with students participating in his mediated cultures projects at Kansas State University. Or by what some of us are experiencing through webinars with interactive learning opportunities for participants rather than relying on the one-way-transmission-of-information model that only occasionally takes a break for brief question-and-answer sessions before returning to the teacher-as-center-of-learning experience and often leaves learners uninspired. Or by the possibilities for engagement in connectivist massive open online courses (MOOCs) if learners are properly prepared to take advantage of what those courses can offer. Or what learners experience through flipped classroom efforts that at least partially move lectures out of the classroom to make space for more engaging experiential learning, with Kahn Academy videos being one highly recognizable example of how the process works.

Furthermore, those of us who mistakenly believe that formal lifelong learning is a new concept precipitated by the need to keep up with our rapidly-changing tech environment gain, from revisiting The Adult Learner, a more accurate appreciation for how long lifelong learning has been part of our learning landscape. We read the observation made by a college president in 1930 in the Journal of Adult Education that “[a]t the other end of the traditional academic ladder the adult educational movement is forcing recognition of the value and importance of continuing the learning process indefinitely”—a lesson some still don’t appear to have absorbed as we read about reduced funding for community college programs that can be an important part of the adult learning landscape. Adult learning, the college president continues, “is recognized not so much as a substitute for inadequate schooling in youth as an educational opportunity superior to that offered in youth…” (p. 41).

Even the term for adult learning—andragogy, as opposed to pedagogy (“the art and science of teaching children”)—that is at the heart of what Knowles built into the first edition of his book has far deeper roots than many of us suspect. The earliest citation found for andragogy was from a German educator who used the term in 1833. Subsequent citations include those from a German social scientist in 1921 and a Swiss psychiatrist in 1951 before Knowles included it in the first edition of what was then titled The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species.

Knowles eventually created the now-familiar model of andragogy grounded in a series of assumptions including the idea that adults “need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it,” “resent and resist situations in which they feel others are imposing their wills on them,” “become ready to learn…to cope effectively with their real-life situations,” are “task-centered or problem-centered” in their approach to learning, and are effectively motivated by “the desire for increased job satisfaction, self-esteem, quality of life, and the like” (pp. 64-68). I suspect many of us also note the same assumptions with many of the younger learners we serve.

It’s an approach that’s compatible with what others, including Eduard Lindeman, Carl Rogers, and Robert Gagné, have written in their own classic works on learning. It’s an approach that appeals to us at a personal level and that can easily be recognized in our own experiences and drive to remain immersed in learning. And it supports a wonderfully inspiring philosophy expressed by Canadian psychologist Sidney Journard in 1972 and included in The Adult Learner: “Learning is not a task or problem; it is a way to be in the world” (p. 15)—words that might help all of us be more effective in our efforts to facilitate training-teaching-learning that produces positive results.

N.B.: This is the first in a series of reflections on classic training-teaching-learning resources.


Arts Integration, Creativity, and Effective Learning

August 30, 2012

There are times when something crosses our desks (or, in this case, our computer monitors) and absolutely makes us sit up straight, amazed that what we so strongly believe has been supported so eloquently—which is what happened when I saw the “School Transformation Through Arts Integration at Bates Middle School in Maryland” video produced by Edutopia.

This is an absolutely and stunningly beautiful example of what so many of us have been proposing for years: learning where subjects are seamlessly integrated with each other is spectacularly rewarding, and the arts have an undeniably important place in this process.

The six minutes it will take you to watch that video may be among the most transformative you’re going to have for quite a while if you’re as moved as I am by what it provides: an incredibly intimate view into a learning environment that was hemorrhaging faculty and was rife with disciplinary problems. A vision that learning could somehow be better than it was in that setting. And the wonderfully touching imagery of learners engaged in learning at levels many of us only dream of fostering.

It’s all there for anyone who cares to see it. But that’s not enough. What the ongoing experiment at that middle school suggests is that when we stop looking upon learning in terms of the chunks of time stolen from our “real” jobs or obligations rather than in terms of how we can bring meaning to what is learned, we’re already on a life-changing road to creative approaches to effective learning.

“We gotta find a way to reach all kids,” John Ceschini, executive director for the Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance says early in this all-too-brief video. I would suggest that trainer-teacher-learners need to broaden that heartfelt manifesto to “We gotta find a way to reach all learners regardless of age, background, and setting.”

It’s not that I believe I’m going to completely incorporate painting or sculpture or ballet into my next social media basics course. But I do know that the underlying commitment to draw what we already know and love into what we are beginning or continuing to learn is a well-established educational precept (think about Robert Gagné’s nine events of instruction) and one well worth considering every time we sit down to design a learning opportunity, deliver it, and then look back to see how effective we were in providing something meaningful. Whether it is onsite or online learning that we’re pursuing, it needs to include the playful, the challenging, and the potentially discouraging possibility of failure that so often comes when we are experimenting with something that is not completely familiar to us or comfortable for us.

And that idea, in itself, helps us understand one of the larger ramifications of “School Transformation Through Arts Integration.” By allowing us to see those young learners tackling subjects that can just as easily produce failures as they can produce success, the producers of the video have reminded us that learning always involves risk. It’s an inherent part of the learning process that we unsuccessfully try to ignore when we focus on the quizzes, exams, and certifications that sometimes make us want to pursue easier learning opportunities rather than running the risk of failing at something more challenging.

So while you may not see the arts incorporated into every learning opportunity I help design and facilitate, what you can expect to see is even more of a commitment to draw upon creative endeavors when I’m working with the learners who depend on me as they struggle to acquire the skills and knowledge that help them succeed in an increasingly competitive world. And I hope that by watching that video, you too will be inspired to promote and pursue a better integration of the arts and creativity into all you do.


Jonah Lehrer: Creatively Imagining Solutions

June 19, 2012

Imagine a book with an approach so creative and so playfully appealing that we run out and buy it, devour it, look for interviews with the author, and then dive into the promotional video as well as other videos because we discover depths in the work that we suspect we’ll never grow tired of exploring. Then realize you don’t have to imagine it, because Jonah Lehrer has written it.

Reading Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works pulls us onto familiar turf—the study of creativity, how the brain works, how we resolve the numerous challenges life tosses our way, and how we as trainer-teacher-learners can more effectively fulfill our potential. It also takes us down some intriguing paths by creatively using storytelling to help us understand how much effort is required to produce what so often appears to be an unearned flash of brilliant insight.

As Malcolm Gladwell so effectively does in Outliers: The Story of Success, Lehrer continually shows us that it’s practice that often can be found at the base of those divine moments of creativity we so admire.

“Creativity shouldn’t be seen as something otherworldly,” he writes near the beginning of his book. “It shouldn’t be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other ‘creative types.’ The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code. At any given moment, the brain is automatically forming new associations, continually connecting an everyday x to an unexpected y.

Drawing from research into the way the brain works, he helps us understand what we can do to nurture our own creative impulses.

“When our minds are at ease…we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere”—a practice we can foster in our students through the learning opportunities we provide. “In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we’re trying to solve….It’s not until we’re being massaged by warm water, unable to check our e-mail, that we’re finally able to hear the quiet voices in the backs of our heads telling us about the insight. The answers have been there all along—we just weren’t listening” (pp. 31-32).

There’s plenty here for those steeped in adult learning theory as proposed by Malcolm Knowles in The Adult Learner and Robert Gagné in The Conditions of Learning.  In the same way that Knowles and Gagné encouraged us to recognize that learners progress by building upon what they already know, Lehrer looks into the way our brain functions and he reports that a newly created thought is “transmitted back to its source—those pleasure-hungry dopamine cells in the midbrain—so the neurons learn from the new idea. ‘We call that a recursive loop,’ [Earl] Miller says. ‘It allows the system to feed on itself, so that one idea leads naturally to the next. We can then build on these connections, so that they lead to other, richer connections’” (pp. 67-68).

Those steeped in the theory and reality of the way we approach change—ranging  from Everett Rogers and his seminal work Diffusion of Innovations to Dan Ariely and his Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions—will be equally intrigued by the insights Lehrer provides through his summaries of brain-based research. Taking something as simple as the transformations we undergo as a result of traveling to new places, he observes that “[w]hen we get home, home is still the same. But something in our minds has been changed, and that changes everything” (p. 130)—an observation that presciently captures what happens to us in the course of traveling with Lehrer through Imagine.

By the time we finish reading the book, we recognize that something in our minds has changed. Reading and trying to solve the brain teasers he provides early in the text makes us more aware of how we approach problem-solving. Reading about how Yo-Yo Ma, Bob Dylan, Milton Glaser, and many others diligently approach their craft helps change the way we approach our own. And reading how creative teams that aren’t completely inbred and, at the same time, are not completely composed of individuals who have never worked together before makes us more aware of the successful learning teams we have been lucky enough to join.

Yet even as he works to show us the magic behind what so often appears to be creative legerdemain, Lehrer is smart enough to know that even though we are making great strides in understanding the science behind our creative processes, there is still something innately human about retaining a sense of awe when we explore this subject: “Creativity is like that magic trick. For the first time, we can see the source of imagination, that massive network of electrical cells that lets us constantly form new connections between old ideas….There will always be something slightly miraculous about the imagination.” (p. 251).

N.B.: For a look at how Lehrer’s book can guide us in developing effective communities of practice, please see “Imagine, Creativity, and Communities of Practice” in ASTD’s Learning Circuits online publication. And for information about the publisher’s withdrawal of Imagine, please see this updated posting.


Char Booth: Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning, and a USER at the Center of the Process

March 30, 2011

Doctors have medical school and residencies. Attorneys have law school. And trainers have…well, those involved in workplace learning and performance often have little more than a nudge from a supervisor or a colleague and the command to go show someone how to do something that they should have known yesterday.

Char Booth—a writer, teacher, trainer, librarian, and colleague whom I very much admire—documented a small piece of this too-familiar picture through a survey she completed: “…only about a third of those who regularly teach and train in libraries completed education-related coursework during their MLS [Master of Library Science] studies, only 16 percent of which was required. Strikingly, over two-thirds of these instruction librarians felt that their LIS education underprepared them to teach…”

“Many library educators,” she continued, “are involved in instruction on a part-time basis and therefore lack the immersive challenge that allows other educators to develop skills quickly and keep current and engaged”—a situation that applies to a far larger group than those providing training for library staff or library users, as a phone call from a non-library colleague who is about to face her own first group of learners without any formal training in how to help others learn reminded me this afternoon.

Booth has done more than simply document a problem affecting trainers, teachers, and learners. By writing Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning: Instructional Literacy for Library Educators, she has created a first-rate resource for those new to training, teaching, and learning. The book is an engaging, concise, and welcome guide to creating engaging learning experiences for learners of all ages, and it’s a tremendous gift not only to those inexperienced trainers and teachers who are about to work with their first groups of learners, but also to anyone wanting a first-rate survey of key instructional design techniques and learning styles.

Furthermore, Booth introduces her own variation on the familiar ADDIE—Analysis, Development Design, Implementation, and Evaluation—model through her four-step USER—Understand, Structure, Engage, and Reflect—model that, through its name, continually reminds us who we are working to reach through formal and informal learning opportunities.

Among the real gems in Booth’s work is the fourth chapter, “A Crash Course in Learning Theory.” An introductory paragraph at the beginning of the chapter helps ground us in our field of play: “The first major modern school of educational thought—behaviorism—investigated animal responses to different kinds of stimuli…which inspired the common practice of providing positive reinforcement for correct answers. A second school of thought—cognitivism—explores the capacities of human memory, which inspires teaching and design techniques that reflect the brain’s information processing abilities. The most recent school—constructivism—explores the effects of individual perception and the social environment, which have led to more collaborative and self-directed learning strategies” (p. 36). And she circles back to the theme at the beginning of the next chapter with a critically important reminder that leaves us grounded rather than confused: “It is not necessarily desirable to choose one theoretical model over another” (p. 50).

She leads us through the “ten transformational trends in educational technology” surveyed by Curtis Bonk, author of The World Is Open: “web searching in the world of e-books, e-learning and blended learning, availability of open-source and free software, leveraged resources and open courseware, learning object repositories and portals, learner participation in open information communities, electronic collaboration, alternate-reality learning, real-time mobility and portability, and networks of personalized learning” (p. 72). And she follows that with an introduction to Robert Gagné’sseries of principles that link all design models”: “Design is more about improving learning than improving teaching…Learning is a process influenced by many factors…The design approach can be tailored to fit different learning scenarios…Design is iterative—it informs itself in an ongoing cycle…Design is a process consisting of steps and substeps…Different learning goals call for different instructional approaches…” (p. 86).

As she moves into an explanation of her newly developed USER model, she leads us to a helpful structure designed to produce effective learning: “In the USER method, goals focus you on your instructional role; objectives organize content into activities and content units; and outcomes describe how participants are substantively different because of the knowledge they have gained,” she writes (p.118).

Booth’s approach never loses sight of the fact that we are well served both by having formal learning models from which we can draw and also by remembering that not every learning opportunity requires that we engage in every step of an instructional design assessment, development, delivery, and evaluation process. “More than anything, it should remind you to teach simply, reflectively, and with the learner at the center,” she reminds us (p. 94).  The overall message she delivers is that “reflective and design-minded teaching leads to effective, learner-centered instruction. Librarians are redefining our value in a changing information paradigm, and it is essential that we perceive the role of education in this process” (p. 151)—a goal that any teacher-trainer-learner is likely to embrace.


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