Catherine Okafor: Holding Up a Mirror to Our Training-Teaching-Learning

July 10, 2012

Barton College mass communications major Catherine Okafor, writing for The Huffington Post today, provides a wonderful opportunity for all trainer-teacher-learners to hold a mirror up to themselves/ourselves—and not shy away from what we see.

In “The Unfortunate Truth in Education,” Okafor uses her position as a learner and an observer to comment on her perception that “some teachers simply don’t care about their students.” And she’s not referring solely to the obvious fact that some instructors are more engaged than others; she is leading us toward a larger issue: “not caring to get to know their students on a personal level.”

Successful trainer-teacher-learners know exactly where Okafor is headed with her article, for a commitment to becoming acquainted with learners at even a superficial level doesn’t require tremendous amounts of time, as Sharon Morris and I demonstrated during our recent “Ignite, Interact, and Engage: Maximizing the Leaning Outcome” workshop. It begins—even in those settings where we may only have a total of 90 minutes of formal instruction-learning time with a particular group of learners—with a from-the-heart display that we genuinely do care about those who are choosing time with us over time they could be spending elsewhere in numerous other ways.

Sharon and I, using patterns followed by many of the colleagues we admire, arrived early enough to make adjustments to how the room was set up, be sure all the equipment and the various materials we planned to use were in place before the first learners arrived, and be relaxed when we began greeting the first arrivals. We had nearly a quarter of an hour to chat with people individually and informally as they entered the room (thereby demonstrating one of the lessons we were hoping to convey); sit with them to make sure that what they were expecting from the session was what we intended to deliver; and do everything we could to facilitate a bit of conversation among those participants since most of them were seeing each other for the first time.

By the time the session formally began, the learners appeared to be comfortable enough to engage with each other and, with varying levels of willingness, participate in the various activities we had prepared in an effort to help them learn how to ignite, interact with, and engage learners by actually being ignited and engaged themselves in their own learning process.

Okafor, in her article, talks about teachers “who didn’t take into consideration the opinions and suggestions that their students were voicing.” The predictable result was that “the majority of the students stopped voicing their opinions in class due to fear of the teacher not caring.” Many of us, on the other hand, realize that at the heart of the learning process is the level of engagement where instructor-facilitators are learning as much from the learners as they are acquiring from us. If we don’t listen, they don’t learn.

“I know it’s not an easy task” to reach out, learn about students, and listen to their opinions, Okafor writes.

And yet I would suggest that it’s ultimately far more difficult to be involved in successful training-teaching-learning if we aren’t doing exactly that, for the frustrations and poor results that come from not engaging and being engaged with our learners is more taxing for all involved than simply holding up that mirror Okafor has offered us and reacting positively and productively to what that mirror shows from the point of view of a learner as well as an observer.


ALA Annual Conference 2012: To Tweet or Not to Tweet

June 28, 2012

Although I was more intensely engaged in the twitterverse than ever before while attending the 2012 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference this week in Anaheim, I was surprised to find that at some levels it was a far different experience that participating in the recent American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) International Conference & Exposition Twitter backchannel.

Both conferences had streams of tweets that were virtually impossible to completely follow; there was simply too much content for anyone to absorb. And I was relieved to hear an ALA colleague who was dedicated to keeping up with it finally admit, halfway through the conference, that even she was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the flow. Both conferences also had a core group of tweeters who recorded and disseminated information about what was happening in conference sessions.

But one thing that was distinctly different between the two conferences was that ASTD members who were prolific at tweeting were capturing content from a teaching-training-learning point of view—live-tweeting from sessions to share information that the rest of us could later incorporate into our own workplace learning and performance (staff training) endeavors—while many of the more frequent conference attendees who were tweeting in Anaheim were producing a combination of personal tips about where to find the best conference freebies; sightings of keynote speakers and other celebrities onsite for conference events; personal observations about the experience of attending a conference with more than 20,000 other people; or, at an extreme edge of the backchannel, an overtly snarky set of observations—sometimes live and from sessions where the subjects of their criticisms were in the front of a workshop room or on stage in a crowded auditorium. Fortunately for those tweeters, none of their targets seemed aware of or inclined to respond to those criticisms in the moment as happened in a situation described by Cliff Atkinson in his book The Backchannel.

Anyone inclined to think the comparison between the two groups of backchannel contributors is unfair or an apples-and-oranges sort of effort needs to remember that members of library staff are increasingly finding themselves in the role of trainer-teacher-learner as a core part of their responsibilities to those they serve, as Lori Reed and I document in Workplace Learning & Leadership. Members of library staff also need to be as up-to-date in their knowledge of tech tools as workplace learning and performance practitioners need to be—yet there were signs at the ALA conference that we’re somewhat behind others in our acceptance, use, and promotion of those tools.

When Sharon Morris and I introduced a live Twitter feed via TweetChat into our “Ignite, Interact, and Engage: Maximizing the Learning Outcome” session at the conference, for example, one of the first tweets to go out from a session participant was one of amazement (and, we hoped, happiness) that we were encouraging our learners to incorporate Twitter into that learning experience.

There were signs elsewhere at the conference that others were not at all pleased by the presence of a Twitter backchannel and the use of the mobile devices that connect so many of us and those we serve without regard to geographic barriers. One conference attendee noted, via Twitter, that someone had yelled at him for tweeting, and another attendee reported via Twitter that she was told she shouldn’t be using her iPad during a general-assembly keynote presentation.

It’s obvious that we’re still very much in a state of transition in terms of how we use and accept the use of Twitter, backchannels, and tech tools in public settings. And I firmly believe we need to develop a better sense of etiquette—perhaps along the lines of something I usually do: asking those around me if my use of a laptop or mobile device to capture session notes and share them with others via Twitter will disturb them. I’ve never had a colleague turn me down, and only had one presenter—one who was going to give a presentation on e-learning best practices in a venue far removed from the ALA conference—defer.

Discussing this with a colleague at the conference, I found myself in the strange position of actually speaking up in favor of the tweeters—strange because, five years ago, I really didn’t want a cell phone or a laptop or anything else that I perceived as a burden/distraction rather than a resource, and I had little experience with social media tools. But colleagues, friends, and outright necessity have completely reversed my thinking, and I don’t believe it’s an understatement to say that those of us involved in training-teaching-learning—workplace learning and performance practitioners, library staff members, people involved in customer service in an onsite-online world, and many others—really can’t afford to overlook these resources if we want to be competitive and effective in meeting the requirements of our work.

My colleague’s observations about the conflicts between those using Twitter and mobile devices and those distracted by or resentful of the presence and use of tech tools and resources produced an interesting exchange. Perhaps, she suggested, we could resolve the conflicts by setting aside a special area during keynote addresses and smaller workshops for those who want to tweet. Perhaps, I responded, we could set aside a special area for those who want to be free of the presence of mobile devices and tweeters. For in an onsite-online world where the majority of those we serve actually appear to be ahead of us in their acceptance and use of Twitter and mobile devices, we might as well intellectually as well as physically make a clear and visible statement about where we stand in terms of meeting them where they are and prefer to be met—as unobtrusively, civilly, and respectfully as possible.

N.B.: To hear an extended (45-minute) conversation on the topic of Twitter as a learning tool at conferences, please listen to T is for Training Episode 101, “Instant Professional Development,” hosted by Maurice Coleman on June 28, 2012.


ALA Annual Conference 2012: Addressing the Couch in the Middle of the Room

June 25, 2012

A colleague entering the room where Sharon Morris and I were facilitating the ALA Learning Round Table’s “Ignite, Interact, and Engage: Maximizing the Learning Outcome” session yesterday here in Anaheim at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference admits to being momentarily confused.

“I didn’t remember ordering a couch,” she said when she joined the session in progress.

And I have to admit that we didn’t, either—at least not directly. For when we started the session, it had the typical session room set-up. Round tables surrounded by chairs. Lectern with microphone. A couple of tables with chairs for presenters and panelists. A projector throwing PowerPoint slides onto a large screen in one corner of the room. And the usual drab/neutral walls.

But we quickly changed all that by projecting a Twitter feed onto the screen via TweetChat during parts of the session and beginning the workshop with a wonderful presentation/learning technique I acquired from writer-trainer-consultant Peter Block’s presentation at the 2008 ASTD International Conference & Exposition in San Diego: we encouraged “Engage” participants to take two minutes at the beginning of the session to reset the room in any way that would create a space conducive to their own leaning experience. The we added to Block’s exercise by inviting them to use simple supplies we had provided—clay, construction paper, colored clay, and a few other items—to decorate the room in a way that served the same purpose. And even I, after running variations of this particular learning exercise, was astonished when a few participants carried “resetting the room” to a wonderful extreme I’d never before encountered: they stepped outside, snagged a small couch from a corridor, and brought it into the room for themselves.

As we moved through the session, we left plenty of time for learners to practice what Sharon and I were sharing with them about various styles of presentation: lecturing/telling, storytelling/sharing knowledge, inquiring/reflecting, experiencing—lots of that with this group—and creating/developing something as we did by developing a comfortably appropriate learning space for the duration of the session. We also brought blended (onsite-online) learning into the picture by explaining how many trainer-teacher-learners are using Twitter and other social media tools to connect on learners within a learning space—a fourth place, or social learning center—with learners not physically present, yet capable of engaging in what is being accomplished.

Attendees clearly absorbed and responded to ideas about incorporating an opening exercise and improvisation into learning. When someone mentioned how we often avoid the most difficult and obvious of challenges—in essence, ignoring the elephant in the middle of the room—we even suggested that we had a perfect moment to change our own clichés by agreeing to “address the couch in the middle of the room.” And then we used Twitter to share, with other conference attendees, the idea that we need to begin addressing the couch in the middle of the room.

As we brought that very lively session to a conclusion, we reminded each other of the need to carry learning back to workplace settings where what was learned is actually used rather than lost—not wanting to be among that 70 percent of learners who never even try applying what they’ve learned. And you probably know what happened next: when we asked how participants would apply what they had learned, everyone stood up and engaged in a very spirited chanting of what had become the session mantra—“We won’t be part of the 70 percent.”

Late in the afternoon, I finally had time to go back to the Twitter feed (#ala12soclearn, for ALA 2012 Annual Conference Social Learning; parts of it remain available as posts on June 24, 2012 at @trainersleaders). It was very encouraging to see how effectively the session participants had engaged with the material and with each other. And I had a confirmation that we still have a long way to go in Library Land in terms of how we incorporate Twitter and other social media tools into our daily work this morning: a conference attendee used the Twitter conference backchannel (#ala12) to note that someone had shouted at him for using Twitter at the conference. I hope that he and others will join us in whatever post-session conversation continues at #ala12soclearn. And that we’ll all remain ignited and engaged as we return to our workplace learning and performance (staff training) spaces.

N.B.: The PowerPoint slides and speaker notes for the presentation are available on SlideShare.


%d bloggers like this: