Clark Quinn: Learning, Nomenclature, and Fomenting Revolution  

May 21, 2015

Clark Quinn, a colleague through #lrnchat and ATD (the Association for Talent Development), is certainly not the first to say that he is mad as hell and to urge us to not take it anymore. Nor is he the first to suggest that the nomenclature we use to describe what we do in what is generically called “training” is far from adequate, or that our event-based approach to learning is often a frustratingly ineffective approach to making a different in a learner’s life, or that it is time for a new manifesto to set things right.
Quinn--Revolutionize_L&D--CoverBut Quinn, in his well-researched, highly- and finely-nuanced book Revolutionize Learning & Development: Performance and Innovation Strategy for the Information Age, does far more than recycle old rants. He effectively draws upon the experience he and his colleagues bring to our workplace training-teaching-learning efforts. He builds upon research-based evidence to show where we continue to go wrong in workplace learning and performance (staff training) efforts and how we might change our course(s) to the benefit of those we serve. And he adds to the dynamic literature of training-teaching-learning-doing in a way that encourages reflection as well as action.

“I am on a mission,” he tells us on the first page of the preface to the book. “The stuff I had railed against a decade ago was still in place. I was, quite frankly, pissed off. I decided that I simply had to make a stab at trying to address the problem….I am not temperate in this [first] section, I confess; on the contrary, I may be tarring with too broad a brush. I am not apologetic, believing it better to be too harsh and raise hackles than to have no impact. Reader beware.”

signorelli200x300[1]The issues he tackles are numerous—not the least of them being the inadequacy of the jargon we use. As Lori Reed and I noted in our own book (Workplace Learning & Leadership; ALA Editions, 2011), there are numerous terms used to describe the training-teaching-learning field and those playing in that field; each term, furthermore, overtly as well as subliminally affects the way we approach and engage in our work—which, of course, is why it’s important that we eventually find the right vocabulary: terms that not only accurately and concisely describe what we do, but also guide us toward successful efforts supporting our workplace colleagues and those they ultimately serve. One of the most visible and well-orchestrated recent attempts to update our vocabulary came a year ago when the American Society for Training & Development rebranded itself as the Association for Talent Development for many reasons—not the least of which was a desire to emphasize the result (developing the workplace “talent” of employees) rather than the process (i.e., training/learning). Quinn, whose book was co-published by Wiley and ASTD one month before the ASTD-to-ATD transformation was announced, suggests that we move from our industry jargon of “learning and development (L&D)” to “performance and development (P&D)” for the same reason: to place a focus on the results of our efforts (employee performance in the workplace) rather than the process leading to those results. Neither approach strikes me as completely satisfactory, for “talent development” as an industry descriptor then suggests the less-than-perfect and far-from-inspiring term “talent developer” (instead of “trainer” or “learning facilitator” or any other equally-inadequate term we might also incorporate into our lexicon to guide us in our work). I continue, in my own work, to use the less-than-perfect hyphenate “trainer-teacher-learner” to capture what I believe is a trinity of terms summarizing important facets of our work—but I quickly acknowledge that it misses one of the key attributes Quinn calls to our attention: a focus on what learners do with what they are learning. If workplace learning and performance is—as so many of us believe—a transformative process that should lead to positive action, then the words we use to describe it should also reflect and acknowledge the inherent goals driving the process.

When we move beyond the nomenclature and into the real focus of the first section of the book (“Status Quo”), we find that the author has taken a playful yet devastating approach to describing the state of our industry. The subheadings to Chapter 3 (“Our Industry”) seem to be the result of an effective game of free-association—one that helps make the case for joining the revolution: “inadequate”; “event-ful” (in the negative sense that learning opportunities are treated as isolated events rather than part of a larger learning process that produces positive results for learners, their organizations, and the customers/clients/patrons they ultimately serve); “disengaging”; “antisocial” (in the sense that they underutilize the social media tools that are so important a part of our workplace efforts); “rigid”; “mismeasured” (in the sense that evaluations don’t measure meaningful results from training-teaching-learning efforts); and “no credibility,” among others. If that isn’t enough to make us grab our pitchforks and burning brooms so we can storm and burn the antiquated castles of training/L&D/P&D, perhaps we need to check to see if any of us still has a pulse.

The book (and Quinn), of course, offer us far more than a pessimistic document that would leave us wanting to slit our training-teaching-learning wrists. His second section explores research-based evidence on how our brains react to and absorb learning opportunities—in contrast to what many of our current efforts actually provide—and reminds us that informal learning opportunities, the use of communities of learning, the use of existing resources rather than always seeking to design new workshops and courses, and recognition of the benefits of mobile learning as part of our learning landscape stand to produce far better results than we currently produce.

ATD_LogoHis section on aligning learning with workplace needs provides a great example of what he is attempting to foster: by incorporating case studies and reflections by several of his colleagues (including Jane Bozarth, Allison Rossett, and Marc Rosenberg—people familiar to us through our involvement with ATD, #lrnchat, the eLearning Guild, and other first-rate learning communities), he reminds us that even a book like Revolutionize Learning & Development can serve as a gathering place for colleagues to meet, talk, learn, reflect, and develop effective plans of action.

The final section (focusing on a “path forward”) works well with a short set of appendices to help us reflect on core competencies and practices that better position us to be part of a process of change within our workplace training-teaching-learning (and doing) efforts.

“This book is not a final answer,” Quinn says up front (p. xxiv). “There are answers in many of the component areas, but the integration is new, and a book is a limited endeavor.”

He leaves us with an open invitation to join the discussion through; the “Serious eLearning Manifesto” that he, Michael Allen, Julie Dirksen, and Will Thalheimer have posted; and his ongoing series of posts in his “Learnlets” blog. And there are, of course, the continuing opportunities to be part of the conversation and action through participation in #lrnchat (Thursdays, 8:30 pm ET/5:30 pm PT), T is for Training, ATD, and our numerous other communities of learning and action.


#etmooc: A Midterm Review of Connectivity, Collaboration, and Learning

February 20, 2013

With massive open online courses (MOOCs) at the center of hype, overhype, and plenty of justifiable criticism, a midterm review of one—the highly interactive Educational Technology and Media MOOC (#etmooc, organized by University of Regina professor of educational technology and media Alec Couros and others)—shows what a well-designed and well-facilitated MOOC can offer to learners with the digital literacy skills required to benefit from them.

etmoocDiving into #etmooc to gain my first hands-on experience in the burgeoning world of MOOCs—one of two technologies cited in the 2013 New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Report (Higher Education edition) as likely to “see widespread adoption in higher education over the next 12 months”—has far exceeded anything I expected. In less than three weeks, I have gained a rudimentary understanding of and appreciation for the differences between two types of MOOCs (the xMOOCs that many mainstream journalists seem to be addressing, and the much more interactive cMOOCsconnectivist MOOCs)—and much more. I have become an active part of a newly formed, dynamic, worldwide community of learners; continue to have direct contact with some of the prime movers in the development of MOOCs; had several transformative learning experiences that will serve me well as a trainer-teacher-learner involved in onsite and online learning; and have learned, experientially, how to use several online tools I hadn’t explored four weeks ago. My MOOCmates and I have already explored connected learning and digital storytelling; are currently engaged in efforts to better understand—and contribute to an understanding of—digital literacy; and will also have explored the open movement and digital citizenship by the time the course ends on March 30, 2013.

#etmooc shows more than 1,600 people registered. Of that group, at least 850 are part of the #etmooc Google+  community; more than 500 have already contributed to the course blog hob—an example of how digital literacy involves acts of creation as much as the acquisition of a pre-determined set of skills; and many have engaged in acts of learning and creation through the more than 150 #etmooc videos that have been posted on YouTube. Live sessions on Blackboard Collaborate generally attract at least 75 participants, with many more viewing the programs via the course archives—which suggests that the course is providing content that will be useful to far more people than are currently participating in the live version of #etmooc. And there is an official course Twitter feed that reflects only a small number of the 12,000 tweets collected and archived as of this evening via the #etmooc hashtag—many of them containing links to valuable resources.

etmooc_graphic[2]What it really comes down to is contacts, connectivity, collaboration, and learning. It’s about individually and collaboratively producing significant learning objects including, but far from limited to, Alec Couros’ course introduction; Dave Cormier’s session on rhizomatic learning; and the digital literacy sessions led by Doug Belshaw and Howard Rheingold. Any of the ever-growing list of sessions within the course archive provides stand-alone engaging examples of what online learning at its best provides. Each also inspires connections between the course designers/facilitators, other presenters, and learners; where I had initially expected very little direct contact with those delivering the course, given the large number of participants, I’ve been absolutely floored by the personal responses delivered in the form of tweets, responses to blog postings, and other interactions.

Outside of the course, on the other hand, I continue to see snarky comments from those who either haven’t had or aren’t willing to seek out these opportunities and the benefits they offer.  I also see that New York Times editorial writers have just published an editorial on why MOOCs and other online learning opportunities may not be appropriate for all learners—a valid point of view, but one that only in the most cursory fashion acknowledges the idea that MOOCs are a perfectly fine addition to the learning landscape for those of us who develop the digital literacy and learning skills to take advantage of what they offer—those who develop, in a sense, the very thing we’re studying at this point in the #etmooc curriculum (digital literacy and the skills that support a form of literacy that is increasingly becoming essential to 21st-century learning).

The point here is not what is wrong with MOOCs or how they might pose a threat to our current learning landscape. The point is what can be right about them and how the best of them are already becoming essential elements of training-teaching-learning. It makes no more sense to ignore the important, positive roles MOOCs can play than it would make to propose the abandonment of any other element of our learning landscape—from classroom-based academic offerings to the workplace learning and performance (staff training) efforts that are essential to lifelong learning. And participation in high-quality offerings like #etmooc are the best response of all to those curious about how MOOCs might fit into that landscape.

N.B.: This is the eleventh in a series of posts responding to the assignments and explorations fostered through #etmooc.

Brains: Our Learning Tool in Action

July 8, 2011

Trainer-teacher-learners seem to explore almost every aspect of the learning process imaginable. And yet there’s a basic tool we all too often overlook: the brain itself. Which is a terribly embarrassing oversight since we are, without it, literally nothing.

Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself offers a great starting place for those of us interested in plugging that gap in our knowledge. It is firmly rooted in the physiological basics of how brains learn and adapt—literally changing, as our experiences change, through the process known as neuroplasticity.

Those willing to take the time to read the entire book will follow Doidge’s explorations documenting how a variety of terribly challenged people have overcome tremendous physical and psychological disabilities far beyond the day-to-day issues confronted in our training-teaching-learning efforts. There are, for example, case studies showing nearly miraculous recoveries by a woman who felt as if she were perpetually falling, a man with severe stroke-induced impediments, a woman who had been written off as “retarded,” and a woman who literally grew up with half a brain.

Trainer-teacher-learners with less time to spare can move right to the heart of Doidge’s writings on the physiology of learning by diving into the third chapter, “Redesigning the Brain”—a fascinating and game-changing exploration of the work on neuroplasticity completed by University of California, San Francisco professor emeritus Michael Merzenich.

In one particularly dense yet well-synthesized passage, Doidge helps us understand how neuroplasticity and learning come together in the work that trainer-teacher-learners facilitate: “…Merzenich invoked the ideas of Donald O. Hebb, a Canadian behavioral psychologist who had worked with [Wilder] Penfield. In 1949 Hebb proposed that learning linked neurons in new ways. He proposed that when two neurons fire at the same time repeatedly (or when one fires, causing another to fire), chemical changes occur in both, so that the two tend to connect more strongly. Hebb’s concept—actually proposed by Freud sixty years before—was neatly summarized by neuroscientist Carla Shatz: Neurons that fire together wire together” (p. 63)—which, to bring this all home, simply means that when neurons fire together during the learning process, our brain creates connections that turn ephemeral potential learning experiences into the long-term behavioral changes that effective learning is meant to produce.

The converse, Doidge notes, is also true: “…Neurons that fire apart wire apart—or neurons out of sync fail to link” (p. 64).

Understanding the basics of neuroplasticity helps us understand the challenges our learners face. There are, for example, times in our lives—early childhood being one that is easily and commonly recognized—when learning appears to be easier for us: “Language development…has a critical period that begins in infancy and ends between eight years and puberty. After this critical period closes, a person’s ability to learn a second language without an accent is limited. In fact, second languages learned after the critical period are not processed in the same part of the brain as is the native tongue,” Doidge notes (p. 52). But this is far from an excuse for those who believe they simply are too old to learn new tricks—or more substantial lessons; the more we and our learners remain open to new experiences, the easier it is for us, physiologically, to maintain our brain’s plasticity—which translates into an ability to continue learning.

“Merzenich thinks our neglect of intensive learning as we age leads the systems in the brain that modulate, regulate, and control plasticity to waste away,” Doidge writes. “In response he has developed brain exercise for age-related cognitive decline—the common decline of memory, thinking and, processing speed” and his efforts are producing noteworthy results (p. 85).

The conclusions for those of us involved in workplace learning and performance or any other educational endeavor are obvious. If we want to help our learners, we have to make them aware of what it takes to expedite learning. And in a wonderfully circular way, we have the documentary proof here that the more we continue to learn, the easier the learning process remains. Which is great news in a world where the need for learning is continual and those who either are unwilling or unable to continue learning are at a distinct and potentially life- and career-threatening disadvantage.

“Just doing the dances you learned years ago won’t help your brain’s motor cortex stay in shape,” Doidge suggests. “To keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus. That is what will allow you to both lay down new memories and have a system that can easily access and preserve the older ones” (p. 88).

“Plasticity,” he assures us, “ is a normal phenomenon, and brain maps are constantly changing” (p. 61). It’s clear that one of our many roles as trainer-teacher-learners is to do all we can to make learners aware of this situation so they take advantage of the possibilities it offers.

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