Annie Murphy Paul: Exploring the Ultimate Learning Space

July 11, 2012

Those of us fascinated by learning and how we are affected by the places where learning occurs find ourselves exploring a wonderfully unexpected learning space in Annie Murphy Paul’s Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives: the womb.

It is Paul’s contention, throughout this well-researched and thought-provoking book and the “What We Learn Before We’re Born” TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk she gave on the subject in 2011, that we haven’t given nearly enough attention to all we learn and acquire in those critical nine months before we enter the world. Origins is a great first step in filling that gap.

Organized into nine chapters representing the nine months of the writer’s second pregnancy, the book takes us through tantalizing views of the latest research into what we learn and how we are shaped in utero—a somewhat different classroom than the ones in which we usually find ourselves. And one fascinating aspect of this particular journey is the number of parallels we find between that pre-birth learning space and the more familiar ones we inhabit. There is, for example, the Month Two exploration of how what our mothers eat while they are carrying us affects the lifelong tastes we develop and acquire; those of us involved in training-teaching-learning can quickly make the literal connection between proper nourishment and a learner’s ability to absorb what is offered in a learning opportunity, and we can also see the figurative elements of how what we are offered in the womblike setting of a physical or virtual learning space helps us develop a favorable or unfavorable response to the learning morsels we consume.

Paul’s Month Three explorations of how tremendously stressful situations—the 9/11 bombings, the Northridge, California earthquake in 1994, World War II-era siegesaffect mothers and the children they are carrying remind us that significantly less stressful situations can have significant and long-lasting effects on a learner’s ability to absorb and retain information. Her Month Six explorations of how a mother’s emotional state might have significant lifelong physiological impacts on her developing child parallel the positive and negative effects an instructor-trainer-facilitator’s moods and approaches can inspire or discourage in a learner’s intellectual development. And the concluding chapters leading us to the moment of her second child’s birth remind us of a variety of physical and emotional elements that teach the unborn child what to expect upon entering the world just as we, as facilitators of learning, convey important messages to learners about what they can expect and might accomplish once they leave our learning spaces and re-enter the world in which they live and work and play.

One of the more poignant moments comes at the end of chapter eight, when Paul recounts her experience of being jostled on a crowded subway train, losing her balance, and seeing the fruit and vegetables she has just purchased in a farmers market go careening up and down the aisles: “I look around helplessly, feeling like a child lost in a thicket of pant legs and skirt hems. Then one set of hands after another drops an apple into my bag. From the far end of the car, a piece of my fruit is handed from one rider to another until it reaches me. Another set of hands pulls me up and gently guides me to a seat. In that moment I don’t feel gawked or gaped it, embarrassed or self-conscious: just cared for, and grateful” (p. 223)

If we, as trainer-teacher-learners can provide the same sense of support, encouragement, and safety that Paul and her not-yet-born child found in that crowded subway, just imagine the sort of learner we will send back into the world from the womblike learning spaces we are capable of creating and sustaining.

As the writer herself observes, “…if we take care in how we think about prenatal influences, they may add another layer to our understanding of who we are and how we got to be this way” (p. 195). And if we continue exploring the parallels between what learners learn in utero and what they learn in classroom, we should be well on the way to helping build the sort of world our efforts can nurture.

Best Practices: Sarah Houghton-Jan on “Being Wired or Being Tired”

June 2, 2009


Infopeople instructor and Librarian in Black Sarah Houghton-Jan has hit another home run, and it would take someone like Sarah to pull this off.

In “Being Wired or Being Tired: 10 Ways to Cope with Information Overload” (published online in the July 2008 issue of Ariadne), she produces a journal-length article of more than 6,000 words for those of us who don’t have enough time to do everything we want to do. The piece ends with 16 references for those wanting more information. And she manages to entice us into making the time to read the entire piece.

“I am still here, I am still alive, and my brain has yet to explode, so somehow I must be finding a way to make it work,” she writes at the beginning of the article, and we’re with her all the way from her brief history of information overload, through the techniques for managing overload, to her conclusion that “as information professionals, we are best equipped to recognize information overload and deal with its effects.”

There is lots of common sense here: filtering the information we receive; controlling rather than being controlled by incoming email; not feeling compelled to answer every phone call or instant message as it comes in; and having no hesitation about turning off a cell phone when interruptions will interfere with our ability to complete important tasks or be attentive during meetings.

We also find some uncommon yet easy-to-implement suggestions here for those of us congenitally afraid of cutting ourselves off from any information source: “Cancel subscriptions to periodicals you rarely read. If you do not get to read the Sunday paper until the following Saturday, that is a clear sign that you need less information,” she counsels in a section on print media overload techniques.

Nearing the end of the article, she takes us to the heart of the matter in a paragraph on balancing life and work: “If you find yourself tapping at a keyboard next to your partner on the sofa while you are watching a movie, instead of sidling up next to him or her, you may have a work/life balance problem…”

“Being Wired” is obviously resonating with readers: Sarah is receiving quite a few queries from those interested in having her speak to their groups on the topic. Which, we can only assume, is adding to her own overload while she is helping us reduce our own.

This item was originally posted on September 26,  2008 on Infoblog at

Training, the Intersection, Fear, and Success (4th of 4)

June 1, 2009

“I’m afraid” has to be one of the most common and dangerous phrases a teacher-trainer or student-learner can utter or hear. Fear leads to stress, stress shuts down the functioning of the neocortex, and learning becomes severely constrained or completely impossible.

Fear also severely limits creativity, as Frans Johansson writes in The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, & Culture, and we all know what happens in a classroom or workshop setting when creativity is not present: the only thing keeping us awake is the sound of our colleagues snoring.

Johansson spends considerable time in The Medici Effect explaining that the best ideas and experiences to emerge from the Intersection, that meeting of people from different fields of study or walks of life, come from taking risks and overcoming fear of failure. He cites studies and examples which confirm what many of us already suspect: that success requires multiple attempts and the willingness to actually fail so that lessons can be learned from failures.
One payoff to decreasing the fear of failure, he suggests, is that as the sense of danger decreases—physical danger or the much less serious danger of looking bad because of failure—people take more risks and therefore increase their chances of achieving even more innovation and success. Which sounds to me like a perfect breeding ground for first-rate learning which helps us and our students contribute more in our workplace and the larger community in which we live.

If we try a risky lesson plan or technique which takes us into the Intersection with those whom we are teaching or training, we become more effective. We have and share that magnificent jolt which actually makes us crave even more Intersectional experiences. And, if we are lucky, we have planted important seeds. We, and those we teach or train, become engaged. Excited. Collaborative. Associative. We are inspired and, in turn, inspirational. Which leaves us with a final question: is there any reason to let fear deprive us and our students of these potential training successes? Having read and thought about The Medici Effect, I fear not.

This item was originally posted on November 29, 2007 on Infoblog at

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