ALA Annual Conference 2012: Learning, Leading, Engaging, and Transforming

June 23, 2012

If you were in the right room but weren’t paying attention yesterday at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference here in Anaheim, you easily could have missed one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of experiential and transformative learning and leadership in action.

The set-up was simple. Members of ALA staff, along with members of ALA’s Training, Orientation, and Leadership Development Committee (TOLD) and incoming ALA president Maureen Sullivan, worked together seamlessly to deliver the association’s annual orientation session for volunteers who will be serving as chairs of ALA committees for the next 12 months. The traditional set-up for the session, according to those familiar with it, has been for the incoming president to offer a few words of welcome and then leave others to conduct the session.

Sullivan, as the association’s lead volunteer for 2012-2013, suggested a different model for this year’s offering. And program organizers immediately agreed, she noted at the beginning of the session as an example of how change can sometimes easily be implemented. The standard “orientation” became a “strategic leadership meeting.” We were active participants in determining how we all will work together and with others during the next 12 months. And, by time we left that room three and a half hours later, we had not only become familiar with what was expected of each of us as volunteers, leaders, and potential facilitators of change within an association we very much love and admire, we had been reminded by a master trainer-leader-consultant/change agent that the first step in being effective is believing that we can be effective in the roles we choose to play.

Because I’ve known Sullivan for several years and have had a few opportunities to work with her and see her in action, I wasn’t surprised by any of this. When she facilitated a two-day conference for students who had not yet completed their graduate-level work to enter the library workforce, she completely inspired those participants—and her work has paid off as we’ve seen several of those conference attendees begin working their way into management positions with libraries across the country. And when I was struggling with a less-than-satisfying educational experience, Sullivan was there not only as a willing and sympathetic set of ears, she was among a small and cherished group of people who helped me find a way to turn a bad situation into something full of potential—and tremendous results.

So as I sat with other incoming ALA committee chairs yesterday; was engaged by the energy, dedication, and inspiration that Sullivan, author-consultant-presenter Eli Mina (101 Boardroom Problems [and How to Solve Them]) provided; and saw how my volunteer efforts might effectively make a difference in further supporting ALA and all it serves, I realized how lucky I was to be in that particular windowless room—with the most spectacular view of what a few involved people can accomplish under the tutelage of a trainer-leader-consultant who sets the best example possible through her own efforts as an association volunteer.

Others may have been enjoying quality time by a pool. Or preparing to visit the conference exhibits hall. Or tweeting wonderful (or snarky) observations about the conference. Or frantically trying to decide which sessions they wanted to attend and which ones they reluctantly will miss. Or trying to acquire another ribbon to attach to their conference badges. And I have to admit I hope to make time for all of those activities myself.

But being in that room, with that group of people, with that level of inspiration, reminded me once again of the absolute pleasures and rewards we find through volunteering to support those causes that appeal to us. We all know that it’s easy to make commitments. Set high standards and goals for ourselves, and encourage others to set high standards and goals they believe they too can achieve. And then, with the best of intentions, return to our day-to-day work and lose sight of the essential elements of what we set out to do. This, however, is an opportunity where I don’t think that’s going to happen.

It’s completely possible that the association will, a year from now, look exactly as it does today; and the average member will continue to pay dues, attend conferences, complain about bureaucracy, and wonder why nothing ever changes. But those of us inspired by Sullivan certainly hope that won’t be the case. And if we’re effective in reaching out to foster an even greater sense of engagement than already exists within ALA—remembering to listen and to act—we may actually have a report card well worth taking home when the time for our final exam as learner-leader/change agents is administered a year from now.

N.B.: Sharon Morris and I, on Sunday, June 24, 2012, will be facilitating a 90-minute workshop on how to engage workplace learners and others in libraries. The session, under the auspices of the ALA Learning Round Table, begins at 10:30 am at the ALA Annual Conference here in Anaheim, in Convention Center Room 203B. Hope you’ll join us for what promises to be an engaging discussion.

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Transformative and Reflective Life-long Learning (Part 3 of 3)

January 31, 2010

If we want to provide effective learning opportunities, we need to build reflection into the process from the beginning and encourage learners to participate in setting their own learning goals.

A third critically important element of successful transformative and reflective learning involves acknowledging and remembering that learning is a process, not an event, and that processes, as we know, require participation, and follow-up if they are going to be successful.

The approach De Anza College Distance Learning Center staff take through the “Distance Learning Questionnaire” they adopted many years ago from the PBS-Adult Learning Service leaves us with a first-rate example of what we should all be considering. Although it is designed to help students determine whether they are ready to engage in online learning, it also serves to remind workplace learning and performance professionals that we have an equally important role to play in preparing ourselves and those with whom we work to build foundations for success from the beginning.

What is wonderful about the questionnaire is that it asks questions designed to provoke thought and reflection: How important and time-sensitive is the prospective learning experience to the learner? Do the learner’s habits lend themselves to success in an online learning environment?  

The questionnaire immediately offers guidance to those who complete it. Achieve an appropriate score on that questionnaire and it appears you are ready to proceed. On the other hand, if your score is lower than successful learners achieve, the advice is straightforward: “you may need to make a few adjustments in your schedule and study habits to succeed” or, for those with the lowest scores, “distance learning may not currently be the best alternative for you; talk to your counselor.” Hard advice, yet very helpful to all involved if we’re looking for long-term results.

A final link, from the top of the page, leads readers to a page where the questionnaire, the scoring guidelines, and an explanation of the results are all available, and this is where the real learning and reflection opportunities are for prospective learners. Among the explanations and the tips offered are that “Distance Learning courses give students greater freedom of scheduling, but they can require more self-discipline than on-campus classes,” and “Distance Learning requires at least as much time as on-campus courses. Students surveyed say that Distance Learning courses are as hard or harder than on campus courses.”

If forewarned is truly forearmed, De Anza College staff and instructors are doing a great job of preparing everyone for learning successes, and there’s a lot all of us can learn from their example as we carve out time for our own reflective moments.


Transformative and Reflective Life-long Learning (Part 2 of 3)

January 27, 2010

Bamboo Project blogger Michele Martin’s recent lament about how little time we provide for reflection in the learning process was far from the entire story for her. In talking with Maurice Coleman in the T is for Training interview he did with her, she also returned to a theme she has often written about: the need for learners to take personal responsibility for their own continuing education and creating their own personal learning environments—or, as Stephanie Zimmerman writes in an ALA Learning post, engaging in “feral learning.”

Those who rely on their employers to direct their training-learning opportunities are, Martin maintains, missing one of the most important lessons of all: “We need to take control of our own learning…When the company is in charge of your learning, then you are always learning what they want you to learn…We need to say, ‘What is it that I want to learn? How do I want to develop?’…The people who left it up to companies: at the end of the day, they were obsolete.”

This is far from a theoretical proposal, as Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt suggest in Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom: “The traditional educational model, based primarily on the concept of the school and the teacher in a classroom as islands, standing alone and not interconnected with society or other educational institutions, will not generate competence in a knowledge society” (p. 166).

Workplace learning and performance professionals who serve as leaders within their organizations assure me that they are as eager to provide and facilitate learning experiences as they are to encourage the development of the sort of communities of learning which grow when we direct our own continuing education.

Martin as well as Palloff and Pratt see tremendous opportunities through effective online learning and the use of Web 2.0 (online social networking) tools: “Not only are we helping to shape the creation of empowered, lifelong learners, our participation as equal members of a group of learners supports us in our own quest for lifelong learning,” Palloff and Pratt write (p. 168).

Another element of this process, they note, is that we don’t frequently enough ask whether learners are adequately prepared for or ready to engage in online learning and take advantage of the opportunities which exist for transformative and reflective life-long learning. That doesn’t mean we can’t help them along on their individual paths toward this level of creating personal learning environments and exploring feral learning; De Anza College Distance Learning Center staff actually provide a great example for all of us through the “Distance Learning Questionnaire” they adopted many years ago from the PBS-Adult Learning Service (p. 154) before it ceased operating in 2005.

It’s clear that none of this is particularly new. It’s also clear that it’s an important element of training-teaching-learning which is far from universal. If we embrace the opportunities provided through creating personal learning environments and exploring feral learning, we move one step closer to teaching by example and producing the sort of results which all too rarely are documented within the organizations we serve.

Next: Reflective Preparation—The De Anza College Questionnaire


Transformative and Reflective Life-long Learning (Part 1 of 3)

January 25, 2010

Listening to Maurice Coleman’s T is for Training interview with Bamboo Project blogger Michele Martin about learning, Web 2.0 (online social networking), and a variety of other topics, I was struck by a passing reference she makes to the need for reflection in learning: “One of the things that I find from a learning perspective that is often missing is the whole notion of reflection. We’re just not really great with reflection…and social media, to some extent, can support it…”

What’s notable is not that someone is lamenting the lack of reflection in contemporary learning, but that so many of us recognize and comment on it yet somehow don’t seem able to foster it to a large degree in workplace learning and performance programs.

It’s not as if we’re unaware or it or even unsure as to how to proceed. Those of us familiar with Fort Hill Company’s efforts to create comprehensive leadership training opportunities which draw managers/supervisors and learners together before as well as after learning events take place know that there are great models to be followed and adapted. The Fort Hill Company model is also well documented in Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock, Andrew Jefferson, and Richard Flanagan’s book The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results; a follow-up manual (Getting Your Money’s Worth from Training & Development) written by Jefferson, Pollock, and Wick is designed to help managers/supervisors and learners better apply what is offered through face-to-face or online learning opportunities.

But the moments of what Jack Mezirow calls “transformative learning” and “critical reflection” seem few and far between in most programs we see and oversee today. Learners often have to fight to obtain release time from work—the very idea that learning is somehow disconnected from or not an integral part of work hints at how deep-rooted a problem we face here—and then often return to worksites where what they learned is not accepted, nourished, or supported. Worse yet, the time to even practice what is learned is seen as a luxury rather than an essential element of the learning process.

As Martin says in different words in her T is for Training interview, one benefit of online learning is that course participants can “engage with and reflect on the course content,” Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt note in Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom (p. 129)—a book which is as fresh and timely as when it was published more than a decade ago. (An updated version was published in 2007.)  The process of making reflection a part of learning, they add, “is a vibrant, dynamic process that is typically not completed when a course ends…the first experience with this process creates a hunger for more and sets the stage for participants to become lifelong, reflective learners” (p. 130).

It all becomes personal—as learning should be—and transformative when we immerse ourselves in a combination of face-to-face and online learning experiences, as I did over the past couple of years. Regardless of whether the courses were online or onsite, the best were the ones that left me hungry for more. Made me continue reading and thinking about books like Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations and Lon Safko and David Brake’s The Social Media Bible: Tactics, Tools, and Strategies for Business Success long after the courses and projects requiring them had ended. And make me appreciative that trainer-teacher-learners like Martin, Palloff, Pratt, and the others mentioned in this article are still among us to remind us what we can accomplish when we are reflective.

Next: Personal Learning Environments and Feral Learning


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