Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

31 August 2016

Collaborating when it matters

Clark @ 8:09 am

A dear friend and colleague just wrote about his recent (and urgent) chemo and surgery.  I won’t bore you with the details (the odds are you don’t know him), but one thing stuck with me that I do want to share.

As context, he discovered he had a rare and aggressive cancer, and this  ventured into the unknown, with a sense of urgency.   He fortunately had access to arguably the world’s best resources on this, but the ‘rare’ bit means that there wasn’t a lot of data:

“The treatment options were unclear because they didn’t have enough real data to know what was most likely to work..I didn’t know that the lack of data was so profound that intuition and personal experience, not data, would play a central role in the decisions.”

Collaboration was critical.  There were two different domains in play, and they had to work and play well together. An oncologist and a specialist in the location were required to determine a course of action:

“If you’re ever in a situation like this, having world-class experts is so critical! I could see the mental wheels turning, the quick parlay back and forth between the experts, leading to the suggestion…”

And, interestingly, his voice was an important one:

“Amazing how much the decision seemed to also rest with me, not just with the experts.”

They knew they didn’t know, and they wanted to understand his preferences.  He had a voice, instead of being told what to do. If you don’t know, look for preferences.

This is what decision-making looks like when it matters and it’s new: open collaboration. This also reminds me of Jane Bozarth’s story about her husband’s situation, where again expertise and preparation matter.  The details are not trivial, they’re critical.

And these situations are increasing. Whether life-threatening or not, and even with the power of data, we’re going to be facing increasingly challenging decisions.  We need to learn when and how to collaborate.  One person following a script (which should be automated) is increasingly less likely to be the answer. An individual equipped with models, and resources including others, is going to be the minimal necessary solution.

30 August 2016

‘Cooking up’ some learning

Clark @ 7:59 am

So, I like to cook (not bake, but cook). And possibly the first thing I ever really mastered was enchiladas.   I’d put a chunk of beef in the crockpot, with a can of enchilada sauce and half-to-most of a beer.  (I experimented with making my own sauce for a while, but ultimately the differences weren’t worth it.) After cooking all day, I’d fish the beef out and shred it, grate a bunch of cheese, chop an onion (something my Mom always did), and roll ’em. With some extra across the top.

One of the secrets of my confidence in cooking probably started here.  I never had learned that I couldn’t cook, and some early successes kept me going.  I’ve subsequently had some fairly big disasters, but I’ve got my repertoire down.  And again, while not claiming to be authentic it was considered pretty tasty ;).

Enchilada ingredientsOne of the ongoing barriers, however, was the rolling. Really, you want to dip the tortillas in the sauce before you roll them. Diana Kennedy (early source for Comida Mexicana) says you’re supposed to dip them in sauce and then in hot oil, but it’s too messy and even more work. It really slows things down. The question was, is it necessary?   Diana Kennedy had also talked about some versions used stacked tortillas, and I finally decided to try it out.  I made a batch where I placed the tortillas as a layer, then layered the other ingredients (onions, meet, cheese, and napping with some of the sauce).  (Put some sauce in the bottom to keep the tortillas from sticking.) I broke up the tortillas in a way that made it easy to cover. The kids complained about them not being rolled, but I loved how much faster and easier it was. And they tasted just fine. I was sold.

Fast forward a couple more times, and I realized that I had four tortillas per layer (see how they’re broken up to maximize coverage and minimize overlap), and I happened to have 30+ tortillas (fortunately 32+ as it turned out), resulting in eight layers. I also realized that I could mark out how much of the ingredients for each layer (divide in half, and again, and…).  (You see in the picture I’ve made 3 layers and have just put down the tortillas for a fourth, which I finished before switching to another pan for the remaining 4 layers.) This was important, because one of the earlier problems was getting the right amount of filling into each roll so as to come out with everything used up at the same time! (You can call it enchilada casserole if you want, but I call it dinner!)

I’ve also adapted it, using pork and green enchilada sauce (you could use chicken too). And for quite a while I’d forgotten the beef and just made cheese enchiladas (then you just warm the sauce in a pan), until I was reminded by a previous happy customer!

And the punchline: meta-learning. Experimentation, observation, reflection, and evaluation.  Putting on some music while doing this, and no one else in the kitchen, was what allowed the numerical computation to percolate in the background and sparked the realization.  Even in the well-practiced, there’s space for innovation, as long as there remains curiosity, a safe space and willingness to try (and fail), and time to ponder.  We can create the environment to do so, and increase the likelihood of continual innovation. And we increasingly need that. So here’s to good eating, and good thinking.  Your thoughts?

24 August 2016

Trying out videos

Clark @ 8:06 am

DevLearn, the elearning conference I’ll be attending in November, has suggested adding videos to promote your talks.  I haven’t done much with video (though I did just do this <6 minute one about my proposed learning pedagogy), but I’ve found the ‘narrated presentation’ capability built into Keynote to be of interest, so I’ve been playing with it.  And I thought I’d share.

First, I created this one to promote my talk on eLearning Myths. It’s a fun session with a MythSmasher format (e.g. the possible myth, the appeal, the damage, the method, the results, and what you can do instead if it’s busted) . It’s important, because if you’re supporting the wrong myths you can be wasting money and vulnerable to flawed promotions. Here’s the pitch:

Then, I’m also running an elearning strategy workshop, that’s basically the Revolution roadmap.  In it, we work through the elements of the Performance Ecosystem and not only make the case for, but workshop a personalized roadmap for your organization.  As things move forward, there’s an opportunity for L&D to lead the charge to the adaptive organization!

I welcome hearing your feedback on content or presentation, and of course invite you to attend either or both!

23 August 2016


Clark @ 8:10 am

I recently wrote about serious comics, and realized there’s a form I hadn’t addressed yet has some valuable insights. The value in looking at other approaches is that it provides lateral insight (I’m currently reading Stephen Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From) that we may be able to transfer.  And the source this time is editorial cartoons.

Editorial cartoons use imagery and text to convey a comment on a current topic.  The best ones portray a poignant insight into an issue of the day, via a twist that emphasizes the point to be made.  They’re usually combined with a distinct visual style from each artist.  They reflect some of the same thoughts that accompany internet memes (the captioned photos) but require more visual talent ;).

The common approach appears to be (and I welcome insight from others) the ability to use another context to exaggerate some viewpoint. It’s a bit metaphorical, but I think the trick is to abstract the structure from the situation to be illuminated, and to map it to another situation that highlights the relationships.  So you could take some recent pop star spat and map it to a political one, or highlight an economic policy as a personal one.

As context, I happened to stumble upon an exhibition of Conrad‘s work in my college art gallery, and as he was the local cartoonist for my home newspaper (The LA Times), I recognized his work.  I had the chance to explore in more detail his award-winning efforts. Agree or disagree, he made powerful comments and I admired his ability.

Now, editorial cartooning is very context-sensitive, in that what is being talked about is very much ‘of the day’. What’s being commented on may not be relevant at a later time, particularly if they conjoin a popular culture event with an issue as they often do.  But the insight, looking for the twist and the way to make the point, is a valuable skill that has a role in learning design too.

In learning design, we want to make the content meaningful.  There’s intrinsic interest in pretty much everything, but it may be hard to find (see: working with SMEs), and also hard to convey.  Yet I believe comics are one way to do this.  You can, for instance, humorously exaggerate the consequences of not having the knowledge.  I’ve done that with content where we introduced each section of a course with a comic (very much like an editorial cartoon) highlighting the topic and necessity.

The point being that we can not only benefit from understanding other media, but we can appropriate their approaches as well. Our learning designs needs to be eclectic to be engaging and effective.  Or, to put it another way, there are lots of ways to get the design implemented, once you have the design right.

17 August 2016

Meaningful and meta

Clark @ 8:11 am

Over the weekend, one of my colleagues posted a rant about MOOCs and critical thinking. And, largely, I think he was right.  There’re several things we need, and MOOCs as they typically are constituted, aren’t going to deliver.  As I talked about yesterday, I think we need a more refined pedagogy.

So the things we need, to me, are two things:

  1. meaningful learning, whereby we have individuals learning skills that are applicable in their lives, and
  2. meta-learning, or learning to learn, so that people can continue to develop their skills in the face of increasing change.

And I don’t think the typical ‘text on screen with a quiz’ that he was ranting about is going to do it. Even with hand-shot videos.  (Though I disagree when he doesn’t like the word ‘engage’, as I obviously believe that we need engagement, but of both heart and mind, not just tarted up quizzes.)  He wanted critical thinking skills, and I agree.

Hence the activity framework. Yes, it depends on your design skills, but when done right, focusing on having learners create products that resemble the outputs that they’ll need to generate in their lives (and this is strongly influenced by the story-centered curriculum/goal-based scenario work of Roger Schank) is fundamentally invoking the skills they need. And having them show the thinking behind it developing their ‘work out loud’ (“show your work”) skills that ideally will carry over.

Ideally, of course, they’re engaging with other learners, commenting on their thinking (so they internalize critiquing as part of their own self-improvement skill set) and even collaborating (as they’ll have to).  And of course there are instructors involved to evaluate those critical skills.

As an aside, that’s why I have problems with AI. It’s not yet advanced enough yet, as far as I know, to practically be able to evaluate the underlying thinking and determine the best intervention.  It may be great when we are there, but for now in this environment, people are better.

The other component is, of course, gradually handing off control of the learning design responsibility to the learners. They should start choosing what product, what reflection, what content, and ultimately what activity.  This is part of developing their ability to take control of their learning as they go forward.  And this means that we’ll have to be scrutable in our learning design, so they can look back, see how we’re choosing to design learning, so they can internalize that meta-level as well.

And we can largely use MOOC technologies (though we need to have sufficient mentors around, which has been a challenge with the ‘Massive’ part).  The point though, is that we need curriculum design that focuses on meaningful skills, and then a pedagogical design that develops them and the associated learning skills.  That’s what I think we should be trying to achieve.  What am I missing?

16 August 2016

Activity-Based Learning Walkthrough

Clark @ 8:06 am

I spoke to my activity-based learning model as part of a larger presentation, and someone suggested that it really helped to be walked through it. So this was on my ‘to do’ queue.  And, finally, I created a walkthrough; here you go (about 5 and a half minutes).

I should note that I don’t view this as all that novel; most of these ideas have appeared elsewhere in some form of another.  The contribution, I feel, is twofold:

  1. representing curriculum in a way that makes it hard to think of ‘info dump and knowledge test’ as a learning experience
  2. including explicit ways to develop thinking and learning skills

And it’s very much dependent on the quality of the choice of components: activity, product, reflection, etc.

As I close in the presentation, I welcome your thoughts and comments.

12 August 2016

Dave Gray Liminal Thinking Mindmap

Clark @ 8:05 am

I was fortunate to have a chance to hear Dave Gray (author of Connected Company) speak on his forthcoming book, Liminal Thinking. Interestingly inspired by his investigation of agile, it end up being about how to break through your barriers. He shared personal stories to make a compelling case that we can transcend our established approaches and make the changes we need.

10 August 2016

Learning Through the Wild

Clark @ 8:04 am

So last week I was in the wilderness for some more time, this time with family.  And there were several learnings as an outcome that are worth sharing.

VogelsangLakeAs context, Yosemite National Park is one of the world’s truly beautiful places, with the valley as an accessible way to see the glacier-carved rock. Beyond the valley, however, there is backcountry (mountains, rivers, lakes) that is only accessible by backpack, and I’ve done plenty of that. And then there’s one other option: the High Sierra Camps. There you can stay in tent cabins, eating prepared meals, but you can only get to them by horse or by hiking. (You can also get just meals, and carry in your tents and bags and all, which is what we did.) What this does is get you to a subset (a spectacular subset) of the high country, a chance to experience real wilderness without having to be able to carry a backpack.

Also as context, I am a fervent believer in the value of wildness.  As I expressed before, there’s the creativity aspect that comes from spending time in the wilderness. You can reflect on your regular world when you’re no longer tied to it.  As you hike or ride along the trails, your mind can wander and process in the background. There are also mental health benefits to be found in escaping from the everyday clatter. (This is very necessary for me! :) And, importantly, the processes in nature provide a counter-balance to the artificial processes we put in place to breed plants and animals. The variation generated in the wild is a complement to our own approaches, just as computers are a complement to our brains. Consequently, I believe we need to preserve some of our natural spaces.

So, one of the learning outcomes is being able to experience the wilderness without having to be physically capable of carrying everything you need on your back.  I reckon that if you can experience the wildness, you can appreciate it, and then can become a supporter.  Thus, just the existence of these alternate paths (between cars and backpacking) means to me a higher likelihood of preserving the environment.

Similarly, there are rangers who visit these camps, and provide after-dinner campfire talks.  They talk at dinner, talking about what they will be covering, but also advocating for the value of the programs and the wilderness. Similarly, the staff at the camps also do a good job of advocating for the wilderness (as they would), and there are guidebooks available for perusal to learn more, as well as information around the dining rooms (and great food!).

One of the larger learning lessons is that, once you’re in context, the interest is naturally sparked, and then you’re ripe for a message. Your curiosity gets stoked about why coyotes howl, once you hear them. Or you wonder about the geology, or the lifecycle of plants, or…you get the idea.  Creating artificial contexts is one of the tricks of learning (please, don’t keep it abstract, it doesn’t work), but layering it on in context is increasingly doable and more valuable.

Meaningful engagement in context is a valuable prerequisite for learning. The reason we can go to conferences and get value (contrary to the old “you can’t learn from a lecture”) is because we’re engaged in activity and conferences serve as reflection opportunities.  Sometimes you need to get away from the context to reflect, if the contextual pressures are too much, and sometimes the context naturally sparks reflection.  Making time for reflection is a component of a learning organization, and getting support in context or having time away from context both are parts. So my recommendation is to support wilderness, and get out in it!

3 August 2016

The probability of wasting money

Clark @ 8:04 am

Designing learning is a probability game.  To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, you can lead a learner to learning, but you can’t make them think.  What I mean is that the likelihood that the learning actually sticks is a result of a myriad of design decisions, and many elements contribute to that likelihood.  It will vary by learner, despite your endeavors, but you increase the probability that the desired outcome is achieved by following what’s know about how people learn.

This is the point of learning engineering, applying learning science to the design of learning experiences.  You need to align elements like:

  • determining learning objectives that will impact the desired outcome
  • designing sufficient contextualized practice
  • appropriately presenting a conceptual model that guides performance
  • providing a sufficient and elaborated suite of examples to  illustrate the concept in context
  • developing emotional engagement

and so on.

And to the extent that you’re not fully delivering on the nuances of these elements, you’re decreasing the likelihood of having any meaningful impact. It’s pretty simple:

If you don’t have the right objectives (e.g. if you just take an order for a course), what’s the likelihood that your learning will achieve anything?

If you don’t have sufficient practice, what’s the likelihood that the learning will still be there when needed?

If you have abstract practice, what’s the likelihood that your learners will transfer that practice to appropriate situations?

If you don’t guide performance with a model, what’s the likelihood that learners will be able to adapt their performance to different situations?

If you don’t provide examples, what’s the likelihood that learners will understand the full range of situations and appropriate adaptations for each?

And if you don’t emotionally engage them, what’s the likelihood that any of this will be appropriately processed?

Now, let’s tie that back to the dollars it costs you to develop this learning.  There’s the SME time, and the designer time, and development time, and the time of the learners away from their revenue-generating activity. At the end of the day, it’s a fair chunk of change.  And if you’re slipping in the details of any of this (and I’m just skating the surface, there’re nuances around all of these), you’re diminishing the value of your investment, potentially all the way to zero. In short, you could be throwing your money away!

This isn’t to make you throw up your hands and say “we can’t do all that”.  Most design processes have the potential to do the necessary job, but you have to comprehend the nuances, and ensure that the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed on development.  Just because  you have an authoring tool doesn’t mean what comes out is actually achieving anything.

However, it’s possible to tune up the design process to acknowledge the necessary details. When you provide support at just the right places, and put in place the subtle tweaks on things like working with SMEs, you can develop and deliver learning that has a high likelihood of having the desired impact, and therefore have a process that’s justifiable for the investment.

And that’s really the goal, isn’t it?  Being able to allocate resources to impact the business in meaningful ways is what we’re supposed to be doing. Too frequently we see the gaps continue (hence the call for Serious eLearning), and we can only do it if we’re acting like the professionals we need to be.   It’s time for a tuneup in organizational learning.  It’s not too onerous, and it’s needed.  So, are you ready?

2 August 2016

Being clear on collaboration

Clark @ 8:01 am

Twice recently, I’ve been confronted with systems that claim to be collaboration platforms. And I think distributed collaboration is one of the most powerful options we have for accelerating our innovation.  So in each case I did some investigation. Unfortunately, the claims didn’t hold up to scrutiny. And I think it’s important to understand why.

Now, true collaboration is powerful.  By collaboration in this sense I mean working together to create a shared representation. It can be a document, spreadsheet, visual, or more. It’s like a shared whiteboard, with technology support to facilitate things like editing, formatting, versioning, and more.  When we can jointly create our shared understanding, we’re developing a richer outcome that we could independently (or by emailing versions of the document around).

However, what was on offer wasn’t this capability.  It’s not new, it’s been the basis of wikis (e.g. Google Docs), but it’s central.  Anything else is, well, something else.  You can write documents, or adjust tables and formulas, or edit diagrams together.  Several people can be making changes in different places at the same time, or annotating their thoughts, and it’s even possible to have voice communication while it’s happening (whether inherently or through additional tools). And it can happen asynchronously as well, with people adding, elaborating, editing whenever they have time, and the information evolves.

So one supported ‘collaborative conversations’.  Um, aren’t conversations inherently collaborative?  I  mean, it takes two people, right?  And while there may be knowledge negotiation, it’s not inherently captured, and in particular it may well be that folks take away different interpretations of what’s been said (I’m sure you’ve seen that happen!).  Without a shared representation, it’s still open to different interpretations (and, yes, we can disagree post-hoc about what a shared representation actually meant, but it’s much more difficult). That’s why we create representations like constitutions and policies and things.

The other one went a wee bit further, and supported annotating shared information. You could comment on it.  And this isn’t bad, but it’s not full collaboration.  Someone has to go away and process the comments.  It’s helpful, but not as much as jointly editing the information in the first place, as well as editing.

I’ve been a fan of wikis since I first heard about them, and think that they’ll be the basis for communities to continue to evolve, as well as being the basis for effective team work. In that sense, they’re core to the Coherent Organization, providing the infrastructure (along with communication and curating) to advance individual and organizational learning.

So, my point is to be clear on what capabilities you really need, so you can suitably evaluate claims about systems to support your actions.  I’ll suggest you want collaborative tools as well as communication tools.  What do you think?

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