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

20 December 2012


Clark @ 8:27 am

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk and excitement about unlearning, and it’s always rubbed me the wrong way.  Because, frankly, unlearning physiologically isn’t really an option.  So I thought I’d talk about the cognitive processes, and then look at what folks are talking about.

Learning has been cutely characterized as “neurons that fire together, wire together”.  And that’s really it: learning is about strengthening associations between patterns (which is why you can only learn so much at one time and then need to sleep, that strengthening effect only takes so much at one shot).  We start with conscious effort and compile it down below conscious level.

However, you can’t really weaken those associations!  So, you simply can’t unlearn.  What really happens, as Dr. Jane Bozarth suggests, is: “overwriting existing knowledge or skill, or just pushing it to the background to accommodate something new, or rewiring pathways”.  And points out that it’s hard work.

In short, unlearning is really relearning.  And it’s harder because you need to overcome prior experience, strengthen the associations of the new beyond the existing strength of the old.  And it’s important that, if things have changed, or previous experience or instinct will lead you elsewhere, you need to make sure that you’ve now got learners making the decisions in the effective ways. Which may mean modifying, not necessarily just replacing, but it does take conscious effort in analysis and design, diagnosing misconceptions, figuring appropriate levels of practice, etc.

So why this excitement about unlearning?  It appears people are having fun with words.  They’re using the phrase to mean something else.  Take, for instance, this definition:

“Unlearning is not exactly letting go of our knowledge or perceptions, but rather stepping outside our perceptions to stand apart from our world views and open up new lenses to interpret and learn about the world.” – Erica Dhawan

Um, okay.   The same article quotes Prasad Kaipa as saying “we generate anew rather than reformulate the same old stuff”.  So, it’s about a different perspective. That’s valuable.  Why call it unlearning then?  It could be a step to unlearning, looking afresh and seeing new opportunities for different ways of doing things, but it’s not really unlearning.

So I see no reason to mislead people. Learning is rewarding, and touting things as unlearning make it seem as straightforward as learning, but relearning a new way is harder.  The use of the term seems to minimize the effort required. And using the term to mean something else seems misleading.  If you want to talk about shifting perspectives, do so!

What am I missing?  Until I find a better explanation than what I’ve found, I’m calling out the term.  Genially, of course.

10 December 2012

Compounding Intelligence

Clark @ 5:50 am

It is increasingly evident that as we unpack how we get the best results from thinking, we don’t do it alone.  Moreover, the elements that contribute emphasize diversity.  Two synergistic events highlight this.

First, my colleague Harold Jarche has an interesting post riffing off of Stephen Johnson’s new book, Future Perfect.  In looking at patterns that promote more effective decision making, an experiment is cited. In that study, a diverse group of lower intelligence produces better outputs than a group of relatively homogenous smart folks.  They quote Scott Page, saying “Diversity trumps ability”.  Hear hear.

This resonated particularly in light of an article I discovered last week that talked about Tom Malone’s work on looking at what he calls “collective intelligence“.  In it, Tom says “Our future as a species may depend on our ability to use our global collective intelligence to make choices that are not just smart, but also wise.”  I couldn’t agree more, and am very interested in the wisdom part.  Of interest in the article is a series of studies he did looking at what led to better outputs from groups, and they debunked a number of obvious factors including the above issue of intelligence. Two compelling features were the social perceptiveness of the group, e.g. how well they tuned in to what other members of the group thought, and how even the turn-taking was.  The more everyone had an equal chance to talk (instead of a one-sided conversation), and the more socially aware the group, the better the output.  Interestingly, which he correlated to the socially aware, was that the more women the better!

The point being that learning social skills, using good meeting processes, and emphasizing diversity, all actions similar to those needed for effective learning organizations, lead to better decision making. If you want good decisions, you need to break down hierarchies, open up the conversation channels, and listen.  We have good science about practices that lead to effective outcomes for organizations.  Are you practicing them?

7 December 2012

The Future of Mobile?

Clark @ 5:59 am

In the webinar I did the day before yesterday, one of the questions I was asked was what I thought the future of mobile would be.  My first response was that mobile wasn’t going away, and that we’d see more converged devices.  I also opined that five years ago I couldn’t have predicted where we are now, and consequently it might be hard to think that far forward.  There was also a question of whether I thought the laptop was dead, and I kind of did.

Since then, however, I had a few moments in the middle of the night when I should’ve been sleeping, and I pondered this a bit more.  Let me answer in greater depth, thinking through hardware, software, and context.

One of the questions was wearables.  I frankly don’t know whether we’ll want them just on our sleeve (though it might be a nice fashion accessory), or still pulled from a pocket.  I think we’ll have the opportunity to have either. What will really be important, however, is having that visual display whether tangible in the world, or projected via a headsup display.  We’ll also have audio, both to listen to, and to communicate with. We’ll still likely couple that with gesture, whether on a screen or detected via gestures.  The important thing is that we’ll be interacting with our normal tools for acting on the world.  I think we may still need keyboards from time to time, as text is still a relatively rich communication channel with low bandwidth requirements.  Whether we can have virtual keyboards is still an open question, I think.

I do think the devices will continue to have richer sensors: in addition to accelerometers, compasses, GPS, microphones and cameras they’ll also have barometers, thermometers, and more.  They’ll be able to tap into these to do ever more clever context-sensing and reacting. And I think they’ll be in a variety of form factors, some choosing pocketable, some choosing to tradeoff mobility for screen real estate.  Some will choose to have one multipurpose, perhaps, others likely will have several. They’ll synch seamlessly, so that it doesn’t matter what device we have when we’re looking for answers. And there will still be a role for the very large screen, with lots of real estate, when we’re tapping into our powerful pattern matching capabilities.

I think that it’s strongly possible that more of the computational capability will be served from the cloud, instead of locally, though I think the local capabilities will continue to increase as well.  I fully hope that they will be able to do intelligent and context-sensitive things.  My ideal is sort of a continual mentor, developing me over time and scaffolding behavior. This is probably wildly optimistic, though I’ve been asking for it for near to a decade, and we’re beginning to see elements thereof.

The interfaces may well simplify.  With rich communication possibilities, distributed across gesture and voice, the necessary screen representations may be minimized.  Still, as was recently pointed out to me, the current space is relatively mature and only a revolutionary technology shift would have a change. Can we anticipate that?  Likely, but not likely to hit the market within that 3-5 year timeframe.  And I’m willing to be wrong on that.

Regardless of technology, I can safely predict that most people will have some portable digital companion with them that they use to make themselves smarter in the moment, much as we do now. But I’m hoping that we’ll also be able to be using it to make us smarter over time, maybe even wiser.  That, to me, is the real vision of the future.

3 December 2012

Vale David Jonassen

Clark @ 10:21 am

David Jonassen passed away on Sunday.  He had not only a big impact on the field of computers for learning, but also on learning itself.  And he was a truly nice person.

I had early on been a fan of his work, his writing on computers as cognitive tools was insightful. He resisted the notion of teaching computing, and instead saw computers as mind tools, enablers of thinking.  He was widely and rightly regarded as an influential innovator for this work.

I also regularly lauded his work on problem-solving. The one notion that really resonated was that the problems we give to kids in schools (and too often to adults in training) bear little resemblance to the problems they’ll face outside. He did deep work on problem-solving that more should pay attention to.  He demonstrated that you could get almost as good a performance on standard tests using meaningful problems, and you got much better results on problem-solving skills (21st century skills) as well.  I continue to apply his principles in my learning design strategies.

I had the opportunity to meet him face to face at a conference on learning in organizations.  While I was rapt in his presentation, somehow it didn’t work for the audience as a whole, a shame. Still, I had the opportunity to finally talk to him, and it was a real pleasure. He was humble, thoughtful, and really willing to engage.  I subsequently shared a stage with him when he presented virtually to a conference I was at live, and was thrilled to have him mention he was using my game design book in one of his classes.

He contributed greatly to my understanding, and to the field as a whole.  He will be missed.

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