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

31 August 2006

Constructivism vs Criticism

Clark @ 9:20 PM

Bobbi Kamil, the “blushing bride” of my colleague John Ittelson (and demonstrably successful as the founder of Cable in the Classroom), is a strong believer in constructivism, and so (at least philosophically) am I. So, in teaching a summer course in Learning Theory courtesy of Professor Ittelson, I designed a rich sequence of assignments to accompany each developing chapter.

Owing to cognitive theory and wanting them to elaborate the concepts for themselves, practice elaborating them conceptually, and apply the principles, I had them write a journal, answer a discussion question, and work in groups to address a question (typically framed as an RFP), respectively. I felt strongly that this was an appropriate set of activities.

For reasons that I won’t go into here, I was prevented from doing more than provide feedback on the group assignments during the semester. Naturally, I was somewhat leery of what the outcomes were going to be (to put it mildly).

I can’t really comment on the personal journals (yet), but the group assignments led to some very insightful outcomes. Moreover, and here’s the big lesson: the responses to the discussion questions (in a bulletin board, with a requirement for commenting on someone else’s response), were quite simply awesome. The developing understanding was with few exceptions as good or better than I could have provided.
Then came Kisrshner, Sweller, & Clark’s robust (NB: a PDF) denunciation of Constructivism. The point they make (and it’s not original, but nicely documented) is that you can’t trust learners to self-direct, and you need to provide guidance. In some what’s it’s reminiscent of the furor Reder, Anderson, & Simon caused in their reaction to situated cognition and constructivism. And, I note, that KSC do admit that the older the student, the more you should expect self-determination.

I qualify that by saying that we can’t *expect* self-learning capability, we should develop it. On the other hand, this was a Master’s program. I’m mindful that Bobbi’s advice was to ‘have faith’. And while I had hoped to provide more personal feedback, the outcomes indeed showed that the learners could come to grips (by and large) with the challenges and ambiguities, and successfully grasp the concepts.

So, do ensure you match the guidance to the learner, but do have faith and take a chance on empowering learners to take ownership of their learning and wrestle with (an appropriate level of) ambiguity. They may not enjoy it, but the learning outcomes are the proof.

30 August 2006

What you should learn

Clark @ 3:31 PM

There’s some interesting lists going around about what you should learn. Stephen Downes has created a list (in reply to Guy Kawasaki’s list), and not surprisingly it’s really good. I was interested in how it compared to the list I created for my ‘learning wisdom‘ talk back in November. Stephen’s is more personal (ie what a learner should take ownership of), where mine was more curricular, but there are enough similarities to see why I resonated with it.

Here then, are his 10 items and their relation to the list I created:

  1. How to predict consequences – this is my ‘systems thinking’, the ability to use models to make predictions and explanations. I add in the ability to build models (even if just qualitatively), as I think it’s an important skill going forward.
  2. How to read – I didn’t have this explicitly, but he means it as more than literacy, and I lump it under ‘critical thinking’.
  3. How to distinguish between truth and fiction – this, too, fits under ‘critical thinking’ in my list.
  4. How to empathize – this would fit under my category of ‘stewardship’, a feeling of responsibility for others, but also the other denizens of our planet and the planet itself.
  5. How to be creative – I have this under ‘design’.
  6. How to communicate clearly – and I have this under communication.
  7. How to learn – I have ‘meta-learning’.
  8. How to stay healthy – this is one place where we begin to differ, I didn’t have this explicitly, and it’s a good element.
  9. How to value yourself – I think this is a good one as well. I don’t have it.
  10. How to live meaningfully – Again, one I didn’t have explicitly, I’d argue (not strongly, however) that it could fall out my element of ethics.

So, my list had 5 major categories with two elements each: I had problem-solving including research and design, systems-thinking with model-based reasoning and modeling, working with others covering leadership as well as communication, learning as an umbrella for critical thinking and meta-learning, and values covering both ethics and stewardship.

I could quibble about leadership, research, and ethics, and Stephen could quibble about health, valuing yourself, and living meaningfully, but I think both lists provide some good ideas sorely missing from our current schooling. Like David Jonassen says, the problems our kids learn to solve in schools have essentially no relation to what they have to solve in life.

27 August 2006

Measuring interfaces

Clark @ 4:16 PM

In a recent Gamasutra article, Phillip Goetz analyzes strategy-based game interfaces. This wouldn’t be of interest normally, but the approach he takes, talking about metrics of number of steps to accomplish player goals is.

Goetz is talking about how you have to give orders to every ‘unit’ (a game element such as a factory or a squad), but in real life as you have greater responsibility you get greater authority and delegate on the one hand, and you have templates of behavior you can request. The point being, that our goals shift and we look for ways to automate tasks we’ve mastered and have to perform a lot.

The take home I want to suggest is that analyzing tasks and minimizing the steps to accomplish the users goals has been elegantly discussed in Don Norman’s 7 Stages of Action model (from his Design of Everyday Things), and this application is an excellent case study. He also talks about tools to measure things like learner actions so you can map what the user is trying to do to the number of steps to accomplish this.

There’s more (and it gets into the weeds a bit about objects), but this is a great start. Usability is part of learning game design (and learning technology in general), and good examples are one of the great ways to get a handle on it.

22 August 2006

School Daze and Teachers & Teaching

Clark @ 8:45 AM

A few thoughts on the first day of school…

My daughter, 6, told me on Saturday that she didn’t want to start school. Having to get up and get dressed on time, and back to homework, etc. Yesterday, she told me she was excited about starting school again. The difference? She found out that she has the same teacher her brother had two years ago, a young, enthusiastic, nice teacher. Here’s to all those who teach with passion and skill!

I was talking with my students, and one opined that there were a lot of “junk teachers”. I don’t really believe that; while there probably are a few who are just looking for a sinecure (I’ve known some :), I think that there are a number of other explanations why all our teachers aren’t passionate and skilled. It’s not a highly valued profession, despite the fact that I can think of few others who have a greater influence on our future. The government puts them under ridiculous pressure to have students pass tests, despite the evidence that that doesn’t lead to useful skills. There aren’t enough of them with skills (I’ve met so many ex-teachers), their administrative support is idiosyncratic at best, they’re under-resourced, the list goes on.

And there’s a societal component as well. Sayings like “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach”, and our unfortunate tendency to belittle smarts (and lionize those who succeed financially, despite potentially suspect methods), both are at odds with teachers being successful. I’d like to suggest that any society that values lawyers more than teachers has it’s priorities wrong. Not that I have anything against lawyers (despite jokes to the contrary), but I think the eastern veneration of scholars and teachers has much to be commended. The reason I’m in learning is I think it’s the most likely way to address societal ills.

I remember a post-doc who’s wife was doing a sociology PhD. It turns out that doctors re-engineered their status in society around the 1920s, creating their medical school process (still used, with many negatives in terms of learning outcomes) and changing their public perception from ‘sawbones’ and ‘quacks’ to their almost un-questioned authority through most of the subsequent years. Her thesis was that teachers should do something similar. I’m all for it, frankly, or any other way we can get societal support back behind effective teaching and learning, not as advanced baby-sitting and rote learning. Ideas?

17 August 2006

The Clueless Train

Clark @ 1:59 PM

I received an email from someone I don’t know this morning who said “I am a fellow blogger in the training and e-learning industry. I thought you would be interested in sharing with your readers…” and proceeded to tell me about a new intiative. The concept wasn’t bad, albeit old, but she somehow forgot to mention that she was married to the co-founder of the thing. In essence it’s a listserv that they have the cheek to want to charge for membership. Heck, you can do the same thing for free in Yahoo groups or any number of places! For example, ITFORUM has been happily running very good listserve on instructional technology for years, and it’s free.

I can’t imagine how this person thought this was a viable approach, essentially insulting the intelligence of the intended audience. The point of the Cluetrain Manifesto was that with the internet, information could be shared more quickly, and credibility would be everything because you’d be found out too quickly otherwise. Well, this person, and this initiative, violate that constraint.

I get grumpy at anyone who sends me those junk letters about so-and-so’s dying wish and hasn’t bothered to check it out with Snopes (the urban legend site) first. Guess this person figured I wouldn’t bother connecting the dots. However, when you’ve been on the internet as long as I have (I did my first elearning project in 1979, back when it was ARPANET), you get skeptical.  My advice, be skeptical, check things out, and beware hype. And if you’re looking for publicity, add value, don’t blow smoke.  Caveat emptor!

16 August 2006

‘Game’ online

Clark @ 12:22 PM

CO2FX is a ‘game’ about national policies and the carbon dioxide effects. You have responsibility for the science, economic and policy decisions for a national government. It’s very playable, although figuring your way through the interface takes a lot of exploration and experimentation.

The assessment that it’s a game is somewhat problematic; I claim that the designer can’t claim it’s a game, only players can determine whether it is (it’s a subjective assessment). Using my terminology, it’s a scenario (a simulation is just a model; it’s a scenario when you wrap an initial state and a goal state, possiblly with a story; it’s a game when you tune the experience to engagement).

The experience is certainly challenging, and there’s novelty in that what you do doesn’t seem to have the effect you inferred from the feedback, but the overall drama felt lacking; I didn’t feel quite the sense of urgency or outcomes; e.g. my popularity seemed to be waning, even though there was great economic growth, but I didn’t hear rumbles of dissent or have to weather bad press.

It’s a great example of what can, and should, be done, but it doesn’t stand on it’s own (it’d benefit from some ‘wrapping’ around the goals, to scaffold the learning, and to support post-hoc reflection).  Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s great educational value, but I think the claim of it being a game is a wee bit premature.

14 August 2006

Walking and Talking as Problem-solving

Clark @ 3:02 PM

Well, it’s been a while, but I was completely off the grid week before last (last week was catching up) as I went with four buddies into the wilds of Yosemite with our lives on our backs. Tents, stoves, clothes, food, even water filters, about 50 pounds to be totally independent for 7 days.

It’s a time to reflect on what’s important, to get back in tune with nature’s rhythms, and time to talk. One of the most interesting learnings is something that I recall from past trips. One of the guys had a business goal he was trying to achieve, and the quality of the discussion while you’re hiking from a meadow up to a high Sierra pass is truly impressive. We covered many options, alternatives, brought up barriers and opportunities, and helped him refine his thinking.

The trip has always been organized by one guy (this was the 20th anniversary trip, though it was only my fourth year), who invites his board member and holds his board meeting during the hike!

I think that when there’s a passion to get something done, setting the circumstances up to take the time to workshop the idea is one of the best steps you can do. And being out in nature is one of the best stimulators of appropriate mind-sets.

Which is, in some sense, obvious, yet too often we don’t allow brainstorming, working together, and making the environment safe and comfortable enough to allow thoughts to pop up even if they’re bad. We know this is good for innovation, yet we too often create an environment with too much pressure, too much competitiveness. This was one of the topics that came out in the Creating A Learning Culture conference, and is reflected in the book. It’s also part of what Creative Mastery does with their clients.

Make sure you apply an atmosphere and context that matches your goals. And get out in nature, both for the pragmatic boon and the spiritual restorative. Remember, we need wildness on our planet!

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