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

30 March 2011

Pedagogical Cycle

Clark @ 6:31 AM

In a recent post, I was trying to communicate the benefits of social learning: the additional processing that occurs while negotiating a shared understanding. Interestingly, the diagram I designed to accompany the post and communicate the concept was not well received. C’est la vie.  As this was to be the representation on a slide talking about social learning, I was forced to come up with another way to communicate the concept.  Instead of focusing on exactly the same concept, I decided to take another tack.  The idea I’m communicating is how our model of learning has changed.

The first organized learning was really accomplished through apprenticeship: an individual would come to a task developing some artifact or performing some task, and would perform some minimal component in the context of the overall work.  As we developed more abstract concepts, we moved to a dialog, where individuals would express their understanding, and others would engage in a conversation until agreement (even to disagree) was reached.  Then, for efficiency reasons, we moved to a classroom model, where one individual would propose knowledge and the others would recite it.

The latter model has some problems, not least that the little learning would dissipate quickly, as it was typically knowledge focused and only applied in abstract ways.  Such learning situations can be well-done, but only to the extent that there are meaningful tasks and learners are supported in accomplishing those tasks.

In other words, we move back to the apprenticeship model.  Learning research has largely converged on a model that say we learn best when we are motivated and applying our knowledge to solve problems we realize are important, and are supported both with information resources and scaffolding, and reflection is guided around that performance.  My favorite model is Collins & Brown’s Cognitive Apprenticeship, influenced by anthropological work and abstracting across several great pieces of work to create an integrated approach that still seems relevant.

In short, we’re looking backwards to how we learned naturally and bypassing a learning approach that is driven more by industrial and agricultural constraints than cognitive and social ones.  We can certainly use technology to augment this approach, and we’re more aware of the nuances, but in taking a step back we’re taking a major step forward.  How about that!

25 March 2011

Thinking through performing and learning

Clark @ 5:54 AM

Again as preparation for our upcoming presentation (you can attend!), I was thinking about the skills necessary to cope in this new information age.  That includes not only the performance skills but also meta-learning, and I decided it was also time to take another stab at capturing the concept as a graphical representation.

Performance and meta-laerningHere, I start with the hermeneutic notion of how we act in the world and learn. We start with things well-practiced, but if we have a problem, a breakdown, we look for an answer.  Here we contact people to find an answer, or search for information. There are a suite of associated skills: information lookup, answer validation, filtering, etc.

If we can’t find the answer, we have to go into active problem-solving. Here we might also need people, but note that they’re different folks; there is no one with the answer (or we’d have found them before) and instead they might be collaborators, process facilitators, analysts, etc.  We might need data to look for patterns, or models to help us solve the problem. Again, there are a suite of related skills: leadership, representation and modeling, systematicity, sampling, etc.

If and when we find the answer, we should update the resources for other folks to not have to solve the problem separately.  Here we have additional skills: communication, change management, etc.

Then we get into meta-learning.  Here we are interested in how do we evaluate our own performance, look at what we’re doing and how we can get better at it, and support ourselves through the change.  This is an additional source of skills like self-reflection, working with mentors, etc.

All told, these are the processes that the knowledge or concept worker requires, going forward.  And, of course, capturing the associated skills.  So, in light of my last post on social learning, what do you think about this?  Does it make sense to you?

24 March 2011

Thinking through social learning

Clark @ 9:49 AM

In preparation for our webinar with Citrix and the eLearning Guild, I’ve been thinking through the benefits of learning socially, specifically for formal learning.  I’ve articulated before that I think it’s about processing, but I like to try to capture my thinking in a graphic, and hadn’t done so before. I did so now, and thought I’d share it.

Social Learning re-processingIn this representation, an individual, in creating an output such as a blogpost or a response to a discussion question in a forum, or a response to an assignment, has to do some reasonably robust processing. Typically, by going from thought to an external representation, you find that you’ve got some gaps and have to fix them. Eventually, however, you come up with what you think is right.  And you submit it, say, in formal learning, and eventually may get feedback from an instructor.

But consider where you share that representation, and someone else comments in a way that indicates a different perspective, say in the discussion forum or to your post; then you may have to rethink what you said in light of that alternate viewpoint. You have to do some additional processing.

Then go further: suppose that a team has to come with a convergent answer.  Then you might get a number of cycles of expressed viewpoints, additional processing (by all members of the team), sufficient to come to an agreed-upon view. Then you have lots of alternate ideas, and re-processing going on.  That, to me, is the power of social learning. In that process of negotiation, you are thinking again and again about a topic, let alone with additional input and viewpoints.

Now, there are lots of nuances that have to go into this, such as designing an assignment that has enough ambiguity or challenge to have sufficient variety in viewpoint, but not so much as to lead to an inability to eventually agree.

This, of course, also is what happens in informal learning, if we end up discussing a problem to solve, or even just blog our thoughts and get comments.  As Jay Cross says, the most powerful learning technology is conversation.  It’s even better, however, if there’s a resulting artifact, a representation that captures the understanding, as the externality reduces the opportunity for misinterpretation.

So, does this representation make sense to you?

21 March 2011

Quinnovation ‘Down Under’

Clark @ 9:16 AM

I’d been hoping this would happen, and now it has: I’ll be going back to Australia to speak in May (lived there for seven years, am a naturalized Aussie citizen as well as a Yank, er, US native).  I’ll be at The Australasian Talent Conference May 25-26, and running a couple of pre-conference workshops on the 24th.  It has a reputation as a good conference, and has had lively participation before.  Having a major hand is Kevin Wheeler, of Global Learning Resources and the Future of Talent Institute, so there are good reasons to believe it’s top-notch.

Mobile learning and performance technology strategy are the topics of my two pre-conference workshops .  I’ll also be presenting a concurrent session with Professor Sara de Freitas on the role of serious games in Talent Management. Finally, I’ll be running a General Session on Social Networks for Talent Management.

If you’re thinking about attending, they’ve let me offer a 10% discount if you use the code ‘CQ11’.

Also, I’ve some calendar space before and after.  While the conference is in Sydney, it’s not too hard to get to Melbourne, Brisbane, and anywhere else in Oz, or even NZ.  And it’s much less dear than bringing me all the way across the pond.  However, I need to make arrangements soon, so let’s start talking now.

Here’s hoping I see you in Sydney or nearby.  Cheers!

17 March 2011


Clark @ 6:26 AM

As a nice complement to my last post on Understanding by Design, comes this piece on Pseudoteaching that Donald Taylor (who runs the excellent UK Learning Technologies conference) pointed out.  The premise is that much teaching that appears good to both the instructor and observers is really ineffective.  And this is instructive in a couple of ways.

First, it’s easy to believe that if you’re preparing, and presenting eloquently, you are communicating.  And that isn’t necessarily so.  For learning to stick, there are several necessary components, the most important being that the learner needs to be engaged in meaningful activity.  That’s not likely the case in the classroom where learners are in your control.  Now, if you’re giving meaningful assignments before the lecture, and then extending the learning afterward, you have a chance.  Otherwise, the content is likely to fall on deaf ears.

And, to fend off the hoary old canard about why do we attend conferences then (and I give a lot of talks): if people are doing meaningful activity, like their jobs, then a presentation related to their work can serve as a valuable reflection opportunity. So, speaking to practitioners makes sense: it can provide new insights, inspiration, and more.  But not for learners who don’t have meaningful activity and aligned content resources.

Which brings me to the second point, you need to start with thinking about what you want learners to be able to do after the learning experience, and then align assessment and learning materials accordingly. Like the post author, I too probably was “doin’ a Lewin” when I first started lecturing, but I coupled it with meaningful and challenging assignments.  And not as well as I now would do, but I improved over time and if I ever get a chance to be an instructor again, I will continue to improve (I’ve got some courses or a program I’d love to run).

It’s real easy to delude ourselves that good production equals good learning, but the evidence is to the contrary.  Similarly, it’s easy to convince ourselves that we’ve given the learners the necessary information.  That doesn’t work either.  You’ve got to understand learning, formally or intuitively (and the latter is not the way to bet), and align the elements to succeed.

That’s if a significant skill-shift is what’s needed, and there are lots of times a course isn’t the answer. But when it is, get it right.  Please.  We really can’t afford to waste money and time like it is all too easy to do.

16 March 2011

Understanding by Design

Clark @ 6:13 AM

I have long advocated, in consonance with sound learning  principles, that in a good design process works backwards:

  • start with the desired outcomes as capabilities,
  • align assessment to the outcomes,
  • and then design the learning experience to achieve those outcomes.

This shouldn’t be new.  Recently, I was pointed towards Wiggins & McTighe’s Understanding by Design, which turns out to be a curricular approach predicated on just such lines.  I am of mixed feelings.

First, I am thrilled to see someone in formal education talking about looking at more meaningful outcomes, particularly aimed at “clarify learning goals, devise revealing assessments of student understanding, and craft effective and engaging learning activities”.  This is something I’ve been trying to argue for in my work with formal education, e.g. with publishers, schools, and more.  It’s a more enlightened approach to design.

On the other hand, it’s sort of like my reaction when we investigated what should be covered in continuing medical education and were told that we should proselytize evidence-based medicine: “what have they been doing ’til now?!?!”  I continue to be amazed at how folks go about things in ways that do not reflect what we understand about doing things well.  And what I’ve seen of their 6 Facets of Understanding seem a bit vague (and mea culpa, I have not read their thorough exposition, but it seems like YAT, Yet Another Taxonomy), though I’m perfectly willing to be wrong about that.

Interestingly, they apparently do not recommend applying this approach to individual lesson plans, and instead constrain it to curriculum level goals. I can see how the focus should be on the goal, not the time-frame, and I personally believe in spreading out learning over a longer period of time.

It’s nice to have another label to attach to good design, so I laud the initiative, and hope we can get more good design, and more understanding, in our schools and everywhere else.

15 March 2011

On Homework

Clark @ 6:01 AM

In the ‘getting it off my chest’ department:

I gave a talk to a national society last week on the future of learning.  An off-hand comment on ‘homework’ got more interest than I expected.  My point was that there are limits to reactivation.  However, given the battles I know so many are having with schools on homework, and we too, some thoughts.

The underlying mechanism, roughly, for learning is associations between related neurons (and, at a bigger scale into patterns). However, our brains saturate in their ability to associate new information.  Some activation a day is about all a brain can take.  Re-activating is key, over time.  That is, the next day, and the next.  And, of course, the feedback should come quickly after the effort (not the next day).  And, let’s be real: some kids need more practice than others.  Why aren’t we adapting it?  And are we really rewarding achievement?  In elementary school, my first-born noticed that by being smart, he got more work than the other kids with the ‘stretch’ assignments, and wondered why being smart was punished!

So, in theory, a light bit of homework on a topic that was first visited in prior days might make sense. So you see it on Monday in class, say, and then visit it again in homework.  Note that reactivating it in class the next day in a slightly more complex problem is better.  And, as, John Taylor Gatto has hypothesized, everything we need to learn in K6 really ought to take only 100 hours to learn, if the kids are motivated.  With the feedback coming the next day, it will also be harder for the learner to be able to make the connection. This post I found while verifying the 100 hour claim is fascinating on the amount of time really necessary.

However, that’s not what we see.   I’ve seen my kids complaining about trying to solve more of the same problems they saw in school that day.  That’s not going to help. And it’s too much.  If every teacher wants to get an hour out of them, they’d be overloaded with homework.  This is middleschool, but the same problem manifests in K6, and I’m only dreading what comes next.

And then we get the ‘coloring’ assignments.  I’m sure the argument is something along the lines of ‘by seeing the information represented as they color, they’ll remember it’.  Sorry, no.  If they’re not applying the information, or extrapolating from it, or personalizing it, processing it, it’s not going to lead to anything but prettier classrooms for open house. I’m sorry, but don’t spoil my child’s youth to pretty up your room.  And it’s very clear that, at least in our school, largely the mothers are doing it.

And then there is the weekend homework.  I’m sorry, but I do believe kids are entitled to a life, or at least most of one. Why have work hanging over them on the weekend?  Now, if you give them long term projects and it replaces some homework, and they decide to put it off ’til the weekend, well, I suppose that’s ok, because I think interesting overarching projects are valuable (and bring in important meta-skills).  So then there’s the homework assigned on Friday that’s due on Tuesday, so supposedly you can get it done on Monday so it’s not really homework, but who do you think you’re fooling?

So, my first-born got hammered with homework the first year of middle school.  Worse, it was idiosyncratic; so it was luck of the draw whether your kid got a teacher who assigned lots of homework.  My school admitted that while the math teachers were pretty much in synch, the science department had great variability, and didn’t explicitly admit that they can’t do anything about it (*cough* tenure *cough*).  This had been going on, but now my better half had me behind her as she rallied the other mom’s into a persistent force against what was happening.  There’s now a homework policy, which still gets violated (oh, this is a honors class at highschool level, so we have to assign weekend homework).  Nope, sorry, don’t buy it.

My second has not been hammered by the first year of homework (luck of the draw, the science teacher who doesn’t believe in homework), and hasn’t had her love of schooling squelched.  The first, however, has had to have serious support by us to not turn off completely.  I really believe that the middle school (a good one) has a belief that the only way to deal with all these coddled elementary school students is to hammer them the first year. Frankly, I’m not convinced that most kids are ready for middle school in 6th grade.  But I’m getting away from my point and getting personal…

Some reactivation, within limits of the overall load can’t keep kids tied to desks hours after school’s out, can be understandable, but I’m inclined to believe that it’s not really that necessary. If we tap into motivation, we can accelerate learning and get more utility out of school.  Doing the same problems at night, overloading from too many classes, and weekend homework don’t really provide enough advantage to justify such assignments.

I’m not sure whether they’re teaching the principles of homework to teaching students, and whether there’s any education of existing teachers from whatever path, but we’ve got to get it right. If Finland can get by minimal homework, I reckon we can too.

14 March 2011

Game Implications

Clark @ 6:10 AM

Eileen Clegg asked me some questions as part of a report she’s doing for the Future of Talent Institute.

1.  How do you think gaming will change the landscape for people in charge of recruiting, developing and retaining top talent?

Gaming is an optimized performance environment, with all that entails.  First, a game can both help individuals understand what a particular company is about (e.g. Sun’s games to introduce their business units), and what the job is like (e.g. America’s Army).  It can also serve as a filter or aptitude test, where the better the individual performs, the better a candidate they’re likely to be.  There are a couple of armed/military services around the world that have challenging games to test aptitude (a Scandinavian navy, and the British SAS, if memory serves).

Then, once an employee is onboard, games are the best practice environment next to real world mentored practice, and the latter doesn’t scale well (real practice can be expensive, both to develop and as a consequence of failure; individual mentors are similarly expensive). You can build contextually immersive practice with the depth to achieve mastery.  The effort to convey what the job is like and to really develop people (instead of just knowledge dump) is a good incentive to employees to stick with the company, I believe.

Overall, I think that organizations that can take advantage of gaming to provide meaningful practice and assessment are leveraging the most powerful formal learning tool available and will have the competitive advantage.

2.  What do you think is “least understood” about gaming right now?

Where do I start? Two things top my list.

First, is the belief that gaming is just ‘tarted-up quiz shows’, when it’s really truly challenging and effective learning practice.

Second, that it has to cost millions of dollars, when instead games can be done on reasonable budgets to meet many organizational needs.

The challenge is in the design, not the development costs, and if you get the design right the development may be quite affordable and the outcomes very effective.

3.  What is the best quote from your new book to help us understand the gameification of the corporate world?

“The step from convenience to context-specific, however, provides a new opportunity.  A mobile-specific type of game, augmented reality games (or ARGS), has the activity layered on top of real life, taking advantage of when and where you are to drive interaction.”…this form of learning has the potential to be more than effective, but to be truly transformational, and you should be primed to look for opportunities to take the learning experience to the next ‘level’.”

BTW, I did write augmented reality, and many would argue that I mean ‘alternate reality games’, and I do think those have wild potential as well, but here I am talking about context-specific games, and that would be augmented reality.

13 March 2011

Let’s talk ‘working smarter’

Clark @ 8:44 AM

Join us online on 30 March 2011

We will discuss whatever interests you in the realm of Working Smarter.

Do you have burning questions about social learning, web 2.0, or working smarter? Want to find out how other organizations are grappling with the culture, politics, and governance of implementing informal learning?

Ask us a question or suggest a topic.  You can use the comments capability, below. The more controversial or challenging the better.

We’ll be giving free copies of the Working Smarter Fieldbook to six people who provide us with questions.


11 March 2011

Business Social Media Benefits

Clark @ 6:11 AM

For the Australasian Talent Conference that will run in Sydney May 24-26 (where I’m speaking), they’ve been drumming up interest with a press release. As a consequence, I’ve been doing some interviews, some live, some via email. For the latter, I was asked to address the question:  “what businesses can learn from allowing employees to access social networking sites, and how allowing social networking can benefit businesses?” My answer:

People are no longer just what they know, but also who they know.  It’s the network.  If you block social media at work, they’ll take the ‘social media cigarette break’ and step outside with their phones (you can’t stop the signal), because they need their network to answer questions, share ideas, and more.  When you can get connected to the person you need, get answers to your burning questions, connect to colleagues who can mentor, morally support, and more, you find that doing without is no longer acceptable.  Personal story: wanted to know about a piece of software and tweeted it, received an answer from the person who wrote it in 3 hours offering to answer any of my questions!

People might be concerned with what folks share, and there are two answers.  First, there are corporate equivalents: for every Facebook and Twitter there’s a behind-the-firewall and/or industrial strength and secure solution.  Second, investigations into people misusing social media and making inappropriate comments show rare violations. If you’ve got a company with the right culture where the mission is clear and people are empowered, folks just don’t violate sensible guidelines.

There are important reasons to be using social media in connecting with customers, and at least as much by empowering employees to get their work done.  To succeed, you need to do more than just plan, prepare, and execute. There isn’t time. You need your employees to continually innovate, problem-solve, and more. This happens collaboratively and through communication – conversations are the engine of business – and consequently success is going to be predicated on empowering employees to work together to continually improve.

If you’re in the Antipodes, or nearby, it looks like a good event.  If you are interested in attending, using my discount code ‘CQ11’, will get you a 10% discount.  Hope to see you there!

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