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

26 July 2011

Levels of analysis

Clark @ 5:41 AM

When I was a grad student, a fellow student did an interesting study.  In analogical reasoning, what helps is abstracting from the specifics to the more general (and folks are bad at generating good analogies, though okay at using them, according to my PhD and other research).  Folks had made efforts at getting abstraction, and failed. What my fellow student did was to control the abstraction, and got useful outputs.  It turns out some abstract too far, and of course in general most don’t go far enough.

From that beginning, I’ve been interested in useful mental models, and good analysis from appropriate levels of abstraction. That’s what I have tried to do in my books: abstract to useful levels, and guide application in pragmatic ways.  And that’s what I look for in other’s work as well.  My PhD advisor has served as an excellent model: Don Norman’s book Design of Everyday Things is still a must-read for anyone designing for humans, and his subsequent books have similarly provided valuable insight.

I like the thinking of a number of folks who do this well.  For instance, I’m regularly learning with my Internet Time Alliance colleagues (Jay, Jane, Harold, and Charles).  Jane Bozarth, Marc Rosenberg, Allison Rossett, Will Thalheimer, Marcia Conner, and Donald’s Clark & Taylor are just a few of the folks who cut through the hype with incisive thinking. There are of course others I’m forgetting to mention (my apologies).  They’re looking for best principles, not best practices.

It’s a similar thinking that helps break down new technologies and finds the key affordances for learning, avoiding other intriguing but ultimately distracting features (Powerpoint presentations in Second Life, anyone?).  You need to look a bit deeper than the surface.

Interestingly, to do so really requires taking time for reflection.  Which is why it always frustrates me to hear those folks who say “I don’t have time for reflection”.  Really?  You don’t have time to do the most valuable level of thinking that will impact your effectiveness and ultimately save you time and money?

And can we please put this process into our school curriculum as well?  I benefited mightily by having a 12th grade AP English teacher (that’s you, Dick Bergeron) who modeled deeper thinking and used reciprocal teaching (without having that label) to help us develop our own abilities.  While I try to do so for my own kids, our society and world needs more folks thinking at useful levels.

So, please, take time and a step back from your day to day problem-solving and abstract across your activities and look for higher level principles, both emergent and external, that can improve what you’re doing.


22 July 2011

A jot of design

Clark @ 6:09 AM

Ordinarily, I don’t even look at vendor products when offered free trials. I like to remain unbiased, and not give free advice.  I retain the right to look at what interests me, not what might be commercially expedient (a perverted legacy of my academic tenure, no doubt :).

However, two things interested me about this particular offer. First, it was an iPad app supporting design. Given that I’m very much about improving design, *and* quite into mobile, this was of interest. Second, I mistakenly thought it came from Michael Allen’s company Allen Interactions, and he’s not only been an early advocate of engaging design, but also he’s a supremely nice guy to complement his smarts. It turns out, of course, that I jumped too fast to a conclusion, and it’s really from Allen Communications.  Oh well.  I’m talking about DesignJot, btw.

Now, I’m not going to give a formal review, because instead I want to use this as an opportunity to reflect on supporting design.  Though you’ll likely get some idea of what it does and how.

Briefly, this app takes Allen Communications analysis and design process, using the acronym ANSWER, and provides support for using it.  You initiate a new project and then get support for design by having questions and even subtopics and questions under that rubric that you fill out for analysis. That information then populates some initial parts of the design support, which then guides you to define strategies and sub-components.  There are note-taking and sketching tools too.

The notion of supporting the design process is not new, certainly it was key in the toolset used by one of the major content developers in the past, and such performance support is a good idea.  Scaffolding process is an obvious outcome of how our brains work (systematic creativity is not an oxymoron), so the question becomes one of what process you are using as your guide. Without any guidance about ANSWER, I did a spot-check for one of my heuristics and it wasn’t in there. Overall, there seem to be some good and odd things.  Using someone else’s particular process may not be your cup of tea, and while you can add your own questions, youcan’t, as far as I could tell, add to the template.

There are some hiccups, e.g. I was surprised that some of the information isn’t carried forward, and some of the interface is a bit counterintuitive (e.g. home button sort of to the right but close to the middle). On the other hand, there are handy tips for many if not all of the steps.

The choice of making it an iPad app is interesting and understandable.  It certainly makes it easy to carry around as you talk to SMEs, etc., and that makes it reason enough.  The output functions are interesting, however, seeing it produces a ‘project’ file which I *think* only works with another instance of the iPad project (e.g. sharing), or PDFs.  Which isn’t bad, as it’s not clear what else you might use, but I might prefer a more manipulable format like an Excel or HTML output that I might post-process.

I think the idea of creating performance support tools on mobile platforms makes a lot of sense.  Whether you want to trust to their choice of questions and structure is another question.  Overall, it’s an interesting business move, an interesting mobile move, and an interesting chance to reflect on the design process.

14 July 2011

A Storied History

Clark @ 10:54 PM

Rothenburg ob der Tauber (RodT) is a charming small town that has retained it’s medieval nature through both design and chance. The story is interesting, but more interesting for my purposes here is how You can learn that story.

One of the opportunities available in Rothenburg is the Night Watchman’s Tour, where a local dressed up as a night watchman walks you through various stops around town and tells Rothenburg’s history. You pay at the end, so you could skip paying, but after the experience it is definitely worth the money. 

The story telling is interesting; it’s very personal, starting with the life and role of the night watchman, a low class (because of ignorant prejudice) but important job. Across the course of the talk, the perspective becomes one of a proprietary interest in the city itself. The events are recited with a very causal but also human level of detail (e.g. how the post-war administrator’s mother’s connection to RodT saved the town).  There is a self-deprecating humor that leavens the message.

Also interesting is the story-telling style. The character speaks with great projection, but also in an almost sing-song style. There are somewhat odd but engaging emphases. It’s hard to characterize (I couldn’t reproduce it), but it worked.

As my lad said, it’s the most interesting history he’s ever learned. And that, I think, says a lot.  Don’t neglect the power of story, as Roger Schank would have us remember. Wrap up the details in a narrative that ties it together, as our brains are optimized for understanding in this way.

11 July 2011

Travel Tech

Clark @ 4:51 AM

I have, not surprisingly, had my eye tuned for new mobile uses, and have recently spied a couple of ones I had not noticed. These range from the predictable but cool to the novel (at least to me).

First, on a recent train trip, the conductor had an app where she could check seats. Having missed a connection, the hope was that there were seats available on the next train. Without a reservation, the procedure used to be that you’d just grab a seat and hope no one had it reserved. I this case, the seat was available after departure, but there was no way for me to know whether it would stay that way through the other stops. The conductor, however, whipped out a device, checked, and was able to confirm all the way to the destination. Very cool.

And today, in museums, I noticed tour groups that not only had the requisite signage, but were using technology in interesting ways beyond the canned audio tour. 

For one, I noticed a tour guide speaking quietly into a microphone, in a sacred place. I then noticed that there were a bunch of people with headsets coming from a device hung around their necks. They’d found a way to have the guide narrate the tour without disturbing others and without requiring the attendees to be right near by.

I noticed another group with what looked like mini-walkie-talkies hung around their necks. This would allow sending out messages but also two way communication. 

The latter two, at least, seemed to require custom hardware, but wouldn’t necessarily have to if everyone could get an app.  Regardless, however, we’re finding new ways to harness technology to allow us to Connect and Compute.  And that’s two of the four C’s of mobile. 

Rick Steves, the travel author (who we’ve found useful) has audio files you can download, as one form of Content, and you can download transportation maps for cities (as well as apps). Looking at Capture, I wonder about the ability to take pictures or thoughts and share with your tour group. 

Overall, the opportunities to enhance not only our productivity, but also our leisure are being improved through mobile. What’s next?

7 July 2011

Learning History

Clark @ 9:43 AM

Traveling with Jay Cross and Ellen Wagner in Berlin last December, we hit a great museum where they had artifacts from aa major period of German dominance. It was easy to use those concrete representations of life at the times, and the annotations (as well as Jay & Ellen’s learned commentary) as a foundation to think about the historic changes.

Thinking about the way we ,as a family, like to travel – studying up beforehand, choosing places that most concisely represent and communicate the local history and culture (and dining in ways to understand the best the culture has to offer :), and reading as we go along – it seems a great way to ground learning via experience. And experiential learning is powerful learning, connecting personal experience as context to conceptual models.  

I personally like to understand the ebb and flow of civilizations. My late friend Joe Cotter was a PhD in history, and taught me a little bit about how to think like a historian (not just to know history), thinking about causal forces. I try to apply that, as well as admittedly geeking out on weapons and castles. 

I’ve always felt that the old cliche is true, that travel broadens you. If you go with your eyes open, you can see the world from a different perspective, and even look at your own country differently. I really value the time I spent living in Australia, not only because of the fabulous friends and great experiences, but the ability to look back at the US and get a valuable extension on my understanding.  

It’s one thing to read about it, but to immerse yourself in the cuture and the artifacts with an overarching narrative really helps connect the broader context to the specifics. I hope you have the chance to have a similar experience.

4 July 2011


Clark @ 12:05 AM

Travel is a great learning opportunity.  First, of course, is learning the history, geography, and culture of a place.  The cuisine of a new place is a particular personal interest. Of course, you can also learn about politics, economics, and more as well.  

A second level is looking at how these are portrayed within their own milieu; what are the stories they tell themselves and others about who and what they are.

And, of course, regardless of planning, travel ends up throwing you little challenges: changes in schedules, closures, delays, and more.  These become opportunities for meta-learning: both attitudinal (patience, tolerance, persistence, friendliness) and strategic (problem-solving, communication, etc.).

Moreso if you make a conscious effort to not just replicate the same experience everywhere you go (e.g. the generic international resort experience regardless of location), but instead work to learn what makes this particular destination unique. It’s like making content interesting; you have to find what makes the folks who live there proud. Another meta-lesson.

I was fortunate that my parents were great travelers, and instilled the love of new cultures in me, and I’m trying to do the same with my kids. I find the most interesting people are those who are interested in others. But even if you haven’t had the skills and attitude modeled, you can develop it yourself. Start small, get some wins, and expand (like all good plans :). Bon voyage!

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