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

25 September 2013

Being explicit about corporate learning

Clark @ 7:01 AM

Brent Schlenker recently resurfaced after disappearing into a corporate learning job.  One of his reflections is that there exist ‘people unwilling to learn’.  Jane Hart picked up on his post, and in her reply teased apart two separate things: Whether learners were willing to learn, and whether they were capable of learning. I was inspired to think about addressing those two dimensions.

To me, the ability to be a self-directed learning is a skill issue.  They myth of digital natives cloaks the reality that digital skills differ by individual, not age. Similarly, other critical thinking skills, and learning-to-learn or meta-learning skills, may or may not exist in any particular individual. These are aspects we can, and should, be explicit about and develop.

The issue of being willing to learn is a separate issue.  Here, it’s whether learners are willing to take responsibility. This is more about attitude change.  Which is hard, but doable. It comes from valuing learning and expecting it, then looking to see if it’s manifesting.

One of the things that’s probably important is coupling a learning environment with an empowering culture.  Learning has to be explicit, safe, valued, modeled, and expected.  Learners need to be empowered with tools, coached, and formatively evaluated.  The environment has to depend on trust on both parts that the motives are good.

Glad to see Brent back in the fray, always a pleasure to see Jane’s thoughtful comments, and welcome  your thoughts.

24 September 2013

Meta-learning in Moscow

Clark @ 7:33 AM

I was reflecting on the benefits of travel, and recalled a ‘learning’ experience I underwent involuntarily more than 20 years ago. I’d gone to Moscow to speak at a conference, and determined to venture on my own to the Kremlin for a scheduled tour of the museum.  I had an underground map, and headed off to the station nearest me.  The route apparently had a change of train required. The ticket seller wasn’t very friendly, but I managed to somehow meet the necessary requirement to head down underground.

The real event started when I got off the requisite number of stops along the line. It turns out that the map I had wasn’t in Cyrillic characters that the underground was labeled in, and apparently I hadn’t correctly identified the station I started from. (There was no Cyrillic – Latin mapping; it wasn’t a good guidebook.) So there I was, at some random point under Moscow, without any idea about what station I was at.  Worse, no one seemed (willing) to speak English.

Somewhat concerned, I started looking for clues. This was a transfer station, in that there were two different lines coming together.  I went back and forth between the two lines, looking for further clues that I could use to determine where I was. Eventually I noticed that one line had a split at the end, and there was only one on the map, so I now knew one of the two lines. I recall that I counted the number of stops to determine which station I was at, and then I was good to go, and I found my way to the station nearest the Kremlin, on my map.  My adventures weren’t over, however.

From there, I surfaced, and looked for which direction to head. It was totally overcast, so there were no shadows to tell direction.  And I couldn’t see any of the landmark structures from where I’d emerged.  I had no idea where to go!  Was I going to have to abandon my quest and quit?

Again, I got systematic: I decided to walk in each direction as far as I could and still know where the station was. It was the second path that let me finally see a landmark (St. Basil’s? I no longer remember) and I found my way.   I saw the museum and met my colleagues for a safe journey back to the hotel.

This remains the most overt conscious problem-solving I ever recall (followed by the time I locked myself in a building right before the grad school entrance exam, and had just a short period of time to escape without setting off the fire alarms).  It took effortful thinking, systematicity, and persistence.

It’s not often these situations occur, but it’s illuminating to explore the requirements, and think about the thinking skills required.  These are perhaps the most valuable investment an organization can make, getting concrete about learning and problem-s0lving, instead of expecting them.  Given the way our school curriculum has been structured, they’re not likely to come from formal education.  So think about how folks will have to increasingly face more complicated situations, and the skills they might require.  Are you and your people ready?

20 September 2013

Making Sparks Fly

Clark @ 6:39 AM

Last night I did a presentation for the San Diego chapter of ISPI titled ‘making sparks fly’. I used that concept to talk about a couple of my favorite topics: deeper instructional design, and social learning.

In the former, it’s about two things: getting the real cognitive underpinning right, and the emotional content, both integrated in a natural and elegant way.  So you start with your objectives (at a high enough level, addressing real business needs). Then you immediately develop deep practice with core decisions embedded in meaningful contexts. You need sufficient practice to not get it wrong, as opposed to just getting it right. Then we elaborate with model-based concepts and story-based examples.  All introduced in ways that engage the emotions as well as the mind, and closing that process off similarly addressing the emotional as well as the cognitive.  The point being, if you’re going to do formal, do it right.

From there, I segued off to talk about social: the power of the additional processing you get from social learning.  This includes sharing ideas, and collaborative work.  Then, systematically looking at tools like blogs, wikis, profiles, feeds, and more for both formal and informal learning.  The notion is that thinking and working ‘out loud’ are, in the right culture, better than not.

Formal learning (and I didn’t discuss performance support, after all it was ISPI :) addresses the optimal execution that will be just be the cost of entry going forward, while continual innovation requires the creative friction, the interpersonal interaction that generates new ideas.  You need to have good learning and good performance support on those processes you can identify, but then you need to create the environment where folks are helping one another solve the new problems that arise, including new ideas.  Engaging the learner, and the interaction, are both sparks to take what we do to the next level.

There’s more: culture, mindset, L&D role, and we touched on that, but in the broader picture, you want to start with social and performance support, only doing formal when you absolutely have to (as it’s dear). We need to stop doing formal only, and badly. We need to cover the spread, and do all well.  Or else…

11 September 2013

The ‘Role’ of Compliance

Clark @ 6:55 AM

I’m not an expert on compliance training. I haven’t suffered through it, and I haven’t been asked to design it. But I know it’s a monkey on the back of the industry, and I know we have to address it. So how? I think there are two main barriers.

The first is the regulatory aspect. Much like I really think the problem holding back better for-profit schools is that the accreditation process isn’t informed enough about pedagogy, I think the agencies that oversee required learning don’t really focus on the right thing. When you are mandating the requirement by seat time, you’re missing the point. Really, you should have competencies associated with objectives. Compliance decoupled from outcomes is just a legal bulwark, not a meaningful prevention of behavior.

Of course, we could be spending that time doing more than a knowledge dump. I think there are two parts: helping people define the situation, and then providing them with skills to address it. Whether it’s ethics, harassment, or some other topic, if you’re just raising awareness you’re not equipping people, and if you’re just providing responses, you’re not helping them understand when it makes sense.

I’ve previously addressed the awareness issue, when I talked about shades of grey. The point being that seldom are things black and white, and the best way to help learners understand the situation is to give them scenarios and discuss in groups whether and how a situation qualifies. Having this done in groups, and then having a reflection session facilitated by an expert on the topic would really help learners get value. Even online, having them share their initial thoughts, and then see some other discussion would be valuable to get some of the benefits of social interaction.

So then the question becomes one of how to equip the learners to deal with the situations. There are always mandated policies, but they’re not always as easy to apply as suggested. First of all, I think role-plays make great sense here. You can use scenario tools for asynchronous situations, or just traditional role-play in the classroom. What’s important is that you consider these processes with problematic examples. So, for example, trying to do behavior coaching with a passive-aggressive individual. You might have someone who’s facing such a problem role play the tough individual to deal with, and another member of the class can try to apply the principles. Again, you’re venturing out into the grey that acknowledges it’s never as clear cut and easy as it seems.

Of course, the latter pedagogies don’t guarantee anything (learning is probabilistic, after all), and you’ve still the barrier that there’s little real reason to care given the current way the requirements are structured, but at least you have the opportunity to make the process less onerous for the learner and have a greater likelihood of actually accomplishing something meaningful in the workplace. Someone familiar with compliance want to weigh in on how I’m off-base?

10 September 2013

Peter de Jager #PSS13 Keynote Mindmap

Clark @ 6:56 AM

Peter de Jager spoke eloquently and amusingly on change, addressing both our misconceptions and expectations. Fun and insightful!


9 September 2013

#PSS13 Opening Panel Mindmap

Clark @ 7:06 AM

The opening session for the eLearning Guild’s Performance Support Symposium was an insightful panel moderated by Allison Rossett, with panelists Rose Lawyer of Huntington, John Low of Carney, and Matthew Henzel of American Express on their experiences with performance support (PS) initiatives. Interesting points included taking a holistic perspective, emphasizing change management, and future directions. I note that in some cases my interpretation is not their words :).


4 September 2013

Content or experience

Clark @ 7:29 AM

I continue to have a problem with the term content as a component of what our field does.  I think there are potential problems with the label, so let me make them clear.

What we do is create content.  In elearning, we create introductions and concept presentations, we portray examples, and we make interactivities that provide practice.  Even in F2F training, we have content and structure around actions we ask our learners to take.  At the end of the day, much of what we’re working on is content that is communicated or triggered by learner actions.

However, I think there’s a problem with thinking of it that way. I believe we need to focus on the activity, not on the content. What’s important is the learner’s experience that is created by sequencing content and learner actions, not the content itself.  You could present content in different ways (for instance, labeled slides, narrated slideshow, or video) and it’s be semantically equivalent (and please don’t bring up Clark & Kozma), at least for our purposes here.

The problem is that if we focus on content, it becomes too easy to think that content presentation is equivalent to learning. Even if we test knowledge of the content afterwards, it’s not going to lead to meaningful outcomes.  Thinking about producing content makes it easy to go astray.

The alternative, however, is still uncertain. Technologically, it makes sense to talk about content management systems, but learning management systems above that is the wrong language.  While ‘course management systems’ addresses the real function of such systems, ideally we’d instead be thinking about ‘experience management systems’. Except I don’t think we really have those right now.  You might say that trainers or mentors or coaches are that, and I might agree in the latter sense, certainly, though I’m looking for a better branding for the technology infrastructure.

There’s now an Experience API that provides some infrastructure for creating such an experience management system, but there’re still some intermediate steps needed. Fingers crossed.

Ok, so I’m thinking out loud about our language and what the implications are, but I’m a big fan of reflection and I think it’s useful to stop once in a while and think about where we’re at and how we’re doing.  I welcome your thoughts.

3 September 2013

Making Hard or Easy

Clark @ 7:14 AM

Our brains are good at certain things, and not so good at others. We’re good pattern-matchers and meaning-makers, but not so good at doing things by rote. We make mistakes, almost by necessity (evolutionary advantage: if you do something a little different by chance and it’s better, it can get rewarded and more likely).  And we simplify the world, partly to save energy for what we care about, but also because complexity is taxing.

And, in general, this is good.  Our simplifications help us cope, make us more effective.  However, given our nature, at times this can fail us.  We may think we’ve taken a necessary step when we haven’t.  Henry Petroski, in To Engineer is Human, helps us understand that we continue to push boundaries and take consequent risks.  Atul Gawande, in The Checklist Manifesto, helps us understand the usefulness of support if we’re not going to make mistakes.

But sometimes this expediency can mask complexities and lead us astray.  For a simple example, the term ‘learning management system’ can actually lead us to believe we’re achieving learning, instead of courses.  And just because you have a course doesn’t mean something was learned.

There are many ways we can mislead ourselves.  We can talk about a concept that we all realize has to be true, that learners differ, and then believe we can identify how someone learns.  We may eventually be able to do so, but existing instruments aren’t valid, and learners change in different contexts. Plus, if we label learners as X or Y, we may limit them.  When I humorously compared the ‘generational differences’ argument to age discrimination, someone deeply involved in that field corrected me that real age discrimination is a serious problem not to be taken lightly!

It may seem like an ‘angels dancing on the head of a pin‘ type of argument, but we have to be careful of the words we use and their import.  We have to carefully consider the ways in which phrases can be used, or misused, and perhaps structure our use of language appropriately.  It’s branding, and perhaps we need to treat it as such.  At least, be careful of what terms you use and what inferences you’re making easy and which you might be inadvertently making hard.

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