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

18 October 2017

Stay Curious

Clark @ 8:09 AM

One of my ongoing recommendations to people grew out of a toss-off line, playing off an advertisement. Someone asked about a strategy for continuing to learn (if memory serves), and I quipped “stay curious, my friends”.  However, as I ponder it, I think more and more that such an approach is key.

I was thinking of this trend the the other day as “intellectual restlessness”. What I’m talking about is being intrigued by things you don’t understand that have persisted or recently crossed your awareness, and pursuing it. It’s not just saying, how interesting, but recognizing connections, and pondering how it could change what you do. Even to the point of actually changing!

It also would include pointing interesting things to other people who would benefit.  This doesn’t always have to happen, but in the spirit of cooperation (in the Jarche sense), we could and should contribute, curate, when we can.  And, ideally, leaving trails of your explorations that others can benefit from. Writings, diagrams, videos, what have you, helps yourself as well as others.

Old Infoworld magazinesI was reminiscing that more than 30 years ago, on top of my job designing educational computer games, I was already curious. I still have copies of the magazines containing reviews I did (one hardware, one software), as well as a journal article based upon undergraduate research I was fortunate to participate in.

And that persistence in curiosity has led to a trail of artefacts. You may have come across the books, book chapters, articles, presentations, etc. And, of course, this blog for the past decade and more. (May it continue!) However, I’m not here to tout my wares, but instead to point to the benefit of being curious.

As things change faster, a continuing interest is what provides an ongoing ability to adapt. All the news about the ongoing changes in jobs and work isn’t likely to lessen.  Staying curious benefits you, your colleagues and friends, and I reckon society in general.  You want to look at many sources of information, track tangential fields, and be open to new ideas.

This isn’t just your choice, of course, ideally your organization is supportive. These lateral inputs are a component of innovation, as is time to allow for serendipity and incubation. Orgs that want to be able to be agile will need this capabilities as well. I suppose organizations need to stay curious as well!


11 October 2017

Radical Coherency

Clark @ 8:07 AM

Tied to my last post about insufficient approaches, I was thinking again about the Coherent Organization . Coherency is powerful, but it could be a limiting metaphor.  So I want to explore it a bit further.

First, coherency is powerful.  Lasers, for example, are just light, the same as comes from your lightbulbs. Except that the wavelengths are aligned and focused. When they’re at the same frequency, in the same direction, suddenly you can cut steel!

However, an easy interpretation is that you get this right, and it’s then sufficient. But that’s no longer sufficient in organizations. As things change, you need coherency and agility. How do you get both?

I’m suggesting that coherency has to be on many dimensions.  So you have coherency with the organization’s purpose, but people are coherent with each other, and with the customers, and with best principles.  And that latter is important, as best practices won’t transfer unless they’re abstracted and recontextualized.

So what I’m arguing for is a more radical coherency, a coherency that’s in synchrony in an ecosystem perspective. Where people are communicating and collaborating in ways that apply best principles in an way that integrates them into an aligned whole that’s greater than the sum of the parts.

This is a learning organization, but one that’s integrating many disparate elements. That, I think, is a desirable and achievable goal, but it’s more than one program. It’s a campaign that needs an initial focus, and a plan to successfully integrate it into practice first, and then to scale it to both shift practice and culture. It’s non-trivial, but I think it’s more than worthwhile: it’s necessary. What do you think?

10 October 2017

Simple Insufficiency

Clark @ 8:01 AM

As things get more complex, organizations are looking to get more agile. And they’re looking at a wide variety of approaches in different areas. It can be agile, digital transformation, design thinking, and more. And, by and large, these are all good things. And all of them are quite simply insufficient. Why do I suggest this insufficiency? Because the solution is complex.

Organizations are complex organisms. If you try to address them with simple solutions, you will perturb them, but the results will not be as expected. Whether you believe the 70% failure rate of org change initiatives, the fact is that many or most organizational change initiatives don’t achieve the desired outcomes. As we explore this more, we understand that it requires a ‘ground war, not an air war’ as Sutton & Rao put it in Scaling Up Excellence. And I’ll posit that there’s more.

This isn’t unknown; regardless of label, the folks who are responsible for such initiatives typically argue that that it’s a process. Yet orgs still look for the simple packaged program that will turn things around. And while it’s understandable, it’s decreasingly likely to work. It takes a system approach.

And what I haven’t seen, and I’m willing to hear of one, is a comprehensive program that addresses the full suite of skills and culture together that constitute a coherent organization. And that’s a non-trivial compendium of elements. There are the cultural elements, and skills, and tools, and more. PKM, WoL (SyW), 70:20:10, teaming, collaborating and communicating, etc, are all elements, but they need to be tied together.

My point, I guess, is that there needs to be an entry point, but also a plan to develop the full suite of skills and move the culture. And, like most meta-learning, it needs to be done around something. So you need a concrete focus to start, some problem you’re working on that you’ll do in the new way, and practice the processes and develop the competencies and culture as you go. For the org, it should be a necessary new extension to the organization’s competencies. For L&D, it should be first applied for some L&D project.

In both cases it needs a plan and support for acquisition. And include a realistic time frame for starting, and then spreading. It’s not simple, but it’s necessary. Anything else, I fear, is truly insufficient.

6 October 2017

Two good books on learning

Clark @ 8:10 AM

In addition to the existing good books out there (Julie Dirksen’s Design for How People Learn, Patti Schank’s new series, e.g. her book on Practice & Feedback, & Brown, et al’s Make it Stick), I was pointed to two others. One I’d heard about but hadn’t gotten to yet, the other was new to me. And now that I’ve finished them, both are worth recommending and adding to your reading list.

Benedict Carey’s How We Learn is an accessible overview of the science of learning. As a journalist (not a scientist), he documents his own unlikely journey as a learner, and how that matches up with what’s known. His idiosyncratic study habits, he discovers, are actually not that far off from what really does work for learning (as opposed to passing tests, and that’s an important distinction).  He includes practical implications and maintains a motivating style to help others to put the practice advice to work. His point, it’s what you do as much as how.

This is a book to give to learners to help them understand themselves as learners. The colloquial style and personal anecdotes make the messages comprehensible and relevant. The book includes a full suite of advice about how to learn best.  While it may be hard to convince learners to read a book on learning, this may well be the most valuable investment they can make.

On the other hand, Anders Ericsson’s Peak is very much the translated (co-authored by Robert Pool, a journalist) science book. It’s full of revelations, but laid out with scientific experiments to complement a very thorough set of case studies. What it does beautifully is unmask the myth of ‘native talent’ and unpack the details that lead to expertise. And those details, specifically are about deliberate practice.  

Most importantly, in my mind, is the summary that points out that our focus should not be so much on expert performance but instead on helping so many achieve meaningful levels of ability that they’ve been turned off to by bad stories.  Too often people will say “I can’t do math” and instead such abilities can be developed wonderfully. This book, while relevant to individuals, has much more insight to provide for learning designers.  It separates out why you want models like activity-based learning.  And why what we do too often in classrooms and online aren’t helpful.

I’d put these near the top of my recommended reading lists.

5 October 2017

So I was, at least partly, wrong

Clark @ 8:08 AM

A number of years ago, I wrote that pre-testing learners was user abusive (with a caveat). My argument was sensible, qualified, but apparently wrong. Now that I’ve more of the story, it’s time to rectify my mistake. Of course, there are still remaining questions ;).

My claim was that while pre-testing might have some small benefit, forcing users to test on things they don’t know isn’t nice.  Moreover, I attributed that benefit to activating relevant material, and suggested that there were more humane ways to do it. However, if the pre-test could show that learners did know it, and so be able to skip it, it’d be worthwhile.

However, research has now shown more benefits to pre-testing. That is, causing learners to search for information they don’t have somehow makes the memory traces more susceptible to successful learning subsequently.  Without a full neurological explanation, it appears that the activation goes deeper than just associative awakening. It also appears to be for more than just memory, but actual performance.

This, then, argues that pre-testing is a good thing. Now, I haven’t been able to find a comparison where this pre-testing was compared to a compelling story or question that didn’t require an actual response. Still, I’m willing to believe that the actual requirement for search in a test is more powerful than mere related stories.

And this also makes the case stronger, in my mind, for problem-based learning. That is, if you’re faced with a problem you don’t know the answer to (and it’s a comprehensive question representing the overall learning goal), both the need to look for the answer and (ideally) a compelling story in which it’s important make a good case for the learning to be more effective.

Which doesn’t mean I don’t still feel it’s abusive, but it’s in a good cause.  And it still could be that the learner doesn’t actually have to take a ‘test’, but instead in some less formal way is asked to retrieve the answer.  And it might not.

Regardless, I feel obligated to change my opinion when data contravenes, even in part, a story I previously believed. And it doesn’t even hurt much ;).  Here’s to good design!

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