Learning to learn

Changed approach.

I changed my strategy for advocating weblogs in my local educational setting: Each member of the group is supposed to run his own weblog and the group weblogs aggregate and form intersections.

The immediate response from one student: »I don't see a need for that.«. Why is it that some people see the immediate appeal of it while others think it is pure overhead? There seems to be conflicting mental models about the whole weblogging hype. [Oliver Wrede]

I don't think this only about “conflicting models about the whole weblogging hype.” This issue runs much deeper.

Over the years I have come to the conclusion that many people are disabled by their fundamental epistomological believes. It's the way they think about learning, knowledge, skill, growth, teaching, knowing, change, evaluation, truth, … which is preventing them to take an active role of a designer, constructor, producer, tinkerer, scientist (in the more general sense it was used by the psychologist George Kelly). Let me throw in a citation from the writing of the British psychologists Thomas & Harri-Augstein:

In constructing and validating their views, people develop their own 'personal myths'. We introduce this term to designate the 'personal knowing' that results from enduring long-term conversational encounters. The term 'myth' is meant to carry all its positive, negative, allegorical and transcendental implications. There is a vast range of viable personal myths that can be developed around any topic.

If people believe that “real learning” is only taking place when an educational authority is telling them about established truths you could put all kinds of polished technological and conceptual tools in front of them and they would still come up with good excuses why things are not working for them. You will hear stuff like: “This takes too long. I don't have the time to carry this out on a regular basis,” “the interface is too difficult,” “I don't feel comfortable sharing my ongoing work with others,” “just tell me what I need to know”… and so forth. While some people (mostly enablers, facilitators, …) then continue to search for the holy grail of tools we would probably require interventions and support techniques that are closer to counselling and therapy than much, much better interfaces and tool performance.

Again, Harri-Augstein & Thomas remind us

We cannot change our personal myths overnight, nor should we; but we accepting the relativity of personal meaning, we can purposefully and self-critically bring these myths into greater awareness.

I believe that most (experimental) educational research fails to acknowledge this important issue into account. Talking about a similar topic Brian Lamb summed this up in the following words:

But the gentle introduction has its own practical pitfall: it doesn’t deliver particularly impressive results in the short term, potentially undermining the prospects of securing sustained project funding.

Needless to say that the same dilemma can be found in countless corporate environments, too. [Sebastian Fiedler]

[Seblogging News]

This is a spot on analysis. And yes, it certainly occurs in corporate environments as well. I don't know what it is that leaves so many passive when it comes to the question of taking control of learning. I'd like to hope that that is not the intent of most real teachers, although there are certainly plenty who can be more concerned about demonstrating their expertise rather than enabling others to learn for themselves.

This is one of the reasons that I've always been more drawn to B students than A students. In most environments, A students get wrapped up in trying to figure out what the professor wants to hear. The right kind of B student is willing to trust their own interpretations.

The structural problem is educational settings modeled on industrial lines, which measure a peculiar kind of productivity. This creates and perpetuates an environment of experts with secret insights to be learned. Better to create an environment where all are experts and learners at the same time. As a learner, I want to have a way to tap into experts, who might be anyone who knows more than I do right now and is willing to provide some pointers. As an expert, I want to have other learners around who help me explicate my expertise by asking questions I've forgotten and seeing problems I no longer see.

Three people come to mind who've helped me in my journey as a learner. One was the late Donald Schon and his work on reflective practice (The Reflective Practitioner, Educating the Reflective Practitioner), Tim Gallwey and his work on the Inner Game (The Inner Game of Work), and Ellen Langer's work on mindfulness (Mindfulness, The Power of Mindful Learning).

Investing in knowledge sharing – starting on the weblog learning curve

Very helpful discussions lately on weblogs in knowledge management contexts. Matt Mowers starts by taking me to task with the observation that:

I don’t think that weblogs do anything and I’m increasingly of the opinion that the benefits that we are seeing at the moment are simply those of tapping into a particular type of personality, i.e. the enthusiastic early adopters who will do something with anything you throw at them.

So far I’m not seeing the kind of evidence that weblogging (in whatever form you name it) offers a particularly unique solution to the KM problem generally. Those solutions are going to have to come from us, in how we apply what is, after all, just another technology. Otherwise I predict in 12-18 months time, articles about “how weblogging has failed us.”

In my opinion, we do have an opportunity to use the current wave of popularity for weblogging to get people to experiment with this new medium, try to change some working assumptions and the practices that go with them and move things on a little. [Curiouser and curiouser]

Stephen Downes, whose initial post started this round of discussion, continues by observing that:

I’ve been weblogging for the last five years. I’ve long since solved the input problem, the one Jim McGee talks about. But using this information is still a pain, despite a fair bit of thought and work around the problem of information retrieval from weblogs (what do you think my [Research] button is? Most weblog software hasn’t even addressed the problem, much less solved it). [OL Daily]

So Downes has already discovered what I’ve only started to suspect after a little over 18 months of weblogging. We’re still in the early, early stages of understanding how to help knowledge workers be more effective at doing knowledge work.

This is the essential perspective that I believe has been largely missing before the advent of the current round of tools, despite their limitations.

I’ve had a continuing conflicted opinion about the role of technology in making knowledge work more effective. I’m not as anti-technology as my friend and former colleague and co-author, Larry Prusak. There are times when he can sound like a total luddite and he’s certainly a proponent of the social dimensions of knowledge management.

Many of the challenges of knowledge management are either created or aggravated by the information and technology that comprise so much of our organizational context. As technologies like email let us operate organizations of much greater scale and scope, they also create a demand for knowledge sharing across timezones and oceans that we haven’t had to address before. And, as I’ve argued before, these technologies have also complicated our information and knowledge lives by making our work less visible. To the extent that technology has helped create our knowledge management problems, it also needs to be enlisted in solving those problems.

Weblogs by themselves don’t do anything more than any other tool. Someone has to pick up the tool and put it to use. What is it about this particular category of tool that has persuaded someone like Stephen Downes to maintain and evolve a weblog over the past five years? All innovations have early adopters. Successful innovations build on the lessons learned from those early adopters and evolve the innovation in ways to make it more suited to the needs of those who follow on the adoption curve.

I heard a story the other day about a computer science class that assumed that mainframe computer systems were developed by scaling up from the “first” computers, which were the PCs developed in the late 70s and early 80s. I’m old enough to know that it worked the other way and to remember the rhetoric around PCs as the “great equalizer” that was going to shift power from faceless corporate data centers into the hands of the individual. Apple’s marketing is still built around that myth.

Organizations took that general purpose, universal tool and shaped it toward their own specific needs. It’s my contention that those needs were rooted in industrial models of organization and information processing and largely ignored those aspects that make knowledge work different.

Weblogs are one technology component of an important shift in perspective from the organization to the individual knowledge worker. For production work and for much routine information work this shift is irrelevant. It is the increasing percentage of of knowledge work relative to the total work of the organization that is changing the discussion.

Paolo Valdemarin has an excellent post today on the potential contribution of weblogs to building social capital inside (and across) organizations.

…Besides using “social capital” to measure countries’ economic power, I believe that the same concept can be applied to any community. Applied to the weblogs community, this concept help explain the huge power that has been unleashed by blogging.

Reading other people’s weblogs creates trust and efficiency, and it’s an excellent base to build businesses and relationships.

This is interesting also for k-logging (or “business journalling”): if a country with a better community is richer, then also a company with a better developed trust and efficiency amoung its workers is going to be better off than others.

So, no, we are not wasting time writing on our weblogs, we’re investing. [Paolo’s Weblog]

Right now, a relative handful of early adopters are playing with and experimenting with this new tool of weblogs. It’s a tool whose strengths are well matched to a changing shift in emphasis toward a greater role for knowledge workers in organizations.

There are always new tools and innovations promising to solve problems. I’ve been disapppointed by many and helped by a few. My intuitions and my experience tell me that weblogs fall in this second category. Those early adopters and leaders such as Stephen are already figuring out how to solve the next round of problems. But those are good problems to have. They are the problems that surface after you’ve decided to take personal responsibility for managing your own knowledge and learning. That may be an unnatural act for many inside organizations who would prefer that the world not change. I’m convinced it is changing and that most of us will have to start learning what Stephen has. It’s not something that you can wait until everything is already figured out. You’ll be better off the sooner you can get started.

Expanding the boundaries of my ignorance

Brockman on “The New Humanists”. Arts and Letters Daily features this essay from a forthcoming book by John Brockman that explores “New Humanism”: new ways of understanding physical systems, and new challenges to basic assumptions of who and what we are and what it means to be human:

“We live in an era in which pessimism has become the norm,” writes Arthur Herman, in The Idea of Decline in Western History. Herman, who coordinates the Western Civilization Program at the Smithsonian, argues that the decline of the West, with its view of our “sick society,” has become the dominant theme in intellectual discourse, to the point where the very idea of civilization has changed… As a counternarrative to this cultural pessimism, consider the twofold optimism of science.

First, the more science you do, the more there is to do. Scientists are constantly acquiring and processing new information. This is the reality of Moore’s Law just as there has been a doubling of computer processing power every eighteen months for the past twenty years, so too do scientists acquire information exponentially. They can’t help but be optimistic. And second, much of the new information is either good news or news that can be made good thanks to ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques.

Link Discuss [Boing Boing Blog]

A worthy upbeat attitude in the midst of so much other negativity. Consistent with the Dorothy Parker observation that I use as my tag line.

I used to use a simple diagram in some of my presentations. It represented knowledge as an expanding circle. What was interesting to me is that if you looked at the interface between what you knew and what you didn’t know, the “boundary of your ignorance” grew as you learned more. The more you learned, the more things to be learned you became aware of. That’s a very energizing prospect and a humbling one at the same time. It means I will always have a list of things to learn.

Weblogs are for learners

tellio II : How I Teach and Why It Is So Hard. Quote: “I have tried to convince them that weblogs are the most protean tool for learning ever made. Like a furnace and anvil, a weblog can make most of its own learning tools. It is self-contained yet all-connected. It is portable yet it is rooted. It is an imaginative journal with a lock and key yet it is fearlessly open to modification and criticism. It is self-governing yet is subject to social control. I am almost afraid of what it will do to certain of my students. Tools transform us whether we will or no. What will this do to them? And more to the point, will it, on balance, do more for them?” [Serious Instructional Technology]

Really nice, reflective post on weblogs in teaching environments and the promise they hold for learning coupled with the fears they generate in those who value order over learning.

I’ve been blessed to be able to learn in some of the best academic environments that exist — ones that truly care about learning. Perhaps because of that it’s taken me a bit longer to grasp how tenous the relationship is between classrooms, teachers, and learning. As I’ve spent time now in front of the classroom, I’m much more sanguine about the role of teachers and overly formal curricula (after all ‘curriculum’ comes from the Latin for running around in circles). I like Terry’s advice:

My teaching is very good when I keep a simple pattern in mind: a question or a problem

And that has to start with a learner not a teacher. That’s why we, and so many others, are so keen on weblogs and learning. Weblogs put the responsibility where it is most effective, in the hands of a learner with a question or a problem.

Learning versus schooling

Beyond Couch Potatoes.

Beyond “Couch Potatoes”: From Consumers to Designers and Active Contributors by Gerhard Fischer

The fundamental challenge for computational media is to contribute to the invention and design of cultures in which humans can express themselves and engage in personally meaningful activities. Cultures are substantially defined by their media and tools for thinking, working, learning, and collaborating. New media change (1) the structure and contents of our interests; (2) the nature of our cognitive and collaborative tools; and, (3) the social environment in which thoughts originate and evolve, and mindsets develop.

Unfortunately, a large number of new media are designed from the perspective of seeing and treating humans primarily as consumers. In personally meaningful activities, the possibility for humans to be and to act as designers (in cases in which they desire to do so) should be accessible not only to a small group of “high-tech scribes,” but rather to all interested individuals and groups. While the core message of the article applies to cultures, mindsets, media, technologies, and educational systems in general, my examples are mostly drawn from computational media, and more specifically from human computer interaction as a particular domain. [Gerhard Fischer] [via David Carter-Tod]

Gerhard Fischer is associate director of the Center for Lifelong Learning and Design (L3D) at University of Colorado at Boulder. This group is doing very interesting projects. I have been following their publications since 1999. Fischer’s focus is on “computational support of self-directed learning”. If I remember correctly I came across Frontier and Manila because of a project that was carried out by the group of Gerhard Fischer. I think it was called DynaSites… or something like that. So, if I wanted to create a BlogTree for my Weblogs, I would have to put the Center for Lifelong Learning and Design (L3D) right on the top. [Sebastian Fiedler]

[Seblogging News]

Following the bread crumbs back to L3D, I started poking around. Looks like a great new resource.

In one of Fischer’s presentations I discovered the following bit of negative feedback from an anonymous student:

I will not ever take a course of this nature again in my undergraduate career, and I hope to find a more structured graduate program with an adviser that is more forthcoming. I will reinforce my strengths by continuing to study in the method that I have developed over the past 15 years. I will redirect my weaknesses by avoiding unstructured class environments.

First, kudos to Fischer for sharing both positive and negative reactions to his work. More importantly, however, I wanted to react to the assumptions reflected in this bit of anonymous complaint because it’s symptomatic of an important distinction between schools and learning that’s caused me trouble as I’ve increasingly focused on the latter.

The more I learn about learning the more I discover how little most school and formal teaching/training environments are organized to promote learning. This isn’t new news, of course (see John Taylor Gatto’s or Roger Schank’s work for particularly strong views against formal education environments, for example). On the other hand, this news isn’t especially widespread. The “average” citizen may care about good schools, but hasn’t thought very much about how schools and learning connect. When and if they do, they seem to end up asking for some idealized vision of what they think school was like when they were in it.

DIGRESSION: When I was at Diamond, I helped create the training function there. I worked with Roger Schank and also with Tim Gallwey of Inner Game fame. I had Tim present his work at one of our All Hands meetings and he asked the group of about 300 at the time to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being highest) on how expert they felt they were about learning. The group average was about 7, I gave myself a 4, and Tim rated himself a 3.

I try to think in terms of setting up conditions that will contribute to better learning. That often leads to doing things that don’t look much like conventional classes or lectures and may not look like I’m doing very much in the mix. In the short term, this leads to reactions like the ones Fischer reports above. If you do it right, however, and can stay with it, you do have people coming back to you later to thank you. On the other hand, it is a very high risk strategy in most environments. Far easier to give the customers what they think they want.

I’m not making claims that I have this all figured out yet. Tenure isn’t the answer because by the time you’ve worked the system to that point, you’re likely to have forgotten what’s wrong with the system. If you’re lucky you land in one of the handful of institutions that get it and support it. One of the wonderful things about the blogging world is how it helps connect you to a larger universe of folks who are more interested in learning than schooling.

Learning and Community

Article : Learning is a Community Experience : By …. Article : Learning is a Community Experience : By Adele Goldberg – “Perhaps it is obvious – you do not learn alone, but you do take responsibility for your own education. (14-pages, 206 KB PDF)
* Go to Learning is a Community Experience, published in the July/August 2002 edition of the Journal of Object Technology [SynapShots]

Adele was one of the creators of the Smalltalk programming language. She worked at Xerox PARC with Alan Kay and later became the CEO of ParcPlace Systems where she worked to commercialize object-oiented technologies. This article contains her reflections on introducing object-oriented technologies and thinking to the technology world. Lots of good material.

I was struck by this definition of an educated person:

We think that an educated person is one who knows a little about a lot, and a lot about some focused subject area – one who reads broadly so is conversant on many topics, but one who holds his or her tongue when the hard data is not there to back up the inclination of that tongue.

Wouldn’t the world be a nicer place if more of us took that advice to heart?

Some other excerpts:

learning on your own is preposterously hard given the quantity of new material regularly generated. Both filtering and selection techniques have to be taught so as to be able to focus without losing sight of the intellectually stimulating neighborhoods that surround any focus of attention.

Here is a small experiment to try when in a room with a group of 10-30 people.

Step 1. First, ask each individual to decide whether the group should consider the individual to be an expert in object technology. If you are an expert, then signal (by standing up) and remaining standing. (Note definition of “expert” vs proficient professional or virtuoso as defined by Peter Denning in the August 2001 issue of the CACM.)

Step 2. The non-experts, those who did not stand up, should find an expert to be physically near (they should physically leave their seats and move near the expert so as to be able to converse).

Step 3. Each non-experts should think about a question that relates to object technology, one whose answer the non-expert does not know and that is a reason why he or she is not to be considered an expert. Ask this question of the expert near you.

Step 4. If the expert was asked a question he or she could not answer, could the expert now designate himself or herself to be a non-expert and look for an expert who has the answer? After finding an answer, the individual can decide whether to stand up again as an expert.

An interesting outcome of this experiment is that, ultimately everyone designates him- or herself as a non-expert at some time in the process, with minor exception. And the exception is typically a developer who, although acknowledged to be an expert, can always find an unknown as a learning challenge but who, in the context of the experiment, was not stumped

Although, Goldberg’s focus is on object-oriented technology, her observations apply to learning and knowledge management issues in other settings as well.

Finally, I have to share one other comment from the article for those of us who have been afflicted with the programming bug at some point or other in our careers.

my colleague David Leibs likes to joke: programming is a personality disorder that you can test for