I spent most of last week in Dallas, Texas for the annual ASTD International Conference – a HUGE gathering of like-minded folks and an excellent professional retreat. As usual, it was some of the between-session conversations that were the most interesting – time to connect and strategize, to discuss challenges and plan new projects. Allow me to share some of my take-aways.
Keynotes – Being passionate about the work
The keynotes together provided an inspiring arc and solid anchors for a retreat experience. Sir Ken Robinson reminded us that real success comes at the intersection between our passions and our talents. I continue to feel lucky that I live in that space every day. As I work with other professionals in our field I wonder if I can support them in finding the place where they, too, can be more consistently “in their element.”
John Seely Brown reiterated the importance of collaborating with others who share our interests. I loved his enumeration of four dispositions that lead to success: questing, connecting, reflecting, and playing. It’s the playing part I want to work on some more (I can be a little too serious sometimes; I know – hard to believe). I am reminded that some of the best learning experiences don’t even look like learning experiences… they look like states of “flow”; they look like play – like fun.
The message was a clear counterbalance to the way I have been reading the ongoing push to integrate learning into the flow of work. Many of the examples I’ve seen of “learning in the flow of work” seem focused on minimizing time and energy for learning, and I have openly worried that we are giving learning a bit of a short shrift. By contrast, what these folks are advocating is learning that is rich and deeply engaging – but also experimental and playful. For me, it shifts the meaning of “learning in the flow of work” to being about experience and reflection, not so much about efficiently finding just-in-time, just-enough learning resources.
Liz Wiseman had the unenviable job of wrapping us up when our brains were overfull and our energy depleted – she managed to lift the room with her message of how to multiply the intellectual energy around us. She invited us to “have a good think,” and I certainly had plenty to think about after she described some of the ways smart, energized people can actually deplete others. I’m afraid that I own some of those unintentionally depleting behaviors – being an idea person, being optimistic. Liz didn’t suggest these were all bad, of course – only that they can actually shut down others’ creative energies and hinder their contributions, so we (I!) need to be careful.
Here are some of the topics that rose to the top for me this year along with some resources in case you want to learn more.
The current conversation about “gamification” has re-energized our commitment to good old-fashioned engagement with learners – speakers were as often talking about simply incorporating gaming elements as they were about creating actual full-scale learning games. I happened to attend Julie Dirksen’s session and came away with new perspectives and new references. I saw Karl Kopp speak on the topic at the Philadelphia ASTD chapter conference just a few days before I left for Dallas. Between the two of them, you can get a terrific overview of the core ideas.
The messages about feedback were the ones that stuck the most with me; I’m thinking about how I might give more intrinsic feedback even in an academic context. I’m also about to design a consulting course – and I’m considering how I might start with an engaging challenge. For more information, Julie Dirksen posted her slides and additional resources here, and Karl Kopp’s resources can be found here.
Because the integration of theory and practice is a platform issue for me, I was interested to see how that played out at the conference. It was marvelous to see how many presenters referenced research evidence for the practices they were advocating, and many of them provided an object lesson in how to reference the background without getting bogged down in it. I applauded their very natural way of stating a research summary in just a sentence or two, and the fact that full references were provided on slide decks and follow up resources.
In between sessions, I had some conversation about what front-line L&D professionals need with regard to scholarly or evidence-based practice. It seems that on the whole, L&D folks want to hear the conclusions of research and the recommendations coming out of research, and they (not unlike our business clients) are less interested in hearing all about the details. They want to trust the source – the people who have already translated research into recommendations for practice, and they do not necessarily want to delve into research for themselves. The good news is that there are a lot more people showing practice recommendations that are based on research findings , so practitioners will find more success finding those evidence-based practices.
Integrating multiple modes of learning
In L&D, we continue to be very interested in encouraging informal and social learning although we are still figuring out how to do that effectively. There were several sessions on how to conceptualize informal learning as part of the whole, and many sessions on social learning.
For me, the most valuable session came from Sam Herring and Sarah Thompson from Intrepid Learning. They introduced a “Five Diamond Model” of learning that I found quite unique and intriguing. The model effectively captures the truism that learning is a process – whether you’re using formal strategies, blended strategies, communities, or knowledge management resources to address learning needs. (You can check out the details from their presentation (found here) and the additional resources on the final slides. You can get an e-book on the Five Diamond Model here.)
The model parallels my own learning environment design framework, although the Five Diamond Model does a better job of capturing the flow of learning around the specific components that might be used as learning assets. I’ll be making deeper comparisons in the next few weeks to see how the Five Diamond Model can support my own work utilizing learning environment design.
Back to work
I enjoy these kinds of gatherings and even as an old hand, I still come away re-energized. Nonetheless, I often wish that there could be more workshop-length sessions embedded in the conference schedule. With sessions only lasting 75-90 minutes, there isn’t time to incorporate the kind of exercises and discussions that would help give participants a deeper understanding of complex topics. We wind up getting a smattering of bullet lists and a high level introduction of frameworks and concepts. There is a lot of presentation without deep activity – and that goes only so far from a learning perspective. I realize it’s up to me to continue to ruminate and explore the topics I found intriguing, and I am glad to have had a long train ride home to begin that process.
ASTD was celebrating 70 years of bringing the field together in a variety of ways. Outside the expo, they showcased a historical timeline, the new competency model, and the communities of practice, among other things. It’s fascinating to see how our field has morphed – and to think about all we have learned and all the positive changes we have made in our practice of learning and development over the years. It’s great to be in such a vibrant and ever-changing field!
Next year, ASTD is in Washington, DC. – May 4-7, 2014. I hope to see you there!