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Sometimes, random dots create interesting pictures. Over the weekend, my disparate reading ventures raised some points that when connected together formed a nuanced line of thought around how to approach my role in supporting professional development for folks in the L&D field.

Dot 1: I read a lovely novel by Jodi Picoult, called Leaving Time, which included a great deal of information about elephant behavior. (Stay with me, there is a relevant point here…) Elephants “allomother” their young; the elephants in a herd, especially female siblings, all do their part to raise babies. They are for the most part endlessly patient in doing so, gently redirecting behavior and teaching the skills needed to thrive in the wild. Allomothers provide good role-modeling, give youngsters freedom to explore, set limits as needed, and staunchly defend their young from predators that might injure them. It’s always dangerous to anthropomorphize, but the behavior described reads like deep love and concern, a deliberate and gentle way of facilitating learning in a world that can be harsh.

Dot 2: I came across some articles and blog posts that were discussing the challenges of political correctness.*  A key point from these pieces is that some of our critique of one another – pointing out offensive word choices and calling out people for taking opposing stands on hot-topic issues – is not conducive to our ability to educate one another. These days, conversations, especially online, can be strident and accusatory, and social media often exacerbates the sense of piling on when someone’s opinions are out of line with group views. There is too often little tolerance for making inadvertent mistakes (in language use, in interpretation), and little room given for opening a discussion and listening to varied perspectives. And yet we know that some of the most significant learning and education requires deep listening, questioning one’s own assumptions, and building from common ground. I have seen clear evidence of the kind of politically-charged conversations that were referenced in the articles, and I have also seen echoes of this same sort of back-and-forth in the blogs and Twitter feeds in our own field.

Dot 3: Because I’m teaching three online courses at the moment, I spent a number of hours reading discussion posts, mostly on the subject of learning and development strategies in organizations. As usually happens in this context, students’ comments provide opportunity to clarify theory and research on hot-button topics like learning styles, generational differences, proper phrasing of learning objectives, and the like. At varying times, I found myself torn between:

  • wanting to be absolutely certain students adopt the “right” beliefs and practices (Read: my beliefs and practices),
  • wanting to understand where these odd ideas come from and why they persist (Am I missing something? Do they know something I don’t?), and
  • wanting to warn my students that some of their statements could get them eviscerated by others in the field who disagree.

When I connect those dots, I wonder if maybe allomothering (gently guiding) and asking deeper questions (not forcing students to be “p.c.”) is a much better way of shaping professional behavior than playing the professor/expert trump card and telling students and fellow professionals what to believe and how to do their work.

I realize that to some degree, people want to have experts (managers, professors, thought leaders) tell them what to do. And there is often overwhelming evidence and agreement that allows us to provide unequivocal recommendations. Like the allomothers, we may indeed know what is best. But that does not mean that we should come down hard on those who see things differently. If we act like p.c. police, we run the risk of alienating the very people we want to bring over to our points of view. We can’t educate if we don’t first seek to understand others’ perspectives. Making people feel small (with a condescending pronouncement or a low grade) isn’t the best way to persuade.

And there’s another reason to be cautious about our surety. Some debates are still bubbling. Sometimes we turn out to be wrong. Science uncovers new findings. The nature of the world changes. Newer techniques replace the old. There has to be room for us to talk with one another – to really question one another – or we will never hear the voices of those on the cutting edge leading us to new territory.

As I think about my own work, there are many times when I hear statements that stem from what I view as inaccurate interpretations of theory and research, surface understanding of key ideas, or belief in debunked or outmoded theories and models. When that happens, there are a couple of ways I can go as a teacher / coach / facilitator. I can take a strong stand: “I’m the expert, and this is the right model.” Or I can play the co-learner:  “Here’s my understanding of the issue and my reasoning; here’s some additional research or readings for you to consider; tell me what you think and let’s discuss.” The latter approach communicates respect, allows for robust debate, provides opportunities to persuade, and has a much better potential for deeply impacting a developing professional’s theory and practice. And if I really listen to their responses, it also allows for the possibility that students and new professionals have something to teach me.

 

* My crash course in the consequences of political correctness all started with an NPR report that drew my attention here, and then I followed links here, here, and here before I really needed to get on with my day.)

 

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I read some really interesting work from one of my favorite authors over the weekend. Brandon Sanderson, who writes amazing fantasy novels and stories, just published an anthology with three colleagues that demonstrates how they supported one another in developing a set of short stories. The book is called  Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology, and in addition to the final piece, the anthology contains transcripts from brainstorming and critique sessions as well as “track changes” documents that show the differences between the first draft and final version.

From what I’ve seen, many novelists have strong writing groups that they rely on as first readers and candid critics for draft material; the writing groups point out flaws and help authors think through writers block. They help each other to learn the craft. Brandon Sanderson has said that he has a reliable group of fellow authors and prime readers who know his writing, his characters, and his complex world-building as well as he does, and they help him shape his work. The involvement of this group doesn’t diminish Brandon’s brilliance, or make his novels co-authored works.

Reading Shadows Beneath got me wishing intently that we did more of that kind of workshopping in our own field. Even in organizations that have large learning and development teams, I haven’t often heard of practices that include regular sharing of works-in-progress. And it can be very difficult to get deep reviews and critiques when you are relatively independent in your work.

The idea of workshopping our work is in alignment with the “working out loud” mantra (see Jane Bozarth’s Show Your Work) and advice offered by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace in Creativity, Inc. (longer discussions of each forthcoming).

Working out loud (often by posting about projects in social venues) gives others the opportunity to support our work and opens the door to collaboration on areas of mutual interest. Just as importantly, it exposes the thought process – the why of work – so that others may learn from (or influence) that as well.

In Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull shares the “brain trust” practice at Pixar where emerging material is screened and discussed at length, often dramatically changing films from original concept to final project. These discussions are not seen as “slowing down” the process or as interfering with a director’s creative vision, but they are largely responsible for the exceptional quality and innovation of Pixar’s products.

The value of this kind of critique is well-known. Back in 1987, Donald Schon advocated for a practicum approach to teaching professional practice in Educating the Reflective Practitioner:

“Perhaps, then, learning all forms of professional artistry depends, at least in part, on conditions similar to those created in the studios and conservatories: freedom to learn by doing in a setting relatively low in risk, with access to coaches who initiate students into the “traditions of the calling” and help them, by “the right kind of telling” to see on their own behalf and in their own way what they need most to see” (p. 17).

Schon’s advice might be directed at those who teach graduate programs in our field, but Ed Catmull shows us that the same kind of environment can be created in the workplace. In truth, we need both – our graduate programs often need more embedded practice and critique, and our workplaces need to have safe avenues for collaborative creative discussions.

While we might agree a workshopping process would be beneficial, there are actually a lot of headwinds. Most professionals in our field are rewarded for their individual efforts, and are working in environments characterized by tight deadlines and scant resources. Graduate courses educate people with a wide range of backgrounds and practice areas in the same course, so defining projects and scoping them within the confines of a term can be tricky.

I can see the barriers that need to be overcome in my own work… the fact that I have a solo consulting practice, the particulars around some of my course design work, and the time constraints I am under (and that potential collaborators are under as well).

Nonetheless, it’s worth considering how we might workshop our designs and our writings more often and more thoroughly. The practice would support the development of professionals in our field , improve the quality of our outcomes, and accelerate adoption of new techniques and tools. I’d love to hear how you find ways to workshop your work.

We can do more, I think, to help each other learn our craft.

 

 

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No excuses

For me, the biggest problem about not posting for a while on this blog is the pressure I feel to make the first post “back” be something worth waiting for… and in the meantime, I have lots of things waiting to be posted. So this entry will just be an update… what I’ve been up to during my blog silence.

Over the last few months, the bulk of my energy for writing has been dedicated to drafting a book – Learning Environments by Design: Enabling learning in the workplace. It’s a summation of my thinking about learning environment design, which may be a familiar topic to those readers who have been following this blog or checking out my conference presentations. Currently, you can get the preview version FREE here, and I would welcome your feedback. If you do take a peek, it would be terrific if you would send me a quick note about what you think may be missing – that will help me as I expand and edit the book through the end of the year.

Along with writing the book, I designed a course called Learning Ecosystems: Designing environments for learning. It is being offered through the eLearning Guild’s Guild Academy, and I couldn’t be more excited. The course is delivered in six 2-hour webinars scheduled a week apart, along with opportunity for discussion and for working a learning environment project in the time between sessions. The format gives learners a chance to get feedback on their projects as they work on this new strategy for meeting complex learning needs. The next session begins June 3. And I’m happy to offer customized programs if you are interested. 🙂

My conference sessions this season, at the ASTD International Conference and at a local ASTD conference here in the Philadelphia area, have been on the work that I did to identify research-based practice recommendations related to supporting social learning. My slide decks and white paper on “With Help From Our Friends” can be found here.

So that’s what I’ve been doing all this time. Next up: I’m currently teaching a course on emerging technologies for Penn State Harrisburg’s Training and Development Master’s program. I did a lot of research to compile the readings for the topics being discussed, and I’ll be posting those in the coming days and weeks. It’s my own version of “working out loud,” plus I figure others may benefit from the effort I put into finding a good selection of materials to give overviews related to emerging trends (in general), social media, MOOCs, learning analytics, and the maker movement.

I hope you’ll stay tuned, and I’ll try not to disappear again.

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No such thing as unlearning

I am currently participating in Cathy Davidsons’ MOOC on The History and Future of Higher Education, and the post below is my essay for week 1. The prompt was to write about an experience of learning and unlearning. In the course, I’ll get feedback from five other participants next week, and I am happy to hear from anyone who wishes to comment here as well. In future posts, I’ll share more about my experience in the MOOC as well as my thoughts on the future of learning. Stay tuned.

No such thing as unlearning

When asked to consider an incident of unlearning and relearning, the topic that came to mind was shifting my educational philosophy from cognitivist to constructivist.

If you are not familiar with those terms, most cognitivists describe learning as information processing, and their theories highlight the role of memory and perception (primarily visual and auditory). From them, we have learned a great deal about the effectiveness of chunking material and using spaced repetition. In contrast, constructivists view learning as a process of constructing meaning from experience and most acknowledge the critical role of social interaction in shaping the meanings we construct. (1)  While many educators (corporate and academic) are content to take a “both-and” approach, some would say the two philosophies are founded on different assumptions (objectivist and constructivist), and you can’t have it both ways.

To begin composing the essay, I considered the differences between those two approaches to learning, the ways that I have been determined to change my own “teaching,” and the supports and obstacles to that shift. I started by trying to expound on differences and choices (which, by the way, is a pretty long essay).

In the process, I realized that part of the difficulty in unlearning and learning is that you never really “unlearn” anything. Every day, you learn on top of the learning you carry around from your past studies and experiences.

It’s like scratching out something you’ve written on a notepad – you can ink over your writing until it’s obliterated, but the original notes are still there, buried beneath all the new lines. If I understand the neurobiologists, that’s exactly what our brains our doing – laying down new neural pathways that make getting to the old ones more difficult. But unless we have some sort of catastrophic brain episode, those old neural pathways are still there, broken and obscured though they may be.

In day to day “unlearning” and relearning, as in my shift from cognitivist approaches to constructivist approaches, the old pathways are still pretty clear and can be very tempting – especially if the environment better supports old ways of doing things.

Herminia Ibarra describes career transitions as a process of experimenting in new directions until you find the right fit. (2)  Learning, similarly, is a process of identity creation, not a process of memorizing facts and concepts. In learning constructivist approaches, I can see myself taking bold steps in the direction I want to go, but it will take time to become who I mean to be. To become constructivist, I need to be constructivist, to act it into reality.

Just like our identities are formed from all of our experiences in life, so is our learning the result of all of our learning to date. Unlearning should not be a goal, in my opinion. Our “old learning” is part of who we are, and it’s a building block on which we build our new understandings, even if our “old learning” becomes unrecognizable, buried or reshaped in the process.

Footnotes

(1) For more on learning theories, my favorite texts are: Learning Theories: An educational perspective by Dale Schunk (Pearson, 2012); Learning in Adulthood: A comprehensive guide by Sharan B Merriam, Rosemary S. Caffarella and Lisa M. Baumgartner (Jossey Bass, 2007, 3rd Ed.) and Psychology of Learning for Instruction by Marcy P. Driscoll (Pearson, 2005, 3rd Ed.).

(2) See Working Identity: Unconventional strategies for reinventing your career by Herminia Ibarra (Harvard Business School Press, 2003)

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Happy new year!
I don’t know about you, but I’m already feeling very optimistic about this year; I have so many exciting projects brewing. Nonetheless, I, for one, like to start the year with considerable reflection and planning – to be more proactive about ensuring success rather than simply hope for the best.

A friend and colleague, Michele Martin, wrapped up her 2013 blogging year over at the Bamboo Project Blog with 30 juicy questions to grow your life in 2014– and that series got me thinking. I also recently came across a post that advocated “questolutions – resolutions in the form of a question (and look, another new book I want to read! Bonus!). I thought I might start this blog’s new year by posing some developmental questions that any learning professional might use to spark learning and change this year. I hope you find them useful.

Questions for a year of growth

What do I intend to learn this year?
To have a great developmental year, you have to have a clear intention to learn. Declaring intention is not the same as setting goals; it’s a more emotional and deeper commitment that is resilient and persistent.

How can my projects help me to develop my knowledge and skill?
Many of us worry that we have little time left over from doing our day-to-day jobs to pursue our own learning and development projects. It’s likely, though, that our jobs provide lots of room for experimentation and observation that can be fodder for learning.

How can I strengthen my network?
My own most valued ah-ha moments come in conversation with colleagues, often over lunch or in hotel lobby space during conferences. Take time to identify a few people whose work you admire and find ways to get to know them more informally. Get out to lunch once in a while!

How do I refill my creative well?
Ours is a creative field, and to continue to be successful, we have to find ways to keep our creative energies strong. Figure out what you need to do to recharge, and be sure to reserve and protect time for that. For me, it’s Sundays off (no work; no email) and hopefully, a trip to Cape Cod!

What is my favorite way to learn?
Once you identify your learning comfort zones, make room for more of that in your life. If you like to read, make a book list. If you enjoy learning through projects, keep you eye out for the most exciting ones. If you need mentors, find them (a network of mentors is better than one). If you want to take a course, there are many to choose from (and these days, some of them are free!).

How can I support others in their learning and development?
There is a great deal of truth in the adage that you learn more what you need to teach. You might be surprised at how much you yourself might gain by generously supporting others’ development.

You may be able to think of other “questolutions” more specific to your role or your learning and development goals. However you do your own development planning for 2014, I wish you a year of learning and growth.

If this post resonated with you, you may also be interested in signing up to receive my bi-monthly 4 Your Development newsletter or following me on Twitter (@L4LP) to see what I curate and share for learning and development professionals.

Here’s my motto, a quote from Abigail Adams:

Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.

Cheers to 2014!

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Quoting myself

In the last several weeks, I’ve found myself searching by blog posts for comments that I’ve made on issues that have come up on online discussions in several of the courses I teach. As I started to write a comment in a Blackboard-based discussion, it occurred to me that I had already documented the point I wanted to make in my blog. It was easy to copy a portion of my old entry or link the students to the entire post.

In some arenas, quoting one’s self can be considered a little obnoxious. But that possibility aside, these instances reminded me that one of the points of keeping this lately-too-neglected blog is to process my experiences and learning into coherent summaries and opinions. As I have noted before, 🙂 writing really helps to crystallize my thinking. And thinking out loud opens the door for collaboration as well.

In his new book, Smarter Than You Think, Clive Thompson points out that as a whole, people are writing more than perhaps they ever have in the history of the world – Thompson’s rough estimate is that we produce 3.6 trillion words, the equivalent of 36 million books every day. And while not everything posted on the internet is a gem, a substantial bit of it represents real thought and – more importantly – allows us to learn from and with one another – an important activity in a world of ever-emerging ideas and practices.

I know my own thinking has been influenced by both well-known bloggers and everyday professionals who have shared their experiences and frameworks. I have received a number of comments in this forum that pushed me to rethink positions and expand my perspective, and I count that as a gift. While of late, I have noticed that people are not posting comments and cross-referencing blogs as much as when I first started blogging over five years ago, it’s great when posts generate online discussion and prompt debate.

I would also like to offer thanks to the blogging community that keeps me well-informed about the latest ideas and practices. Knowing about other professionals’ work and theories-in-development enables me to be a better professional and teacher myself. I track blogs on all sorts of topics of interest, and they give me real insight into what others are thinking and doing. I quote and link back to them, too. If you’re interested, a portion of my blog roll can be found on my public Netvibes page. (Please use the comments section here to recommend others if you like.)

So, recent experiences and conversations prompt a renewed commitment to blogging for me. I’ve already made note of several ideas that I need to think through more carefully, and writing a blog post about them should do the trick. I hope you’ll check in – and comment along the way.

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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.

Conference themes

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.

Gamification
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.

Research-based approaches
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!

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