December 4, 2010

Navigating the Maze; On Education and Training, Toffler & Gladwell, eLearning and Web 2.0

I sometimes spend time meeting young people with broken or ineffective memes. The word meme itself is a combination of ‘gene’ and ‘mimesis’ (effectively referencing mimic or that which can be imitated.) It was coined by Richard Dawkins, and is a logical outcome of the shifting sands underpinning thought about the transmission of ideas in society.

A practical way to think of a meme is that its an idea that can spread like a virus. In fact there’s a whole field called Social Contagion Theory, which is sort of a parallel theory to Social Capital theory that suggests that memes do spread in exactly that way. Understanding how ideas spread in a society like ours – rapidly becoming overwhelmed by social networking, web 2.0 and user generated content is a constant challenge.

I’ve been thinking about memes today however, because more and more often I encounter people who seem to be unconsciously following memes that will not function effectively now or in their future. I suspect that like cheese in a rat’s maze, the incentive to follow the known structure of the meme is now stuck in the individuals mind, and it becomes habit to follow, even when the outcome is probably not going to be successful.

For learners this can manifest in a variety of ways, but it generally breaks down to a failure to create knowledge transfer from an effort invested. I think it helps to know that I have been suspicious at best of most traditional educational systems for my entire life. In general I have not seen most of what is taught in schools, training programs, and even on the job training curriculum to be very effective ways to alter behavior. Unfortunately most of what is worth learning & therefore justifies the expense of training is content that doesn’t necessarily transfer well from the kinds of materials, systems and solutions that we typically use to teach – into applicable knowledge that the learner can use at the appropriate moment in the correct context.

The more stressful the environment or context in which the knowledge must be applied, the more unlikely it seems to be that the learner will apply the correct knowledge and behavior to the situation. This effect is amplified by resistance to behavioral change when the learner has already established a habit of performing tasks or applying knowledge in a different way.

Indulge me while I tell a little story to illustrate my point.

There once was a young man who would each year visit the city festival with his parents. At the festival there was a giant maze made of pipe frames and ribbons. The multicolored ribbons would blow in the breeze and you could see between the gaps in the ribbons as the wind blew. He had come to the park and experienced the maze every year since he was very young and had a sort of lingering memory of the maze as he and his father excitedly approached the front gate the year he was turning nine.

His strongest memory of the maze was the bell at the end and all the smiling faces. He also remembered the sweet taste of chocolate and that there would be candy. He knew that the purpose of the maze was to ring the bell and enjoy the cheering faces of friends and family as he exited triumphant having solved the puzzle and rung the bell. As he approached and entered – he had but one objective, to ring the bell and hear the crowd cheer.

As he entered, he noticed something shimmering through the ribbons to his right. He cocked his head and realized it was the bell. Confused he stepped a little closer and then parted the ribbons to reveal the shining final bell on the other side of the ribbon wall. His mission set, he slipped through the ribbon wall before his father could even speak and heaved on the rope to trigger its happy ring.

Triumphant he exited the maze and smacked his lips in search of the chocolate. He craned his ears in search of the cheering crowd. He found only a cross faced father, and shocked looking friends and family.

“Where’s the candy?” he asked his father, still entirely confused. His father explained that the candy was in the maze, scattered throughout. That by breaking the rules, he had missed the entire point of the game, and missed all of its rewards.

We train learners today to find the most expedient solution to any given task. Learning is very often not a matter of expedience, but a matter of patient investigation and discovery. Sometimes that means practice, sometimes it means attempting solutions that are destined to fail in order to understand potential negative outcomes, and sometimes it simply means manipulating ideas repeatedly until new paradigms form and the understanding comes rushing in to replace the prior idea.

I spoke last week in Brussels to an amazing group of educators all assembled at the Flemish Ministry of Education for the annual Media and Learning Conference. I wanted to talk about the process of education … the process of breaking down old behaviors and opening our minds to new ideas. It’s a particularly important thing to consider in the face of ever-advancing technology. I began with a quote from Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock, who said “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ”

I think its an interesting meme for educators and trainers and especially learners to consider as we face today’s technologies. The slides for the presentation are below.

I spoke to the attendees in Brussels about the notion of unlearning and the overall need to re-evaluate the processes that we use to create educational and training content. As many of you know from my past discussion on the subject, the central theme here is on focusing on the ROI for a given bit of information wherein we don’t consider the effort valid unless there is a very high probability that the learner will be able to transfer the knowledge gained in the form of useful actions and behaviors. So the outcomes I’m most interested in are whether or not there was any applicable learning happening. The important distinction is that we can ‘learn’ all kinds of things and know them on an intellectual level without even a hint of application of those concepts. In business this can be particularly harmful as people who have a significant conceptual knowledge of the subject seem all to often incapable of applying those concepts to real life problems.

These issues are at the heart of pursuits revolving around 21st Century learners – both in North America and Europe and I suspect that they are becoming the foremost concern of businesses striving to compete in a global economy and struggling to identify potential employees who are able to solve problems creatively, rapidly adapt to evolving landscapes, and communicate / collaborate in teams productively.

This kind of discussion invariably leads to an urge to return to the bipolar face off between didactic (lecture and drill) instructional methods and constructivist (challenge the learner but don’t provide the answer) approaches. It’s an unnecessarily divided debate that is rooted in extremist viewpoints of both philosophical and paradigmatic approaches that would benefit greatly by lots and lots of common sense and moderation. The truth (at least as I see it) is that real training and teaching efforts need to adapt rapidly to the needs presented by the immediate goal. Some learning objectives lend themselves well to more traditional models of information delivery, while others will perform much better using simulations and experiential learning.

My primary concern is not that more traditional methods be abandoned, but that alone, they are often insufficient and ineffective. We see evidence of that constantly in the way people often react to eLearning. When a basic knowledge based training unit is placed in front of learners who don’t see a valid reason for the training – or feel overburdoned by other obligations, it is common to hear complaints that the training is boring, inane or busywork. While it can help to approach the problem with a bit of finesse, the most useful solution to the eLearning module doldrums is to identify the actual trigger for the training, and do a better job delighting the learner with actual education.

People love to learn. If the learning is genuine, they’ll love the training. The key is to identify the core objective, make clear to the learner how & why it will help them to learn it, and then design activities that make learning the content engaging and lead to reliable knowledge transfer and application. Too often in eLearning we focus on the information available, rather than the desired outcome. It helps to think of it as, what do I want to change – what new behavior or activity do I want as a result of this training. Then rather than just regurgitating and testing information about the subject, design simulations and other activities that motivate the learner to engage actively. We know from Cognitive Learning Theory that the learner must actively engage and input the information – working independently to bring it from short term memory into their long term memory. Our best chance to facilitate that process is to make the educational meal both appetizing, and ensure that once consumed that appetite is sated. It doesn’t do any good to consume learning that looks delicious, but leaves you feeling empty after all.

The lesson of the boy and the maze is two-fold. Just as our learners are the boy, trying to skip the process and jump to the conclusion in order to satisfy a fundamentally incomplete meme, we too are the boy. We must not allow ourselves to get stuck in the efficiency machine, jumping toward the most expedient solution. Learning requires the journey, and personally, I’d miss the chocolates if we skipped ahead all the time.

Posted by Allen Partridge9:44 PM
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