Friday, November 30, 2007

Apparently children can teach themselves anything – can we do that too?

According to the research of Professor Sugata Mitra, Newcastle University, and the main researcher behind the famous "Hole in the Wall" projects held in India in the last decade, Tamil children in rural communities can learn biotechnology in English on their own. How can this be possible?

That's what Mitra has learned after spending the last decade observing children using computers embedded in building walls in safe, public play areas around India. He observed that with a simple computer, keypad and browser, groups of children could teach themselves remarkable things, from a foreign language to the anatomy of the human body.

Through these experiments he found something that was not previously taken very seriously in educational theory – children can learn anything when the right emotions are triggered. These include curiosity, challenge, and pride (like not wanting to be called a fool by other children). The context was also important - the hole in the wall computer was not in the classroom, where learning was more associated with routine and examinations (which he intimated took all the fun out of it), but in a "play area" with no rules.

Does this hold for adults too? Can we really learn anything when our emotions are engaged and context is right? How often do we take these two things into consideration when designing our learning interventions? I have written before about creating physical memories for learning, which is working with both the mind and emotions in learning situations, as well as taking it out of the traditional “training space”. Maybe it is also about knowing what your own triggers are. Certainly mine include novelty and a steep learning curve (thus my great consternation about how to use Facebook and Second Life for learning, see my previous post about this). However, for some people neither of those tools has much novelty left; they might push all the right emotional triggers for me, but not necessarily for others.

I imagine those learning triggers are very personal, and for those of us in the learning trade this is another reminder about the value of individualized, learner-centred approaches with lots of choice. It doesn’t mean that we should not explore and experiment - that, in many cases for both adults and children is our main pathway to learning.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Want to Learn More? Take this Quiz...

Imagine that you need to inform people in a workshop setting about your organization (or another topic for that matter.) Option A: You can make a PowerPoint presentation for 20 minutes and have a Q&A discussion after it for another 10 minutes. But how much will people learn about your subject and how much will stick with this "information push" approach? Here is an Option B for this more traditional method.

Last week we ran a workshop with our organization and an external partner which had as one of its aims getting to know better the two organizations and the people working there. We had our slot in the opening session to introduce the partners and we considered Option A for a moment and decided that it did not really optimise our time, nor give the sense of interactivity and co-learning that we wanted to be representative of the partnership. So instead, we decided to take the same amount of time (perhaps add 10 minutes) and run a quiz.

We asked both partners to come up with a set of questions that made the points that they wanted to come across in their introduction. From our side, we wanted to share our special network structure, our decision-making process, the global nature of our staff and partners, how many of our resolutions deal with the particular sector that this partner belonged to, etc. From their side they wanted to share some key points of their mandate, their sustainability goals, the number of years that our organization had collaborated with them on smaller activities, and more. We structured a quiz of 18 questions (multiple choice, simple fill in and Yes/No) that only a mixed team from both organizations could possibly complete. So five tables of evenly mixed teams each took the quiz.

What happened was a wonderful peer-learning exchange table by table that transferred much more information between participants than we could have ever hoped to give in a centrally run PPT presentation. And people wanted the information, they discussed it, colleagues from the same organization debated the answers, added anecdotes, and shared their insight about the two organizations. That took 20 minutes, the same amount of time as our Option A input. And it was a lot easier for us to present (we literally just handed it out and the participants did all the work.)

The most entertainment came with the "scoring" of the quiz - we went through each question at a good pace (we had the answers in advance) and for each one asked the tables or specific people for their answers. Then we had some open debate, complete with shouting from across the room and good-humoured disagreement. We had prepped one person (the key organizer) from each team to be the final authority - they could point to location of the answers (website, by-laws, mandate, etc.) Bonus points were given for extra information, more detail was added for some questions, and at the end, points were tallied (very loosely) and the winning table got the prize. Well, every table got a prize (a bag of chocolates to share) as it was hard to be very accurate with the final scores, and that was not really the point. Total time for Option B - about 40 min. Every table got almost every question correct so they learned our key points, people got to know each other much better, and to have a real experience (in a compressesd time) working together to accomplish something that neither group could do entirely alone. In this activity, everyone was the "expert" not just the presenter, and it set a great atmosphere of informality and sharing for the rest of our workshop. For the extra 10 minutes between Option A and B the return was worth it.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Lost: Three Hours of My Time

Well, I think I am going to give up on the idea of workplace applications for Facebook. In three hours I managed to find some long lost friends, see photos of people I know in various guises, and learn a bit more about some of my "friends" hobbies (must google Rufus Wainwright, might be missing something big.) But as much as I tried, I could not see an obvious non-leisure link to this social networking tool.

If I was being generous, I could say that it would help colleagues to get to know each other better outside the office. However, my non-rigorous research showed that not too many "Friends"are also colleagues in people's lists. Maybe about 10%. I also noticed that there is still a big demographic slant, which goes without saying; the number of Friends seems to be inversely correlated with the number of other people you are doing laundry for.

So Lizzie (196 Friends) and Caroline (239 Friends), can you share your thoughts here -does your Facebook time add anything to your work? I'm not saying it should of course. I just wonder whether Facebook might be a part of our 9-to-5 someday; so far I can't imagine how I could timesheet the three hours I just spent scrutinising thumbnail photos for signs of aging and poking people.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

We All Have a Second Life

(This post was inspired by a conversation I had a few days ago about the possibility of holding a major Congress in Second Life as opposed to F2F. There were worries that people would not be themselves and that that would affect the quality of discussions.)

We all have a Second Life. Every time we walk into the doors of our office that is effectively a completely different world than the one we just left. We look different (at least one makes a heroic 10 minute effort to look better), we do very different things, and the details of our behaviour in our workplace and the place we just left are completly up to us to expose or not.

Some people at work, as in Second Life, are perfectly happy to share at length the details of our Home Life, to plaster our office walls with photos of our families, and to personalise our spaces. Others keep these two worlds strictly apart. Some people make friends in Work Life that become friends in Home Life, and some people cultivate other kinds of friends and relationships in each. In either world, it is up to us to be accountable, and to be comfortable with our actions in both of these lives. I guess it would be as hard to be a creep in Second Life as it would be to be a creep in Work Life or Home Life (or as easy, for some people). So I guess I don't see the big deal about Second Life being a place where people can be more or less transparent about themselves, people can do that anyways.

Now if only we could teleport ourselves to international meetings, that would be great.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

News Flash: Team has Zero In-box for One Month

In the past, doing email has never been a source of energy and delight for our team. Now it is. We use to spend hours a day sifting through hundreds of messages looking for actionable items, or scrolling down a long, complicated taxonomy of folders trying to accurately file something. Going away on a holiday or even a short work trip brought the dread of a whole day spent trying to get back on top of our email. Not anymore... Our team of four has now had a zero in-box for a month!

A zero in-box doesn't mean that you have no email at all to do, but it means that you have made a decision about every single item that has come into your in-box and moved it to its next action (Action Needed, Reply, Follow-up, Explore, Archive). We delete more, we are more careful what we send, and a few of us have adopted the promise and added it to our electronic signature. I find now that I am able to keep to five sentence responses now most of the time (I would be happy to graduate to sometime this year.)

Now we talk about email to anyone who will listen with the energy and enthusiasm of people who have mastered a new technique which we feel has increased our productivity, as well as boosted our sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. This feeling of success at the end of each day, I believe, is what keeps me on top of this new system. And the fact that I was able to learn a new way of working that has replaced an entrenched behaviour that I have had for over 10 years. I have noticed that I am getting more things done now, I certainly feel more organized and less a slave to my computer.

We plan to hold a short workshop in house in the next months to share with people what we are learning about zero-in box. How we have adapted it to our own needs, and where we still see some room for improvement and innovation (like how do you get yourself to go back to the "Explore" folder!) Productivity is satisfying and of course there are many different ways to improve this in the workplace - the Onion had another suggestion about how to do this yesterday...

Friday, November 02, 2007

Creating Physical Memories

There is certainly some significant debate about how much people remember from different training or workshop experiences. I just read a provocative blog post from Will Thalheimer refuting the various data, pyramids and cones that have helped the experiential learning community substatiate its methods for years. However, he does not necessarily refute the fact people learn differently and the more diversity in learning methods that you use, the more chance you have of creating (longer) lasting impact, or change, which is usually the objective of all learning activities.

We are starting to talk in our team about creating physical memories for people from our sessions, or at least asking the question of how we can create a physical memory. This includes how to use everything from the venue, the choreography of the sessions, the outdoors, the activities, the adrenaline rush, and more to build that physical memory. Focusing on these things does not replace the desire to help people remember the content of your session, but might provide interesting opportunities to reinforce messages and create a sense of congruence both mental and physical that might help learning stick and give them the positive feeling and enthusiasm for the subject that encourages them to take it further (or to look favourably on follow up).

One current opportunity for application has come up in our organization. We are about to create Innovation Teams to start testing some new IT and management processes and to usher in a culture change within the organization. These teams need to be able to test and learn some new tools and technologies, innovate around their adaptation to our organization and then get excited enough about them to help others learn to drive this system-wide change internally. That strikes me as a wonderful opportunity to make the meetings of these teams innovative not in name only, but to use the physical environment to help create that all over experience. If they are designed with this in mind they can give people that boost by the end of the experience that has them walking away saying "that was a great event!" and having that be not just a cerebral, but a full body comment.