Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Fishing it Up from the Depths: Relearning Childhood Learning

Years ago I regularly went fishing with my father, who was and continues to be a real outdoorsman - someone who seems to know how to do and catch anything in the woods, lakes, fields and streams.

I followed along, doing my best, and apparently listening (although that is not what children normally do in my experience) and learned how to cast, toss my bait into the little space between the bank and the shady dock, bait my own hooks and neatly clean my catch.

Now fast forward 30ish years - through university, several international moves, 70+ countries of work-related travel, and not much fishing to speak of - I am begged to go fishing by my own two sons. What do I recall from my childhood learning?

My first observation is that if you don't use it, you actually don't lose (at least completely). I can remember how to string a rod, tie on the hooks, sinkers and bobbers. I know that fish hide in shady areas, or swim very deep when the water is too warm. I know that you can't fish at midday when the sun is at its hottest, and that early morning or dusk is better to catch feeding fish. I also know that if you don't catch anything in one spot after a while, you need to move your fishing location, and keep moving, until you find the fish.

But, we are still not catching any fish over here, four thousand miles from my father, the resident expert.

I think there are a few things impeding us. First, I think that I am struggling with a new application of this long ago learning  - a brand new context. I am no longer walking through high grass to Ohio farm ponds. In this Swiss lake, unlike the Great Lakes and ponds where I fished as a kid, I don't know much about this lake, its bottom topography, temperatures or depths. I don't know all the species of fish, I don't know what they eat (salmon eggs, worms, doughballs?) and when they eat it (not so much the time of day, but the time of year - are they spawning?) This latter would never cross my mind, but when I described to my father that we had seen big carp and couldn't get them interested in our bait, the first thing he said was "they might be spawning". I googled it and indeed carp spawn here in late May and early June depending on the temperature of the water. I didn't know that. Clearly some of it a good fisherman who had fished all over would figure out - like a lifetime practitioner of any field would intuit some things in a new context.

So there's another thing - I built up some good experience of fishing long ago, but I don't have decades of watching this water, understanding the fish and their behaviour, and knowing the broad range of tools (baits, spinners, lines) that a veteran fisherman would have (nor the graduate degree in freshwater fishery biology that my father has.) These things come from much more experience, and a lot of trial and error. My father no doubt took all the trial and error out of my early fishing experiences (kids get bored so easily), so some of this I will have to repete myself. And I will have to be curious, instead of irritated, when things do not come out the same as they did those long ago years. I will have to test a few of my own hypotheses, and remember what works when it does. It would also be good to make friends with a local fisherman who might be able to give me some clues to fishing in this particular ecosystem at 46.2 degrees north and 6.15 degrees east.

So what does this tell me about learning? Well, even when learned at an early age you can remember some things and even develop muscle memory for physical activities, like casting and reeling in my case. So you will not start out again as an absolute beginner. As you use this memory, more things will come back, although they might not be exact memories. And early experiences and memories that are good will no doubt drive you to keep trying, even when the new context is different, and potentially produces different results than the past.

For me, when I am experiencing this, I will try to:

  • Acknowledge that, although everything seems familiar, I am out of my original context for learning so will pay particular attention to what I am doing and challenge any old assumptions;
  • Seek local expertise - get a local "guide" who can help me, and help translate my knowledge into something more appropriate for the current context;
  • Try things - which is fun, if I look at it from a that perspective - because I have a learning curve again (even if I didn't 30 years ago).

Ultimately I guess it's about relearning. I found this interesting quote by futurist Alvin Toffler, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."

So keep on learning (and relearning), and let's go fishing!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Writing Good Instructions for Workshop Games

I have just finished reviewing a set of instructions for a series of games that a big group will be undertaking as a part of a team development exercise. There will be 70 people in teams of 12,  8 different game stations, and a very ambitious time schedule (about 20 minutes per activity), so the set up and instructions for each game needs to be very, very good.

Teams will be moving from station to station. As each team reaches their new game station, players they will receive the instructions for the game at that location. At that moment, they need to have all the necessary information, in an easy to read format and be able to understand it very quickly.

Here are some of the things I am checking for in the game descriptions and instructions for the games, and where needed, modifying:
  • Is the game text too long, too wordy or too dense? Make it shorter with only essential information, put game steps into numbered points, lists into bullet points instead of narrative text, and numbers for scoring into a table; 
  • Are there any vocabulary words or idioms in the descriptions that might be misconstrued or misunderstood? Make the language as simple as possible;
  • Is there any ambiguity in the description text or rules? Make it crystal clear so no time lost in doubt or disagreement on interpretation among team members; 
  • Is there consistency in format and layout of the games' instructions? Reduce any inconsistencies in the way the rules are written in terms of level of detail, the order that information is given, the font, etc. so no time is wasted and teams will learn and read faster as they do through the games sequence;
  • Is the goal of each game clear? (e.g. How do you win - what do you have to do to win?) Rewrite as needed and put that up front in the instructions, so the rest of the instructions are read with that goal in mind;
  • Is the scoring clear and consistent within each game and overall across the series of games? Make sure it is clear how you get points and how many points for different aspects of the game (as applicable), make sure the points levels are the same for the different games so if a team doesn't do well at one game they are not overly penalised.
  • Is there anything subjective in the scoring (like points for quality or how things look)? If so decide in advance the criteria to award points and who will award them. This can potentially cause lots of disgruntled players. 
  • Are the materials needed/provided to play the game listed in checklist format? Create a checklist so the team can quickly assess if they have all needed materials.
  • Are the rules or steps numbered? Number these so team members can discuss them/refer to them by using their number as shorthand.
Some other considerations for good game instructions:

Consistency: Make sure the delivery of the rules to each team is consistent. For example, we are providing rules printed on an A5 card and putting that in a sealed envelope that the teams get when they reach the spot where the game will take place.
Testing: We are having someone test each activity first by following our instructions, to make sure steps are clear as well as feasible in the amount of time allocated. If it takes twice as long to complete as allocated, that obviously won't work. Things sometimes look feasible on paper, but when you are in situ, there may be features of the game environment that cause slow downs.
Game Aids: I am also making up job aids, like a score card for each team, so they can keep their own scores. We are also making a larger game score card on a flipchart, posted at each game station, so teams can see how other teams scored.

Teams love to play games, and the design and make up of a good game takes much care and consideration. Good instructions are crucial to make sure that playing the game actually meets its goals and results in both learning and fun.  

Thursday, June 13, 2013

TEDGlobal 2013: Think Again - What's Going On Around the Talks?

I am here at the TEDextravaganza which is TEDGlobal, featuring a week of over 80 TEDTalks on the main stage, including musicians, and 16 shorter talks at TED University, which is when the audience takes the TED stage.  But that’s not all (if that wasn’t enough!)  BTW, the TED Blog is a great place to get descriptions of the great talks we are hearing.

Around the fantastic TED talks that are delivered is an interesting set of activities, demonstrations and thoughtful details that make for a full week of fascinating, if a bit extreme, sensory input for TED participants. I wanted to take a little pause here in the action to note some of the great ideas on the event design aspect that I think are interesting and might be inspiration of other’s learning events. This is taking a heroic effort at self discipline to write this as there is not a nanosecond of down time for reflection programmed into the schedule.

For learning event organizers, it is very tempting to focus all energy on the content of a workshop or conference- and primarily on what happens on the stage. But learning and interaction can happen everywhere, and although participants might spend some 20+ hours sitting in the audience, as we are this week, another 2-4 hours per day find them in the venue at breaks, meals, waiting for sessions to start and chatting about them once they are over, etc. That can add another 20 hours of programmable time to your agenda, which you could either ignore and leave to serendipity, or cleverly use to integrate more learning activities and opportunities. And to be noted - with these latter you don’t have the design constraints of seated participants all sitting side-by-side looking forward in a dark room.

What has TEDGlobal come up with this year to help people deepen their experience with the topics of the talks, get to know one another better, and feed their brains and bodies? Here are a few things I am doing:

Play Pong with Drones: I spent a break with an impromptu team holding a green panel and coordinating directional messages to our drone (a quadrirotor, or Quad) to win a game of Pong. This game was being played by three flying drones from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (introduced to us by speaker RaffaelloD’Andrea). We had a whole session on “those flying things” which featured speakers exploring the use of electric autonomous flying vehicles for everything from environmental monitoring (Lian Pin Koh), delivering medicines to hard to reach villages (Andreas Raptopoulos) to the real possibility from lethal autonomy of these flying machines of a robot war (Daniel Suarez).  You clearly get the good with the bad with this technology.

Take a Ride in an Electric Car: I booked at the TEDDrive desk a pick-up in an electric car to go to a TEDx dinner last night. All week, TED offers rides in electric city cars to participants with a little lesson on how they work (fast charge- 30 minutes, or overnight, and these five passenger cars can make it up to 70 miles on one charge in good conditions – cold weather uses the battery faster, so do various features like aircon, heater, windshield wipers etc.) I didn’t know the display was so easy to understand and helpful regarding how long you have left to drive on your existing charge. Tempting…

Start a Fortune Cookie Conversation: At the breaks and lunch, brightly wrapped packets of fortune cookies are temptingly set out on all the tables. In each cookie is not a fortune, but a good conversation starter question to get things going with the new people you are perching with at the table.

Go Talk to An Author: I spent another break at the TED Bookstore with Sandra Aamodt, neuroscientist, TEDGlobal speaker and author of “Welcome to your Brain”, feebly and rather desperately trying to inquire if her years of conclusive research on the tenacity of weight set points might possibly be wrong (unsuccessfully as you can imagine). I wanted to speak to her because I have been feeling very smug at recent weight loss and was rather distraught at her talk’s message that I would simply gain it back to my body’s set point unless I was prepared to stay on the diet for the rest of my life. Apparently weight set points can go up, but rarely go down (I can still hope I am one of those rare cases). She is advocating mindful eating as an alternative to dieting, which sounds like another year of learning and effort. She also encouraged me at the end of our chat to get a standing desk, as new research is showing that sitting down is also killing us.

Eat Sensibly: Well I had to put this next. TEDGlobal is great at providing interesting and healthy snacks and meals. Little signs tell you that, with this snack, you are getting IRON or VITAMIN D, etc. No doubt so you can practice more mindful eating. We even got a “map” of the Grand Opening Party food offerings with titles of food stations such as Convey (Sharpes Express 1900 Sweet Potato Cakes) , Explode (Exploding bitter dark chocolate with granite shots), Honeycomb (Lapsong  Souchong Tea Smoked chicken) and Distinguished Doughnut (Savory rocket pesto doughnuts).

Print an Iconic Image: Getty Images is here with their digital archive and you can spend as long as you want to find a photo you like, after which the team prints it in A3 and you pick it up at the end of the day. I found a terrific BW photo of the terrifying, highest-roller-coaster-in-the-world, which is at Cedar Point in Ohio, which I faintly think I have been on but must have blocked it out. Or maybe not - we did learn from speaker Elizabeth Loftus that there is no evidence that we repress memories and banish them from our memory. We are however susceptible to false memories which can be introduced and adopted; so maybe I didn’t go on it, but my parents wanted me to think I did and was too scared to repeat, so they didn’t have to queue up for it.

Talk to Unusual People: With the help of the largest name tag imaginable, which includes: photo, name in 44 font, your title and location, and a line that says “Talk to me about:” followed by three words of your choice, you see lots of people standing in line for the designer coffees and teas holding up their name tags for people to read, or to photograph in order to get back to them on something or other they were discussing. This keeps happening even on Day 4 – 600+ people from over 66 countries, and you continually meet new people even up to the last day. The TEDConnect app is also very helpful to find and talk to people and, in addition to the daily schedule, includes your TED Top 10 – ten participants generated by the “secret” TED algorithm which should be of particular interest to you.

There is no opportunity to be bored, and even very little opportunity to reflect in between the tsunami of ideas and conversation that wash over your brain at any given moment. Whether you seek it - like when I went to join a little chat with American photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who is showing her photos from a recent project in a Kenyan hospital ward - or if it comes to you  - like the fascinating discussion I found myself in with a quiet Taiwanese dancer who explores cultural identity with her body - the TEDGlobal experience is not just sitting in those comfy seats in a dark room for many hours over five days.

Hmmm, maybe in the future we could have the healthy option of standing in the auditorium too. I might suggest that - the TEDGlobal organizers seem to be delightfully open to everything.