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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Are you sitting comfortably?

Reading George Siemens' blog, "Story telling: Why we love a good yarn" yesterday my thinking about the future of the learning and development industry moved on a notch.

It is difficult to know how far to deconstruct the idea as am I far from expert in any of the areas I am about to pillage and generalise (cognitive psychology, post structuralism, politics and psephology, anthropology and the list goes on). But I think that the reason that we humans like stories is that they make life easier. Our brains are essentially pattern finding systems (I told you I wasn't an expert! If you want to know more read Stephen Pinker) they even find patterns where there are none - think of seeing animal shapes in cloud formations or dreams which are you mind trying to make sense of unconnected impulses, thoughts and emotions.

I stumbled across a remarkable programme on BBC radio 4 earlier this year called Jackonory Politics (there is even a link for the full transcript on the page if you're keen). The programme showed how politicians who spin a good yarn win because they are doing the electorate's thinking for them. It explained quite succinctly why politicians don't talk about issues. Because the electorate don't understand issues and don't want to hear about them. I often accuse one of my friends of never letting the facts come between him and a good story or opinion but it seems the same is true for all of us. Never mind the fact that crime rates have fallen consistently in the UK for years and we live in a society that is safer than ever, every single political party jumps on the "hoodies are going to stab us in our beds" bandwagon. Why because fear gets the vote our more than statistics.


We like stories because they tell us what to think. They have structure (which is annoyingly absent from life) which make it easier for us to understand them. They appeal to the emotions which make it easier for us to remember them. They let us sit back and switch off.

So what does all this have to do with the future of the learning industry?

Well, I think we are the storytellers of change. Behavioural change is what we are about; or at least it should be. Helping people do new stuff. But change is painful, complex, seemingly irrational. Facilitating learning (any good instructional systems design) is about putting the required behaviour in a context, helping students practice the new stuff in a supportive environment and then giving them the confidence and motivation to go out and use it in their lives. Making it comprehensible, digestible, less scary.

The traditional classroom methods of teaching may evolve or even fall by the wayside but the process of helping people deal with difficulty in their lives will never end. It is after all why we tell bedtime stories to our children (and if you don't tell stories to your children, start now!). It helps them make sense of the world.

But we must also teach them to question the storyteller and that is where life starts to get difficult. Maybe I'll go back to reading the Daily Mail and have my thinking done for me.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Old dogs and new tricks

On Thursday I took my management team out of the office to rural Wiltshire for an "away day". The subject under dicussion was our course portfolio; which courses do well, which one not so well, what new products should we develop, what new partnerships... You get the gist.

I have done this many times in my life but never before with such a sense of the sheer vastness of possibilities for learning and personal development (see my previous post for more on this). However, this feeling of awe is coupled with enthusiasm. I have also rediscovered Mind Maps. I've been aware of mind maps for years and have met a number of advocates but have never really got on with them.

But while I was waiting for the meeting to start I was looking through some of Jane's recent posts and decided to download "FreeMind". Interestingly this is one of the things you find yourself doing more of when you get into web 2.0. The dead seconds while you are waiting for meetings to start get used catching up on your RSS feed or following the latest trail of virtual breadcrumbs through the internet. As a learning professional and a man I decided to work out how to use the software by getting on with it rather than reading any instructions and set about using it to create notes for our meeting.

Interestingly, I quickly found that FreeMind was a much better way than standard taking of notes. It forced me to use some kind of structure when considering what to write and more ideas were generated when I showed the other members of the group my notes thus far.

For those who work for me you can go and look at our strategy mind map in our Google group (if you dont know where it is ask Alex). I'm afraid everyone else will have to take it on trust.

On reflection the process of re-examining old ideas in a new context and uncovering previously unimagined success could be a metaphor for all connectivist business models.

Friday, August 15, 2008

How do you eat an elephant?

The old answer is, "Piece by piece" but I think I will add to that, "You've got to really want to eat it". You have to be motivated!

Today, amongst other things, I had an excellent one-to-one training session and all-round discussion on web & learning 2.0 with Jane Hart (click on the link to find her blog). At the end of it I felt that there was more in the world that I was ignorant of, not less. If you want a quick visual summary of social media applications out there, simply look at Harold Jarche's recent post. I have been introduced to Twitter, Ning, Moodle, PollDaddy and Jing... (Spike Milligan, "Ning nang nong" anyone?).

The "elephant" of social media is ever-expanding (although fortunately not infinite). This, I think, is the problem for those who have remained on the sidelines, those who say, "It's just too big" or "Yeah fascinating, but how are we going to make any money out of it?".

Many of the discussions on Tony's page recently have turned around whether people are developing new forms of learning; a brain 2.0 to accommodate all these new tools. I think that the bigger issue is motivation and fear of failure. Strangely, I find that my increased ignorance is motivating rather than demotivating. But perhaps that is because I am less concerned about making a fool of myself than when I was younger.

Perhaps the future for learning professionals is more one of cheerleader and performance coach than fount of all wisdom. To go back to one of my all time favourite quotes about learning from the 19th century polymath Wilhelm von Humboldt, "We cannot teach language, we can only create an environment in which language may be learnt"

Anyway, at Jane's suggestion I have lifted posting restrictions on my blog so you can post anonymously (makes it easier) and for those "lurkers" who would rather not, why don't you click on the poll?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Time for reflection

I have just returned from holiday in the mountains of Serbia with my family where I successfully avoided the information age for a week, read books, went for walks, played with my daughter and had time to think.

On my way to Serbia I stopped in Germany to go to a friend's 50th birthday party which was a delightful affair at a schloss on the Rhine. This made me wonder about what are the measures or values that matter in life. How can you say you have lived a good life? The only obvious measure left in today's post nationalist world is money. Yes I know there is a nationalist war going on in South Ossetia and the Olympics are on (which might give the lie to this thought). But I think that nationalism is on the wane and the rising religiosity and conflict in the world is partly driven by a lack of identity. Unfortunately, business and large supra-national organisations have not in the past been very good at filling this vacuum as values are things that companies tend only to pay lip service to. But I wonder if the rise in interest in CSR and Environmental issues may herald and end to this?

So what does matter? I think positive choice and responsibility. I suppose that is what the existentialists meant by acting in "good fath". Which is annoying because I've never liked Nietzsche and find Keirkegaard depressing. Why aren't there any decent philosphers anymore? Is it because there is too much reality television?

On micro-economic level, during my holiday, I rediscovered the pleasure of reading. Like the slow food movement, there is much to be said for slow information. I am a relative newcomer to cloud computing but am already needing new strategies to stop my RSS feeds from getting on top of me.

So if you haven't had your holiday yet (and inspired by Kevin who liked my last post [incidentally Kevin you can call me Hugh]) here are a couple of recommended reads:

Dan Ariely, "Predicatably Irrational" - similiar to "Freakonomics "and the "Undercover Economist" this a a wonderfully readable book for those interested in how people actually make decisions

Louis de Bernieres, "The Partisan's Daughter" - a great tale from the author of Captain Corellis Mandolin that examines story telling and truth, read it in a day it was that good

Wilf Self, "The Book of Dave" - hard work to begin with but brilliant and dark reflection on society set up by the conceit of a mad London cabbie accidentally founding a religion

Irvin Yalom, "The Schopenhauer Cure" - a dying therapist re-examines his life and tries to help his biggest failure

And for those of you who think this looks like a politician's summer reading list compiled by his/her publicist

Ian Rankin - any Inspector Rebus novel
Janet Evanonvic - any Stephanie Plum novel, v funny
and for cry laughing cynicism anything by Christopher Brookmyre

Time to think is good... Maybe I'll switch off the Crackberry more often.