Learning 2005 Review of Day 3

One of the things Learning 2005 is experimenting with is a wiki, ala wikipedia, the citizen-created encyclopedia. The idea is that we can all help each other learn by having one place to comment on a specific topic. The Learning 2005 wiki is available to all. Check it out. I will include some of the specific links to the sessions I attended today so you can see whether it’s working or not. Remember, that it may take some time for folks to generate comments.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and the current best seller, Blink, was the highlight of the day for me. I’d read and enjoyed Tipping Point, but hadn’t read Blink because I heard some reviews of the book that suggested it oversold the power of intuition. Elliott Masie’s interview with Gladwell was just stunning in its ability to showcase Gladwell’s clarity of mind. It’s not that the concepts were new—as a doctoral student in cognitive/educational psychology I learned about these basic cognitive concepts 15 years ago—but nevertheless, Gladwell’s gift for simplicity and metaphor and example pushed the learning happily into my head. And judging by the book-signing line, which lasted at least half an hour, many others learned a lot too.

One of the examples Gladwell used was about driving. We get better at driving with practice because practice gives us the ability to automate the cognitive processing needed to evaluate the environmental stimuli and respond appropriately. Gladwell calls this automatic processing "thinslicing." He asked us to think about teenagers driving a car. Teenagers have better reflexes than any other age group, but they’re lousy drivers (and get in many more car accidents than older people) because they haven’t had enough practice to develop automatic thinking as drivers. Despite their very-fast reflexes, teenagers are actually really slow in making driving decisions because they don’t have experience driving. It’s the same in other areas of endeavor as well. "Experts get better at thinslicing as they get more and more experience," said Gladwell.

Gladwell offered many suggestions for performance improvement. He was quite dismayed that all the emphasis in automobile safety is focused on car design, when it could better be focused on training drivers better. He argued that we have the learning designs that could radically improve driving performance—simulators along the lines of what airplane pilots practice in—but we don’t use these methodologies.

Malcolm’s discussion reminded me of the statistics that show more accidents for drivers who use cell phones. Assuming the relationship is causal, and not just correlational, I wonder whether the higher accident rate is simply a function of all of us needing to develop automatic processing skills in how to use a cell phone and drive at the same time.

A few other interesting riffs from Malcolm Gladwell:

  • "I like music in the abstract, but I don’t have time for music."
  • "The hiring processes we use should be specific for each job. For example, in hiring a perfume retail clerk, we ought to rate them on the impression we get from the first two seconds we see them. Interviews may be irrelevant for many hiring decisions. In hiring professors, we now hire them based on high-stakes presentations, but we should probably just read their articles, talk with the people who have worked with them, talk to their former students."
  • "New mothers have poor intuitions about their babies (because they’re inexperienced)."
  • "Googling is fine, but it’s not enough, especially for someone like me who is in an arms race with other thinkers and writers to create unique and important insights. If I can Google it, so can everybody else."

Elliott got Steve Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You, to join Gladwell, and Johnson said a couple very interesting things that seem to have relevance in the design of learning. All my quotations are paraphrases since I’m not a verbatim note-taker.

  • "Games are really good at motivating players to persevere through multiple presentations of concepts. One of the reasons is that they are aware of the user’s proficiency."
  • "Computers are really good today at pushing us toward multi-tasking, but sometimes we really want to be doing single-tasking, and software designers are just beginning to learn how to build this type of competency into their programs."

An aside. Elliott is not only great at doing interviews to get his keynote speakers to focus on what is important to the conference participants, but we all ought to thank him for choosing keynote speakers who have something to tell us about learning and performance. Elliott is fond of challenging the folks who join him onstage, asking them directly to champion specific change efforts going forward. By choosing his speakers so wisely, I hope he has thrown down the challenge to ASTD and other industry organizations to avoid celebrities who have little to contribute to our cause. There are other organizations that avoid the off-topic celebrities (the elearningguild comes to mind), but it’s a good reminder for all of us.

I attended another great session on—and you may not believe this—but it was on corporate Learning/Training Research and Development departments. Yes, that’s right. It appears that some companies actually have R&D departments within their training and development apparti. The session was led by two folks from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, but there were many other R&D practitioners in the room. As an upcoming area of interest, these departments are still finding their way, but they are often charged with evaluating technological innovations to determine whether they have merit. For example, in talking with the director of learning R&D at 3M after the session, he said, "I want to be able to separate the cool from that which is truly effective." I’m thrilled with this development, and a group of us from the session intend to create a special interest group. I’ll report more on this later after I see how this takes off, or feel free to check out the session wiki.

Elliott interviewed six Chief Learning Officers during lunch. Do you get the sense that Elliott was everywhere? The panelists were great. And Elliott left them (and all of us audience members) the following challenge to commit to doing more of over the next year or so:

  1. Research
  2. Metrics
  3. Innovation

I couldn’t agree more!!

I’d only add that we ought to remember the human learning-and-performance system in all this effort.

Another session I attended was an audience-generated discussion of Small Hidden Learning Chunks. It was fascinating because as the session got started, lots of people walked out. But as the discussion got going it was clear that the large number of people who stayed were really smart, knowledgable, thoughtful, and were willing to deal happily with the ambiguities that were surfaced in the discussion. Whether this was because of the self-selected group, or something else, I’m not sure. We didn’t come to conclusions, but we generated a great brainstorm of ideas for which we may be able to riff with in the future. Ahhhhh, the wonder of the many types of learning. By the way, I learned at least two interesting terms in this session, including the term folksonomy, which I intend to look up, and Blog Fog, which I think I already understand (see my very first post). Wiki here.

Another session I attended—almost against my will (but I went to challenge my assumptions)—was about what the youngest adult learners want from training and learning. It was another well-designed audience-generated discussion. It started with a review of some kind of research on this "Millenial Generation." I can’t vouch for the research or against it and I came in too late to hear the source. We split into teams to generate lists of the implications of the research. Reasonable lists were generated.

I’d like to comment on the design of the session. First, this would be an excellent design if we could trust the research that was cited and we all left knowing that we had just developed a list of hypotheses that we should all go back and test. Unfortunately, I’m guessing most people in the room trusted the research and will go back ready to implement it. If the research is bad, or the implications are right generally, but wrong in a particular context, trouble will ensue. What we should have said to ourselves is, "We’ve had some fun and brainstormed some ideas, but we now have some due-diligence to do. We need to verify that the research has a good methodology and is generalizable to our context. If it isn’t we should do better research with our own target audience of young people. If the research is good, we should still do some prototyping and testing of our designs to see if they will really work with our folks. We should make improvements based on our real-world results. And we have to remember, not to just look at how our millenial colleagues like the learning designs, but how well they learn from those designs, and how effective those designs are at improving the millenials on-the-job performance." Wiki here.

Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend was one of the afternoon keynote-interviewees. Former lieutenant governor of Maryland, she has been a national advocate for better education for kids. What struck me most in her comments—probably because I’m the father of a 2.5 year old—was her description of how important learning and courage were in her family. She’s the daughter of Robert Kennedy, former Senator and Secretary of Defense under his brother John F. Kennedy. Whether we agree with their politics or not, we have to agree that the Kennedy family has been very influential in American society and politics. When she was growing up, their grandmother would return their letters with red corrections. They’d be quizzed about current events during dinner. Instead of being sent off to daycare, Kennedy-Townsend remembers her siblings and her being taken to Senate hearings when they were 3 years old. Courage was always emphasized. It was always expected that you would try to make a difference in what you did. As I heard these comments, I wanted her to write a book on child-rearing.

That’s it for Day 3. Apologies of the lack of pictures, but I’m ready for sleep.