Yesterday was the final day of the conference. In the final general session, one of the speakers, Mike somebody (sorry, but there were no overheads to announce the general session speakers), warned the audience not to oversell Extreme Learning, Elliott’s term for pushing the technological boundaries and creating very short and quick learning episodes. Actually, now that I think about it, "Extreme Learning" is not really that clear. I guess it has to do with technical innovation. Anyway, the warning seems reasonable to me. Every time there is a new technology, vendors and consultants and everybody oversells that technology and then there is the inevitable backlash. The key is to keep things aligned with the human learning system.

Bob Pike was the most prominent general-session speaker, and he spoke very knowledgeably about how to deal with difficult participants, and a few other things as well. He then literally went crazy and diagnosed 600 people’s personality with just one question. He asked us to choose one of six animals—the one that we most resonated with. He then asked us to get out of our chairs and join our other fellow beavers, dolphins, owls, care bears, and two other animals I can’t remember. These six groups were supposed to predict our behavior. It was freakin’ unbelievable, and yet most of the participants seemed to buy into it completely. Actually, I probably shouldn’t be so bold in that statement because I left the room after he divided us into groups. I sort of had to pee and I knew I wasn’t going to miss anything. I returned in five or ten minutes just before we were all allowed to return to our chairs.

In a defense of the participants, it was the last day of the conference, everybody was a bit burned out, many had been up late the night before at the MGM theme park that Elliott rented for participants (too many long falls from the Tower of Terror), and Pike used one of the oldest tricks in the persuasion handbook, introducing the topic as an area of rare scientific inquiry, in this case "The Science of Axiology," developed by Robert S. Hartman. The main idea of this brilliant science is that (and this is a direct quote I think) "something is good when it completely fulfills its characteristics."

What this means I’m not sure. In fact, I can’t make sense of it. Let’s see, I have many characteristics. What does it mean to fulfill a characteristic? I have brown eyes. How do I fulfill that characteristic? Since brown eyes are supposed to be more suited to climates with lots of sunlight (than blue eyes), can I only be good if I live near the equator? I have a tongue. Tongues can do many things. Must I do them all each day to be good? My nose can smell and help me breathe, but it can also run with boogers when I have a cold. Must it run each day if I am to be good? It would have to run with boogers if it was going to enable the tongue to fulfill all of its characteristics. I think I’ll stop there with the body parts. Maybe Pike meant inanimate objects only. Let’s take cars. Maybe cars can only be good if they fulfill the characteristic of reaching 120 miles per hour, which most are capable of. My car has never reached that speed, so it must be bad. Cars are large objects that go fast. These characteristics make them perfect for killing small animals and children. Can a car only be good if it fulfills its potential for killing (insects on the windshield count to)? Cars also have the characteristic of breaking down. Do cars have to be bad to be good?

I watched Elliott on the Jumbotron at the end of Pike’s delusionary sermon. He looked to be in pain. But he saved the show remarkably by thanking Pike for pushing the boundaries of our thinking (or something like that). Nicely done Elliott.

Pike ended in a classy fashion, giving a rather heartfelt plug to Elliott, hailing him as "The Great Connector." It was a touching moment. And it was true. Throughout the conference, we learned again and again how many people Elliott knew. It was quite amazing, and impressive, really.

And then, the show was over, and everyone went home.

in a later post, I’m going to rate the Learning 2005 conference along several dimensions. Overall, it was one of the better conferences I attended, but it is not near to where our conferences need to be to really generate useful learning.