Space invaders

Sometimes, out of the blue, one of my blog posts really hits the mark.

Such was the case recently with Great and small in which I had a go at redefining our pedagogical terminology.

While the post only attracted a few comments – cheers Neil, Dani and Rob – my friend Helen Blunden observes that barely anyone does that any more. To her point, I was contacted via other means by readers who wanted to thank me for sharing my semantics with them.

That was very rewarding, and it has encouraged me to do it again!

Aliens lined up in the style of the video game Space Invaders.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the spacing effect.

And when I say “thinking about”, I mean getting thoroughly confused. Over the years I’m sure we’ve all encountered phrases such as distributed learning, spaced repetition, retrieval practice and variations thereof; but it has become apparent to me that many of us conflate these terms.

So I’ve spent a typically disproportionate amount of time trying to untangle the meanings of these phrases, and it is these semantics I wish to share with you now.

The spacing effect

I consider the spacing effect an umbrella term describing the improved outcomes achieved by separating learning activity over time.

The foremost example is spaced presentation or distributed learning whereby the content to be learned is chunked and consumed periodically:

A pink block flowing over time to a blue block flowing over time to a green block.

This approach contrasts with massed presentation whereby the content is consumed all in one hit, as per a crammer the night before an exam:

A pink block followed immediately by a blue block followed immediately by a green block.

Science says while the crammer might do well on exam day, they’d retain more in the longer term if they were to split their study across the semester. And this makes sense to me, as the cognitive load is reduced in each session, and I presume the time intervals accommodate further cognitive processing that embeds the concepts deeper in memory.

Reinforcement

Note that my example of the spacing effect above didn’t involve the repetition of content; but it may well have.

Spaced presentation of the same chunks is known as spaced practice or spaced rehearsal or spaced repetition or distributed practice:

A pink block flowing over time to another pink block flowing over time to another pink block.

This approach contrasts with massed practice or massed rehearsal whereby the content is repeated in one hit, again as per a crammer the night before an exam:

A pink block followed immediately by another pink block followed immediately by another pink block.

When the duration of the time intervals between repetitions increases, it is known as expanding practice or expanding rehearsal:

A pink block flowing over time to another pink block flowing over a longer time to another pink block.

The testing effect

If the repeated content is presented in the form of active recall, the approach is known as spaced retrieval practice or simply spaced retrieval and it’s covered by the sub-umbrella term the testing effect:

A pink block flowing over time to a pink block with a question mark flowing over time to another pink block with a question mark.

This approach contrasts with massed retrieval practice whereby the content is repeatedly recalled in one hit, as per rote learning:

A pink block followed immediately by a pink block with a question mark followed immediately by another pink block with a question mark.

When the duration of the time intervals between active recalls increases, it is known as expanding retrieval practice:

A pink block flowing over time to a pink block with a question mark flowing over a longer time to another pink block with a question mark.

While the recall device might be a quiz, it might also be a case, debate, game, simulation, on-the-job assignment… whatever demands the retrieval of the concepts from memory.

It’s worth noting the rather unhelpfully labelled spaced learning is a specific approach to spaced retrieval whereby the first presentation is followed by a 10-minute interval during which the learner undertakes a distractor activity (e.g. shooting hoops), then an active recall session such as a quiz, then another 10-minute distractor activity, then the final session in which the learner applies the knowledge in the form of a task.

A pink block flowing over 10-minutes' time with a basketball icon to a pink block with a question mark flowing over another 10-minutes' time with a basketball icon to another pink block with a question mark.

In today’s hybrid and hyperbusy working environment, I feel the timing has never been better to leverage the spacing effect in our instructional design.

Instead of a 3-hour long class or a 45-minute long e-learning course, why not chunk the content and deliver it over time?

This approach enables our target audience to weave it into their work day… and make it stick.

A chart featuring The Spacing Effect, within which is Reinforcement, within which is The Testing Effect.

Higher Assessment

I find it strange when a blogger doesn’t approve my comment.

I consider comments the life blood of my own blog, and whether they be positive or negative, classy or rude, they all add to the diversity of the conversation. If your fragile ego can’t handle that, don’t blog.

I recently submitted a constructive comment to a particular blog post, twice, and it never eventuated. A later comment by someone else has.

Right, rather than waste my thought bubble, I’ve decided to reproduce the thrust of it here…

Looking up at Mannheim City Water Tower

The OP was about the future of Higher Education being modular and flexible, which I agreed with. However something that caught my eye was the author’s observation about the assessment of prior learning via an essay or exam defeating the point of documentary evidence of previous course content or work experience.

Yet I feel that assessment via an essay or exam or some other means is the point. We needn’t rely so much on the bureaucracy if we could simply demonstrate what we know – regardless of how we came to know it.

When accrediting prior learning, a university needn’t get bogged down with evaluating myriad external permutations that may be worthy of credit, because what matters is the outcome of those permutations.

Similarly from the student’s point of view, it wouldn’t matter if they’ve done a mooc but not paid for the certificate, or if they did a course many years ago and worked in the field thereafter. What matters is the knowledge they can demonstrate now.

As a bastion of education, the university is losing ground to external competitors. Yet it maintains a certain gravitas that I suggest can be channelled into more of an assessment-driven role for society, whereby it validates knowledge at a certain standard and awards its qualifications accordingly.

It’s role in teaching and learning is retained, of course, to fill in the gaps; powered by research to keep it at the forefront of the science.

Great and small

English is a funny language.

Coloured by countless other languages over centuries of war, politics, colonialism, migration and globalisation, many words have been lost, appropriated or invented, while others have changed their meaning.

In Australian English for example, fair dinkum means “true” or “genuine”. Linguaphiles speculate the phrase originated in 19th Century Lincolnshire, where “dinkum” referred to a fair amount of work, probably in relation to a stint down the mines. Add a tautology and 10,000 miles, and you have yourself a new lingo.

Thousands of other English words have their origins in ancient Greek. One pertinent example for L&D practitioners is pedagogy (formerly paedagogie) which derives from the Hellenic words paidos for “child” and agogos for “leader”. This etymology underscores our use of the word when we mean the teaching of children.

And yet our language is nuanced. We may alternately use pedagogy to mean the general approach to teaching and learning. Not necessarily teaching, not necessarily children. In this broader sense it’s an umbrella term that may also cover andragogy – the teaching of adults – and heutagogy – self-determined learning.

For example, when Tim Fawns, the Deputy Programme Director of the MSc in Clinical Education at the University of Edinburgh, blogged his thoughts about pedagogy and technology from a postdigital perspective, he defined pedagogy in the university setting as “the thoughtful combination of methods, technologies, social and physical designs and on-the-fly interactions to produce learning environments, student experiences, activities, outcomes or whatever your preferred way is of thinking about what we do in education”.

When Trevor Norris and Tara Silver examined positive aging as consumer pedagogy, they were interested in how informal learning in a commercial space influences the mindset of its adult patrons.

And when I use the word pedagogy in my capacity as an L&D professional in the corporate sector, I’m referring to the full gamut of training, coaching, peer-to-peer knowledge sharing, on-the-job experiences and performance support for my colleagues across 70:20:10.

A standing businessman facilitating a training session with a group of colleagues seated in a semi circle.

So while I assume (rightly or wrongly) that the broader form of the term “pedagogy” is implicitly understood by my peers when it’s used in that context, I spot an opportunity for the narrower form to be clarified.

Evidently, modern usage of the word refers not only to the teaching of children but also to the teaching of adults. Whether they’re students, customers or colleagues, the attribute they have in common with kids is that they’re new to the subject matter. Hence I support the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of pedagogy as the practice of teaching, regardless of the age of the target audience.

If pedagogy includes adults, then logic dictates we also review the exclusivity of the term andragogy. Sometimes children are experienced with the subject matter; in such cases, an andragogical approach that draws upon their existing knowledge, ideas and motivations would be applicable. Hence I dare to depart from the OED’s definition of andragogy as the practice of teaching adults, in favour of the facilitation of learning. Again, regardless of the age of the target audience.

With regard to heutagogy, I accept Hase & Kenyon’s coinage of the term as the study of self-directed learning; however in the context of our roles as practitioners, I suggest we think of it as the facilitation of self-directed learning. That makes heutagogy a subset of andragogy, but whereas the latter will have us lead the learners by pitching problems to them, hosting Socratic discussions with them and perhaps curating content for them, the former is more about providing them with the tools and capabilities that enable them to lead their own learning journeys.

A tree structure flowing from Pedagogy down to Pedagogy, Andragogy and Heutagogy; with Instructivism, Constructivism, Connectivism and Novices, Intermediates, Experts aligned respectively.

This reshaping of our pedagogical terminology complements another tri-categorisation of teaching and learning: instructivism, constructivism and connectivism.

As the most direct of the three, instructivism is arguably more appropriate for engaging novices. Thus it aligns to the teaching nature of pedagogy.

When the learner moves beyond noviceship, constructivism is arguably more appropriate for helping them “fill in the gaps” so to speak. Thus it aligns to the learning nature of andragogy.

And when the learner attains a certain level of expertise, a connectivist approach is arguably more appropriate for empowering them to source new knowledge for themselves. Thus it aligns to the self-directed nature of heutagogy.

Hence the principle remains the same: the approach to teaching and learning reflects prior knowledge. Just like instructivism, constructivism and connectivism – depending on the circumstances – pedagogy, andragogy and heutagogy apply to all learners, great and small.

Skills of the present

The meaning of the phrase skills of the future is variable. Like so many other terms in our profession, its definition depends on who you ask.

According to my own heuristic, a “skill of the future” is a capability for which demand will grow disproportionately over the next 5 years. (While the future extends beyond this timeframe, I typically see any crystal balling for it too fantastical to be useful.)

And to be scalable from an organisational development perspective, the skill needs to be transferable across roles and leadership levels, so that it’s applicable to the context in which each individual works.

Arrows in a quiver

The why for investing in skills of the future should be self-evident post Covid. Organisations that neglected basic capabilities such as web conferencing, let alone more complex ones such as remote leadership, found themselves scrambling in the wake of the pandemic.

In contrast, organisations that had already invested in such skills and were using them day to day, experienced a relatively straight-forward transition into lockdown. Moreover they found themselves with a competitive edge, after years of reaping the benefits of the skills on their own merits.

Herein lies the main point of this post: skills of the future aren’t so much about preparing for tomorrow as they are about maximising today. Waiting for the moment when an imagined skill will meet an imagined need misses that point.

Let me return to the pre-Covid environment to elaborate. An organisation that trained its people face-to-face in the classroom may very well have recognised the future need for virtual training. But since the future hadn’t arrived yet, they had no reason to challenge the status quo. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

In contrast, another organisation that also trained its people in the classroom started to diversify its approach by offering some of its training virtually. This new delivery option supported a remote working strategy, which improved employee engagement and scaled up their talent pool from local to national. The company’s smooth transition into lockdown was simply the latest win.

This mindset also applies to those uber sexy skills that seem so out of reach. For example, if data science is an aspiration, start by collecting whatever numbers you can get your hands on and analyse them however basically to inform your decision making now; and if artificial intelligence is intimidating, start by creating something simple like a branched online form to help your colleagues self-service their needs now. Your sophistication in these areas will improve over time while you ground yourself in the fundamental concepts and crystallise new opportunities to pursue.

Which leads me to the supplementary point of this post: skills of the future are a source of power. If you’re the one backing up your proposals with quantitative evidence, they’re more likely to be approved; and if you’re the one meeting the real needs of your end users, you’re more likely to receive positive appraisals from them.

And if Jim (my colleague in Double defence) didn’t like the idea of click-next online courses, he could have used his development skills to build them differently. Furthermore, he could have proved a blended solution by which the e-learning was complemented by a flipped class that drew upon his facilitation prowess.

But he did neither, and so for him the future arrived too soon.

You however have the opportunity to future proof your own career, by making the skills of the future your skills of the present.

Double defence

In a past life I worked with a fellow named Jim who was very good at what he did.

As what I would term a “trainer”, he was well versed in face-to-face delivery and widely respected in the business as a subject matter expert. He had also racked up quite a tenure at the company, so he was considered something of a stalwart.

In my own role, though, I could see what Jim couldn’t: the incoming wave of e-learning. Sooner rather than later, it was clear to me that not all our training was to be delivered to everyone in the same room at the same time. On the contrary, management’s salivation over the potential efficiency gains of online courses meant that f2f was in danger of extinction. Rightly or wrongly, this was the business reality.

We had a healthy cross-skilling culture in our team, so I actively sought opportunities to share my e-learning know-how with my colleagues. Some of them leapt at the chance to add another arrow to their quiver; but Jim wanted none of it.

I couldn’t work out whether his reluctance was due to laziness, fear, or something else. The typical excuse for this kind of thing is lack of time, however I’d wager that if I were to offer him $1000 for turning up to one of my sessions, he’d be there with bells on. In any case he never lifted a finger, despite the investment in his own career that would surely amount to many thousands of dollars.

Anyway, like clockwork, the dreaded spectre of redundancies swept through our division; and as predicted, Jim was let go.

He was shocked and bitter.

Vintage robot

I hark back to this time whenever I hear the phrase skills of the future.

Just as back then when the internet disrupted Jim’s work, so too are the likes of artificial intelligence disrupting our work today. Digitisation of the workplace is an unstoppable force, so an ability to work with emerging technology remains a skill of the future.

Working with is a critical distinction. While technology will inevitably take jobs, just as it has done in the past, in many cases it will complement them. So the trick here, if there is one, is to use technology as a tool to enhance what you do.

For example, the deployment of machine learning in medical imaging is unlikely to replace doctors; rather, it’s a tool the doctor can use to improve the efficacy of diagnosis. Similarly, robo-advice is unlikely to replace financial planners; rather, it frees up the planner to focus on complex portfolios and provide other value added services.

In other words, the future of work isn’t so much about competing against the robots as it is about leveraging your human talents to do what the robots can’t. The software can crunch the numbers in a heartbeat… it’s up to you to interpret what they mean (critical thinking) and use them to inform a course of action (decision making).

Moreover it’s not just about interacting with technology; it’s also about interacting with people. I’m referring to “soft skills” such as communicating your findings to your target audience (storytelling), hitting your mark (empathy) and motivating them to change (influencing).

And of course it’s about your own innate ability to handle change (eg adaptivity, resilience and active learning).

Robots - You - Humans

Of course, even if Jim did upskill himself in online course development, the company may very well have ended up outsourcing that work to an offshore provider. So the question isn’t merely whether the work you do can be automated, but also if it can be done by someone else at a fraction of the cost.

Hence ongoing employability demands lifelong learning to continue to do what other people can’t.

Skills of the future aren’t just your defence against the robots. They’re also your defence against other humans.