Posted tagged ‘teaching’

Collateral damage

4 August 2015

The L&D community may be divided into two camps: (1) Those for whom the mere mention of learning styles makes their blood boil; and (2) Those who are inexplicably unaware of the hullabaloo and are thus oblivious to the aforementioned boiling of blood.

All the things meme guy

Credit: Based on original artwork by Allie Brosh in This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult, Hyperbole and a Half.

The antagonism stems from the popularity of learning styles in the educational discourse – not to mention vocational curricula – despite a lack of empirical evidence supporting their effectiveness when incorporated into instructional design. The argument is that in the absence of such evidence, don’t waste time and money trying to match your teaching style to everyone’s learning styles; instead, divert that energy towards other, evidence-based pedagogy.

This is sound advice.

Nonetheless, I urge my peers not to throw the baby out with the bath water. By this I mean regardless of the existence or impact of learning styles, a phenomenon that enjoys universal recognition is that of learner preferences. And I fear it may be an unintended casualty of the war on learning styles.

For example, a deduction from the literature might be that a teacher need not tailor his or her delivery to meet the needs of the audience. Since learning styles are bunk, I can do what I like because it won’t make a difference anyway. Such a view is conveniently teacher centric, and it flies in the face of the thought leadership on learner centeredness that we have advanced so far. Sure, the deduction may be unreasonable, but extremists rarely listen to reason.

However, a more insidious factor is the dominance of the literature on formal learning. Studies of the impact of learning styles are typically based on teaching in a classroom setting, often in the K12 sector. Furthermore, the statistics are based on scores achieved via formal assessment. Yet we know in the workplace the vast majority of learning is informal.

Let me illustrate my concern here with a personal example. When I need to find out how to perform a particular task in a particular software program, I strongly prefer text-based instructions over video. I’m annoyed by having to play a clip, wait for it to load, and then wait for the presenter to get to the bit that is relevant to me. Instead, I prefer to scan the step-by-step instructions at my own speed and get on with it.

Now, if only video was available and I weren’t such a diligent employee, I might postpone the task or forget about it all together. Yet if you were to put me in a classroom, force me to watch the video, then test my ability to perform the task – sure, I’ll ace it. But that’s not the point.

The point is that the learner’s preference hasn’t been taken into account in the instructional design, and that can affect his performance in the real world.

If you don’t agree with me, perhaps because you happen to like video, suppose a manual was the only form of instruction available. Would you read it? Perhaps you would because you are a diligent employee.

Isn’t everyone?

All the things meme guy, sad

Credit: Based on X all Y (Sad) In HD by CanineWritter, in turn based on original artwork by Allie Brosh in This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult, Hyperbole and a Half.

In case your blood is beginning to boil, let me emphasise: (1) Learning styles appear to have no significant effect on learning outcomes; and (2) The nature of the content probably dictates its most effective mode of delivery.

If we assume that learning styles are highly correlated with learner preferences – indeed, for some they are synonymous – then we might be tempted to conclude that learner preferences have no significant effect on learning outcomes. I consider this a false conclusion.

Indeed in a controlled environment, learner preferences don’t really matter. The participants are forced to do it whether they like it or not, or they somehow feel obliged to comply.

Outside of the controlled environment, however, learner preferences do matter. We sometimes see this in formal settings (which is why universities enforce a minimum percentage of lecture attendance), but it appears most starkly in informal settings where the learner is empowered to do it or not. If they don’t like doing it, odds are they won’t.

So we need to be mindful of the interaction between pedagogical effectiveness and learner preference. An experience that your learners love but is ineffective is ultimately worthless. But so too is an experience that is effective but your learners loathe.

As a profession we need to aim for experiences that are both effective and liked by our audience – or at the very least, don’t turn them away.

My Top 10 movers and shakers

20 January 2015

I am humbled to once more be voted into Bob Little’s annual list of E-Learning Movers and Shakers for the Asia-Pacific region.

While I take these kinds of lists with a grain of salt, I do not deny that being acknowledged by my peers generates a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Now I would like to shine the light on some of my influencers in this corner of the world. Click the image below to discover my Top 10 movers and shakers in the Asia-Pacific region…

My Top 10 movers and shakers in the Asia-Pacific region

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather a hat tip to a small selection of generous education professionals who think out loud and work out loud.

I learn so much from these people, and I dare say you will too.

The learnification of education

30 September 2014

I start this post by thanking Angela Towndrow, a fellow Aussie whom I met virtually via a mooc, and from whom I continue to draw insights on things related to education.

After reading my previous post Let’s get rid of the instructors!, Angela pointed me to the journal article Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher by Gert Biesta. And I’m glad she did.

Professor Biesta’s article is a response to the marginalisation of teaching in modern society, and a call for teachers to teach, to be allowed to teach, and to have the courage to teach.

The premise of the professor’s argument is that there is a difference between “education” and “learning”:

“…the point of education is never that children or students learn, but that they learn something, that they learn this for particular purposes, and that they learn this from someone. The problem with the language of learning and with the wider ‘learnification’ of educational discourse is that it makes it far more difficult, if not impossible, to ask the crucial educational questions about content, purpose and relationships. Yet it is in relation to these dimensions, so I wish to suggest, that teaching matters and that teachers should teach and should be allowed to teach. And it is also in relation to these dimensions that the language of learning has eroded a meaningful understanding of teaching and the teacher.”

It is this learnification of educational discourse that has rendered the words I cited in my previous post – “training”, “lecture”, “course” and “teaching” – dirty. And I must confess it gives me heart to find someone of Professor Biesta’s calibre in my corner (or more accurately, to find myself in his).

Student using an iPad

In describing our general mindshift from teaching to learning, Biesta tells the story of two English schools that, upon merging, no longer wanted to call themselves a “school”. So they named their merged entity Watercliffe Meadow: A Place for Learning. Beyond the deliciously Waughian nature of this name, Biesta objects to its semantics:

“…the language of learning, particularly in its constructivist form, has repositioned the teacher from someone who is at the heart of the educational process to one who literally stands at the sideline in order to facilitate the learning of his or her ‘learners.’

Some of the arguments that have contributed to the rise of the language of learning are not without reason – there is indeed a need to challenge authoritarian forms of education; the rise of the internet does raise the question as to what makes schools special; and, to a certain extent, it cannot be denied that people can only learn for themselves and others cannot do this for them (although this does not mean that there are no limits to constructivism).

However, the language of learning falls short as an educational language, precisely because, as mentioned, the point of education is never that students learn but that they learn something, for particular purposes and that they learn it from someone. The language of learning is unable to capture these dimensions partly because learning denotes a process that, in itself, is empty with regard to content and direction; and partly because learning, at least in the English language, is an individualistic and individualising term whereas the educational question – if, for the moment we want to phrase it in terms of learning – is always a matter of learning something from someone.

From this angle it is just remarkable, if not shocking, how much policy – but increasingly also research and practice – has adopted the empty language of learning to speak about education. Yet if this is indeed the only language available, then teachers end up being a kind of process-managers of empty and in themselves directionless learning processes.”

Ouch!

I certainly agree that the language of learning pushes the sage off the stage and recasts them as a guide on the side. But I feel compelled to point out that this does not in itself render the art of facilitation devoid of educational purpose. On the contrary, I see facilitation as a means of education. Assuming the teacher has in mind a certain something for his or her children to learn, then to “teach” may mean to stage the encounter indirectly – that is, to seed, scaffold, clarify and validate – as opposed to direct instruction.

Indeed, Biesta offers the most eminent of examples in Socrates:

“…when we look more carefully at Socrates we can already see that he is not just there to facilitate any kind of learning but that, through an extremely skilful process, he is trying to bring his students to very specific insights and understandings. Seen in this way, Socrates is actually an extremely skilful didactician, because he knows all too well that to just ‘rub it in’ is unlikely to convince his students about the things he wants to convince them of.”

Biesta goes on to suggest that that Socrates was a manipulative teacher, and I whole-heartedly agree. If there were no manipulation underpinning the Socratic method, then I dare say that sales people wouldn’t use it! Yet while facilitative teaching is by definition manipulative, I implore that it need not be deemed so in the negative sense. It is rather a manifestation of the teacher exercising his or her judgement in the context of the given situation.

Students in class with teacher reading

To Biesta, it is teaching (not learning) that makes the school special. He sees teaching as a gift, and the giving of this gift as the raison d’être of the institution. So instead of thinking of a school as a place for learning, he prefers to think of it as a place for teaching.

But does this swing the pendulum too far back the other way?

Indeed I agree that we should think of a school as a place for teaching. As my rambling in Let’s get rid of the instructors! will attest, I very much advocate teaching under the right circumstances. However, just as the learnification of educational discourse devalues teaching, I believe the teacherfication of educational discourse devalues learning.

Notwithstanding the importance of our students learning something for particular purposes from someone, sometimes that “something” can not be taught because it hails from the future; which is a round-about way of saying that we need to teach our children how to learn so that we can future proof their education.

My understanding of “learning” in this sense is not empty and directionless because the teacher is there to guide and support the process. I contend that the role of the teacher can find the middle ground between the ultra-conservative view of teaching – whereby the curriculum is transmitted from state to child – and the neo-liberal view that would have us throw the curriculum out the window (except where it furthers its own agenda, of course). On this middle ground the teacher is empowered to work with the curriculum as he or she sees fit; whether that be via direct instruction, or facilitation, or perhaps even – sometimes – rhizomatic exploration.

So I advocate neither Watercliffe Meadow: A Place for Learning nor Watercliffe Meadow: A Place for Teaching. If learning skills are to be incorporated into the education that our schools give our children, then let’s call a spade a spade: Watercliffe School: A Place for Teaching and Learning.

Let’s get rid of the instructors!

9 September 2014

The title of my previous post, Let’s get rid of the instructional designers!, was a tongue-in-cheek reference to a radical view of instructional design.

I think it would be safe to say that the vast majority of us in the L&D profession do not advocate the riddance of instructional designers. On the contrary, they are the experts in a science that is critical to the overall performance of the organisation.

The title of this post however, while similarly tongue-in-cheek on my part, is much less so on the part of many of my peers.

We live in an era where “training”, “lecture”, “course” and even “teaching” have become dirty words. In their place, a learner-centered vocabulary espousing “inquiry”, “exploration” and “discovery” are the soupe du jour.

A manifestation of this trend is no more vivid than in the invective directed at MOOCs – or more accurately, xMOOCs. To many L&D folks, these types of courses (there’s that word again) are mere replicas of the lectures and exams that they so despise. Ergo, xMOOCs are bad.

Now I maintain this view sells xMOOCs short, but for the sake of argument I’m willing to pretend that this mode of delivery is devoid of constructivist empowerment. I acknowledge that many MOOCs do replicate olde worlde instructivism, at least in part.

And here’s where I propose something counter-radical: Sometimes that’s a good thing.

Screenshot of Foundations of Business Strategy

Indeed, I advocate direct instruction under the following circumstances:

1. When the learner is a novice.

Novice learners don’t know what they need to know. But the expert does.

By adopting an instructivist approach, the expert can scaffold the learning experience and construct a foundational framework for the subject matter. The learner can then build upon this foundation by other means.

2. When the subject matter is complex.

By definition, complex subject matter consists of interconnected parts which may be difficult to make sense of through inquiry, exploration and discovery.

Sometimes it makes more sense to have someone who understands the system explain it to you end-to-end.

3. When the subject matter is black & white.

It’s worth noting that complex is not the same as complicated, whereby inquiry, exploration and discovery may be eminently suitable for gathering multiple versions of the “truth”.

Geopolitics springs to mind, but cooler headed topics such as strategic thinking and decision-making are also highly dependent on context, lending themselves to a more constructivist approach.

But not all topics are like that. Consider financial statement analysis: the content is so straight-forward that it would make little sense to inquire, explore and discover, when you could simply see how it’s done and practise it for yourself.

4. When speed to competence is important.

Learners in the workplace are time poor, and whatever the topic, their employer demands that they get up to speed quickly. Otherwise, don’t come Monday.

These people don’t have the luxury of a semester to inquire, explore and discover. They need to know what they need to know now.

5. When the learning outcome is non-negotiable.

There are some things that your employer must know that you know. It may be critical to your role, a compliance obligation, or a risk management issue; so it can’t be left to chance.

Personally, I think the indicator of must-know learning is its assessment. I wouldn’t care so much where, when or even how you learned it, so long as you did.

However, I can also see that if an employer found itself in court because one of its employees sexually harassed one of his colleagues, it would want to demonstrate that it had provided sufficient training to that individual.

6. When the learner is less inclined.

We in the L&D industry tend to believe (or want to believe) that our target audience is just like us. They’re self-motivated individuals with a hunger to inquire, explore and discover.

The truth, of course, is that our target audience occupies the full spectrum of autodidactism. And dare I suggest many huddle at the lower end.

Woman using computer

Getting back to xMOOCs specifically, another point I wish to make is that just because they are delivered in an instructivist manner, does not mean they must be consumed in an instructivist manner.

While the learner is free to work their way through the curriculum along the pre-defined weekly path, they are also free to inquire, explore and discover at their discretion within a thoughtfully structured environment.

But oh no! If we empower the learner to drive their own MOOC experience, they might not finish it!

Grumpy cat thinking they just won't complete their MOOCs.

As history reminds us time and time again, no one view is ever the “right” one – at least, not all the time.

Our perspective is so dependent on the circumstances that we learning pro’s must appreciate the problem before trumpeting or poopooing the solution.

Just as it makes little sense to get rid of the instructional designers, it makes little sense to get rid of the instructors. Instead, let’s get smarter about instruction.

I can’t use Facebook

27 May 2014

This one goes out to all the L&D folk who are wary of the “I haven’t been trained” excuse.

I can't use Facebook because I haven't been trained in it (said nobody ever).