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Notable Books

Recommended Books

  • Turning Research into Results: A Guide to Selecting the Right Performance Solutions, by Richard E. Clark, Fred Estes
  • How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition, by National Research Council, edited by John Bransford, Ann L. Brown, Rodney R. Cocking
  • Criterion-Referenced Test Development 2nd Edition, by Sharon Shrock, William Coscarelli, Patricia Eyres
  • Michael Allen's Guide to E-Learning, by Michael Allen
  • e-Learning and the Science of Instruction, by Ruth Colvin Clark, Richard E. Mayer
  • Efficiency in E-Learning by Ruth Colvin Clark, Frank Nguyen, John Sweller (2006)

Best-Selling Books

  • The Long Tail

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Wednesday, 08 November 2006

Songs for Learning?

At a recent Bank of America employee event, two employees sang a song to motivate employees to see the benefits in the Bank of America and MBNA merger.

You decide if this is a good learning opportunity. Click to see the video.

Warning: May cause laughter. Don't forget to read the comments.

Actually, I'm guessing that the song worked well for people within the meeting, but damn does it fall apart when the rest of us get to peek through the windows. Suggests to me that motivational attempts like these in our e-learning programs and our business meetings must be lock-boxed to prevent a wider distribution. Even better, when we design we need to assume that our efforts might get posted on YouTube.

Friday, 10 February 2006

Learning Requires Avoidance: Can I Avoid Watching the Olympics?

As I type this, I can hear the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics emanating from our living room.

Oh damn.

Two weeks of discipline required. If I start watching--if I take just one sip--I'm doomed to fall into the hypnotic seduction of the thing. Earlier this week I wrote a piece suggesting that we embrace popular culture to figure out what grabs people's attention and imagination. Good advice, but I just don't have the luxury to spend time watching people in tights for two weeks. I have too many other things to do; too many things to learn.

Learning takes time. Learning requires that we NOT do something else. Just like a good business strategy forces a company to decide what NOT to do, individuals who want to maximize their learning must have a good learning strategy. They must decide what activities to forgo.

Hmmm. What leverage can I gain from this knowledge in terms of instructional design? I don't know, maybe none. It's certainly relevant to individuals deciding whether (and how) to spend time learning something. But can I use this nugget to improve the instructional results or informal learning of the learners I am charged to help?

  1. Well, we might remind learners' managers that learning takes time, and that they can help by protecting learning time.
  2. We can try to make learning more efficient, enabling our learners to forgo fewer other activities.
  3. We can think about whether our learning efforts are really that important, and just cut out those that don't hit the threshold.
  4. We can measure learning to ensure that it's really making a difference--instead of just taking this on faith.
  5. We can create compelling learning designs and focus on high-value, highly-relevant content, drawing our learners away from their distractions, vices, addictions; away from the mindless fluff of our entertainment culture; away from their spouses, children, parents. Okay, well maybe we should just make page turners.
  6. We can take over NBC (or whoever's running the Olympics this year) and add some learning content to it. We could add some info about nutrition, exercise, genetics, ethics, international diversity, the unfair playing field for athletes from countries impoverished with lack of money or a lack of snow and ice. We could teach media literacy, and show how the networks--the advertisers really--try to control our minds and our actions.
  7. We could just watch the damn Olympics and take a freakin' rest for pete's sake.

Go Bode go!!

Monday, 06 February 2006

Hairbrained. Learning for Creative Performance

47 years old and I began hating my haircut. I was fine with my hair and then one day I just snapped. I needed a change. It's painful to fire one's barber/hairstylist, but I just had to find someone new.

But the problem is this. My hair's thin and thinning. I can't use any haircare products because I'm chemically sensitive, so many styles just don't work. No mousse here. No gels. No spray. My new hair professional has to be somebody who can really think, not just copy a style and apply it to my head. My head requires creativity and deep knowledge.

So I begin the painful process of finding a new hair cutter. Damn I hate this, but I gotta do it, so here goes.

The first guy who cuts my hair is a genius. He looks at my hair. He listens to my strange set of requirements. He talks to me. He cuts. Looks good. We talk.

Here's how he learned to cut hair. He started out cutting his own hair. He tried different things. He experimented. He built mental models of various cause and effect relationships. He's not afraid to try different approaches. He also has hair like mine. I like him, but he costs me over $50, which is too much. I'm cheap, and I figure maybe I can find someone else with a better value proposition.

The second person I try has one way of doing things. She's weirded out by my "no chemicals" request. She tries, but the haircut just doesn't cut it. She only costs me $20, so maybe I'll try her again. It could take a little trial and error. She even mentions this.

I'm probably drawing too much from these two data points of anecdotal evidence, but it reminds me of learning research I've come across in the past. To help our learners overcome "functional fixedness"---the tendency to limit the range of response sets we consider---it's helpful to provide learners with multiple contexts and to specifically help them avoid such fixedness by helping prepare them to analyze realistic situations.

The first hairstylist was better able to deal with my wacky hair requirements because he had developed more flexible and more appropriate mental models of how hair-cutting works.

We can help our learners in the same way by:

  1. Providing multiple contexts for practice.
  2. Helping learners understand the underlying principles, not just the obvious surface characteristics of the information to be learned.
  3. Avoid using blocked learning chunks, for example, by only presenting information in topic sections, chapters, etc., without forcing them to deal with all the information together (like they would have to do in the real world). In other words, instead of dividing our learning chunks into chapters, present it in ways that prompt learners to deal with it more organically, more authentically. This doesn't mean we can't start with Topic Sections, but we can't end there if we want to prepare learners for the real world.

I've noticed functional fixedness in our own performance as learning developers. Almost all instructional-design shops tend to gravitate to a limited number of learning methodologies to create their learning programs. They have a functional-fixedness toward instructional design. To create the best value and to be more creative (and to prevent themselves from being outwitted by more creative competitors) instructional design shops need to gather a wider range of learning methods.

It's the "If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail problem." Not only do we have to prevent our learners from falling into this trap, we have to prevent ourselves as instructional-development houses.

Here are some references on functional fixedness for those interested:

Chrysikou, E. G.; Weisberg, R. W. (2005). Following the Wrong Footsteps: Fixation Effects of Pictorial Examples in a Design Problem-Solving Task. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 31, 1134-1148.

Solomon, I. (1994). Analogical transfer and "functional fixedness" in the science classroom. Journal of Educational Research, 87, 371-377.

Langer, E. J. (1992). Matters of mind: Mindfulness/mindlessness in perspective. Consciousness and Cognition: An International Journal, 1, 289-305.

Antonietti, A. (1991). Why does mental visualization facilitate problem-solving. In Logie, Robert H. (Ed); Denis, Michel (Ed). Mental images in human cognition. (pp. 211-227). Oxford, England: North-Holland.

McKelvie, S. J. (1984). Relationship between set and functional fixedness: A replication. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 58, 996-998.

Arnon, R.; Kreitler, S. (1984). Effects of meaning training on overcoming functional fixedness. Current Psychological Research & Reviews, 3, 11-24.

Greeno, J. G.; Magone, M. E.; Chaiklin, S. (1979). Theory of constructions and set in problem solving. Memory & Cognition, 7, 445-461.

Wednesday, 14 December 2005

Training Excellence is a Shaggy Dog Story

In one of the most astonishing examples of training excellence that I've seen in quite some time, check out this website and video clip. If it's real, and it looks real to me, it may change forever the definition of a "shaggy-dog story."

Monday, 10 October 2005

The Not-So-Straight Poop

What is the median age when children are potty trained? Pick the choice that is closest to the actual figure. Go ahead and pick an answer before you read further—just for the heck of it.

  1. 1 year old
  2. 2 years old
  3. 3 years old

Most Americans are likely to choose the second and third choices because most American children are potty trained starting when they are around two years of age.

What’s interesting is that at least 50% of the world’s babies are potty trained by the time they are 1 year old. This piece of data comes from a front-page story in the Sunday New York Times, October 9, 2005 (citing Contemporary Pediatrics magazine).

And the practice isn’t just relegated to a few cultures. Parents in more than 75 countries use these super-fast potty-training practices.

While I generally keep to adult-learning topics in this newsletter, I decided to include this topic for several reasons.

  1. If the NY Times runs it on the front page, it must be fit to print (wink-wink).
  2. The topic held the promise of being an attention-grabber.
  3. The topic reveals lessons for our training-and-development practices.

One obvious learning point is that cultural and individual differences exist in learning. The potty-training example is just an illustration of how surprised we can become if we assume everyone does training like we do it. We cannot assume everything generalizes!

A second point is that while performance outcomes may not differ, different training methods may have different side effects. Most kids are going to be potty trained by the time they are five, but just imagine how much solid waste could be reduced if kids used less than a year of diapers versus three years of diapers. Different training methods produce many different types of side effects: cost differential, organizational morale, individual sense of efficacy, self-esteem, work-family balance, and even pollution! Do you know your training’s side effects?

Let’s not forget that training affects learner attention, even after the training is over. If we train learners on grammar skills, later when they’re in a meeting, they’re more likely to utilize some of their limited working-memory capacity thinking about grammar than if we’d given them no training on grammar. This can be a beneficial or disruptive side effect.

A third point we might glean from the potty example is that learner readiness affects the training investment needed. As the New York Times article pointed out, the parents who use the super-fast training methods must be in constant vigilance, looking for the faintest signs that their child is going to pee or poop. Some of the parents who use these methods swear by them, describing how it helps them feel closer to their children, but they all talk about what an incredible effort it takes to use the methods. As child-guru T. Berry Brazelton was quoted as saying, “I’m all for it, except I don’t think many people can do it.” It’s just going to be too difficult for most parents—especially the typical parent who has multiple responsibilities.

Similar analogs can be found in workplace learning. Learner readiness can play out in many ways. More training may be required for those who aren’t ready, more prerequisite learning opportunities, more effort, and more hand-holding. Lack of readiness may even trigger a reversal in the training calculus—perhaps some topics for some people in some situations are just too costly to train. Alternative interventions may be required or a decision to withhold training may also be appropriate. Do you know how ready your learners are?

The learner-readiness notion is also relevant to public policy. For example, investments in our public schools affect the investments businesses need to make in learning.


  1. We cannot assume that we understand our learners.
  2. Learning designs have different side effects.
  3. Workplace attention is a side effect of training.
  4. The less ready learners are, the more investment needed.
  5. Learner readiness is affected by your elected officials.

Questions to Think About

  1. What are the side effects of your learning interventions?
  2. What level of readiness do your learners have?