A Return to Blogging

You might think this post would show up as the very first one. But then, you’d be mistaken. Life is sloppy, even when it goes well.

I’ve been away from blogging for a little more than three years. The previous experience was an unabashed and fully disclosed experiment, a space for creativity, a “space where I could hone my writing skills and maybe even spark a little dialogue.” Personally, it was that and much, much more. The last three years have been for reflecting on that experience and setting a new course following the death of my first wife in 2005. In the past three years, I’ve returned to school for a Masters (set to graduate in December), held several senior and executive IT jobs, and remarried. More than just re-engineering my career, I’ve re-engineered my entire approach to life. With renewed optimism and focus, the world once again looks to be a shiny place.

The focus for Hobo Kore Dojo will be business, management, technology, education, learning, and individual/team performance in technical environments. The goal is to build this into a collaborative space for sharing ideas related to these topics.

Thank you for dropping in. Please, stay awhile and comment on what you find…

LinkedIn and Dunbar’s Number

The fact I avoid much of the social networking that takes place on the Internet is a feature, not a bug. MySpace and Facebook look like blogging with cool features that someone else controls. As for Twitter, I think Joel Spolsky (2010) has it about right,

Although I appreciate that many people find Twitter to be valuable, I find it a truly awful way to exchange thoughts and ideas. It creates a mentally stunted world in which the most complicated thought you can think is one sentence long. It’s a cacophony of people shouting their thoughts into the abyss without listening to what anyone else is saying. Logging on gives you a page full of little hand grenades: impossible-to-understand, context-free sentences that take five minutes of research to unravel and which then turn out to be stupid, irrelevant, or pertaining to the television series Battlestar Galactica.

I am exploring Google+, however, and maintain a LinkedIn account. The former because there are several features which interest me from an e-learning and collaboration perspective. The latter because, so far, it is the only one that makes sense given my interests and goals. The rest pretty much fits in with Spolsky’s assessment of Twitter – zettabytes of storage for uninteresting chatter.

For those interested in doing more than just going along with the latest craze, there is the realization that strategic participation in any social network requires a measure of preparation and ongoing maintenance. Signing up and posting impulsive or stream-of-(un)consciousness blather is the path to unpredictable results. If there were a predictable result, it might be that your following would reflect the least common denominator from the pool of social network participants rather than valuable contributors to your social network strategy. That’s probably a best case scenario. For a glimpse of what the worst case might look like, consult Anthony Weiner (D-NY, ret.).

So social networks need attention if they are to remain viable and avoid a steady decay into a stale presence. This means they demand time, a precious resource for any working individual. If someone is busy earning a living (i.e. “successful”), they’re less likely to join or maintain an online social network presence. If work keeps them less busy, then they may have an enhanced and robust online social network presence. There are, of course, various degrees of involvement across this spectrum and most people slide back and forth depending on circumstances.

These are some of the things to keep in mind when evaluating other people’s online social network presence. A case in point is the roster of connections people collect on LinkedIn

I understand the purpose of building a roster of connections. However, in many cases it looks to be more a score for popularity than a useful indication of one’s sphere of professional influence. For individuals with 500+ members on their roster of connections, to what degree of certainty can they claim valuable insight into the character and capability of each of those connections?

The answer to this may lie with Dunbar’s Number, named for the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar and the research he completed to arrive at the number. Gladwell (2000) refers to this number as the “social channel capacity” (p. 177) and he describes it as follows:

Dunbar’s argument is that brains evolve, they get bigger, in order to handle the complexities of larger social groups. If you belong to a group of five people, Dunbar points out, you have to keep track of ten separate relationships: your relationship with the four others in your circle and the six other two-way relationships between the others. That’s what it means to know everyone in the circle. You have to understand the personal dynamics of the group, juggle different personalities, keep people happy, manage the demands on your own time and attention, and so on. If you belong to a group of twenty people, however, there are now 190 two-way relationships to keep track of: 19 involving yourself and 171 involving the rest of the group. That’s a fivefold increase in the size of the group, but a twentyfold increase in the amount of information processing needed to “know” the other members of the group. Even a relatively small increase in the size of a group, in other words, creates a significant additional social and intellectual burden. (p. 178-179)

This number, according to Dunbar, is approximately 150.

The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us. Putting it another way, it is the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar. (as cited in Gladwell, 2000, p. 179)

Research seems to support this theory, with a variance of ± 50, across a diverse set of social structures from primitive to modern. Using the number 150 puts the edge of the envelop for maintaining genuine relationships at somewhere around 11,175. For those with 500 connections on LinkedIn, that number rises to 124,750, a number likely well beyond the capacity of even the most dedicated social butterfly to maintain in any meaningful way. The further one goes beyond the 150 connection limit, the greater the likelihood that individual’s collection of connections has become dilute with increasingly weak linked connections.

The conclusion to be drawn is that individuals with 500+ connections on LinkedIn either have a great deal of kruft built up in their rosters or they connect to anyone who sends them an invitation – more like collecting a point rather then gaining a meaningful connection. Regardless, it is difficult to make a general case for how such a large number of connections is of value on a social network such as LinkedIn. Specific cases could be made in instances where popularity is a business asset (performance artists and human resource professionals, for example) and in such cases, social networks such as Facebook may serve the individual better.

So where is the value in running a roster of connections up to 500+? What is the value of including individuals with such heavy rosters on one’s own roster of connections? There are several on my profile, but I know each of them personally.

From a complex systems perspective, insight might be gained by considering LinkedIn connections as formal network nodes. We can identify nodes (people) and edges (the relationships between them.) But calculating the degree of each node and path length is problematic as LinkedIn and individual users control the visibility of nodes. The value of any individual node’s roster of connections cannot be independently calculated.

Considered as small-worlds networks, the LinkedIn connection rosters make more sense. As a new user begins constructing their individual connection roster, it likely consists of a non-random cluster of close friends and associates. As it grows, they begin to add individuals with whom they are less familiar or otherwise have a weaker connection. Consequently, LinkedIn connection rosters greater than 150 likely represent weakly emergent, small-worlds networks within a cloud of random friends, weak acquaintances, and strangers with whom the node might share one or more professional attributes.

How this is of use in a business oriented social network remains elusive to me. If I ask for an introduction to a second degree connection, what is the likelihood it will be be picked up? Viewed from the perspective of complexity theory and based on experience, I’m likely to find greater benefit by focusing on local business associations and industry specific conferences in which I can randomly choose someone to whom I wish to introduce myself directly.

References

Gladwell, M. (2000). The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference. New York, NY: Bay Back Books

Spolsky, J. (2010, March 14). Puppy! Retrieved from http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2010/03/14.html

Degreed vs. Qualified

John Cook makes several good points with respect to the distinction between “professional” and “amateur.”

A professional is someone who does a thing for money, and an amateur is someone who does it for love. Volunteer fire fighters are amateurs in the best sense, doing what they do out of love of the work and love for the community they serve.

Unfortunately professional implies someone is good at what they do, and amateur implies they are not. Maybe skill and compensation were more strongly correlated in the past. When most people had less leisure a century or two ago, few had the time to become highly proficient at something they were not paid for. Now the distinction is more fuzzy.

A similar distinction can be made today between those with a college degree and those who are qualified. In the past, having a college degree served as a somewhat objective indication of an individual’s capabilities, level of competence, or at least their ability to complete a long-term project. Today, it’s pretty hard to argue that a degree in parapsychology or surfing indicate much more than an ability to pay a lot of money to an institution that’s more than willing to take it.

Degrees such as these could be dismissed as fringe interests or credentialed hobbies if it weren’t for the fact that it is common practice on resumes to simply list educational institutions and universities that have been attended without specifying degree details, or indeed if a degree program was even completed. The ubiquitous art and political science majors from more well known universities are just as specious. Many hiring managers fail to dig deeper into what constitutes a candidate’s capabilities as reflected in their credentials. Consequently, educational providers, such as the Eisner Institute for Professional Studies and England’s Plymouth University, are simply accepted based on the patina of their names.

Somewhere along the timeline, the dominant assumption became that an individual cannot be qualified in a particular area of interest unless some educational institution or provider has certified the qualification. Assembling high performance teams with this assumption is another way to rely on luck in the effort. After all, the bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma.

A degree is a fine place to start the evaluation of a candidate’s capabilities. But a savvy team builder knows how to spot technical talent regardless the credential. One of the better ETL resources I had, for example, began his career in computers as a graphics artist. One of my more creative developers attended Colorado School of Mines, leaving a few classes shy of a degree for reasons that can best be described as a lack if interest in finishing. (Each of these talents, it should be noted, required a very different approach in management in order for them to remain productive on the development team.)

To paraphrase Cook, in the past most people had neither the time or the money to pursue advanced studies. Following the past two decades of unchecked tuition increases and easy student loans, the distinction of advanced capability once conferred by a college degree is more fuzzy. It’s possible the bursting higher education bubble may cause the pendulum to swing back the other way as many parents and self-paying adults are re-thinking the value inherent in college degree. Time will tell.

Seeing vs. Visualizing – Part II

Thinking further about my previous post on seeing vs. visualizing, and doing a bit more research, there is more to add.

After falling down the rabbit hole for some considerable time, I ended up with solid footing on Korzybski’s insight:

A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness…If we reflect upon our languages, we find that at best they must be considered only as maps. A word is not the object it represents. (p. 58)

This seems obvious, but far too many people operate as if the map *is* the territory. To illustrate, I’ll start with a literal map/territory example (see Figure 1). I’ve been to Hawai’i many times, and every time I go, I spend time on the North Shore of Kaua’i, hiking the Kalalau Trail. It doesn’t look like much if you look at a high level map of the Island. Doesn’t even look like much if you look at the topographical map of the trail which includes Hanakapiai Beach and the Falls. But looking at an actual photograph of the territory begins to reveal why it is this trail is frequently included in the top 10 most difficult trails. It is rainy, slippery, rocky, steep, and hot. That’s the territory, and except for geographical references and elevations, it bears little resemblance to the map.

The Map is not the Territory

Figure 1. The Map is not the Territory

Now for a little less obvious example, consider your response as you read the word “ObamaCare.” Was your response positive or negative? Chances are your reaction is based on a combination of personal experiences and sound bites from critics or supporters of the program and not from having actually read all 2,000+ pages of the bill. Investing (and I use the word deliberately) time to develop the ability for moving from map to territory seems to be a necessary precursor to successful transfer of learning experiences. There also seems to be a kind of ferocious tenacity that drives this, an unrelenting drive to move from a map of the world based on dreams/fantasy/wishful thinking/second hand data to, at least, a map based on objective data. (Philosophers would argue that we can never really know the actual territory. Like I said, this is quite a rabbit hole.) Another way to describe this is a drive to get to the original source of whatever one is studying and distrusting any intermediary interpretations until verified against the original source.

So, where does this leave us with considering the transfer from chemical understanding to mathematical understanding to martial arts skill? It wasn’t that understanding the chemical symbols became an understanding of mathematical symbols. Rather, it was understanding that the chemical symbols represented the underlying chemistry which translated to understanding that the mathematical symbols represented the underlying mathematics. In my case, an essential element was acquiring the ability to see, literally, the underlying chemistry represented by the symbols much like I can look at a topographical map of the Kalalau Trail and see the underlying jungle trail. The experience of learning how to view stereo triptychs is directly analogous to the experience of actually hiking the Kalalau Trail for the first time.

The learning theory most closely aligned with this experience is the Four Stages of Learning attributed to Noel Burch in the 1970’s. (There is no definitive reference for this attribution, and a measure of ambiguity exists as to the origin of the theory.) The transition from conscious incompetence (“This chemistry makes no sense.”) to conscious competence (“Thanks to stereo triptychs, I understand!”) to unconscious competence, where I can visualize three dimensional molecules without the need for stereo triptychs, accurately describes the experience.

How this translated to mathematics seems to have hinged on the realization, novel at the time, that the mathematical equations were also simply symbolic representations of an underlying reality. This fundamentally changed the question and the focus of attention for understanding the problem. It was still difficult at first, but at least understanding and comprehension seemed to stick better as I spent less time struggling with the symbols. Patterns began to emerge which were not evident in the isolated symbols.

Turns out, there is a neurological basis for this kind of shift. Working from robotics as an analogy to the human neurology involved with learning, Pribram (1971) argues, “Pattern ‘perceiving’ devices build up in one manner or another a spatially coded representation, a map, of their experience. Thus they can ‘learn’ to respond differentially to a particular pattern: they can ‘recognize’ the familiar, and distinguish the novel” (p. 102). And later:

As noted, however, habituation is not an indication of some loss of sensitivity on the part of the nervous system but rather the development of a neural model of the environment, a representation, and expectancy, a type of memory mechanism against which inputs are constantly matched. The nervous system is thus continually tuned *by* inputs to process further inputs. (p. 105)

This appears to be a description of unconscious competence. But when an individual’s habituation is challenged with input that increasingly fails to match the established pattern or map (that is, the individual ‘distinguishes the novel’), it is possible that the individual is then shifted into a state of conscious incompetence from which new skills need to be learned (conscious competence) and habituated (unconscious competence). For complex information, such as chemistry or mathematics, this is undoubtedly a cyclical process. As Haskell (2001) observes:

The research on teaching for transfer clearly shows that for transfer to occur, the original learning must be repeatedly reinforced with multiple examples or similar concepts in multiple contexts, and I would add, on different levels and orders of magnitude. Teaching that promotes transfer, then, involves returning again and again to an idea or procedure but on different levels and in different contexts, with apparently “different” examples. (p. 26-27)

As for martial arts, there is another important component to the application of this skill. True enough, I was deliberately thinking about my opponents as giant molecules undergoing dramatic state changes. But there were numerous distractions that needed to be removed from the visualization which were irrelevant to the situation, such as race, gender, bulk (muscle or fat), and even clothing. Eventually, the skill developed such that attackers now look something like the image in Figure 2.

The Bare Bones Attack

Figure 2. The Bare Bones Attack

Is the attacker a man or a woman? Afro-American, Caucasian, Hispanic, or Asian? Well dressed or homeless? These are all distractions that can inhibit a proper defense or provoke an unwarranted counteraction based on prejudices and personal bias. All that matters is the attacker’s fist or what, if anything, is in the attacker’s hand. All I need to know is where the weapon (fist, knife, club, gun) is pointed, and where I need to move to disarm the rascal.

References

Haskell, R. E. (2001). Transfer of learning: Cognition, instruction, and reasoning. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Korzybski, A. (1933). Science and sanity: An introduction to non-aristotelian systems and general semantics (4th. ed). Lakeville, CT: the Institute of General Semantics.

Pribram, K. H. (1971). Languages of the brain: Experimental paradoxes and principles in neuropsychology. New York, NY: Brandon House, Inc.

Cargo Cults in Management

I first read about cargo cults in Feynman’s (1985) book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.” So I benefited from the unique perspective he brought to the subject.

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land. (p. 310-311)

As a young biochemistry student, this had a significant effect on me. It shaped my thinking about science and it installed a “cargo cult” sensor in my brain. As I began to branch out into other areas of interest, such as business, management, and interpersonal communication, I began to see cargo cults everywhere. So much so it became important to filter them out or accommodate their presence if any work was to get done.

In the work place, “cargo cult” thinking may not necessarily be a bad thing. As a tool, it can be leveraged as an extended “as if” frame for working out the solution to a complex problem or gaining insight into a black box. By assembling all the known and visible elements and configuring them to match the best possible composition, its easier to see what’s missing.

And it’s been said imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If an executive’s reports are behaving in a way that reflects his or her approach to management, isn’t that a good thing? Here is where business leaders get into trouble. Are the executive’s reports imitating or implementing?

This can go both ways. In a recent engagement, I had worked to implement as many elements from agile software development with a small and highly capable development team. It was a daunting task: completely re-architect and develop a poorly coded application while supporting the old application. (In 30 years, this was the first time I recommended a complete redesign and rewrite of a major application. The reasons behind this are best set aside for another post.) One of the elements was the introduction of “stand-up” meetings every morning before the team set off to immerse themselves in code. These are very quick (15 minutes or less) meetings where everyone literally stands up for the duration of the meeting. The idea, in part, is that by being forced to stand, attendees are less likely to drone on about trivial matters or issues that do not require the entire team’s input. Complicated issues are quickly identified and scheduled for more detailed meetings, if necessary.

Six months into the project it was very clear our approach was working and insofar as the coding effort was concerned, we would be successful. The senior executive to this effort seemed impressed and decided to switch to a “stand-up” meeting format for the executive team meetings. They were “stand-up” meetings in name only. Rather than a once a week meeting that virtually always extended way beyond the originally scheduled 60 minutes, I now had to attend daily meetings that went on for 45-60 minutes during which nobody stood.

There were other issues with implementing the executive team stand-up meetings. The senior executive did a poor job of modeling the behavior he sought and there was very little control over the clock. Developers are smart people and they notice things like this even though they are not directly participating. Among those being managed, it does little to inspire confidence in the management staff.

Nonetheless, I like the idea of applying agile methodology to such executive meetings. Stand-up meetings that are actually stand-up meetings would be a plus. After action reports, as used by the military, would also help. There is also a place for storyboards and retrospectives. But implementing these and other elements would require a significant learning effort on the part of the executive team. Not because the methods are difficult to understand, but because the MBA mindset of many executive teams would have to be loosened up a bit for the requisite unlearning to become possible.

References

Feynman, R. P. (1985). “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a curious character. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Everyone is a student, everyone is a teacher

A Buddhist proverb reads, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I have found this to be true and it marks one of the many ways in which my life has been fortunate. As is often the case with proverbs, there is a corollary which is equally true: “When a student appears, the teacher must be ready.” The privilege, it seems, of having learned from a master carries the obligation of passing along our wisdom to those who follow. This suggests a continual challenge to improve ones’ capabilities within any chosen area of expertise, as we can never truly know when we have crossed the threshold from student to master. The moment informs us. The best we can do is continually prepare for the moment we discover ourselves standing in the shoes of a teacher.

The example facilitation experiences chosen for this post in which I found myself in the role of ‘teacher’ come from two very different contexts. The first involves teaching an innovative project management methodology in a corporate environment to a team of expert software developers. The methodology, first introduced by Spolsky (2007), is called Evidence Based Scheduling (EBS) and is designed to minimize the effects of several well know cognitive biases, the planning fallacy and optimism bias, in project level of effort (LOE) estimations. The importance to software development projects, as described by Virine and Trumper (2008), is that

people do not account for risks or other factors that they perceive as lying outside the specific scope of a project. They also may discount multiple and improbable high-impact risks because each one has a very small probability of occurring. (p. 134)

The effects can add greatly to the cost of developing and maintaining software. The challenge is that expert software developers are both notoriously bad at LOE estimates and reluctant to acknowledge this weakness, which introduces yet another cognitive bias known as the illusory superiority bias.

The solution was to introduce this as a technical challenge in solving a generic project management problem. The developers were taught the underlying statistical framework to EBS, such as the mechanics and value of Monte Carlo simulations, and then instructed to build a web application that would leverage these algorithms for providing LOE estimates (see Figure 1). Development of the EBS application was utilized as a way to both establish the EBS methodology as standard practice within the team and build trust with the individual team members by collaboratively validating the application was unbiased and accurate. Assessment for the success of the effort was determined using the following criteria:

  • How interested the development team was in creating and improving the EBS application (implementation formative assessment.)
  • How diligent the development team remained in utilizing the completed application (post-implementation formative assessment.)
  • How much the LOE estimates of the individual developer’s improved over time (summative assessment.)
Figure 1. Example EBS Progress Graph

Figure 1. Example EBS Progress Graph

The approach was a significant success. The application was deployed to production and continued to be developed beyond initial goals and expectations. The application was eventually tied to the information technology department’s ticket tracking system which further automated the project management process. The result was greatly improved LOE estimates and clearly defined delivery expectations for issue resolution and enhancement requests. From the perspective of facilitation, the project’s success was augmented by the deliberate application of learning strategies appropriate to the learner audience and educational context. The use of both cognitive and constructionist approaches, combined with a non-confrontational and strict problem based approach, resulted in rapid comprehension and assimilation of the new material for each of the learners.

The second facilitation experience chosen for this paper involves teaching physical defense techniques in an Aikido martial arts school. From this context, there are two examples which serve to illustrate that there is no such thing as an unsuccessful learning experience. Rather, the lessons from every learning experience are either expected or unexpected.

The facilitation experience with an unexpected lesson occurred when I was a brown belt ranked Aikido student. This is considered a mid-level rank and connotes a student that has considerable experience but is not yet an expert. I was working in partnership with a white belt ranked (beginner) student, who had perhaps no more than several months experience studying Aikido, on a technique known as shihonage. I had been attempting to explain with many words how the technique was ‘supposed to be done’ and was describing the ways he was applying the technique ‘incorrectly.’ In retrospect, this was the application of strict cognitive learning theory to the instruction with an assumption that behavioral learning principles derived from demonstration and practice would result in the transfer of learning. Formative assessment consisted of how the student was improving incrementally and the summative assessment was based on how consistently the student would perform the technique correctly once learned.

The expectation was that the white belt student would continue to perform the technique poorly until many iterations of instruction and fine tuning had occurred. To my surprise, the student performed the technique in an innovative and remarkably effective way. This caught me off my guard and I ended up injured as a result of a plethora of incorrect assumptions related to the white belt students’ ability to learn and my now obvious lack of expertise in reading my students’ capabilities. Injury aside, the learning experience was a success in that the white belt student received very clear feedback as to the quality of his technique and I learned the wisdom behind the words of Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few” (p. 21). I later incorporated the technique I learned from the white belt student that day into my own practice.

The second example from the Aikido context occurred many years later, after I had achieved the rank of third degree black belt. Again I was working with a white belt student with perhaps less than six months experience. The technique being taught was the same as before, shihonage. The white belt student had become quite frustrated with the technique, was clearly over-thinking the steps, and had begun to force his way through the technique. The risk was that we could both end up injured. The first objective was to employ what could best be described as behavioralist learning strategies: Pause, take a few deep breaths, and shake off the frustration so as to open a measure of mental space for reconsidering the technique.

The goal was to interrupt the negative feedback loop in the stimulus-response cycle.  Having achieved this, the next step was to leverage a blend of cognitive and constructivist learning theory elements. By assisting the student in visualizing a wire frame box around his body, he was able to establish reference points for what constituted ‘inside’ his control, ‘outside’ his control, and whether or not the technique was moving from ‘inside’ to ‘outside’ his control. This approach was quickly adapted to include similar reference points on the ground for how his feet should be placed throughout each phase of the technique. The process was successful, not just with the shihonage technique, but with subsequent techniques over the following months.

Harvey Firestone, the American industrialist and founder of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., is quoted as having said, “The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.” As educators, we place ourselves at the front of the line for receiving this call. For indeed, the role of the educator is rapidly changing in remarkable ways. No longer just an arbiter of static knowledge, educators are being tasked with serving as guides, mentors, and leaders for an evolving knowledge landscape. To fulfill these roles, Trilling and Fadel (2009) note

Teachers, whether they are fresh out of an education school or have been in the classroom for twenty years, must learn to develop their design, coaching, and facilitating skills to guide and support their students’ learning projects. Teachers must continually sharpen their skills at using the power of learning technologies to help deepen understanding and further develop 21st century skills. (p. 125)

Working from my personal experiences, I would add that K-12 educators have the added responsibility of  developing the skills which help prepare learners for success in achieving the goals they define from themselves. This will require more than just mastery of current and emerging learning technologies. It will require educators to:

  • Collaborate with their students as they work to develop skills from a project-based learning methodology.
  • Engage students with questions and problems that spark interest and motivation, build knowledge, and develop core concepts and principles.
  • Employ feedback methods that are positive and which engage the students’ sense of personal responsibility and accountability.
  • Recognize the expert within their students and the beginner within themselves.

Social Learning Theory and Mandatory Volunteerism

The following exchange is from the discussion forum  for OTL560, “Facilitating Learning and Transfer.” The discussion topic for this week was to prepare a “top ten list of best practices for K-12 facilitation.” The assignment was a little vague, but presumably we needed to frame this within the context of various learning theories we’ve researched. Nonetheless, it inspired a deeper dive into an area of education I hadn’t thought much about, namely, social learning theory. One of my classmates offered the following:

3.  Service based learning is a method where the students learn and develop through active participation in well-organized service that involves the community or supports it in some way.  Service based learning promotes civic responsibility and respect, it is integrated into the curriculum, and it lends itself to opportunities for application of skills and knowledge that the students already have (that’s transfer right?).  It also gives students extended learning opportunities.  It is designed to equally benefit provider and learner. (Billig, 2000)

The reference: Billig, S. (2000, May). Research on k-12 school-based service-learning: The evidence builds. Phi Delta Kappan, 658-664. My response follows and I’ve highlighted the text which is important to have in mind when reading my classmates follow-up reply:

This is a comprehensive and excellent list of best practices. Good work.

I’m inclined, however, to challenge #3 as a best practice since I’ve a generally negative opinion of how service-based learning programs have been implemented. Billig (2000) leads with a good observation: “As service-learning has become more popular, both its advocates and its detractors have begun to ask difficult and serious questions. Just what is service-learning? Is it a model, a program, a pedagogy, or a philosophy” (p. 658-659)?

Looking at many of the implementations, it appears to be more of an agenda than anything else. In addition, there is an implicit contradiction at best and hypocrisy at worst with “required volunteerism.” The fundamental problem, the core weakness, is with the very definition of service-based learning. I’ve read many definitions, but the one offered by Billig (2000) from The Corporation for National Service is as good as any. The objectives, outcomes and goals defy any sort of measure for success except for the opinions and subjective impressions of the program administrators. Furthermore, the objectives, outcomes, and goals often serve the interests of the administrators/instructors/teachers and not the student.

My personal opinion is that theories such as this take public education into an area for which it is neither qualified nor has any kind of mandate. Teaching altruism places educators on a slippery slope that can too easily lead to expectations of teaching the “correct” moral, social, and ethical ideals. Global history is not kind to the precedent this implies. From the perspective of transfer of learning, Gray (2009) is spot on: “Forced education interferes with children’s abilities to educate themselves.”

As the saying goes, what can’t be measured can’t be improved. What sort of objective measures would you put in place to evaluate the effectiveness of service-based programs? How would you define the objectives, outcomes, and goals such that they are student-centric? Would students be allowed to opt-out?

References

Billig, S. (2000, May). Research on k-12 school-based service-learning: The evidence builds. Phi Delta Kappan, 658-664.

Gray, P. (2009). Seven sins of our system of forced education. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/200909/seven-sins-our-system-forced-education

My classmates’ reply:

We will have to agree to disagree, maybe it is because I take community, volunteerism, and public service to heart, it is part of who I am and I don’t see that in today’s youth. My daughter participated in a service based learning project last year and it opened her eyes, she had to do so many hours of community service, he delivered food to need families during the holidays, it made her realized how unfortunate some families are.  She also packed boxes to send overseas to soldiers, this really meant a lot to her knowing that people really supported the military, since both of her parents have deployed it made her proud of us and that she was supporting someone else parents in the same situations.  Yes it is harder to define objectives and outcome but I have seen the benefits not only in my own child but in her friends that participated.  I believe it is important and think that they need this exposure. I don’t agree that service based learning is forced education, no more forced than any other strategy, it is one way to promote student involvement in their community, the use of these teaching strategies are personal preference these are what I believe will motivate my students and myself to be a better teacher and see my students as individuals, this strategy could give me insight into what motivates them, it could make a difference.Opting-out?  Student’s don’t get to opt out of learning, this strategy is a learning experience.

There is a lot here to deconstruct. My response:

 [The following reply needs a bit of a preface. Inspired by the reading assignments of the past several weeks and the various paths that were followed as a result, this is presented as an opportunity to put theory to practice and endeavor to expand my knowledge base with respect to the topic of social learning. (A lengthy post touching on social learning theory done for selfish reasons!) So the reply may seem a little long, but we’re in a graduate program for a Masters, after all, and challenging each other to consider alternative perspectives and deepen our “mastery” of the knowledge is a good thing. Or, at least, it should be. That’s the spirit with which this is offered. – GE]

“We will have to agree to disagree”

Well…I’d encourage you not to shut down the conversation so soon. I’m willing to change my position. However, with such an important topic, more than anecdotes and personal experiences will be needed. I have plenty of my own and such recitations seem to confuse and polarize conversations more than they add clarity. And if, within the same sentence, you’re resigned to disagree “because [you] take community, volunteerism and public service to heart,” that suggests your disagreement is with a misperception that my position is I don’t take such things to heart. I very much do, and I hope you didn’t mean to imply this.

I’m well aware of the value and importance of service in the community and will forgo a sidebar establishing my service credentials. If my word is any good, take it on faith they are long and deep. I’d rather focus on clarifying my position, which goes to the age appropriateness of introducing social learning projects and with being careful about how those projects are presented and implemented. My read of the research is that such programs, particularly at the younger ages, are more for the benefit of teachers and adults rather than the children.

The argument for introducing teaching strategies based on social learning theory after an individual’s K-12 learning experience can be made from a variety of positions. Using “classical” development as a starting point, one can leverage the research and theories from Piaget and other similar theorists. Within this frame, altruism is viewed as a behavioral characteristic that emerges later in development and is a characteristic which emerges naturally without being “taught.”

According to Piaget and others, children don’t develop a concept between self and other until somewhere around age 4. Until somewhere around age 7, children are egocentric and prone to classification errors in thinking (“My ball is round. The moon is round. Therefore the moon is a ball.”)  The formal operational stage, the ability to form and test hypotheses on the way to solving problems and answering questions doesn’t begin until somewhere around 11 or 12 years of age and needs years to mature. In fact, it is considered a life-long effort. It isn’t a stretch to conclude this ability hasn’t matured sufficiently to comprehend complex social situations until senior high school or later, Lake Wobegon Effect not withstanding.

Furthermore, the research shows that the understanding of relative position with respect to how one is doing (richer vs. poorer, etc.) doesn’t emerge until late in a child’s development. It follows that implementing a social learning theory as a matter of policy and mandate, perhaps at any level in K-12, is at best counter productive and can therefore be described oxymoronically as “mandatory volunteerism.”

But Piaget’s theories have come under considerable attack of late. So what are the consequences to my thesis? The argument can also be made with more recent research as is presented by Haskell (2001). From this frame, it is argued that children do not go through distinct development stages, rather their development evolves with the acquisition of an ever expanding and validated knowledge base. Here again, the research strongly suggests that individuals in the K-12 age ranges, particularly the younger ages, are not sufficiently developed in terms of both knowledge base and cognitive ability to realize the successful transition of learning from experiences derived from social learning theories.

If the learning objectives and educational goals for such experiences don’t go beyond the immediate experience of satisfaction, gilt, shame, anger, pity, fear, or sorrow for some group or individual, then the lasting lesson from the experience is likely to manifest some time later in the individual’s life. And it is also likely that lesson will not be what the educator intended, as the individual will begin to connect the experience to knowledge gained subsequent to the social learning experience. If the social learning experience is to be successful, the learning objectives and educational goals must necessarily be thought out in detail, critically reviewed for success (formative assessment), and the experience must include the essential elements for successful transfer of learning. Not an easy task, to be sure.

As Tan (as cited in Haskell, 2001) notes, “students who are very low in prior knowledge cannot benefit from cognitive strategy instruction. Students who adopt a surface passive approach probably do not have the critical mass of facts necessary for them to use any cognitive strategies” (p. 98). In the case of social learning, the requisite knowledge base includes more than just social experiences and associated emotional responses.  Without developed critical thinking skills and an understanding of economics, money, where wealth comes from and how it is created, relevant historical background and a plethora of other issues, assigning a ten year old to help serve meals to the poor is more likely to be remembered as a chore or something done to please an adult rather than a connection to the undercurrent of prevailing social issues. I other words, if you want more than a transient visceral response to a social learning experience, if you want to get to a solution to a social problem, then transfer of learning must occur. And that needs a robust knowledge base from which to work and draw meaningful conclusions.

History has recorded, as I alluded to in my previous post, where unfettered social learning can lead when such practices are institutionalized. As educators, we would do well to keep in mind that not every form of altruism is good. Unintended consequences can be costly to the student, the educational provider, and the community. Oakley (as cited in Angier, 2011) describes various forms of pathological altruism, which look to be the end result of what Haskell (2001) describe as “‘runaway’ transfers” (p. 102).

Well intentioned programs that implement any kind of “mandatory volunteerism” make as much sense as teaching calculus to third graders. I would be opposed to that as well based on the same principles and reasons as stated above. Cognitively, the student isn’t capable of understanding the content at that age. Again, my position is not against social learning theory per se, rather with the appropriateness of its application to any context involving K-12 students.

“I believe it is important and think that they need this exposure.”

I fully respect and do not doubt your good intentions. Nonetheless the challenge remains: how would you define the objectives and outcomes, and how would you measure success at reaching those outcomes and goals? The risk is in paving another road with good intentions to…well, you know where.

I suspect our differing viewpoints do not rest with the value of social learning theory, rather its application and implementation. I see it as something that, if it is to be an authentic and sincere learning experience, must be the choice of the student. Otherwise the significant risk is that the lesson learned will not be the one intended.

I’ve thousands of hours of service donated to the interests of women’s health over the past 20 years. By comparison, I’ve probably given nary a second thought to saving snail darters in the Little Tennessee River. But someone has. And that’s the beauty of altruism enabled by asynchronous collaborative efforts and supported by tools such as the Internet and cell phones. We each champion our own causes and on balance, everything seems to get taken care of according to it’s need or importance.

It isn’t for any one of us to judge in the grand scheme of things whether women’s health is more important than the extinction of snail darters. But I will be the judge of which one is more important in my corner of the world and reserve the right to make that determination. That’s the lesson I would want to convey to any young adult enrolled in a social learning based program.

To summarize, my thesis is that social learning theories should not be implemented until after the student has achieved a requisite level of maturity – perhaps not even before college, given the insulated lives and rate of maturity in today’s younger generation. In other words, until they have had sufficient opportunity to develop the essential knowledge base to evaluate the social implications of their actions. If students have no underlying knowledge, let alone a comprehensive knowledge base, of the many and varied issues that comprise homelessness, poverty, war, global warming, snail darters, or whatever, how can an educator in good conscious assert that the lessons they intend will be transferred into real life outside school? Haskell’s review of the research in this area under these conditions says transfer of learning won’t occur.

“Opting-out? Student’s don’t get to opt out of learning, this strategy is a learning experience.”

I don’t understand this statement. It seems out of context. Can you elaborate more on what you mean? It seems to be a rather definitive statement that students do not have a choice in what they may be interested in learning. What if the social learning experience violated the student’s values, morals, or ethics? Would parents have the option of opting-out on behalf of their children?

GE

References

Angier, N. (2011, October 3). The pathological altruist gives till someone hurts. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/04/science/04angier.html

Haskell, R. E. (2001). Transfer of learning: Cognition, instruction, and reasoning. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Seeing vs. Visualizing

Quantifying transfer of learning is a difficult task. Many attempts to substantiate the efficacy of any particular learning theory for facilitating learning transfer have proven to be elusive. This isn’t surprising, in light of Haskell’s (2001) observation, “Transfer is the basis of mental abstraction, analogical relations, classification, generalization, generic thinking, induction, invariance, isomorphic relations, logical inference, metaphor, and constructing mental models” (p. 26). That’s a lot to be captured by a single learning theory. In reflecting on past personal educational experiences where I’m certain there was a transfer of learning, I am equally at a loss to quantify what actually facilitated the transfer. There are, however, several aspects to those experiences which, while not fully elucidating the transfer process, do provide insight into some key elements.

The example experience selected for this post involves visualizing chemical molecules and how that ability transferred to a better understanding of mathematics and martial arts. As an undergraduate biochemistry student, I struggled to understand what chemists call molecular kinetics. Basically, how the shapes of molecules influence their behavior. This is particularly important for large molecules, such as hemoglobin and DNA. When shaped one way, hemoglobin, for example, can carry oxygen. Shaped another way, it carries carbon dioxide. (There you have it. Biochemistry in two sentences.)

Experienced chemists “see” this. But how do you see a molecule? And therein lies the rub. Having a very strong preference for receiving information via the auditory channel, the idea of seeing something that couldn’t be seen was a bit of a stretch for me. The hard work to develop this skill was done in a biochemistry class which featured learning how to view stereo triptychs. Consider this example stereo triptych:

Stereo Triptych

Stereo Triptych

By training one’s brain to merge the left image with the right image, what results is an apparent third image which combines the two such that a free floating sphere is interpreted by the brain. For many people, this is easy and is the stuff 3D movies are made of. For me, it was very difficult.

Following the method described by Wood, Wilson, Benbow, and Hood (1981) and a lot of practice, I was eventually able to look at stereo triptychs of complex molecules and instantly recognize the subtle shape distinctions and changes which occur as a molecule changes state. It was a thrill to acquire this skill, like the first time you ride a bike. A whole new world opens up.

The interesting part was when I discovered this skill could be applied in mathematics. Being able to see the effects on real world events as reflected in equations for trajectory, inertia, and momentum made working through exam problems significantly easier. The best I can describe it is that the chemical symbols had been replaced by mathematical symbols in how I made sense of what was being described. Following graduation, this skill proved valuable yet again in martial arts training. The ability to rapidly assess an attack and visualize where it was going made it much easier to position myself to employ the most effective defensive technique. I recall deliberately thinking about my opponent as a giant molecule undergoing a dramatic state change.

To explore this experience in the context of educational theory, it is helpful to again consider Haskell’s (2001) observation:

Research on teaching for transfer clearly shows that for transfer to occur, the original learning must be repeatedly reinforced with multiple examples or similar concepts in multiple contexts, and I would add, on different levels and orders of magnitude. Teaching that promotes transfer, then, involves returning again and again to an idea or procedure but on different levels and in different contexts, with apparently “different” examples. (p. 26-27)

This implies that both behavioralist and constructivist approaches to learning are involved with the transfer of learning. The initial phase, repeated reinforcement with multiple examples, certainly fits within the behavioralist model. And it was certainly applicable in my experience with first learning how to visualize three dimensional representations of molecules via stereo triptychs. The multiple examples were all chemical molecules and thus provided enough variation to make the learning and transfer challenging, yet not so different as to make the task impossible.

Taking this transfer to the next level involved applying the skill in non-chemical contexts. First mathematics and later martial arts training. In this phase, the challenge involved tasks more aligned with constructivist approaches to learning. That is, building a richer understanding and deeper capabilities by synthesizing a variety of cognitive and experiential resources.

References

Haskell, R. E. (2001). Transfer of learning: Cognition, instruction, and reasoning. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Wood, W. B., Wilson, J. H., Benbow, R. M., & Hood, L. E. (1981). Biochemistry: A problems approach (2nd. ed.). Menlo Park, CA: The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company

Delayed transfer of learning

While researching this weeks’ discussion topic in my Masters program, I came across a recent LA Times article that made me think about, for lack of a better phrase, the intentional delay of transfer of learning. Roan (2011) summarizes,

For more than a decade, California and other states have kept their newest teen drivers on a tight leash, restricting the hours when they can get behind the wheel and whom they can bring along as passengers. Public officials were confident that their get-tough policies were saving lives.

Now, though, a nationwide analysis of crash data suggests that the restrictions may have backfired: While the number of fatal crashes among 16- and 17-year-old drivers has fallen, deadly accidents among 18-to-19-year-olds have risen by an almost equal amount. In effect, experts say, the programs that dole out driving privileges in stages, however well-intentioned, have merely shifted the ranks of inexperienced drivers from younger to older teens. (para. 1-2)

What this study shows is that risk was shifted, not reduced. As Roan (2011) notes, “One possibility is that teens in these states may be waiting until they turn 18 to apply for a license because that allows them to bypass the restrictions” (para. 14). What wasn’t learned at a younger age still wasn’t magically learned by delaying more liberal driving privileges.

Contradictory results were found by research published by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Knowing a bit about how insurance companies work, I’m skeptical of the contradictory findings, particularly in light of the solution proposed by Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (Roan, 2011):

McCartt said the solution may be to expand graduated driver licensing programs to include 18- and 19-year-olds who are getting behind the wheel for the first time. The idea isn’t without precedent: In New Jersey, such rules apply to all initial driver’s license applicants under the age of 21. (para. 20)

Tighter controls. Still another researcher, from perhaps a more objective position, is on the right track (Roan, 2011):

To get at the truth, researchers may need to dig into the data on individual state programs instead of grouping all states together, said Susan P. Baker, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who has studied the graduated programs but was not involved in either study. That would allow for a cleaner assessment of a program’s value, she said. (para. 19)

The data suggest a different tack from more rules and tighter controls. Following this line of inquiry, a number of possible solutions may suggest themselves based on a better set of questions. What kinds of experiences are young teens lacking with respect to driving that might reduce driving fatalities without the need to raise the driving age? How can those experiences be incrementally created and sequenced to optimize learning transfer? Can these experiences begin in the early grades such that the student is more than adequately prepared for driving when the time comes to learn that skill?

As a purely speculative example, suppose a common cause of accidents in young drivers is less than adequate skill with depth or speed perception. Can experiences be introduced and developed during a student’s early educational experience that develops this skill? What is a student’s understanding of consequences when engaged in activities which carry a risk for bodily harm? Looking a the array of available playground equipment these days, it looks to be near impossible to get hurt while playing on such modular units. Do children on today’s playgrounds learn the consequences of playing rough? They might be getting the abstract lesson from a scolding teacher, but there is something much more immediate and clear about falling down and skinning one’s knee that tends to leaving a lasting impression. This view is supported by research, referenced by Tierney (2011), who notes,

Even if children do suffer fewer physical injuries — and the evidence for that is debatable — the critics say that these playgrounds may stunt emotional development, leaving children with anxieties and fears that are ultimately worse than a broken bone. (para 3)

By protecting (isolating, might be a better word) children from such *relatively* harmless, yet impressionable lessons from childhood, we do not prepare them for young adult life when the consequences are far more catastrophic and permanent. The lessons learned by falling from a foam slide onto a foam floor are not the lessons to take to situations involving 2,000 pounds of metal and glass going 65 miles per hour.

References

Roan, S. (2011, September 13). Teen driver restrictions a mixed bag. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/health/la-he-teen-driver-laws-20110914,0,7056006.story

Tierney, J. (2011, July 18). Can a playground be too safe? The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/19/science/19tierney.html?_r=1&src=me&ref=general