Catherine's Learning Journal

The people part

2017 04 04 People Component

At last week’s Learning Ecosystems conference in Orlando, we had the pleasure of hearing animation legend Glen Keane talk about how to embrace technological change to enhance creativity. It was a fascinating talk culminating with a demonstration of virtual reality animation that was gorgeous and mind-blowing (see this video at 2:39 for a taste of what we saw). It got me thinking…

Even though the tools of animation have changed dramatically over the years, there are elements of first-rate animation that remain the same: the power of story, the techniques of perspective, the impact of emotional resonance, the simple grace of lines coming together to form a picture. Honing techniques is what has made Glen Keane a rock star in the animation world, and applying those techniques using new tools just takes it all to the next level.

Something similar can be said regarding social learning as well. Our tools have changed, but the core of what makes social learning work has not. When we try to encourage, support, promote, amplify, and/or engage social learning in a digital age, there are research-based frameworks that still apply in terms of understanding what brings people together and the range of activities they engage to accomplish deep learning. Knowing these frameworks can help learning and development professionals add real value to the conversation about strengthening the people part of a comprehensive learning strategy (such as designing learning environments).

While the modern world appears increasingly impersonal, in those areas where knowledge really counts, people count more than ever.
~ John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid

As a learning geek, I really enjoy digging into these theories and frameworks, but I also try to translate these into practical advice. To that end, I’ve summarized some of the key facets of social learning and a list of recommendations for how to effectively promote it. You’ll find these recommendations in my page of curated resources on social learning.

Social learning graphicI believe that we can’t push people into social learning, but we can give them a helping hand by amplifying productive activities and minimizing barriers.

The frameworks I am sharing have helped me to identify what may be getting in the way and where a nudge here or there might be most useful. I hope you will find that true as well.

Add questions or comments here, and I will update the curated resources page over time.

When Google lets you down


This post was originally published in the InSync Training blog (September 13, 2016).

Consider this scenario. You’ve been hearing some buzz among colleagues in the L&D field about what is referred to as a “learning ecosystem.” While you might guess what that’s about, you decide you want to learn a bit more. So you Google it, of course.

In the first page of results, you find three items that may be relevant to your context (corporate learning), and you’ll spend quite a bit of time poking through these links to see if they give you the kind of answers you need.

However, if you had asked me for resources to learn about the concept of learning ecosystems, the immediate recommendations that come to my mind are not found even in the first three pages of that search result.1

More importantly, I might ask you a few questions about why you want to learn about learning ecosystems before I offered resources, because your particular need will influence what I might recommend.

One lesson in that scenario is that it is often more useful to ask a colleague for learning resources, than it is to use your favorite search engine. Another is that what people often need is a curated set of resources for a particular topic – that is, some deliberately selected subset of learning materials (and activities) that is relevant to a particular context.

If you have a strong network of people (nearby or online) who are willing and able to offer you recommendations, that’s terrific; but many people don’t have that. A 2014 study by the Corporate Executive Board2 noted that employees were spending up to 11% of their time reviewing learning materials that were not helpful, thereby wasting precious hours just trying to find the right resource for their immediate needs.

Scenarios like these illustrate why so many thought leaders are urging learning professionals to become curators or learning coaches. We can add tremendous value that way.

The resources that might be identified for a particular development need go beyond internet links – learning professionals could point out company-specific resources, “go-to” people, industry experts to follow, available workshops or courses, books, equipment, development practices, and more – all kinds of materials and activities that are specifically relevant to developing a particular knowledge base or skill in a given company’s context. If we can achieve that – provide rich resources that are specifically relevant to developing a particular knowledge base or skill in a given context – that is so much more useful and efficient than consulting a search engine for learning recommendations.

In my work, I call that learning environment design. A learning environment is a deliberately curated collection of materials and activities to support the development of a knowledge base or skill set. That curated collection can be made available in a variety of ways – from an email response one-on-one, to a web page available to anyone who needs it, to a dynamic online space that allows for both sharing and conversation.

A learning and performance ecosystem is a similar concept, but on a different scale. When people talk about a learning ecosystem, they are generally speaking of a much larger scope of resources – all of the accessible people, processes, resources, and systems that can be tapped to support learning and performance in the organization.

A learning environment is much more specific, recommending cherry-picked elements of the ecosystem for a given development need. If a learning and performance ecosystem’s scope is on the scale of a regional biological habitat, a learning environment is more like a terrarium with its carefully selected materials and deliberate arrangement.

Those of us who wish to support learning and performance in organizations should be thinking about both levels of support. At the ecosystem level, we can influence internal resources like databases, enterprise social networks, internet access, and social media policies (and how these all link together). At the learning environment level, designers can play the curator role to recommend and promote specific materials and activities that people can draw from to customize their own learning experiences.

It’s easy to say that people can learn anything they want if they have access to the internet. But anyone who conducts an internet search looking for “how to’s” or “why’s” in order to increase their knowledge base or skill knows that Google often lets you down – you have to cull through a lot of “not-quite-right” to get to the resources that are on point. Learning professionals acting as curators and organizers of learning resources can surely top Google by giving employees a better starting place than thousands of hits.

Learn more about learning environment design in my BYTE session – Talent Development in the Digital Age: Designing Learning Environments  from September 20, 2016 (scroll to bottom of that post for the link to the recording).

BTW – Generally speaking, I might recommend these resources to learn what is meant by a learning and performance ecosystem in L&D:


1 Your search results will differ because the algorithms that drive search results are designed to adjust the results over time, and they also take cues from your personal browsing history.

2 Corporate Executive Board (CEB). 2014. Building a Productive Culture: More Learning Through Less Learning. CEB Learning and Development Leadership Council. (more here)

Revisiting Creativity, Inc.

Creativity Inc Cover

A few years ago, I posted a reflection on Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc. (with Amy Wallace). I’ve recently been working on a project to design workshops on creativity, so I decided to revisit the book and the post. My copy of the book is full of highlighted sections and scribbled margin notes, and it has been interesting to review them slowly with an eye toward new insights for my current project.

I believe that studying organizations and teams that clearly demonstrate exceptional creativity can be an important way to learn how to be more creative. You would be hard-pressed to find a more successful creative company than Pixar, the movie studio that produced Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Up, among others.

Lucky for us, Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, has given us something of a how-to manual in his book Creativity Inc. (written with Amy Wallace). Creativity, Inc. holds a treasure trove of interesting stories and important lessons. In reading it, you’ll get a real inside view of Pixar and the decisions (and accidents) that have led to its amazing success. Just as importantly, you’ll gain insight about the practices that enable creative teams to flourish.

Here are some of the ideas and insights that I plan to carry forward.

The importance of conversation and collaboration

As described by Ed Catmull, Pixar’s phenomenal successes in storytelling and movie-making technology are due to a small army of creators working exceptionally well together, each bringing their own talents, passions, and contributions to the work.

Too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float on the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people.

Pixar values ongoing conversation, feedback and critique. The company is well-known for having a “Braintrust” of creative powerhouses who offer candid feedback to directors at regular intervals over the course of developing a film. Candor and commitment to quality are expected of everyone on the team, and people are actively encouraged to speak up. In this way, films from the Pixar studio are slowly shaped and reshaped until something fantastic emerges. Importantly, feedback is not meant to be prescriptive; while suggestions are offered, decisions on what to change and how are left with the director.

Frank talk, spirited debate, laughter, and love. If I could distill a Braintrust meeting down to its most essential ingredients, those four things would be first among them.

What strikes me when looking at L&D processes and cultures is that we don’t often imagine processes that allow for creative ideas to emerge from good tries and critiques.

We sometimes don’t even imagine processes that rely on collaboration, but instead assign projects to individual designers and developers. There is real magic in collaboration, as Pixar’s success can attest. But if collaboration is not going to work in your process, good conversation can often do the trick. Short meetings, quick lunchroom conversations and “working out loud” can make a difference.

We have to find more ways to draw on the talents of our teams to work together toward an outcome rather than working serially to just do their part. We have to be open to hearing critique of our work and be willing to share candid feedback with our peers, and that can be hard.

The good news is that the agile and successive approximation (SAM) design processes that are coming to the fore in our field feature iterative design. We need to be careful that we don’t eliminate the collaborative and interactive natures of these processes when we implement those design models.

The need to trust the people, not the process.

We should trust in people, I told them, not processes. The error we’d made was forgetting that “the process” has no agenda and doesn’t have taste. It is just a tool – a framework.

So true! “The process” can’t tell good work from bad! People, on the other hand, are often very astute at sensing or judging what works.

Catmull talks quite a bit about how important it is to trust creative people to do what they do. We can set parameters and get out of the way, and many creative people will be able figure out how to produce great work within those given limits. It strikes me that too many creative teams in L&D are locked down by process, artificial deadlines, and defined roles and responsibilities.

Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on – but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal.

L&D has a love-hate relationship with process, I think. We have dozens of models that sketch out the steps that result in instructional products, performance support products, and other outcomes. Many organizations have worked hard to improve process efficiency. But the truth is that our actual working processes emerge with the needs of individual projects, outcomes, and clients.

Trusting people, not process, is not always going to be easy. Along the way, there may be mistakes and failures, but these should be seen as part of the process, not personal flaws.

Ed Catmull communicates a very healthy respect for failure. He believes that creativity is a messy process, and you’ll get it wrong for a while before it finally comes right. Trying to smooth out that process by expecting refined ideas and successful execution at every turn prevents people from taking risks that could substantially improve the final product.

I admit that I have been one who has insisted on final objectives and fleshed out designs before development begins – and that idea sounds smart. It’s now quite clear to me that isn’t how it works. We can agree on initial design ideas, but we have to have room to iterate, change our minds, get brilliant ideas, while we are in the process of developing. And collaboration and candid critiques are important parts of that process.

Pixar has the advantage of working on a closed set while ideas get massaged into shape. We have clients that need to be involved, and loose creative processes can look pretty messy (and possibly concerning) to them. But successful implementation of iterative design processes like agile and SAM demonstrate that there are ways to have clients be completely engaged in an iterative process and still be more than satisfied with the outcome.

The criticality of getting the story right

For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you are getting the story right.

Movie-goers are not fooled by bells and whistles if the story is flat. The truth is that a captivating story is more important than fancy delivery. To get the story right, Catmull describes processes that actually allow for (and encourage if needed) a complete re-envisioning of  the core story or substantial changes in details during development.

Getting the story right is an obvious imperative when you are making a movie, but perhaps not so obvious when you are designing training and development solutions. For L&D, the “story” is the through-line – the clear connection between why, what, and how – the overarching “big idea” that brings everything together.

It can be easy for designers to get enamored with specific tools or techniques, or to craft elaborate activities that go beyond the value of the point they are trying to make. As we blend multiple formal and informal strategies, we need to be sure we are helping learners to connect the dots to focus on the overarching story. Holding a goal or purpose as the guiding force can help us to identify distracting “bling” and keep the “story” paramount.

How to manage with humility

I’ve spent nearly forty years thinking about how to help smart, ambitious people work effectively with one another. the way I see it, my job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it.

Aside from being a terrific how-to manual for managing creative work groups and processes, Creativity, Inc. is a book-length reflection by a senior leader describing his process of growth as a manager – a process that includes significant self-monitoring, deliberate reflection, peer discussion, and planned action. It’s about how to be a humble and thoughtful leader – how to focus relentlessly on one’s self, on what “I” can do to be better rather than on pointing out the flaws in processes, people, and outcomes. Ed Catmull has acted quite generously in letting us into his mind and his meditations on creativity, leadership, and leading creative people.

At the very beginning of the book, Catmull says that Creativity, Inc. “is an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible.”  The book helps us understand how to bolster creativity, aspire to excellence, and create a successful, profitable business through great results.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration. By Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace. (Random House, 2014)

Quotations, in order, are from the following pages: 75, 99, 79, 134, 37, xv, xvi.
For more on Agile methodology, look here. For more on the successive approximation method, go here.


Lessons from the real Alexander Hamilton

08 06 16 Real Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton is a man after my own heart.

His life story not only makes for a great musical, it is also an object lesson in being a successful autodidact. I can totally relate to his approach to making sense of the world – which was through extensive reading and long-form writing. Despite his personal flaws and the ways I might disagree with his politics, I stand in awe of the ways he exemplifies the autodidact ideal.

After getting caught up in Hamilton, The Musical, I decided it might be a good idea to read Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton biography as well – on the theory that it’s always a bad idea to take one’s understanding of the man and the birth of the nation from a 3-hour musical. The book is really a terrific read and I highly recommend it.

Chernow calls Alexander Hamilton “a fantastically quick study” which is evidenced over and over again in the ways Hamilton read up on a topic and immediately turned those ideas around to proposals and political arguments. He took just a few months to catch up on what he needed to learn to enter college once he arrived in the colonies, and he self-studied his way to a law degree as well, compressing three years of study to nine months.

Men give me credit for some genius. All the genius I have lies in this; when I have a subject in hand, I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. I explore it in all its bearings. My mind becomes pervaded with it. Then the effort which I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought.
~ Alexander Hamilton

Hamilton had a habit of keeping notes on what he read. Even during the Revolutionary War, he carried a notebook to keep track of what he was learning. During that time, he read Malachy Postlethwayt’s Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce, which proved solid ground for his role as Treasury Secretary. Even before the war was won, Hamilton was thinking ahead to what would be needed to create a nation. Hamilton’s 177 pages of notes on New York Supreme Court proceedings (made during his law school studies) proved so useful that law students copied them for reference for years afterward. I feel less self-conscious of the fact that I tend to tote books everywhere when I know that Hamilton carried books in the middle of a war and “accumulated books insatiably” during his entire life. I can relate!

Hamilton is held up as a genius, capable of speaking extemporaneously in paragraphs, making detailed cogent arguments, and writing prodigious amounts of beautifully written text (which, by the way, included elegant insults for those on the other side of the argument). Back in the day (lacking social media and televised sound bites), people like Hamilton wrote extensive pamphlets to make the case for the ideas they wanted to advance. And they wrote and published them quickly. For example, Hamilton wrote 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers (advocating for passage of the Constitution) in just 6 months. As Treasury Secretary, he took just 3 months to research and prepare the Report on Public Credit for congress which “wrote our financial systems into existence.”* As Lin-Manuel Miranda has said, Alexander Hamilton “embodies the word’s ability to make a difference.”

Reading the biography of such an accomplished, vibrant life certainly gives me pause. Hamilton – The Musical tells the man’s story in such a way that by the end, you are left to ponder what greatness you might make of your own life. The full scope of Hamilton’s accomplishments detailed in Chernow’s book certainly set a high bar as well.

While I don’t really hope to live up to that standard, reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton does remind me of some of the learning strategies that I hold dear to my heart. And it challenges me to employ these more extensively.

The strategies are quite simple: read deep texts, keep notes, and write about what it all means. Yup, simple.

I have noticed that I have picked up the pace of my reading lately, and I deliberately choose paper texts so that I can highlight and write notes in the margins as I read. I’d like to get back in the habit of summarizing thoughts here in this blog because I have always found that effort to be worth the time for the ways I can later reference these notes for myself or others. Publishing articles and guest-blogging also gives me a chance to put ideas together in a more coherent fashion, and I hope to do more of that in the future (a few in process even now).

It’s also important, I think, to get more involved with public conversation. I so value blog exchanges that I have come across where folks are sharing their perspectives on a debatable topic. I need to make time to engage in these dialogs as a way of processing my own ruminations and gathering additional input from others as I think through challenges. (I do not, however, plan to emulate Hamilton’s eloquence with the personal insults. We can do with much less of that.)

Ron Chernow summarizes Alexander Hamilton’s legacy this way:

Hamilton was the supreme double threat among the founding fathers, at once thinker and doer, sparkling theoretician and masterful executive.

While I could never hope to match his accomplishments, my bookish heart can dream about “turning abstractions into institutional realities,” and in my writing, I can aspire to “infuse principles with expansive life.”

I’m taking lessons from Alexander Hamilton.

* This quote is from the musical, not the book. All other quotes are from Alexander Hamilton, by Rob Chernow.

Confessions and lessons from a Hamilton obsession

Hamilton CD and book

I confess to a minor (?) and highly improbable obsession with the blockbuster musical Hamilton. I don’t typically enjoy freestyle/rap music, so it’s not an obvious choice for me. (My lame attempt at a line of freestyle in the title of this post is the one and only of my lifetime.) But given that Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has won a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship (“Genius Grant”), a Grammy, and multiple Tony Awards, it seemed that it deserved a closer listen even if I was a bit late to the game.

I bought the CD last Tuesday and have played it through multiple times (yes, I still buy CDs; I won’t bore you with my explanations). I received Hamilton: The Revolution in the mail on Friday and read it straight through in one sitting (a.k.a. the Hamiltome, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, containing libretto and background stories).

Let me just testify: every one of those awards is absolutely well-deserved, the genius award among the most appropriate. Hamilton is inventive, high-energy, magical music that covers deep themes of soaring ambition, conflicting perspectives, opposing temperaments, political intrigue, enduring legacy, tragic love, and untimely death. Just. Wow.

A big part of my intense fascination has been trying to discern the creative energy behind it. How did one man dream up such a wild telling of a 200-year-old story about a guy who has more often been seen as the answer to a trivia question?

You see, I work in a creative field, and so I have long history of interest in the subject of creativity (easily confirmed by perusal of my bookshelves). I am very intent on grasping some of the secrets of creative work, especially since I do quite a bit of coaching and consulting around projects that need an injection of innovation to meet the demands of a rapidly changing environment.

So this admittedly long post is my attempt to describe what I’ve gleaned from binge-watching Lin-Manuel Miranda interviews and reading dozens of stories about the creation of Hamilton along with reading and re-reading the Hamiltome. (Grab a cup of coffee first.)

The 10 Creativity Commandments

# 1: Work in a field that you LOVE.
Lin talks about the fact that his work requires the he be in love with the story he is trying to create – it’s the only way to sustain the years of effort it takes to bring it to the stage. He adds that you have to be honest with yourself about what interests you so that you can see it through, and sometimes you need another job to pay the rent. If you are lucky enough or persistent enough to find those things you are passionate about, your natural creativity will come through.

# 2: Make time and space to think.
Lin has said that it’s “No accident that the best idea I ever had in my life (Maybe the best one I’ll ever have) happened on vacation. With a second to breathe“ (@Lin_Manuel, June 16, 2016). His creative process also frequently involves long walks, where he’ll capture a musical loop to play through his iPod and take his dog out to the park to give himself time to play around with ideas. Lin describes how things will come to him in one rush after it’s been mulling in the back of his mind for a long time. Parts of Hamilton were written during breaks when he took time away from the distractions of New York as well as during his commute from here to there on the subways of the city. One of the lessons of the show is that Hamilton makes some of his worst decisions when he is tired. All minds need regular quiet space and “a second to breathe” to be at their best.

# 3: Gather as much inspiration as you can.
While the storyline is primarily drawn from Ron Chernow’s biography, Hamilton reflects a huge array of musical and cultural references as well. If you look at Lin’s notes on the Hamilton libretto, you can see how he drew from a range of sources: musical theater cannon, hip hop catalog, history books, Google search, chance conversations, random songs on iPod shuffle, and more. Lin has said “To seek to be inspired is a lovely way to live.” It’s also apparently important to be prepared to write snatches of ideas as they come to you – Lin uses both digital and paper recording devices so he can capture seeds that he can nurture when the muse shows up. Some of the elements needed to create Hamilton were researched when the need arose, but many concepts and ideas were already present in Lin’s mind – a rich store of inspiration from which to draw. Creative people are not creative in a vacuum; they are using everything around them as inspiration.

# 4: Find unusual connections.
Relatively few people would have the background to immediately perceive the connection between Hamilton’s life and the foundations of hip-hop – Lin says that Hamilton’s story is “part and parcel with the hip-hop narrative: writing your way out of your circumstances, writing the future you want to see for yourself.” Lin borrowed ideas from the musical soundtrack of his youth and twisted them just a bit to meet his own storytelling needs. According to director Tommy Kail, Hamilton is “a story about America then, told by America now” – a contrast that allows modern audiences to make connections they never noticed in history class. Hamilton and Burr’s lives were thick with unusual connections, and Lin played those up to devastating effect in the musical. (They we both orphans, had their first child at the same time, were characterized by their ambition, and more.)  The show’s double casting makes subtle connections: Laurens and Phillip both special to Hamilton and died young; Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson had a love of France in common. Unusual connections are the spark of creativity and innovation, so it is important to notice and play with them.

# 5: Practice being creative.
Freestyling requires its artists to improvise rap on the spot, often incorporating random words or ideas fed to them by the audience. As a member of Freestyle Love Supreme, and in guest appearances on talk shows and elsewhere, Lin practices this art. As with any endeavor, practice tones muscles, and it no doubt gives Lin the capacity to compose 48 songs that explain the birth of our nation and dramatize the events of Alexander Hamilton’s entire life. Lin’s creative practice extended to the period allotted to developing the show – being unafraid to consider and try out different options to see what worked. It is hard to demand creativity of yourself on the spot so you need to find strategies to keep creative energies flowing.

# 6: Collaborate.
Earlier, I asked how one man could dream this up. But the truth is, Hamilton – and indeed any theater production – is very much a collaborative effort. While Lin is Hamilton’s lyricist, composer, and book writer, the show’s development also required the deep involvement of many talented people: a director, an arranger, a set designer, a costume designer, a choreographer, a producer, and an artistic director as well as all the actors who participated in “workshopping” the piece along the way. The trick to collaboration is to make sure the “best idea wins.” That takes a great deal of trust, openness, and generosity – and no small bit of good judgement to winnow down a million ideas to the one. The value of collaboration is demonstrated in the story of our hero as well – Hamilton was too often convinced he was the “smartest in the room” and was unwilling to even hear out opposing views, no less work on compromises. That got him in trouble more than once. The lone genius is generally a myth; there is great power in collaboration.

# 7: Check in with your audience.
I have been surprised to learn how often a show is played out for a live audience as it is being developed. On the way to Broadway, Lin had the unusual opportunity to showcase Hamilton’s opening song at the White House, before any other songs were even written (the video went viral). Through workshops, retreats, and off-Broadway performances, Lin and his team regularly sought feedback. Whether the audience was a room of knowledgeable theater people or was made up of the typical folks who would come to see the show, noticing their reactions was critical to getting it right. Each opportunity to test run teaches you something about what’s right and what’s needed, and it gives you confidence to move forward.

# 8: Be willing to toss out your favorite ideas.
When Lin was crafting the song that showcases Eliza falling in love with Hamilton, he decided to first share it with his wife, whose reaction was underwhelming. In the libretto notes, Lin says that his wife Vanessa told him that it didn’t “feel like the final thing” – so Lin went back to work (stewing a bit) and came up with an even better approach for that moment in the show (“Helpless”). When previews demonstrated that they would need to shorten the show, one of the first pieces that Lin cut was one of Hamilton’s moments (“The Adams Administration” – you know Lin really liked those cut lyrics because he printed them in the libretto). It’s easy to get attached to ideas, but the bottom line is ensuring that every one of them is in service of your goal.

# 9: Take advantage of the strengths of those who will be executing the vision.
The libretto contains notations about lyrics and musical lines added because of the particular talents of the cast – rapid rapping for Daveed Diggs (Lafayette/Jefferson), a signature line from Anthony Ramos (Laurens), a perfect musical interval for Chris Jackson (Washington). The libretto also shares the inside story that that director Tommy Kail encouraged the actors to use their instincts to try ideas during pre-Broadway rehearsals – urging them to make “new discoveries, new mistakes” in order to find the right chemistry for each scene. A creative endeavor is greatly enhanced when you can carefully select the people who will deliver the vision, and rely on them to fine-tune the execution.

# 10: Cultivate joy and mindfulness.
“Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.” Lin gave that line first to Eliza Hamilton, and he says that it’s something he tells himself every day. I am intrigued by how Lin draws energy from both the urgency of what is in front of him now and the consciousness of limited time on earth. Lin himself comes across as a man who lives life joyfully – on Twitter, in conversation, through Ham4Ham. In Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s desperate need to “not throw away my shot” and Aaron Burr’s long term view to “wait for it” are in many ways their undoing. Lin believes that we all embody a little of both Hamilton and Burr – desire to have impact in this world and careful watchfulness for those perfect moments. But in all, his advice is to “sink your teeth into this life, and don’t let go.” I have to think that the combination of joyful living and intense attention on the moment is part of the secret sauce of remarkable creativity.

Next Generation Learning Environments

computers and code graphic

This past week the subject in my emerging technologies course was Next Generation Digital Learning Environments. That term is likely to be more familiar to you if you work in a higher education environment than in a corporate one. In corporate L&D, you are probably discussing similar ideas and calling the concept learning and performance ecosystems.

Both conversations are focused on expanding the (mostly) digital tools available to support learning while at the same time streamlining access to these tools and making it easier for us to engage a variety of teaching and learning strategies, and some additional cross fertilization of these two conversations would be useful, I think. The key words are interoperability (standards that allow links and data transfer) and personalization (structures that allow for instructor and teacher choice of which tools to integrate).

Leaving aside the challenge of getting a wide array of ed tech vendors to converge on agreed standards, I wonder if any mythic NGDLE will be able to live up to expectations. The number of potential configurations of tools for courses or learning environments is huge, and the “best” one is open to interpretation. Additionally, new tools are released every day, and some of these may be the next “killer apps” that we’ve been awaiting.

Every player in the chain from design to implementation has his or her own views about what is most important to include and what the “look and feel” of a NGDLE might be. Designers and faculty have their own favorite tools, and the pedagogical strategy for each course will be different. Learners, too, have preferences, both in terms of the tools they use, and in whether or not they want to engage with learning activities in the same places they interact more socially. Other stakeholders also have opinions: the IT department, the online learning or ID departments, the vendors, and the administration or management teams. There may be regulations to consider, especially FERPA, government regulatory agencies, and copyright law. It’s quite a quagmire, I think.

One of the things that has struck me in digging into resources on NGDLE and having discussion with the folks in my class is that the “next generation” being described at the moment looks a lot like a more complex version of the current generation LMS. There doesn’t seem to be a wow factor or the kind of giant step forward that would live up to the grandiose “next generation digital learning environment.” To be sure, better interoperability and personalization will indeed be welcome characteristics. I think I was hoping for something a bit more transformative, although I couldn’t tell you exactly what I mean by that.

Part of the issue, I think, is trying to consider what the environment should look like when we haven’t laid out a full vision of what next generation learning looks like. We continue – for many good reasons – to build new learning strategies around and on top of course design foundations that were envisioned in the last century. Perhaps what we truly need is a completely different view of learning in the 21st century. Perhaps where we’re heading in terms of competency based education, microcredentials, personal learning environments, domain of one’s own, and other initiatives will have better seeds for the next generation. That’s what I’ll be noodling going forward.

In the meantime, if you’d like to know more about next generation learning environments, I have curated a set of resources you might find useful. I would welcome comments.


Lessons from an afternoon at the ballet

Ballet shoes

A friend and I have season tickets for the Pennsylvania Ballet, an extravagance that we dearly enjoy. We’ve also been attending the “Prelude” program, where a member of the company gives a brief talk and Q&A just prior to the performance. This past Sunday, we were thrilled that our speaker was Matthew Neenan, the Pennsylvania Ballet’s choreographer-in-residence, whose new piece, Archiva, was part of the program. It was fascinating to hear him talk about his creative process. About halfway through the Prelude, I started taking notes, because it struck me that so much of what he was saying applies to the work we do in supporting learning.

One choreographer’s process

Mr. Neenan talked about having a repertoire of classical movements and steps from which to draw, but then adding his own twists to these. It’s important to have that common language as part of your foundation, he explained; everyone knows what you are talking about and how to execute those movements. But then he went on to comment that he enjoys breaking the rules, making a thing of beauty out of movements that ballet masters would tell you are wrong and ugly.

The inspiration for the piece being performed that afternoon was an idea he’d had in the back of his mind for years – to use the entire stage of the Academy of Music as a backdrop – including the brick back wall, big steel doors and undisguised stage wings. It’s a fantastic space, huge, with a lot of character. He said that although he always thought that could be fun, he couldn’t do it just because of that – he needed a reason for that particular staging to make sense.

He also wanted to use this commission as an opportunity to specifically choreograph for Amy Aldridge, one of the principal dancers. They worked together on ideas and laid foundations that Neenan could build from to stage an entire ballet piece. The ballet was put together through several collaborations – with Amy Aldridge, other experienced dancers, the composer (Neenan had been looking for a chance to work with composer Troy Herion as well), and the costume designer (an excuse to repurpose costumes from the Pennsylvania Ballet’s many seasons of shows). What came together was a dream-like sequence that called to mind an experienced dancer reflecting back on her roles and partners – and a great excuse to use the open stage as set, to showcase the more experienced dancers, to choreograph in silence and then ask the composer to craft music for the dance, and to make some inspired wardrobe choices.

The design and facilitation ballet

Listening to Mr. Neenan speak, I saw so many parallels to our work in designing and facilitating learning. We, too, can draw from a repertoire of specific activities, but we often have the most success when we give those a little twist or break away completely and invent something new that is risky but oddly beautiful. We build a program from arranging a flow of traditional techniques and new ideas that seem just perfect for our purposes. We, too, sometimes discover an approach or tool that we are just itching to use, but we have to wait for the right purpose to come along so that it can be used in a way to take advantage of its characteristics and affordances. Our collaborations are something of a ballet as well. We may design for the particular strengths and needs of a learner group, but we stand ready to adjust to their suggestions and to incorporate emerging ideas as we work together.

Of course, at some point, the choreography is set and the dancers commit the movement to memory so they can perform it effortlessly. This, perhaps, is where the analogy breaks down.

In our world, we aren’t working with the same dancers every day – we can’t assume that the steps we’ve choreographed will work for every troupe of learners we have together in a class. If we try to force the same activities on a different group, we may not get the same results. We need to allow for continued collaboration, emergence, and improvisation every time we repeat a course for a new cadre of students.

I think this is where we need to be able to rely on the foundational repertoire of learning activities that can be counted on to achieve set purposes. We have to know which rules can be broken and how to make slight adjustments that work better for the learners in the room. We need to have new techniques ready for just the right moment. We need to focus on purpose and facilitate to that end. This kind of in-the-moment choreographic flexibility is one of the deep skills demonstrated by great teachers.


I always thought that a choreographer mapped out steps in an empty studio in front of a mirror, letting the music, the mood, and the muse dictate the flow of movement. And it may be that way for some pieces. But it was enlightening to hear about a more inspired and collaborative approach, one that allows for emergence and improvisation. Mr. Neenan’s talk got me thinking about how important it is for me to get out of my office (and out of my own head) while designing, and how critical it is to continue to be responsive to the mood and the muse as a course plays out.

My thanks to Matthew Neenan for prompting these reflections, and for the many times I have been awed by his choreography for the Pennsylvania Ballet.

False Science

2016 05 10 Thinking

One of John Oliver’s comedic reports is making the rounds in my Twitter feed this week. In the Last Week Tonight video, Scientific Studies*, Oliver calls out the absurdity of headlines driven by narrow research results – and worse – by complete misinterpretations (or misreporting) of research results. It’s both funny and scary at the same time, even more so because the diatribe hits so very close to home. One particularly important point from the video:

“Scientists themselves know not to attach too much significance to individual studies until they are placed in the much larger context of all the work taking place in that field. But too often, a small study with nuanced tentative findings gets blown out of all proportion when it’s presented to us, the lay public.”

Since I’ve written a number of blog posts and articles on research in L&D (frequently for ATD’s Science of Learning blog), my first reaction was to worry whether my own reporting has ever selectively highlighted results to improve the headline (so tempting, so easy to do!). Reading my posts, I think that I have been fair about reporting what the research says, noting the nature of the study, and sometimes pointing out that that the findings were from only one study. But those reading headlines and bullet points may not have caught those nuances. Headlines, especially, are meant to grab attention and are often a bit hyperbolic.

When you work in learning and development, research abounds. We have a huge cache of research and evidence-based frameworks related to overarching learning processes (e.g. social learning, cognitive processes) and related to specific techniques that have impact on learning, retention, and performance. Practitioners in our field are often very interested in hearing the evidence and understanding how to best apply it in their own contexts.

But here’s a worry: In our quest to be more evidence-based, it can be easy to miss-step – to think we are basing our practices on well-vetted ideas when we’ve actually stumbled into misrepresented science. Here are some ways you can avoid being taken in:

Read beyond the bullet points. When you hear about research that seems to be relevant to your work, take the time to read the full study before you act on the headline. It is very tempting to read bullet points and believe you have the gist of what the theory and research actually says, but it is also too easy to misinterpret the meaning of those bullet points. The internet gives us plenty of slide decks and short articles that summarize research, but these often miss important nuance and context that you need to know before you apply the ideas yourself.

Vet the sources of information. Check into the background and expertise of the people who are conducting studies and publishing reports. Consider whether research is being played up in order to sell a particular product or service, and investigate those claims thoroughly. Of course, sponsored research isn’t necessarily bad research; but it is important to check the study’s design and data sources.

Review cited materials. It is also important to go to the source of findings and recommendations reported by others. In a recent discussion in one of my online courses, the students latched onto the message in a short article that contained a statistic from a recent study by a reputable research organization. The presence of that bit of research evidence gave weight to the author’s message. But the author’s point was not actually supported by the study (which I only knew because I had read the study being quoted). The lesson is to go to the source of interesting findings and advice, and draw your own conclusions.

Look for support and critique from others. Use internet search techniques to find articles that reference the work you find interesting. This is often useful when you are intrigued by popular books and videos (or when your client brings one of these to your attention). It might be important to find critiques of the work; It’s possible you won’t find the critiques credible, but sometimes they rightly call conclusions into question. (Some tips: In internet search, couple a book title with the word “review” or “critique.” Use the Boolean search operator, link: <URL> to find sites that link to that URL. Use Google Scholar to find other works that cite a particular research study.)

Ask your network for advice. Tap into your colleagues and professional social network to explore whether others are following the guidance you hear and whether they are having success with it. This is one of the real benefits of having a wide personal learning network.

Develop mutually supportive relationships with scholars. When the research you read is full of obscure language, it can be helpful to speak with an academic colleague about your interpretation of the material. You might even consider contacting the researcher directly. When I wrote some research columns a few years ago, I was able to learn that my interpretation of results wasn’t quite justified by the evidence, and the individual researchers were able to help me better refine my recommendations. A scholar in a relevant field of expertise may also be able to point you in the direction of additional theory and research related to the topic at hand. It can be invaluable to a scholar to have an inside view of practice as well, so initiating conversations in the academic community may be more welcome than you think.

Strengthen your own knowledge base. Make it a point to follow the research in your area of practice. Identify a few leading research journals and regularly scan abstracts to find articles of interest. Read scholarly books that synthesize research into practical recommendations. As you are building your personal leaning network, follow scholars as well as practitioners so that you are linked into deeper academic conversations relevant to your work.

Following this advice may help you to avoid being taken in by research reports that don’t tell the whole story.


*Caution: some profanity

Sharing our expertise

2016 04 29 Glasses Research

There has been a lot of talk lately about how academics can use social media to share their emerging research and make more direct recommendations to the practitioners who might benefit from knowing their results.* Too much important research is buried in academic journals that practitioners cannot access (and written in language that isn’t relatable), so it’s quite useful for experts to gather their work together in one place and make it more accessible.

I’ve recently been looking more closely at how academics share their research agendas and results with a wider audience. Here are a few examples of how this can be accomplished. These give me lots of inspiration for sharing my own work along with great insight into important topics that are of interest to me.

Retrieval Practice, by Dr. Pooja K. Agarwal. This site provides clear guidance on what retrieval practice is and why it’s important. It’s a great example of translating research for practice, making recommendations freely available. The information is based on Dr. Agarwal’s research, but she also links to articles and books by other writers who have helpful material on the topic as well.

The Community of Inquiry site, compiled by Dr. Randy Garrison, Dr. Marti Cleveland-Innes, and Dr. Norm Vaughan. This site overviews the community of inquiry framework, a widely-cited model that helps people to conceptualize how to facilitate engaging educational experiences. I applaud the sheer scope of this site, which ranges from overview materials to exhaustive lists of research papers and articles on the subject.

Dr. Herminia Ibarra. Dr. Ibarra is a researcher from INSEAD whose is an expert on professional and leadership development, and she’s written a few of my favorite books. (I especially related to Working Identity.) Professor Ibarra is listed on Thinkers 50 as one of the most influential business gurus in the world. Her site certainly serves to promote her books, but it also brings together articles and videos that are freely accessible. This site has a very modern look and feel. I am grateful for the way that it allows you to filter the material according to the aspect of Dr. Ibarra’s work that is of most interest to you.

I recognize that it takes work to put these kinds of sites together. However, in some instances, a single web page with a solid synthesis of findings and recommendations along with links to the original research would be just as useful to practitioners. To be most impactful, these kinds of sites need to be more than a listing of all relevant research studies; the plain-English recommendations for practice that come out of a research agenda is what practitioners crave.

As a strong advocate for scholarly practice, I am always on the lookout for great material that gives practitioners well-grounded advice and that makes research on a topic easier to find and access. I am sure there are many other such examples, and I’d be happy to hear of additional researcher’s sites through comments.

* For a discussion of academic social media, see Mark Corrigan’s work as an example.


Flavors of design

Today I engaged in a conversation with Sean Michael Morris (@slamteacher) and others in the #moocmooc stream that has prompted me to ponder the difference between instructional design and learning environment design. And thinking about that has me bouncing between my constructivist heart that tells me I can never really be sure people “meet objectives” and my business/academic heart that tells me it’s part of my job to ensure they take away some specific knowledge base or skill.

Since 140 characters can be a tough place to hash out such heady ideas (pardon the pun), I thought I’d use this space to think out loud and offer food for thought to the #moocmooc community.

If you tuned in yesterday, you may have noticed that I reacted against the idea that instructional design necessarily takes agency away from learners. It can, of course (at least it can attempt to), but I think there are many outcomes of design that are quite learner-centered. (Please, God, I hope so!)

The question of the day

The conversation on #moocmooc seems to partially come down to whether we can or should define objectives (which is part of the instructional design process, no question) and if doing so strips the learners of freedom and by definition makes the learning instructor-centered. Yikes!

Many moons ago, when the conversation in L&D turned toward informal learning, many of us characterized informal learning as learning where the objectives are defined by the learners, and formal learning as learning where the objectives are defined by the designer. The latter is a foundation for instructional design – determining goals and objectives is one of the major decisions that we make in crafting a particular learning event. For learning to occur, the learners have to adopt those objectives as their own – I can require them to attend a course, but if they don’t choose to learn, I can’t make them learn regardless of the proven effectiveness of any technique.

There are many ways that instructional designers can involve the learners in crafting objectives. And there are even more ways that a facilitator can switch up a design to better meet emergent needs of learners if that makes sense. But in a corporate training environment, or in an academic curriculum, the designer-defined objectives are (or should be) what the learner needs to learn in that context. (I can hear #moocmooc colleagues yelling now!)

Here are my examples: I am preparing customer service representatives to assist our clients in troubleshooting problems – they need to know how our product works, techniques for engaging effectively with clients, procedures for obtaining help for a client, etc. Or I am preparing student nurses to become RNs – they need to know anatomy and physiology, disease states, as well as specific nursing tasks like CPR, blood drawing, etc. In both instances, as the designer, I define the objectives of the courses. The learners accept these objectives as their own because they want to be able to do the jobs (and in the case of the nurses, pass the licensing exam).

I imagine that these learners could manage their own learning – there are now many resources and strategies they could access that would allow them to learn the knowledge and skill needed, but they go to training or go to school because they assume that those designers/teachers have determined the knowledge and skills needed and can help them to learn it efficiently.

Good design vs bad design

There are, of course, lots of ways to “design” a course – and some of the techniques that are used require students to be passive note-takers rather than actively engaging in activities that help them to grasp knowledge and skills and construct meaning in ways that will be useful to them later on. In shorthand, we talk about the difference between sage-on-the-stage teaching and guide-on-the-side teaching. The guide-on-the-side crafts activities to put the learners in the center of the process rather than trying to pour knowledge into their heads (make them the object). We can, I think, legitimately talk about “good” instructional design (learner-centered, active, engaging) and “bad” instructional design (passive, constrictive, poorly organized, out of step with learners).

Instructional design results in a series of activities meant to instruct – enabling a teacher to guide a learner to achieve specific knowledge and skill milestones. Instructional design is incredibly useful in corporate training situations and in crafting academic degree programs because it can result in students obtaining the advertised knowledge and skills they need for their purposes (assuming they aren’t forced into a job or course of study completely against their will).

In the courses that I teach, the subject is conceptual, emergent, and contested. I teach instructional design, adult learning theory, consulting skills, teaching techniques, etc. – and these are topics that really lend themselves to constructivist approaches to teaching. I offer choices of readings, discussions (with learners providing prompts), counterpoints (students should know about the critiques of the theories and approaches), projects, group work, etc. that I hope provide great fodder for learning. I often position myself and engage as a co-learner. At the same time, I have collaborated with program faculty in defining the graduate outcomes and learning objectives for these courses – and while these objectives are usually pretty broad, I suppose it can be said that we constrain the learners by doing so.

I have colleagues, however, whose teaching context requires them to ensure students acquire specific knowledge or skill, often to pass a test or demonstrate a set of skills. Courses may be foundation for later courses and peers are counting on students achieving specific milestones. Giving students more freedom in how they engage with the material would not do them any favors in this context. That’s where I get stuck… I suppose instructional design can and does guide and constrain learning, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Enter learning environments by design

In recent years, there has been a recognition that the digital age is especially fertile ground for those who want to learn – resources and networks of like-minded people are far more accessible than they ever have been before. People can direct their own learning – they can build personal learning environments that are far more rich than anything an instructional designer can build.

That is not, however, as easy as it sounds. Many people still welcome guidance in learning.

For that, I have conceptualized something I call a learning environment – a curated set of resources and activities for learning around a particular knowledge base or skill. I don’t define objectives per se (although I do need to understand in general what the learner’s objectives might be) and I don’t require a particular path through the materials. I just help narrow the scope of all possible related materials to select ones that should be helpful. (You can find more info here – not meant to be a shameless plug for my book; the page has lots of free links that give you more information about what I’m thinking.)

I see a learning environment as more of a long-term, living and breathing approach to supporting others’ learning. For me, it’s a nice compromise between instruction and abandoning people to the vagaries of the internet. It’s more just-in-time, more learner-centered than formal training or teaching.

You can use a learning environment approach to help people achieve certifiable skills or graduate competencies, but I suspect many learners would actually want a more structured approach.

And then there’s #moocmooc

#moocmooc seems to be the result of something of a hybrid of these approaches. The organizers curated materials, offered activities, and set out something of a schedule, but we co-learners are engaging as we like and taking away whatever meets our particular needs. I can share how I think of instructional design and Sean Michael Morris can share his, and hopefully through the exchange of ideas we each come away with a richer understanding that helps us to think about how we approach our work. For my personal professional development, these kinds of MOOC activities are quite powerful learning experiences because they connect me to new resources and to people who like thinking out loud together, at least for a short time.

The only problem is… I actually had other stuff I was supposed to do tonight. 🙂 This was more fun.