Thursday, December 17, 2009

Compression ratios and spinning plates

I wrote a piece for the Training Journal last month on appraisals (if you're interested back issues of my articles can be found here). In short, I suggested that one of the reasons that appraisals are such unproductive affairs is the compression ratio - trying to squeeze a year's feedback into one hour or sometimes one word. A very interesting conversation yesterday further refined the thought.

I made two suggestions in my article. First, rather than provide feedback once a year for sixty minutes, try to provide the opportunity for feedback sixty times a year for one minute. Second rather than focusing on the reducing the negatives, look to grow the positives.

So a frequent, positive and light touch...

Anyone see the parallels with plate spinning?

Monday, December 14, 2009

E'en such is time...

Scooting into work this morning reflecting on the reasons that stop people engaging in self-teaching through social learning - and inwardly screaming at bus drivers who completely ignore the rules of the road - a penny dropped.

Learning should be fun.

I know. Duh! We've all known this for years. But if you look at the difference between e-mail and RSS feeds there is something here. We have no control over our email. Once someone or indeed something (spamming engines for example) has got hold of your email address they can send you emails whenever they like about whatever they like.

Many is the time that I have returned from holiday to confront the hundreds of unread email and my mouse has hovered over the 'Delete all' button as I silently wished to myself, "If only". I say to myself that if something is really that important, someone will pick up the phone. But then I never do. I scan and delete as efficiently as I can; I file and forget resenting every second.

I have long postulated a theory of business tasks:

The importance of a task is inversely proportional to the time you need to ignore it to render it moot. For example something bone-crushingly urgent can be ignored for five minutes and is no longer a problem but some trivial tasks can be ignored for months and still need to be done.

But with RSS feeds (or tweets for that matter) it is completely different. Of course, at first it felt the same. I would come back from holiday to confront hundreds of unread feeds and feel as oppressed by Google reader as I do by Lotus Notes. But then I deleted all for the first time and everything was OK. The world didn't stop spinning on its axis. Because I asked for these feeds, I control them. They don't get upset if I don't read them because I'm a little busy today. Consequently, I probably pay more attention to them than a lot of my emails.

I think it is essential to get this across to those daunted by the sheer volume and scale of information on the net.

1. Read what you want to read when you want to read
2. It's OK to delete everything and start again
3. If you miss a meme another one will be along in a minute

Then when you get past this you can start to reflect on what you chose to read... But that is for another post.

Monday, November 30, 2009

It's all in the name

Further reflection on my post earlier this month on learning and risk suggests that by using the word, "risk" I might be missing the point. This reflection was prompted by Peter's comment on my post and some interesting conversations with other learning professionals. The best of these yielded this gem of a quote attributed to a brigadier in the British army,

"Often the wrong idea executed with extreme violence turns out to be the right idea"

The trouble with the term "risk" is that it means too many different things to too many people. Moreover, it is perhaps against the zeitgeist of the credit crunch to exhort people to take more risks so that they can learn more. That was, of course, not what I was trying to say but I can see how it might be understood this way.

I proffer "attitude to uncertainty" as an alternative. Less pithy, I know, but perhaps a tighter definition.

Is our attitude to uncertainty the thing which best defines our ability to learn? You can have fun with the word uncertainty. The future is uncertain but when you come to think of it so is the past. We only think we know things.

"It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us into trouble. It's the things we know that ain't so. " Artemus Ward [found on Peter Edstrom's blog for which thanks]

Friday, November 27, 2009

Wild Friday Thought

I have just finished reading The World in Six Songs by Daniel Levitin, which was a birthday present from a friend that I highly recommend.

[note to self: is the fact that all of my birthday presents were either books or malt whiskey something I should be concerned by or proud of?]

In it Levitin examines the evolution of music alongside the evolution of human consciousness. This sounds terribly dry but is in fact compelling and fun in his hands he marries it to a dissection of the music of The Beatles, Paul Simon, Neil Young to Arcade Fire, Sting and Johnny Cash.

In any case towards the end of the book he talks about systems displaying evidence of consciousness. An individual ant in an any colony is no more aware of the actions of the whole than an individual neuron in the brain is aware of taste or thought or dreams.

This made me think about Michael Wesch's YouTube film "The Machine is Us" from a year of so back. Millions of people sorting, sifting the web, creating and collaborating...

I am sure I am very late to have this thought. We are the ants or the neurons. And it has only just occurred to me that the next big step is when the web attains consciousness!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday musings on risk

I have been thinking for a while about risk. My summarised view on learning is that without risk very little learning happens. So rather than focus on the learning content we should focus on the attitude to risk. Encourage people to challenge themselves and others a bit more, step outside of their comfort zones more often and reflect and they will learn more.

Thus I am disappointed to read Lucy Kellaway's piece this morning on managerial bone-headedness as it suggests that the window of humility is closing.

The idea that the recent "unprecedented" shock to our global economy might precipitate a reflection on the whole model seems to have been naive. Maybe like macro and micro economics or classical Newtonian and quantum physics, my little theory of learning doesn't apply across all realities.

A small girl stops peddling and falls off her bike or a little boy shakes a Coke bottle violently and covers the kitchen in stickiness. It is reasonable for them to reflect, adapt and maybe learn. But we drive the entire world's financial system into the buffers and one year on pretty much nothing has changed.

I'll be the first to accept that the reasons for "the perfect financial storm" are far from clear. There are a multitude of variables which will keep economists in decent arguments for years. But to file it under, "Too difficult to understand. Carry on as before" seems a little like a cop out.

Tim Harford (The Undercover Economist) is also good today on choice. Which makes me think a bit more about the above. Does too much choice mean the same as no choice in terms of a reduction in quality? You could think in terms of market and planned economies both being routes to failure.

But this also applies to learning. If you have no choice you won't reflect and learn. If you have too much choice you can't reflect and learn. New model of politcal and economic thought anyone??

Interesting to note that today my thoughts are entirely provoked by the FT...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Making it happen

I have been reflecting on how to make individuals take responsibility for their own learning. A number of conversations with people over the last few weeks have hammered home the difficulties of getting an informal learning programme off the ground.

e.g. our firewall shuts off access to anything of value, our risk department would never let us delegate responsibility that far down the line, imagine if someone said something really stupid on twitter...

Within the informal learning blogosphere the response seems to be, "Quit moaning and just accept that the change has already happened. Traditional learning and development is already dead, it just doesn't know it yet"

And yet I don't hear of many major employers who have jumped the early adopter chasm yet (I would love examples to prove me wrong)

Which prompts two thoughts:

1. Start really really small. Teach two or three small groups how to use RSS feeds and social bookmarking and maybe just maybe blogging about their experiences
2. Start huge. Approach major employers and say, "You currently spend £50 million or £590 per head on training each year. Appoint us to run your L&D function and we'll save you 20% in the first year and improve the quality. We'll make ourselves redundant in two years leaving you with the capability to teach yourselves.


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Data swimming

George Siemens wrote an interesting post yesterday on the narrowing gap between virtual reality and reality. Starting from the changing behaviour of conference audiences who no longer sit patiently and listen but tweet, blog, tag, chat and fact check, George explains his desire to have an "overlaying data layer on the physical world... such as walking through a historical district and being able to see buildings on your mobile device as they looked 100 years ago"

He concludes that the integration of the physical self and the online self is the greatest challenge facing technologists, arguing that total convergence is the likely outcome.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that a Terminator like Head Up Display which offers us the constant seamless ability to access data on our multiple realities would be very cool. Moreover, I am sure that they will be available, if indeed there are not already some working prototypes. But I wonder whether it would necessarily be a good thing...

Moreover would it be put to good use? More (data) does not necessarily mean better it just means more.

I'm tying myself in mental knots here because by nature I am a liberal - throw open the doors see what happens type, treat 'em like grown ups. As appear to be many in the informal learning community and associated networks. But at the same time it remains true that you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it think... Many people, I would even go so far as to say, the majority, want to be told what to do.

When I wax lyrical about the opportunities for learning in this brave new world even some of my own staff say, "Yeah, it's OK for you to say that. You're educated, curious, enthusiastic... I can't see the relevance."

Now I am really heading into dangerous territory.

Might it be the case that people without the skills to sift, sort, weigh and assess the wealth of available information will marginalised; left at the side of the pool afraid to jump in. Those with confidence to jump in, who lack these metaphorical data swimming skills or who don't learn them fast will drown. Think of how many people cross the road or drive while texting. This figure will rise exponentially with the increase of available distractions. "Surfing related death" will become a whole new category in our national statistics

Previously knowledge was power because most people couldn't be trusted to deal with the information. Where data is ubiquitous, does "data swimming" become power because most people simply can't handle the information.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Old fogey status confirmed...

Today, I am forty... (pause for gnashing of teeth). A delightful vignette in the office this morning confirms just how out of touch I am. In a brief office conversation about YouTube, I mentioned the current Internet meme of mash-ups involving Kanye West.

I had read in the traditional print media about West interrupting the recent MTV event and then noticed references to it becoming a meme (like Star Wars Kid, Rick Astley and many others before) in some of my RSS feeds this morning.

Unfortunately, I pronounced his name as Kayne as is "Cane" not Kanye as in "Cahn-yay". This was enough to send one of my young colleagues into red faced paroxysms of delight at just how out of touch I am.

The thing is, I have never knowingly heard Mr. West's name spoken out loud. I have simply read it. My mind decided not to recognise the reversal of the "Y" and the "N" in his name in favour of a more plausible (in my head at least) mispelling of Abel's brother's name.

I could complain at this stage that life would be a whole lot easier if people learned to spell and stopped making up words. But it has been ever thus and it is one of the functions of language to separate the wheat from the chaffe, the "in" from the "out" and the young from the old. Many pronunciations of English names and places (Featherstonehaugh: pronounced Fanshaw; Cholmondeley: pronounced Chumly except where it is pronounced Cholmondeley; Loughborough pronounced Luffbra) are deliberate traps for the unwary to highlight the fact that you are either foreign, uneducated or worse "middle class"; depending on your prejudice.

Anyway Kanye's name did its job. It identified me as one of the uninitiated.

This made me think about my learning. Much of my receptive processes are written. I read more than I watch or listen. But when trying out new ideas I will discuss them or write about them as in this blog. This practice, to become useful, must feel safe and indeed the creation of a safe learning environment is one of the cornerstones of a good teacher's art.

Fortunately, I have developed a fairly thick skin in my four decades on this earth and I am happy to be laughed at occasionally. I will not forget Mr West's name in a hurry nor yet will the shame of my mistake prevent me from talking or wrtiting about things that I don't entirely understand.

But it does offer me an insight into why this might be difficult for other people. For people who are still sensitive to the opinions of others the internet and the world of informal learning might resemble less a quasi-infinite candy sore of ideas and opportunity and more a place of almost infinite opportunities for self-embarassment

Monday, September 14, 2009

The information foxtrot

On Saturday I managed to lose my blackberry. In the past this would have been cause for something akin to panic. OMG there goes my life.!! Not just the address book which I have built up over the years but also the photographs of my daughter I took whilst we were on holiday.

This time no such thing. Most of my contacts are in linkedin or Facebook, my photographs are mostly uploaded to Picasa, my emails are all still waiting for me at work and the phone itself is being replaced by the insurance I didn't know I had (nice to know you can insure yourself against stupidity...)

All of this is lovely and so far so web 2.0...

But the thing that struck me most was the joy of being inaccessible and the things I didn't do whilst deprived of my technological worry bead substitute.

Over the weekend and this morning I didn't read any news I wasn't interested in on the BBC website whilst I was ostensibly doing something else; I didn't absent mindedly check for emails or texts at least 30 times in the day; I didn't play WordMole or FreeRice whilst waiting for something else; I didn't zone out in the middle of a conversation to check a fact on Google; I didn't visit Facebook; I didn't send any text messages when I could have talked to someone.

What did I do?

I took my daughter out on her bicycle and then to the cinema. I watched the last night of the proms on TV when my daughter was in bed. I read a book. I talked to family and friends. I painted with my daughter (her grandmother has bought her oil paints so help me!). I cooked dinner for a neighbour. I thought about stuff.

Then I came to work this morning (reading a book on the way) and checked my RSS feeds and then my emails and the world hadn't ended. I didn't have the courage to leave my phone behind when I went on holiday and yet when it was removed from me I loved it.

I think there is something in this alternation of pace of information (a bit like the slow food movement). Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow (for those of you who wondered about the title)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Summer musings

The new term is upon us and over the next few days another generation of children will be asked to write about what they did on their summer holidays. I thought I'd reflect upon some of the things I thought about on my summer holidays.

I devoured Naseem Nicholas Taleb's book, "The Black Swan" which really made me think. He takes a prolonged pop at historians, much of which is justified, given that it is easy to find patterns retrospectively if you are looking for them. Indeed the subtitle of his book could be, "post hoc ergo propter hoc", which as well as being the title of an excellent episode of the West Wing highlights the popular misconception that when one event follows another the latter is caused by the former (a new CEO is hired and the company stock price goes up = excellent CEO). More often than not there is no link and the latter event is mere accident.

I don't share his contempt for history because I don't think the purpose of history is one of finding causation or explaining why something happened. Although students who had to explain the origins of the first world war in their exams this year may be surprised at this. I think the discipline of history is in weighing evidence, trying to understand humans and deciding how much credibility to give to any particular account. The value is in asking why someone took this or that particular view of any event and this sits quite well with the empirical skepticism that Taleb encourages.

History is in a constant state of refurbishment. Note the contrasting comments by the Polish President and Russian Prime Minister at the recent events to commemorate the outbreak of the second world war also the disclosure of documents pertaining to the release of the Lockerbie bomber by the British and Libyan governments both appear to be attempts to rewrite history on the fly and then ask yourself is it possible that they are all correct? Although the content of what is said is interesting, it is often more interesting to ask why they might be saying this or that.

I enjoyed Christopher Brookmyre's latest book Pandaemonium which manages to contain the best explanantion of string theory that my simple mind has ever managed to hold, an examination of the role of faith and an understanding of teenage angst all within a comic thriller (who would have thought that possible?)

Thank you to those who commented on my blog about the lessons I learned from my late wife, Jelena. As I continue to reflect upon the time we spent together, I am sure I will learn more. I am learning the hard way but talking about the pain and loss clearly leads, albeit slowly, to healing.

And once again I was staggered by the capacity to learn of the young as I watched my daughter learn to swim in two weeks.

Monday, July 13, 2009


I haven't seen a coffee percolator for years. They seem to have been replaced by alternative forms of coffee making. Indeed there is now a generation for whom the sound, "plerrrp, plerrrp, ffttt..... aahhhh" means nothing. But there is much to be said for the process of percolation, going round and round on something and letting it filter and change into something else.

You may have noticed I have not been posting for while. I have had other things on my mind (see below May 22nd) but I have also been lurking and percolating on a few things.

The changes in the learning industry precipitated by the current recession and alternative methods made possible through networks are being amply covered by Tony and Jay at their upcoming event on the Future of Learning as a Business. But they also make me think about the increasing virtualisation of life and relationships and individualisation of life. Margaret Thatcher said back in 1987 that "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families". But this was largely in rejection to the "large state" idea. It is possible that her remark was prescient as well as political.

I am not sure where this percolation of ideas is taking me but the future looks quite lonely.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Ego and learning II

Reflecting quietly on the events of the weekend as I scooted in to work this morning, I returned to the idea of ego and learning. When typing the title into blogger it transpired I had written on the subject before, which only goes to show that I probably only have about seven ideas in total. Scanning my RSS Feeds once at work, I came across a nice piece by Lucy Kellaway on work at school vs work at work which added to the thought.

Yesterday I was helping my niece with her revision whilst she bounced on the trampoline with my daughter. Inadvertently we may have stumbled upon a nice way to reinforce learning. She was having fun, as was my daughter and the revision didn't seem to hurt too much. She was suitably distracted but not preoccupied.

My niece is spectacularly intelligent but also spectacularly and perversely lazy . She will devote superhuman effort into avoiding having to exert herself or actually think. This is always amusing to me as I resolutely resist telling her the answer until I believe she has really searched hard for it.

Her first approach to any homework task will always be ask you to tell her the answer, which she then immediately forgets as in her head the task is finished (the converse to the Zeigarnik effect). If you don't tell her, she will guess rather than think and try to read your reaction to see if she is right (in the interests of fairness my four year old daughter does this too as do most children). Again if you concur she will immediately forget. It is interesting that when she guesses she is quite happy to be wrong and will simply guess again.

I often deploy the Chris Tarrant defence to this strategy and ask for her "final answer". She will then vacillate and beg for the answer. Then and only then will she think. When she has given an answer to the question and it transpires that she was wrong, she will immediately say, "I knew that" when she clearly didn't.

I find it interesting that multiple guessing and being wrong doesn't affect her self image or ego at all. She doesn't feel at all bad about it or try to justify when wrong because it cost her nothing. But when she has put some effort into the task and still gets it wrong she feels the need to reshape and justify.

All this makes me think more about testing and how children acquire their reactions to tests which are often set for a lifetime thereby inhibiting future learning. I would like to know more about this...

Friday, May 22, 2009

Taking another risk...

I have long believed that being happy and healthy at work is dependant upon being in the right job. I also believe, and here I am at odds with a large number of people, that your mental health at work also depends on your job allowing you to be as close to your REAL SELF for as much of the time as possible.

Unfortunately much of work is immensely dysfunctional and does not reward this type of behaviour. Indeed it tends to reward those who can dissemble the most. Fortunately, I have a job that I love most of the time. Moreover, I have long since accepted that I would rather be myself or something close to it than pretend to be someone else in order to achieve global domination.

With this in mind, I thought I would further blur the boudaries between life and work (remember that Freud said, "Love and work") by reflecting on the biggest thing to happen in my life for some time.

Last week my wife died after 11 years fighting cancer.

I am not looking for sympathy, I already have more than enough. This is a learning blog. But this is, I think, a good time to reflect on what I have learned from Jelena in the 13 years that I was lucky to have known her.
  • Persistance tends to trump talent.
  • The English have got their attitudes to friendship completely arse about face - we are nicest to strangers and rudest to our closest friends. As a result we often doubt that we are loved and therefore lack sufficient confidence to take risks in life.
  • Whatever you do, take some risks. They don't have to be big ones but if you don't take any, you won't learn anything new.
  • Passion is a good thing. I remember Jelena jumping up and down with glee and clapping the first time she provoked me to red faced rage. That was the point where she believed there was hope for me.
  • Anger is not a bad thing. Particularly if you recognise it and deal with it.
  • Curiosity is perhaps the most underrated virtue in the world. People who ask questions, learn things and are remembered by those of whom they ask.
  • Cultivate those who love you. Ignore those who don't. Otherwise you'll waste your time on people who are not going to help you much.
  • Don't accept being taken for granted. Challenge if you think you have been short changed.
  • Make sure that those you love know you love them. It is the best chance you can give them in life.

In memory of Jelena, my biggest fan.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Retail therapy - history teaches us nothing

Yesterday I was talking to a friend who runs his own training business and we were comparing notes/moans about the current state of the economy. He then told me that he was in the process of doing due dilligence on a small company he was buying.

"What fun", I replied

"Yes", he said, "Retail therapy always works"

Then a penny dropped. What if the captains of industry were no different from the rest of us? When they are feeling low, instead of going out and buying a new handbag or a nice suit or a trolley load of chocolate, they go and buy a company?

Economists have long known that companies making acquisitions often overpay because the people making the acquisition want the kudos that goes with it.

Fred Goodwin's acquisition of ABN AMRO for the Royal Bank of Scotland last year or any of the other recent over leveraged mergers are just a larger equivalent of you taking your credit card and going mad in Selfridges.

When we will ever learn?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Note to self - RSS feeds are a healthy mental breakfast

I learned quite a few things yesterday. My RSS feeds have been piling up in Google reader and I haven't quite had the strength to deal with them. But I gave myself 10 minutes or so to tackle a few of them and found energy in doing them.

I particularly enjoyed Tim Harford's piece in the FT on the collapse of macroeconomics. When I was living in Russia in the 1990's there was a marvellous quote that I am afraid I cannot attribute that, "History was closed for refurbishment". I think the same is true of economics at the moment. Tim's piece immediately took me on a tour of Wikipedia to look up "non linear stochastic general equilibrium" which in turn lead me to the "Lucas critique" which essentially states that you cant use theories drawn from historical data to make policy recommendations to government. It's no use looking at how the game has been played in the past to suggest how changing the rules might affect it as the players will adjust depending on the interpretation of the new rules.

That seems likes a very elegant way to put a large number of civil servants and academics out of a job.

Anyway my point is that this 10 minutes lead me to some interesting things which enthused me. I was subsequently more energised for an interesting meeting I had with some guys from Google which in turn lead to a number of interesting ideas.

All from 10 minutes spent on RSS feeds in the morning.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Treasure Hunt Learning

Prompted by George's response to my post last week, it occurred to me that I have never blogged about how we can and should be shaping the learners of the future.

Whilst the philosophical shift in many governments' attitudes to education which moved in the 1990s towards a more interventionist and "evidence based" approach was needed (in the UK at least the average quality of teaching had declined), I am hoping that Ed Balls's recent scrapping of SATs for 14 year olds is recognition that the pendulum has swung too far towards a culture of measurement.

As business has known for years and governments should have learned by now, people respond to the figures that they know that management are looking at. If Doctors can earn more for giving flu jabs to asthma sufferers, they will; if teachers are rewarded for delivering students with 5 A-C grade GCSEs including English and Maths, that is what they will do.

The trouble is that so much time is taken preparing students for the tests that young people are no longer taught to learn. By spoonfeeding our children we risk making them mentally obese.

But it is not as simple as returning to a false memory of the halcyon days of education where all learning was a joyful treasure hunt without end. Whilst is is true that, "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it" it is equally true that there are "Lies, damned lies and statistics" and you will get the answer to the question you ask, not the question that you think you have asked.

"In large states public education will always be mediocre, for the same reason that in large kitchens the cooking is usually bad." Friedrich Nietzsche

Whilst I agree with Nietzsche that too many cooks often spoil the broth, I don't share his miserablist sentiment entirely. I still believe that it is still possible to retain the joyful spirit of discovery in learning present in a treasure hunt but at the same time have accountability through assessment that is both light in touch but also useful and relevant.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I Tweet Therefore I Am

Apologies to Descartes for the title of this post but I was chastised by a colleague for not Tweeting the other day despite having set up an account last June. My trouble with Twitter is that I have been unable to see the benefit of it. It strikes me as narcissistic (an interesting post on the Guido Fawkes political blog on the subject made reference to a Times article, which underlined my feelings). I explained this to my critic and suggested that he might be better off doing his job than having a pop at me for my lack of tweets. His response was that Tweeting is very narcissistic (implying that there might be little wrong with narcissism) but a lot of companies, celebrities and politicians found it a marvellous tool.

But Narcissus starved to death while looking at his own reflection...

Can Twitter be a tool which enhances productivity as opposed to a distraction which destroys it? I'm not sure.

By restricting tweets to 140 characters or less, Twitter encourages brevity, and probably clarity. It also appears to generate fast and constructive discussions in communities that form around certain threads. So I feel that it should be a great learning tool I just can't see it yet.

There can only be one way to find out and that is to try it. So we have set up a Reed Learning Twitter Account and I have set up a personal one. From the Reed Learning one we will try to produce learning tweets on how to improve aspects of your life at work. From my own account I will try and distill some of the things that we are thinking about.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

No more learners

Jay Cross posted an interesting video blog the other day about changing the way we look at learning. He used the analogy of a preacher guiding a congregation, given them direction but talking down to them from a pulpit as representative of the old forms of learning. He then introduced the story of Hans Mondermann a Dutch Traffic Management expert who removed road signs to improve road safety as an indication of the new.

Mondermann's idea on traffic management is simple. To make roads safer, you must first make them more dangerous. Road users have become lazy and overdependent on signs and signals to tell them what to do. By removing most of the road signs and markings you make the road users uncertain. Result, they pay more attention to their surroundings, other road users and pedestrians.

As usual, I agree with Jay on the need to reduce our dependency on overly directed spoon feeding in education and training in favour of teaching people to think and learn for themselves. But I don't think it is as easy as just removing the signs or preachers.

I risk upsetting a lot of people here but Jay introduced the religious analogy. The reason the directed form of learning persists is the same reason that organised religion continues to flourish. Many people like to be told what to do and in some cases how to think. It provides security and certainty.

Removing the road signs only works if people have already developed the expertise to evaluate what is presented to them (be it whilst driving their car, whilst doing their job or living their lives). Hence the reasons that Mondermann's ideas have only been implemented in a few areas of the more civilized countries in Europe .

I have written before about George Siemens's insightful comment earlier in the year about information now being, "validated at the point of consumption, not creation". The trouble is I don't think it is yet. We are still too credulous and if we simply remove the prophets and the road signs, nature abhoring a vacuum as she does, they will simply be replace by other agents who will tell us what to do.

However it may be simply that Jay is in sunny Berkeley, California and I am in rain and wind lashed London so my outlook is not so bright. Perhaps I should just watch Sugata Mitra's life affirming video of how slum children in India taught themselves to use a computer without any outside help and not be so negative.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Half formed ideas...

Yesterday I admitted to being pathetic and not blogging because I didn't have anything I felt worth saying.

Today is a new day and I thought I would relish the fact that I am not a politcian. One of the things that frustrates me most about politics is that it tends towards the mean. Unless you can keep the idea hidden or secret, anything that you want to do has to survive the polarising glare of the red top media. As a result many politicians develop the ability to avoid saying anything in case it is held against them.

The reason I celebrate not being a politician is that I am happy to admit that I am wrong. And coming up with half formed ideas and having them knocked down by people who know better is a brilliant way of learning (and this form of informal rapid prototyping should be at the heart of new approaches to learning design). It is better to take lots of small risks than to take a few very big ones.

Last week I had a fascinating conversation in the pub about our current economic gloom. It started off with the obvious and general, "Dear me, isn't it dreadful... Government doesn't seem to have a clue... Bloody bankers..." your everyday superficial and shallow comments.

Until someone said,

"OK, it's alright criticising Gordon Brown for putting our children's future in hock but what would you do?! Would you have let Northern Rock go down? Or HBOS?"

This was followed by a pause in which everyone actually thought about it (good start!). Then we ventured ideas, everyone contributed and things were batted about. And I learned a couple of new things.

My thesis was I would reinvent FDR for the 21st century and spend on major public works that were in the long term benefit of the country, major rail network, renewable energy sources to make the country energy independent, etc. Until it was pointed out to me that most renewable energy sources still cost too much: wave power doesn't work yet (see great article in the Economist), nobody in the country wants wind turbines in their gardens (an example of my favourite new acronym BANANA - Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) and solar power takes 15 years to break even.

This being a conversation in a pub I immediately and shamelessly shifted my investment plan to nuclear power. I'm not one of those who thinks the way to save our planet is a return to pre-industrial society although it was interesting to hear James Lovelock (father of the Gaia hypothesis and exponent of using nuclear power) on the radio yesterday saying that it was all OK, the earth would survive and so would humans provided that about 6 billion of us die...

Interestingly, for the £12.5 the goverment gave away in the VAT reduction before Christmas, one could have built about 8 nuclear power stations.

So what would you do if you were Gordon Brown?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Why blog?

I have not been blogging much recently for a number of reasons but perhaps the biggest reason is that I have not felt like I have anything interesting to say. On reflection this runs against my whole rationale for this experiment as I laid out in my first post, that blogging for me is a way of ensuring reflective practice, which is at the the heart of learning.

So not blogging because I didn't have any completely formed ideas is a bit of a cop out. The point being that this is precisely where I should put my half formed ideas in the hope that by writing them down I may develop them and that people who agree or disagree may comment and thus add to the process. (for more reasons to blog please see Tony Karrer's excellent collection)

Many of the things I have learned in the last 9 months have come from this. Having the courage to put thoughts up in public and risk being laughed at (which doesn't hurt anywhere near as much as you might think) means you come across new ideas or developments faster than you would imagine.

I may have written about this before but finding people who change the way you think on certain subjects is one of the joys of life. Many years ago when I was still at university I went on holiday to America to stay with one of my new friends. Because American universities start earlier than British ones I was able to spend a couple of weeks in Washington DC experiencing life as an American student. My friend lived in a very poor neighbourhood in the north of the city which had a large number of homeless people congregating near the metro exit.

As a middle-class left-wing (ish) student I felt very guilty about just being there on holiday spending money on my credit card whilst these people begged for food. One day I bumped into a friend from home who was just returning from a year in Nicaragua with a Quaker peace mission. He came back with me to the apartment in Mount Pleasant and as we walked from the underground I told him about my guilt and how I always gave some of the change in my pocket to the homeless.

"All apart from this one up here", I said to him as we approached a particularly bedraggled old man, "He just sticks his hand out and grunts aggressively" I explained.

"Oh, so you're not giving him money because he isn't begging correctly?!" said Allan without missing a step.


It hadn't occurred to me to even consider the effect that having to beg for food might have upon a man's dignity. And in less than 3 yards my opinion on something had been completely changed. I turned round and gave the man all the money I had in my pocket - which admittedly wasn't much.

I still cherish this moment 20 years later. There have been moments like it since but this is the easiest one to tell in a blog.

So I guess the message is this; not putting yourself in a position where people can challenge or disagree with you is only doing a disservice to yourself. As I have said before, what's the worst that can happen?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Making the change easier...

As an unabashed convert to the virtual world of informal and social learning, I have to keep reminding myself that we are still very much in the early adoption stage. The vast majority of people are unaware or uninterested in what networked change can do for them.

I spent about 20 minutes this morning recording some screen casts on Jing for a client (a marvellous tool for rapid deployment of information which is really easy to use) and thought I would share them here to help others get involved.

They deal with how to set up and start using a delicious account and how to set up and start using iGoogle and Google reader, which are all pretty near the top of Jane's list of e-learning tools. I have interspersed them with some short clips from Common Craft explaining each of the applications. All fairly basic stuff but for those of you lurking in the background it might show you just how easy it is.

[Note to any of my staff erading this: these links will be meaningless in thin client as you dont have sound so try them at home]

Social bookmarking in plain English (Common Craft)
Setting up a delicious account
Tagging web pages in delicious
Networking and sharing in delicious
RSS in plain English (Common Craft)
Personalising iGoogle with RSS feeds

If this prompts you to get involved, why dont you look me up on Delicious and add me to you network?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Even older learning...

Watching Barack Obama's inauguration speech yesterday, I have to admit that I have slightly fallen under the spell. On the today programme this morning one of the reporters, I forget whom, said that although Obama had resolutely avoided campaigning on a race basis his election was one of the watershed moments of our generation. Things that we didn't think would happen in our lifetimes; the fall of the Berlin wall, the end of apartheid, 9/11 and a black US president.

Amongst many other things that I found interesting (but do not feel qualified to comment upon here) I was awed by his mastery of rhetoric. Indeed rhetoric is one of the oldest elements of study in the world. Forming part of the trivium, rhetoric along with grammar and logic was the core of liberal arts education from the Roman period through to the establishment of the first universities in Europe in the middle ages on to the enlightenment, which of course links nicely to the founding fathers to whom Obama alluded.

Given that one of the most popular forms of business training of the last 30 years has been presentation skills, maybe it is time to revisit what we have known for centuries of the art of getting a message across?

If you want to think about this further, click on the link to rhetorical terms and see how many you think Obama used yesterday.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Old learning, newly relevant

A short thought for today.

I was having an intersting conversation at the weekend with an old friend about interest and inflation rates and was suprised that he did not know the "Rule of 72". I tested this on return to work on Monday and thought I would share.

The Rule of 72 is a very good way of working out how long it will take for inflation or compound interest to double or halve the value of an asset or investment. And it's REALLY simple!

Just take your assumed interest rate and divide it into 72. The result will be the number of periods (or years) it will take for your investment to double in value. Likewise if you assume an inflation rate over a period of time (heads up folks for next year!) and divide it into 72 the result will be the length of time it takes for your £1 to be worth 50p in today's money. For advanced versions and a delightfully geeky explanation of why it works click on the link

While we're on the subject another lovely old maths shortcut is the Rule of 9. Again really simple. If you have a spreadsheet which is not balancing, ie you have two columns of number which should add up to the same number and don't. Take the remainder see if it is divisible by 9.

If it is, then the likelihood is that you have made a transposition error, ie you typed "21" in one column when you meant to type "12" or, "731" when you meant "713".

Isn't maths fun?

Monday, January 5, 2009

How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Answer (delivered in cod Austrian accent): Vun, but does ze lightbulb, really, vont to be changed?

Reading Lucy Kellaway's piece in the FT today, "Twaddle thrives among the turmoil", I had conflicting thoughts. Firstly, thank heavens for Lucy Kellaway. Without her to puncture the bubble of brain-blisteringly bad business communication the world would be a worse place to live. I relish her scathing attacks on nouns used as verbs or companies exhorting their staff to download the corporate ringtone to their mobile phones.

But I am saddened at the same time as her article, although it makes me laugh, does not bode well for our future. If we still cannot do business without the accompanying oxymoronic, tautologous or just downright stupid verbiage attached. If we fail to spot and arrest the intelligence-insulting garbage that is peddled as strategy, are we doomed to follow forever an emperor with no clothes.? And that does not suggest an early end to the recession...

Yet, I am not immune from the habit myself (indeed I freely admit my hypocricy). My communication is often lazy, sometimes pretentious, regularly fuzzy and inconsistent at best. So rather than moan about everyone else, perhaps the best way to start the year is to begin at home. So I invite those who work with me to list the most extreme forms of my crimes against communication. Tell me about the phrases I use that really wind you up and I will try to stop using them.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The heart of learning... is the question

George Siemens's post before Christmas about the Pirate Hoax really got me thinking about how the world is changing. It concluded with the line:

"Information is now validated at the point of consumption, not creation"

I prefer a statement of need:

"Information should now be validated at the point of consumption, not creation"

The problem being that it isn't and it really needs to be. The world is becoming increasingly credulous. To be fair we were pretty credulous before; most people believing what they were told or read in the newspapers or saw on television. Now with a proliferation of information facilitated by Internet tools, it is actually easier to support just about any belief with any number of "facts".

But learning isn't about facts, despite what you may think. Ask any decent PhD supervisor and they will tell you that the heart of learning is in the question. In fact I would maintain that to question is to learn.

As a linguist and an historian I suppose I have two main causes to push, "meaning comes from context" and "validate your sources". I think we need to put these ideas front and centre in any evolution of learning.

I am a British man and I have a love/hate relationship with France and the French (love the former, hate the latter - only joking). But one of the things that I respect most about them is that they have maintained the spirit of the enlightenment in their education system. They encourage the Cartesian ethic of questioning everything from an early age. It is why they are so difficult to manage.

But for the rest of the world here are some top tips for learning in 2009:

1. Look at the atheist ten recommendations, in my opinion a very good way to approach lifelong learning.

2. Seek discussion and dissent. If you surround yourself with people who agree with you, you will achieve little. By finding new sources of opinions you are more likely to find the holes in your own beliefs and ideas.

3. Embrace the idea of "Good enough". You are already, "Good enough". Yes, you can do better. We all can and we should aim to do so. But there is no point in beating yourself up for not being perfect. Nobody is. It is much easier to improve yourself when you already think you are OK.

4. Find time to think.

5. Find time to act.

Have a wonderful 2009!