Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Learning about learning

Education, Presentation | Posted by Doc List
Jun 01 2016

I spend a significant chunk of my time thinking about how to make my “training” more effective. I quote the word because I don’t really think of it as “training”. I mostly think of it as “guiding learning”. Yes, it doesn’t hurt if I’m an expert (or at least reasonably knowledgeable) about the topic. However, being an expert doesn’t instantly confer expert teaching/training/facilitation skills on me.

The thing is that it’s about the learning. In order to deliver effective learning experiences (you call them what you like, I just can’t refer to them as “training”), it’s important that I understand how the brain learns. Yes, I said “how the brain learns,” not “how people learn.” Sure there have been studies about individual preferences (visual, auditory, kinesthetic). However the more recent studies in neuroscience reveal some very valuable lessons.

“Another recent study at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Department of Radiology, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that the structural core of the brain receives sensory information from different regions and then assembles bits of data into a complete picture that becomes a memory of an event.This memory is strengthened by multiple sensory inputs.For example, if we both see and hear something, we are more likely to remember it than if we only hear it.

If we experience an emotional reaction to something – fear, anger, laughter or love – that emotion becomes part of the memory and strengthens it dramatically.In recalling memories, subjects who had experienced an emotional reaction were far more likely to remember the event and with higher accuracy than those who simply witnessed an event without any emotional attachment.That explains why highly emotional events – birth, marriage, divorce and death – become unforgettable.

What does this neuroscience research suggest about learning?We need to ensure that learning engages all the senses and taps the emotional side of the brain, through methods like humor, storytelling, group activities and games.Emphasis on the rational and logical alone does not produce powerful memories.”

from “How the Brain Learns” at

Sometimes I do things very intentionally when I’m in front of a class.

  • I tell stories, because research shows that stories help people learn.
  • I am (try to be 😉 ) humorous and amusing because laughter helps people learn.
  • I have people engage with each other because the shared experience helps people learn.

Overall, my goal is to create an immersive, engaging, memorable learning experience.

I have learned from and integrate the work of people like Sharon Bowman (“Training from the BACK of the Room!” and “Using Brain Science To Make Training Stick“), Dave Meier (“The Accelerated Learning Handbook“), and John Medina (“Brain Rules“). When I develop new classes, I consider all of the lessons and think about how to make the experience richer and the learning stickier. When I teach classes that other people have developed, I find opportunities to introduce some of this stuff if the material isn’t as interactive and interesting as I’d like.

One of my friends, Tricia Broderick, commented to me at a conference “I always know how to find your session… I just listen for the loudest room!” That’s because I frequently have people talking, laughing, and carrying on in simulations. If learning isn’t fun, I just don’t feel like it’s worth the time.

Now extend that into meetings, gatherings, and events, and you can get an idea of the difference this can make.

So yeah, knowing how the brain learns is at least as important as knowing how people learn.

A (compelling?) vision

Agile & Lean, Education | Posted by Doc
Mar 08 2011

wonderingI was talking to my friends Maura and Shawn (Shawn and I both love photography) this weekend, telling them about the ideas I’ve been developing as I read Jane McGonigal’s “Reality is Broken”. Between McGonigal’s work, Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” and his talk about 10,000 hours to achieve mastery, and all the recent references to 10,000 hours (like in Seth Godin’s blog post), I got to wondering about how to combine it all.

Here’s the result of my developing and wondering and pondering and talking:

I want to start on open source project to create something – game, system, website, whatever – that incorporates elements of alternate reality games (as described by McGonigal) including the four defining traits of games*, somehow tracking and recording practice toward 10,000 hours, and that focuses on intrinsic motivation with a tickle of extrinsic motivation.

My first focus would be on facilitating the adoption of Agile principles and practices in organizations, although it’s far from limited to that.

I’m not defining it any further than this for now, because I want to engage folks “out there” to work with me on this project. It feels LARGE. It’s certainly larger than I can envision and implement myself. Does it intrigue you? Would you like to join me in creating something that could make a significant mark on the world?

If you’re reading this, then you know how to reach me. That’s your first quest. 😉

* “When you strip away the genre differences and the technological complexities, all games share four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.” ~Jane McGonigal, “Reality is Broken”

Quests and powerups

Agile & Lean, Education, Musings | Posted by Doc
Mar 07 2011

on a questThe first challenge I’ve set myself is to explore how to incorporate the concepts of quests and powerups/levelups into the professional educational setting1.

In many situations, there is certainly a sense of accomplishment. In fact, at our internal training at ThoughtWorks, we’ve2 moved away from lecture and classroom intensive training, and toward project-focused, experiential learning. This allows the participants to gain feelings of achievement and accomplishment, to learn about collaboration, and to find a sense of discovery. Much of the instruction has moved to a Socratic Method, which both leads and allows the participants to use their intrinsic motivation.

The question I’m exploring is “can we apply these same methods and techniques in a public, less-controlled setting?” I believe the answer is yes.

What would the changes have to be?

  • Far less lecture. Just enough to give them a basic understanding, but not enough to fill their heads.
  • Challenges that allow them to discover, rather than be spoon-fed.
  • Questions rather than assertions, to allow them to incorporate changes in their thinking.
  • Achievements that allow them to feel good about themselves while they are learning.
  • Some extrinsic motivation, as long as it’s not the main focus.
  • The idea of a constant progression toward mastery (which takes me back to Shu Ha Ri and my post Is easy the same as hard?).

We’ll be working on this in our educational content. Expect to see the first results publicly available in the next few months.

Just because, look at this TED Talk by Sugata Mitra. It’s fantastic. (it should be embedded right here)

1 Just in case it hasn’t become painfully clear yet, I am avoiding the word “training”.

2 While I say “we”, in fact I had nothing to do with it. Take a look at Sumeet Moghe’s blog. Sumeet is the driving force behind all of our internal education at ThoughtWorks.

P.S. We’re hiring at ThoughtWorks again (still).

Learning and games, games and learning

Agile & Lean, Education, Musings | Posted by Doc
Mar 04 2011

I’m reading “Reality is Broken: How Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World” by Jane McGonigal. It’s fascinating stuff, talking about Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) and using gaming to teach, learn, collaborate, and learn to enjoy what we do.

Of course, it’s got me thinking.

Alternate Reality

Does this mean some kind of weird science fiction stuff? No. It means games that can be played in the real world or in virtual worlds that may apply different sets of rules or contexts. McGonigal mentions the virtual worlds of Halo and World of Warcraft in the book. These are two very different contexts and scenarios. Halo is warfare set in something like the real world we know. Okay, there are aliens. But other than that…

I’ve never been a big, enthusiastic gamer, but I do like shooting things and blowing them up. And yet, somehow Halo has never called to me.

And then there’s World of Warcraft, which is a fantasy world in which you complete quests, fight, and band with others. If you’d asked me last week, I’d have said that I had no particular interest. But thanks to Jane McGonigal, I decided to sign up for a free trial of the game. It was more what she said about Intrinsic Motivation (see Dan Pink’s “Drive”) and how the quests relate, and the overall idea of collaboration but not (necessarily) competition.

The quests are compelling. Nothing really happens. I don’t get any prizes or recognition or anything but leveling up in the game. Somehow, in spite of that, I want to keep doing quest after quest. There’s a feeling of satisfaction about it. Finish one, start another. Level up periodically. Fight monsters, deliver messages, get lost and wander around, go up trees and down into the earth… On one level, it seems entirely pointless. On another, I FREAKIN’ GET IT!


How does this apply? Is there a way to use this kind of approach in delivering what we oh-so-annoyingly* call “training”?

I’m thinking about the idea of intrinsic motivation, quests, achievements that allow each of us to feel a sense of accomplishment, and extending it beyond the specific educational situation. That last includes some form of “social medium” and also thinking about how to extend it into the workplace.

Agile teams are pretty good at this. Each time a person or pair completes a story, they get to move it on. There’s a sense of achievement in that. Of course, they don’t get a nifty “+1” floating over their heads. They don’t level up to the next level of developer or tester. Maybe there’s a way?

For now, my immediate focus is on how to apply this in the educational/learning situation. Is there a way to design and create learning environments that take advantage of the work of Jane McGonigal, game designers, and others?

* I say “oh-so-annoyingly” because we should NOT be doing “training”. We train pets to certain specific behaviors. When I’m working with a project team or a bunch of folks from an organization that wants to adopt Agile, I’m not training them. I’m leading them to think differently and adopt different behaviors. So “training” just seems the wrong word to me.

%d bloggers like this: