Posts Tagged ‘learning’

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.

Keynote @ ACCU2011: Simplicity

Coping and Communicating | Posted by Doc
Apr 13 2011

The keynote speaker at this conference, Giles Colborne, is talking about “Advanced Simplicity”. What’s fascinating to me is that he’s talking about some of the same stuff I’ve been talking about for 25 years or more.

He showed an example of a bank website that offered a way to select a statement: two drop down boxes for month and year, plus a “go” button. The problem was that you could select a future date, and get an error, or select a date more than twelve months in the past, and get an error. The simple solution was to provide a single drop down that only offered the users the months for which they could get statements. Simple.

Here are my design constraints:

  • Make it as easy as possible for the user to get it right.
  • Make it as hard as possible for the user to get it wrong.

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”

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.

“Influencer”, a must-read book

Coping and Communicating, Facilitation, Musings | Posted by Doc
May 01 2009

I’m not finished with it yet, and yet I can tell you unreservedly that you must read Influencer by the authors of Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations.

While the first two books deal with holding conversations and dealing with issues, this third book addresses the challenges that are near and dear to my heart: how you get people to change their behavior. Thanks to my colleague Jason Yip, I started on this book, and haven’t been able to put it down (well, I do stop for things like work 😉 ).

I wanted to share some of this with you, because it relates so nicely to what I’ve been thinking and writing about for a while now.

It turns out the all influence geniuses focus on behaviors. They’re inflexible on this point. They don’t develop an influence strategy until they’ve carefully identified the specific behaviors they want to change. They start by asking: In order to improve our existing situation, what must people actually do?

I love this. It’s not about how they feel or about their motivation. First and foremost, it’s about how they behave.

This is true whether I’m dealing with my family, my co-workers, or a client. Whether I want them to change their behavior, or I just want to understand the situation, I start with their behavior.

One of the vital behaviors consists of the use of praise versus the use of punishment. Top performers reward positive performance far more frequently than their counterparts. Bottom performers quickly become discouraged and mutter things such as, “Didn’t I just teach you that two minutes ago?” The best consistently reinforce even moderately good performance,…

This goes as far back, for me, as Ken Blanchard’s original One-Minute Manager series of books. It ties into how we relate to and teach our children. Every little accomplishment, every move in the right direction, and they get tremendous reinforcement. Then, as the authors say, we start to grow up and everyone gets stingy with their praise as if it’s only to be delivered when we do something exceptional.

If you know anything about training dogs (no, I’m not equating co-workers and family to dogs, just learning where I can), you know that you do the same thing – reward them if they make a move in the right direction, and keep encouraging them until they get it.

It’s so easy to say “well done” or “good job” or even just “thanks”. These things provide reward way out of proportion to their cost.

And it’s so easy to do these things as a facilitator, which many folks don’t get. It’s not about being insincere or ingenuous. It’s about rewarding and encouraging the behaviors we want to develop, and finding ways to reduce or eliminate the behaviors we don’t want.

Read this book. If you are a parent, manager, facilitator, professional, consultant, teacher,… okay, if you’re a human being, read this book.

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I am SO impatient!

Coping and Communicating, Musings | Posted by Doc
Apr 14 2009

As much as I talk about leading people to choose to change – influencing them – I have to admit that my natural tendency is toward impatience.  After all, I got it, so why don’t you?  What’s taking so long?  C’mon already!

Once I understand something or internalize something or in some other way get it, I forget about my own AHA! moment when I first got it.

What’s important for me to remember, therefore, is that everyone learns at their own pace, and their AHA! moments will come when they come, not when I want them to come.

When I was studying Shotokan Karate, I worked on a particular kata (form) for several months. I reached brown belt, and was so proud of myself. I was doing that same kata one day, and started seeing all sorts of flaws in it.  I went to my instructor and told him how confusing this was, because it seemed like the flaws appeared suddenly.  He said “the higher the mountain, the farther you can see.”

I think there’s a corollary: the higher the mountain, the more the details are lost in the mist of distance. I think this sometimes applies to the lessons I’ve learned and internalized (the “unconscious competence” level of learning).

As a parent, I’ve certainly seen the situation many hundreds of times. My wife or I will tell one of the kids the same thing over and over and over and… one day, all of a sudden, it seems that they get it.


No doubt there’s a combination of a critical mass of receptions, plus some catalyzing event or thought that turns it from more yadda-yadda noise into a message that is important to them.

This means that no matter how important or seemingly obvious the message or lesson, I have to learn to be patient, be determined, be consistent, and wait until the other person is ready.

In my work, I run into this frequently as well.  “Oh, now I get what you’ve been telling me all this time, Doc!”

It’s not that I said anything different, or said it differently.  It’s just reaching that moment, that point in time at which it becomes personally relevant and meaningful for them.

And that requires patience.


The Tale of Little John: Transference of Learning and Teaching

Leadership Lessons from Robin Hood | Posted by Doc
Mar 11 2009

One day Robin asked “Little” John how he was so successful with the band. John had taught many of them to fight, hunt, cook, build shelters, and work together in many ways including while on missions against the Sheriff’s men.

At first, John was hard put to come up with an answer.

“I just ask them to do things, maybe I show them, maybe I do it with them, and then they seem to do them,” said John.

“But that’s not all, surely!” said Robin. “After all, there must be disagreements and confusion and such. How do you handle those?”

John thought some more. This was quite a challenge, since as is true with many of us, he didn’t always know what he did or why it worked. Frequently, it was just “doing what I do” and it seemed to work.

John said, “Well, Robin, you know that I’m married and that my darling wife and I have a bit of a brood, right?”

“Yes, of course, John. What does that have to do with anything?”

“Well,” said John, “I just realized that there are many things I’ve learned in dealing with my wife and children that have just become automatic. And so without thinking about it, I do the same things with our band, here.

“For instance, when I want to teach my oldest son to chop down trees, I don’t just tell him ‘go chop down trees’. I first show him the axe, explain how to use it, maybe I explain how to keep it sharp and shiny, and then I take him into the forest and show him how to chop down a tree.

“Chopping down a tree seems like a simple thing, but I have to teach him how to think about where he wants it to fall, and what angle to chop, and so on.

“Once I’ve shown him what to do, then I give him the axe and watch him try it. I give him lots of encouragement, point out what he’s done well, and try to steer him away from developing any bad habits.

“When we’re done, which might take more than one tree (and fortunately the forest has plenty), he knows how to chop down a tree. He also feels good about himself and what he’s done, and our relationship is stronger than ever.”

Robin pondered this for a bit. “But that’s an easy one. I see that you have a strong yet gentle hand with your son, and that you treat him as a man, not a boy, and give him the respect and encouragement that any man would want.

“And I can also see that you don’t push him too hard, but that you don’t take it too easy on him.

“I can even see how that could apply with our band here.

“Now tell me how you handle the discord and disgruntlement that we find occurring from time to time.”

Once again, John pondered. As we saw, John did a lot of these things “automatically”, and it took some pondering to bring it to the surface.

“Well, Robin, here’s how I think it goes.

“Let’s say that two of my young ones are throwing unkind words back and forth. I could just bang their heads together. Or I could just send one out to collect mushrooms while the other chops firewood.

“But if I do that, neither one of them learns how to deal with the other. They just learn to either avoid me or avoid each other. But I want my children to enjoy each other’s company, to love and respect each other, and to work well together when they have chores.

“So I talk to them. First, I find out what they’re on about. Not just what they might say about it at first, but I try to find out what it’s really about. For instance, Luke might claim that Bryan stole his favorite plaything. Bryan, of course, would likely deny that. And then they’d go back and forth, accusing and denying, denying and accusing. I can only take so much of that. And I would be sorely tempted to bang them together!

“But what I try to do is figure out why there might be bad blood between the boys. And I might find that Bryan did take Luke’s plaything, but that he did so because Luke got the better cut of meat at dinner the night before. And Bryan was feeling hurt because he thought that I was favoring Luke.

“At that point, I’d ask Luke about dinner and whether he felt like he was being favored. We’d talk about actually talking about things that bother us, rather than doing something. Bryan was punishing Luke, but it wasn’t really Luke that had upset him. It was me and Dorothy, my wife.

“Finally, we’d see if we couldn’t find a better way to deal with it if it comes up again. Knowing my boys and girls, Luke would probably offer to make sure that they both got equal portions the next time.

“This is just one example, but maybe it helps you to see how I do what I do.

“Finding not just what’s on the surface, but what’s under the surface, is usually the best choice.

“It’s like feeding your family from the lake – if you only collect what’s floating on the surface, you’ll likely go hungry. And even if you don’t go hungry, you surely won’t have very interesting meals!”

Robin went off on his own for a bit to think about what John had told him. It was a bit of a struggle initially, to understand how John-as-father lessons applied to John-as-leader. Robin understood that John used the same techniques, but was still confused as to how John could use them without offending the folk of the band. How could John be fatherly to them without them feeling like they were being treated like children?

Robin did the obvious – he asked!

Once again, John was forced to ponder. He didn’t normally think much on it – just did it as well as he could.

John said, “I don’t act like their father, nor do I treat them like children. What I do is use the same techniques that I have learned as a father with the folk of our band. It’s like chopping two different kinds of tree – I don’t pretend that oak is cherry, and I may chop each somewhat differently. But I use the same basic techniques of chopping. I don’t invent a whole new kind of chopping for cherry, after chopping oak. And I don’t pretend that the cherry is oak.”

This set Robin back a bit on his heels. When John said it so simply, it seemed so obvious. And to Robin, of course, it made great sense. While it didn’t matter what kind of target he shot at with his bow – bale of hay, tree, or living – he used basically the same techniques. He might vary them slightly, but the techniques were the same. And when he thought about it that way, he realized that it was true!

And with that, Robin realized that he had been doing much the same thing, also without knowing it. He treated Little John and Alan a Dale largely the same, dealt with the issues they brought to him using the same basic ideas and techniques. But he never treated Alan as though he were John, nor John as though he were Alan.

And neither man ever complained that “you treat me as though I were him!”

Robin also realized that if he were ever blessed with wife and children, he might also be able to use what he had learned today to make a happy family!

The lessons from any part of life can, and frequently should, be applied to other parts. This doesn’t mean that you are treating your dog as though he were your child, or that slicing an avocado is the same as cutting down a tree. But the lessons may apply.

< Continued from “Building a Band of Merry Men”

Continues with The Tale of Will and Tom

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