Why switching to active learning is hard — and worth it

switching to active learning
A September 2019 research study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences clearly illustrates why switching to active learning is hard — and worth it!

Lecturing has been the core modality in our education systems for centuries. Sadly it still is, even though we know that active learning provides superior quantity, quality, accuracy, and retention of knowledge. Active learning beats the pants off the “receiving knowledge” model drummed into our heads through years of listening to teachers. (For a full explanation of why active learning modalities are superior, see Chapter 4 of my book The Power of Participation.)

So why do we continue to use broadcast-style formats?

The NAS study gives us some important new information:

[M]ost college STEM instructors still choose traditional teaching methods…We find that students in the active classroom learn more, but they feel like they learn less. We show that this negative correlation is caused in part by the increased cognitive effort required during active learning.
Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom, L Deslauriers, L S McCarty, K Miller, K Callaghan, and G Kestin

Let’s look at these three conclusions in the context of meeting design.

Most meeting presenters still lecture

The majority of college STEM teachers choose traditional teaching methods. And most meeting session presenters resort to lecturing as their dominant session modality.

Attendees learn more when presenters use active learning modalities

We have had research evidence for the effectiveness of active learning modalities for more than a hundred years. (The pioneer of memory retention research, Herman Ebbinghaus, published his seminal work in 1885.)

A large body of research over the last twenty years clearly shows the superiority of active over passive learning.

“Students learn more when they are actively engaged in the classroom than they do in a passive lecture environment. Extensive research supports this observation, especially in college-level science courses (16). Research also shows that active teaching strategies increase lecture attendance, engagement, and students’ acquisition of expert attitudes toward the discipline (3, 79).”

College students are the focus of this research. There’s no reason to believe that these conclusions would not apply to adult learning during meeting sessions.

Superstar lecturers and motivational speakers

Here’s a striking conclusion from the NAS research:

“Students in active classrooms learned more (as would be expected based on prior research), but their perception of learning, while positive, was lower than that of their peers in passive environments. This suggests that attempts to evaluate instruction based on students’ perceptions of learning could inadvertently promote inferior (passive) pedagogical methods. For instance, a superstar lecturer could create such a positive feeling of learning that students would choose those lectures over active learning.

Including highly paid keynote speakers at meetings is a meeting industry fixation. I’ve argued that the evaluations of such sessions are unreliable. Now, the NAS research buttresses my point, by providing an important explanation why expensive keynote lectures are so popular at meetings. People perceive that they learn more from a smooth lecturer, while the reality is that they learn less!

Conclusion

There is overwhelming evidence that we can improve meetings by switching to active learning from passive lectures. And we now know that the popularity of fluent lectures, as measured by session evaluations, is based on an incorrect belief by attendees that they are learning more than they actually do.

Finally, the NAS report indicates that a simple intervention can overcome false perceptions about the efficacy of lectures.

“Near the beginning of a physics course that used… active learning …the instructor gave a 20-min presentation that started with a brief description of active learning and evidence for its effectiveness. …At the end of the semester, over 65% of students reported on a survey that their feelings about the effectiveness of active learning significantly improved over the course of the semester. A similar proportion (75%) of students reported that the intervention at the beginning of the semester helped them feel more favorably toward active learning during lectures.”

Consequently, we need to educate stakeholders, presenters, and meeting attendees about the benefits of active learning modalities at meetings.

Image attribution and original inspiration for this post: Inside Higher Ed & Kris Snibbe / Harvard University

Thank you Stephanie West Allen for bringing the above research to my attention!

What I remember from high school — and why

high school memoriesHigh school feels like a dream. Fifty years later, few distinct memories remain. I’ve only stayed in touch with one friend from those days, so there’s almost no reinforcement from reviewing and remembering the past. And yet there are some experiences that still retain power. Let’s look at three and explore why they endure.

Mr. Crooke’s holes

We knew almost nothing personal about our high school teachers. So I was surprised one day when our physics teacher, Mr. Crooke, told us that during World War II he had helped to develop some of the earliest rockets. His job was to figure out the best fin designs. This was long before the days of computer simulations (or computers for that matter), so Mr. Crooke experimented by drilling holes in the fins and then firing the rockets to see how straight they flew.

This captured our schoolboy imaginations, and for the next few weeks “Mr. Crooke’s holes” were a frequent topic of conversation.

I liked physics class because we did actual experiments and it offered the possibility of understanding the strange and confusing world in a rational way that seemed comforting to me. But this unexpected personal story cut through the dry presentations of facts that filled most of my childhood education, and it stuck.

Mr. Crooke told us that one of his rockets was displayed in the London Science Museum. Fifty years later, I spent a day at the museum. I examined every rocket, but, sad to say, couldn’t find the one with Mr. Crooke’s holes.

The biology class I’ll never forget

In class one day I was asked to publicly announce my score on a ten-question biology pop quiz. “Six” I said, and I heard loud gasps. The class of twenty-three students was shocked. I was supposed to be smarter than that. Although it has lost its emotional impact, I still remember the shame I felt at that moment.

In my school, the unspoken classroom rules were do what the teachers tell you and don’t make mistakes. Transgressions were followed by public shaming.

It took me many years to realize how much my education environment relied on shame. Because the emotional cost is high, it’s a rotten way to motivate learning.

Inventing an electric bicycle

Back to my physics class. (Hey, I became a physicist.) One day Mr. Crooke gave us a homework assignment for the week: design something that involved physics. I remember having a hard time thinking of something that would actually work. The evening before the assignment was due, I thought of inventing an electric bicycle.

Although there are some Victorian era patents for electric bikes, they were never mass-produced until recently. I certainly had never seen one when I invented mine. I remember drawing a bicycle with an electric motor bolted on, connected by a chain to the rear wheel. The battery was mounted on a little platform behind the bike. The details of the controls were conveniently omitted.

It amuses me that, thanks to the development of powerful lightweight batteries, my fanciful and impractical “invention” in the 1960’s has become the commonplace e-bike of today.

High school memories

These high school memories of mine have endured because they all include an emotional component of one kind or another. We may learn wondrous facts in school, but it’s the stories, experiences, and associated feelings that trigger memories that live on.

Is that true for you?

Learning in community at conferences

Legendary Apple designer Jony Ive explains how learning in community helped Apple make the iPhone:

“When we genuinely look at a problem it’s an opportunity to learn together, and we discover something together. We know that learning in community is powerful. It feeds and supports momentum which in turn encourages a familiarity and an acceptance of challenges associated with doing difficult things. And I’ve come to learn that I think a desire to learn makes doing something new just a little less scary.”
——Jony Ive, Apple designer Jony Ive explains how ‘teetering towards the absurd’ helped him make the iPhone

At conferences we also learn better when we learn in community. At traditional events, expert speakers broadcast content at attendees. But today our minds are increasingly outside our brains. Our ability to learn effectively now depends mostly on the quality and connectedness of our networks, rather than what’s inside our heads.

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Today’s schoolrooms can teach adults the power of positive sharing

For years I’ve been reading to 3rd & 4th grade students at the Marlboro Elementary School, my amazing local public school. It’s a tiny school that currently serves around 100 pre-kindergarten – 8th grade children (4 – 13 years old).

I read during noon recess, after outdoor play. A student rings the bell and children stream back into their classrooms. But before they get their lunch and listen to me, they sit on the floor in a circle and share answers to a simple question:

What went well during recess?

As I listen, it’s clear that kids feel comfortable talking about how they worked together. They build forts, play games, and do all the things kids have done for years when they play in the wooded grounds of our rural school. They don’t talk in generalities. Rather, they name specific classmates and thank them for collaboration, support, and the fun they created together.

The power of public appreciations
These simple public appreciations create a palpable social awareness in the group. You can see relationships strengthen as one child acknowledges another. The children’s interactions are shaped by largely invisible norms of behavior that the teacher expertly introduces during the first few weeks of school.

It’s not all sweetness and light. Inevitably some conflicts come up too. So the teacher sometimes lets the kids delve into what happened, and sometimes reserves discussion for a private chat later in the day.

What strikes me is how easy this is to do and how powerful the results. Group sharing like this was absent during my school years. Instead, our teachers encouraged us to compete with each other academically. They never asked us to talk about positive things our classmates had done.

Appreciative Inquiry
Surprisingly, asking what is currently being done well is the first crucial step of Appreciative Inquiry(AI): a powerful process for exploring productive organizational change. AI starts with a focus on what works in an organization, not what needs fixing. Stories also play an important role.

Want to learn more about AI? For a quick introduction, I recommend The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry. Or go here for a comprehensive set of resources and tools.

Who would have thought it? Today’s schoolrooms can teach adults the power of positive sharing! Have you used Appreciative Inquiry at your organization? Share your experience below.

Image attribution: Amy Kolb Noyes

 

Lessons From Improv: Seeing the Gifts in People and Events

Thoughts triggered while rereading Patricia Ryan Madson’s delightful, straightforward, and yet profound improv wisdom.

Ooh, this is a hard one for me, but it’s so important for anyone working in the meeting profession.

“I can look at a person or event from three vantage points.

  1. To see what’s wrong with it (the critical method commonly used in higher education). Using this lens the self looms large.
  2. To see it objectively (the scientific method). Using this lens both the self as well as others are meant to disappear.
  3. To see the gift in it (the improviser’s method). With this lens others loom large.”

Patricia Ryan Madson, “wake up to the gifts” improv wisdom

Trained to be an academic for the first twenty-five years of my life, I default to Patricia’s first vantage point, the critical method, what’s wrong with it? (I’m consoled slightly by Patricia’s observation that this is her default vantage point too.)

It’s tricky to move to the second “scientific” vantage point, where “both the self as well as others are meant to disappear.” We are trained to do this when working with others, to replace our ego viewpoint with the perspective of a team or a common goal. From this vantage point, our focus is usually a specific outcome or the process needed to obtain it. As Patricia says, the people involved are “meant to disappear”. That’s great for making dispassionate decisions — but my soul is missing.

Finally, the third vantage point, the one that is difficult for me to maintain. When we live from an awareness of the gifts in our lives we become open to others and possibilities in ways that would never otherwise occur. Patricia describes a week in Japan immersed in an intensive process called Naikan, a form of gratitude meditation on one’s debt to the world. In Naikan you focus through a structured process on the answers to three questions: What have I received from (person x)? What have I given to (person x)? and What troubles and difficulties have I caused to (person x)?

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What’s better than people augmented by technology at meetings?

What's better than people augmented by technology at meetings?
There’s a better way to improve meetings than augmenting them with technology. As Finnish management consultant and polymath Esko Kilpi says:

“Human beings augmented by other human beings is more important than human beings augmented by technology” —Esko Kilpi, quoted by Harold Jarche

At face-to-face meetings, we can facilitate relevant connections and learning around participants’ shared just-in-time wants and needs. This is more effective than augmenting an individual’s learning via technology. We maximize learning when:

  • Participants first become aware, collectively and individually, of the room’s wants, needs, and available expertise and experience (i.e. “the smartest person in the room is the room” — David Weinberger, Too Big To Know);
  • We use meeting process that successfully matches participants’ needs and wants with the expertise and experience available; and
  • Time and space is available for the desired learning to take place.

And of course, this approach significantly improves the quantity and quality of relevant connections made by participants during an event.

So the smart choice is to invest in maximizing peer connection and learning. Do this via simple human process rather than elaborate event technology.

I’ve wasted time at many events trying to use apps to connect attendees in some useful way. Even when high-tech approaches use a simple web-browser interface, getting 100% participation is difficult due to technical barriers: all attendees must have a digital device readily available with no low batteries or spotty/slow internet access.

Well-facilitated human process has none of these problems. The value of having a facilitator who knows how to do this work far exceeds the cost (which may be zero once you have invested in training staff to fulfill this function).

When push comes to shove, modern events thrive in supportive, participatory environments. Attendees appreciate the ease of making connections they want and getting the learning they need from the expertise and experience of their peers. Once they’ve experienced what’s possible they rarely enjoy going back to the passive meetings that are still so common.

Yes, we can use technology to augment learning. But the majority of the high-tech event solutions marketed today are inferior and invariably more costly to implement than increasing learning and connection through radically improving what happens between people at our meetings.

The hype and reality of personalized learning

The hype and reality of personalized learning

K-12 education is spending billions of dollars on personalized learning. 97% of US school districts are investing in this hot educational trend. But what is “personalized learning”? Is this effort worthwhile?

A recent Education Week article The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning” by Benjamin Herold includes interesting research findings slotted into a confusing narrative.

Herold begins by describing personalized learning as a high-tech, well-funded push for schools to install computer-based lessons. This software supposedly monitors each student’s responses and “personalizes” subsequent lesson plans. He then goes on to outline arguments that:

  • The hype for this agenda “outweighs the research”;
  • This kind of personalized learning is “bad for teachers and students”; and
  • “Critics are worried that ‘personalized learning’ is cover for an aggressive push by the tech industry to turn K-12 education into a giant data-mining enterprise.”

Given Herold’s initial framing, it’s unsurprising that the article is full of competing perspectives. Juicy journalism perhaps, but the result is that the various authorities quoted talk past each other. That’s because they have different preconceptions of what personalized learning is.

Much of this confusion can eliminated if we think of personalized learning as a spectrum, with two extremes defined by Dan Buckley as: the

…”the T-route, in which the educational route the learner takes is controlled, decided and evaluated ultimately by the Teacher, and P-route in which the route that the learner takes is controlled, decided and evaluated by Peers (or Pupils if you prefer).”
—The PbyP Approach, Dan Buckley

For example from the article, the author of Schooling Beyond Measure, Alfie Kohn’s view that:

“…much of what’s marketed as ‘personalized learning’ amounts to little more than breaking knowledge and ideas down into itty-bitty parts, then using extrinsic rewards to march kids through a series of decontextualized skills they had no meaningful role in choosing.”

is a dismissal of the T-route, while Diane Tavenner, the CEO of California’s Summit Public Schools charter network, who says:

“…the strongest personalized-learning models offer the best of what both conservatives and progressives want: high-quality standards and content for students, with opportunities to apply that knowledge via self-directed projects, all supplemented by human mentors and technology tools that help students keep track of their own learning.”

is claiming that Summit’s technology platform and instructional model, developed with support from Facebook and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, represents a successful mixture of the T- and P- routes.

Which brings us to my interest in this topic as a student and facilitator of adult learning. (Which the article doesn’t mention. To be fair, Education Week confines itself to K-12 education — though you wouldn’t guess that from its name.)

The energetic disagreements documented by Herold are fueled by society’s three mutually incompatible ideas about children’s education (i.e. making good citizens, mastering certain bodies of knowledge, and fulfilling each student’s unique potential) as laid out in Kieran Egan’s thought-provoking book The Educated Mind. These societal goals, however imperfectly attained, imply the need for a mixture of T- and P- route learning strategies. This is because teachers will always be needed to facilitate the understanding of ideas that have taken centuries for the human race to discover and which society insists are important for young minds to grasp.

For adults, on the other hand, I’d argue that the P- route is by far the dominant successful learning paradigm. We live in a world where the job you’ll have ten years from now probably doesn’t exist yet. (That’s the story of my life since I was in my 20’s.) Self-directed, active, peer-supported, just-in-time learning is now the default mode for most professionals. Every adult learner and meeting attendee needs to create their own environment and structure for life-long personalized learning if they are to be optimally effective in the world of work.

Arguments about how we should educate children will likely (and should) never end. But the case for P-route personalized learning in the adult world of work has never been stronger. And until default meeting process reflects this reality, our meetings will be pale shadows of what they could be.

Image attribution: edusurge

Four tools for communities of practice

Four tools for communities of practice
HT Harold Jarche

Today, communities of practice — groups of people who share a common interest, profession, or passion and actively engage around what they have in common — have become essential sources for productive learning, because they provide crucial bridges for social learning between our work community and our external social networks.

Here are four tools for creating, supporting, and enriching communities of practice.

Peer Conferences

In my post Conferences as Communities of Practice I explain how peer conferences can support communities of practice. (In 1992, the first peer conference I ever designed created a community of practice that has endured to this day.)

Listservs

Listservs are an old but still surprisingly useful technology. They manage a list of subscribers and allows any member to send email to the list. The listserv then sends the message to the other list subscribers. Listserv software is available on multiple platforms and is free for up to ten lists of up to five hundred subscribers which should be sufficient for most communities of practice. Yes, it’s true that numerous commercial alternatives exist. But self-hosted listservs don’t rely on commercial providers who may close down or change services with little notice or recourse.

Slack

Slack can be used free for basic support of communities of practice (up to 10,000 messages), though many useful functions are only available in paid versions ($80+ per person annually). All Slack content is searchable. The product, initially targeted at organizations, has been evolving into a community platform. Because of its cost, Slack is probably most useful for communities whose members already have corporate access.

Zoom

The ability to converse with community members via audio/video/chat on a scheduled or ad hoc basis is an important tool for maintaining and growing community connections online. For many years the free Google Hangouts was my go to tool for this purpose, but the service has become almost impossible to use on an ad hoc basis and Zoom seems to be the most popular replacement. For short meetings (up to a maximum of 100 participants for 40 minutes) the free Zoom Basic will suffice, but most communities will be well served by Zoom Pro (unlimited duration and participants; $180/year). Any community member who has a paid Zoom plan can host a video/web conference. So this tool can be a cost-effective way for communities of practice to keep in touch.

Do you use other tools to create, support, and enrich your communities of practice? If so, share them in the comments below!

Why experiential learning is superior to every other kind

experiential learningWhy is experiential learning superior to every other kind? In a word: feedback. Jerry Weinberg explains simply and concisely.

“Why is reading or writing something different from doing something?

First consider reading. Reading is (usually) a solitary activity, with no feedback. Without feedback, there’s no check on what you believe you’re learning.

Now, writing. Unless you put your writing in the hands of someone (or perhaps some computer analysis app), there’s also no feedback, so there’s no check on whether you wrote sense or nonsense.

When you do something, you interact with the real world, and the world responds in some way. With the world’s feedback, you have the possibility of learning, confirming, or disconfirming something. That’s why we strongly favor experiential learning over, say, lecturing or passive reading or writing.”
—Jerry Weinberg, Why is reading or writing something different from doing something?

Photo attribution: Flickr user mikebaird