Friday, August 29, 2008

Learning styles... again

Clive Shepherd has broached this much visited this subject, and Stephen Downes (among others) has weighed in with his views. My own contribution takes the form of a paper I wrote some time ago, reproduced here verbatim. Apologies - it's a lot longer than my usual offering (it was originally submitted on my MA programme, which required 3000 words give or take 10%):

I am aware that when I state my view on learning styles, I am greeted with consternation that borders on accusations of heresy. Perhaps with this post (an adaptation of a paper I submitted on my MA programme) I can account for myself. I apologise that it is somewhat lengthy, but, if you are at all interested in the topic, I urge you to stick with it to the end. I have also included a list of links and reference in case your curiosity is sufficiently piqued to want to investigate further for yourself (which I hope it is!).

Background - personal stance

I first encountered the Peter Urs Bender personality styles model (original source unknown) in 1990 as a freelance training consultant in South Africa. It had become a popular feature of customer service and management development training programmes, and had been passed from hand to hand so many times that the name and underlying theories had become separated from the model itself. It did not occur to me to question its validity, since it seemed to make sense on an intuitive level. Like many others in my profession, I familiarised myself with the model and its application and jumped on the bandwagon.

I was introduced to the concept of learning styles as a formalised theory when I undertook a City & Guilds Certificate in Further Education Teaching at a further education College in 2000/2001, where it was taught as if it were fact.

The college itself was unswervingly committed to the Dunn and Dunn VAK model (1984), and every new student undertook a test known as QuickScan to identify their preferred learning style. The results were included on every student’s file and tutors were expected to show an awareness of the balance of styles represented in each class. Furthermore, lesson plans and schemes of work had to indicate where provision was being made for each learning style. (Note: at the time of writing, this approach was still in place)

Once again, because I found the material logical and easy to understand, it never occurred to me to question the validity of the theories or the research. I embraced it enthusiastically, to the extent that I developed a resource for my students at the IT learning centre, by means of which they could identify their own learning style and adopt some tactics that would enable them to maximise their learning experience at the centre.

In the intervening years, I have encountered an increasing number of anomalies to both the VAK and Kolb-based models (including Myers-Briggs and Urs Bender). I became concerned at the infallibility which appeared to be imputed to these models, when in fact few people seemed to be a perfect fit on anything more than a superficial level.

It should be known from the outset that my current stance is diametrically opposed to that held up to and somewhat beyond 2001 – although I would be hard pressed to name a single date or incident which marked the reversal.

Situation 1: Cert Ed case studies: deaf student

One of the assignments for the second phase of the C&G certificate involved learning style case studies. Of my four chosen case studies, one was deaf with attendant poor oral communication skills. I was surprised at the time that her QuickScan test showed her to be an auditory learner, and discussed this with the staff member responsible for testing. I was categorically assured that it was impossible for a deaf person to be an auditory learner, since they lack an auditory faculty. The test supervisor ascribed the anomaly to the student’s poor reading skills. It is true to say that, like many deaf people, her reading age was well below her chronological age (Brown and Adams, 1990), however, I was unsatisfied with this explanation, since she had had a reader for the test, who signed the questions to her.

The following is an excerpt from an email exchange between Dr Gemma Calvert[1], and me during July 2007 (Dr Calvert is the Reader in Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Psychology, University of Bath):

KR: Do deaf people use the same areas of the brain to process sign language as hearing people do to process spoken language?

GC: The answer to the first question is yes, in part. Deaf signing activates some of the same auditory speech areas that hearing people use when listening to speech.

In research conducted by MairĂ©ad MacSweeney, it was found that “the left posterior perisylvian cortex is of fundamental importance to language processing, regardless of the modality in which it is conveyed.” (MacSweeney et al, 2004). If the identification of an individual’s preferred learning style as auditory is an indication of brain area activity rather than of dominance of a sensory organ, this would imply to my (admittedly limited) understanding that a deaf learner is as likely to have an auditory preference as any other learner.

Situation 2: inconsistency of style

By 2001, I had identified myself by means of the QuickScan questionnaire as a primarily kinaesthetic learner, and by means of the various models based upon Kolb’s learning cycle diagram (DeBello 1990) as an activist (Honey and Mumford model – Honey and Mumford, 2000) and an expressive (Peter Urs Bender’s model, year unknown).

Superficially, this would account for my extrovert nature and my tendency to start activities without first taking time to familiarise myself with instructions and constraints. However, this failed to account for the fact that I was able to make perfect sense of the pictorial instructions that came with flatpacks whereas my husband, purportedly a visual learner, was not. Nor did it satisfactorily explain my skill and preference for quietly contemplative, reflective activities such as reading, sudoku and cryptic crossword puzzles.

Niggling doubts

As I see it, the following shortcomings need to be considered:

  1. The very method of test completion immediately disadvantages certain people. For example, is a written test appropriate for a person with severe dyslexia? Even when the services of a scribe are engaged, is there certainty that the introduction of a third party in no way influences the outcome?
  2. The circumstances under which the test is taken may influence the outcome. If the test is taken at the start of what is to be an academic course of study, the learners are likely to be mindful of their approach to classroom based learning as they respond. However, if the test is taken as part of a management development programme, the learners are likely to be mindful of behaviours and habits in the workplace.
  3. A single individual is likely to adopt widely differing approaches to different learning activities – almost certainly within the course of a lifetime, but even possibly within a single day. For example, consider the learning approaches that may be adopted in the following circumstances:
  • Acquiring fluency in a language
  • Learning to drive a car
  • Memorising the highway code
  • Gaining proficiency in the use of a new software application
  • Mastering a new piece of piano music
  • Learning to sing a new song
  • Recognising “what not to wear” as identified in the popular television series of the same name.
As long ago as 1948, Bertram Forer had begun to conduct experiments that cast doubt over the validity of the concepts of learning and personality styles. The Forer effect “is the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people.” (Wikipedia, 2007). This is closely related to Marks’s theory of subjective validation, which “occurs when two unrelated or even random events are perceived to be related because a belief, expectancy, or hypothesis demands a relationship” (Wikipedia, 2007)

There is not even the convenience of a single ontology when it comes to discussing learning styles. Coffield et al identified no fewer than 71 models (2004), each of which identifies learning styles according to a different set of criteria. Whilst there is commonality and overlap between some models, there is no mapping the VAK model to the MBTI model, for example: a visual learner is no more likely to test as any one of the many possible Myers-Briggs combinations than any other. And again, there is no way of predicting whether an auditory learner is more likely to be an expressive, analytical, driver or amiable on the Urs Bender model.

Into this minefield, the teacher or corporate trainer (referred to collectively as teachers from here on) is often expected to venture by a management totally unaware that their own understanding of the field is not unlike that of the Indian fable about three blind men describing an elephant, each only touching one part of the animal. Teachers appointed to an organisation are presented with the functionality of the organisation’s chosen model, and are thereafter expected to comply with this model, conducting tests few are qualified to conduct and basing their teaching approaches on deductions that few are qualified to make.

In the formal education sector, learning style models have been widely adopted as a top down measure from the state. Some schools are still adhering rigorously to the tenets of the VAK model, in spite of the fact that (to my firsthand knowledge) the National Strategies have been instructed by the DCFS to withdraw all their learning materials on the subject. This was as a consequence of a report called About Learning submitted In June 2004 by the Demos think tank to Schools Standards Minister David Milliband. The report declared learning style models to be of “doubtful reliability and validity”, pointing to a lack of evidence that teaching practice was in any way improved by their use – even suggesting, in fact, that the converse was true.

They know not that they know not

The level of commitment to the model of choice in various organisations appears, in some cases, to have reached almost mindless proportions. Witness the following accounts:
  1. A recruitment advertisement listed as ‘essential’ the ability to deliver learning which engaged “all four learning styles”. When I enquired about the learning styles model being applied, it became clear that there was an underlying assumption that there was only a handful of models to choose from and that “everyone knew” that MBTI was accepted as the industry standard. It also became clear that the model being referred to as MBTI was, in fact, Honey and Mumford’s model.
  2. Holly Lodge Girls’ School in Liverpool has introduced a colour coded system which identifies learners’ according to their learning styles (DfES website August 2007).
  3. A fellow student on my MA programme indicated that tests had been conducted at his school using one of the Kolb-inspired quadrant models. Results showed that the largest proportion of children in the school belonged to one quadrant, while success within the current assessment system had been identified as being largely the province of children belonging to the diametrically opposed quadrant. The head teacher instructed teachers to find means of converting children from one learning style to the other.

Where teachers are expected to draw up lesson plans that cater to each of the styles of their organisations chosen models, they are at risk of building up expectations of which learners will engage with which activities. It is undeniably useful that teachers are encouraged to plan lessons with a wide range of activities, rather than the monomodal “chalk and talk” approach of years gone by. It is indubitably true that learners are more engaged with the learning in such instances. However, one wonders whether it is it not just as likely that the learners are able to remain interested due to the changing “scenery” in the form of media and delivery mechanisms rather than because a particular learning style is being addressed.

The subject of learning styles crops up in repeated debates in the edublogosphere. In Educause Connect in June 2008, Catherine Howell opines that “what they actually offer is less than a theory of learning than a caricature of learners”. Her contention is that “researchers can’t agree on “what” learning is (neurophysical? social? psychological?), second because they can’t even agree “where” it occurs (in the teacher-student relationship? in the classroom? in the student’s head?).”

In his “x28’s new blog”, Matthias Melcher reflects on his abortive attempts to find recent online resources about cognitive styles, and observes that online aggregator searches are conducted mainly by non-English speaking countries, where the concept still appears to have more currency (5 July 2006). Since his profile includes links to his own results from a variety of such tests, one assumes that he sets enough store by this information to regard it as meaningful to his readers. This is borne out by the opening sentence of a later post on the same blog (the emphasis is his): “C. Quinn and H. Jarche have one word on learning styles: “rubbish”. I do not agree.” (2 July 2007). Sadly, he has not provided a link to the offending posts by the two authors. In his view the fault lies in that adherents of learning style theories tend to overload the concept with the classification of personality styles in addition to cognitive styles of learning and, moreover, fail to distinguish between styles and abilities. In his view “as long as style is confused with ability, teachers and researchers won’t admit to themselves that they also belong to one or another style, or they will take it for granted that they belong to the “superior” one”. (Melcher, 2007)

I have not found any evidence of one style being put forward as superior to another in any model.

Donald Clark – admittedly a well-known iconoclast, and something of a sensationalist in the edublogosphere – describes an instance where he “presented the Coffield research on learning styles at a coaching conference” after which he “received an abusive email from Peter Honey (who was in the audience)”. Allegedly, at some point during an exchange of emails between the two parties Honey “did admit, however, that there was no scientific evidence to back up his theory – the famous Honey and Mumford model.” (Clark, 2007)

I think I could do no better than to end with an (unfortunately lengthy) extract from James Atherton’s Heterodoxy blog, in a post unequivocally called Learning Styles Don’t Matter (2007) in which he describes the members of a class:

In this class there is a serialist pragmatist kinaesthetic learner (who is also field-dependent, not to mention his MBTI) primarily a convergent thinker, high on logico-mathematical intelligence but low on linguistic intelligence, sitting next to a holist, reflector, primarily visual and field-independent... who is also chronically shy (no-one mentions that). Even assuming that such things can be assessed with some validity and reliability, which is itself far from clear — what are you going to do about it? There are after all thirty other students in the class, each of whom could be described in similar terms. And two-thirds of them are female, and one-third male (two of whom are gay). Five of the class are from ethnic minorities, two are dyslexic, one is visually impaired, and three are clinically depressed (although only one of them knows it). Six are "mature" students — at least, they are chronologically over 25.

In other words, a fairly typical class, composed of people. (One of them has his Yorkshire terrier in a holdall, but perhaps we can ignore that.) You, of course are...


Atherton, J S (2002) Heterodoxy: Learning styles don't matter [On-line] UK; Available: Accessed: 2 July 2007

Bender, Peter Urs (1997) Leadership from Within. Stoddart. ISBN 0773759034. Questionnaire originally undertaken (source unknown) 1990 – extract reviewed online at 29 September 2007.

Bishop, D. V. M. and Adams, C. (1990) A Prospective Study of the Relationship between Specific Language Impairment, Phonological Disorders and Reading Retardation Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 31 (7), 1027–1050. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.1990.tb00844.x

Clark, Donald (2007) Professor pans ‘learning style’ teaching in Donald Clark Plan B 12 August 2007. Published online at Accessed 15 August 2007.

Coffield, F.; Moseley, D.; Hall, E.; Ecclestone, K. (2004) Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning. Learning and Skills Research Centre.

DeBello, T.C. (1990) Comparisons of Eleven Major Learning Styles Models Journal of Reading, Writing and Learning Disabilities, 6:203-222. Accessed online at 4 July 2007.

Demos think tank (2004) About Learning. Published by Demos. June 2004. Accessed online at on 15 August 2008.

DfES (DCFS) website (2007) Case study: Holly Lodge Girls’ School accessed online at on 15 August 2007.

Dunn, R., Dunn, K., & Price, G. E. (1984). Learning style inventory. Lawrence, KS, USA: Price Systems in Wikipedia accessed 29 September 2007 and Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning (2004) Coffield et al.

Forer, Bertram R. (1949) The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility". Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 44: 118-123. In Wikipedia ( last accessed 29 September 2007

Honey, Peter and Mumford, Alan (2000) Learning Styles Questionnaire (80-Item). ISBN 1 902899 07 5.

Howell, Catherine (2005) Do learner profiles enhance learning? In Educause Connect 8 July 2005. Accessed online at 2 July 2007.

MacSweeney, Mairéad et al (2004). Dissociating Linguistic and Nonlinguistic Gestural Communication in the Brain. NueroImage 22 (2004) pp 1605-1618.

Marks, David F. (2000) The Psychology of the Psychic. Prometheus Books ISBN 1573927988. In Wikipedia ( last accessed 29 September 2007.

Martin, Isabel (date unknown) Helping Students to Learn More Effectively accessed online at 29 September 2007

Melcher, Mathias (2006) Cognitive Style Theories in x28’s new blog. Online at Accessed 2 July 2007.

Melcher, Mathias (2007) Learning Styles called Rubbish in x28’s new blog. Online at Accessed 2 July 2007.

[1]My thanks go to Professor John Geake for putting me in touch with Dr Calvert

Thursday, August 28, 2008

So let me explain...

I am about to become self-employed. It's an idea I have been toying with for some time, but it never seemed like the right time. Many of you have told me time and again that you think me ill-suited to the corporate machine. The trouble is, I am rather well suited to the financial security of a regular paycheque.

Then a whole bunch of circumstances came together very quickly which resulted in my having to hand in my notice at work. Perhaps I will go into more detail at some later date, but the situation is still a little fragile.

So the Learning Anorak has been born. The logo is still a work in progress, and is receiving the attention of a professional, but this is it for now. What do you think?

For some time I have been referring to myself by this name in various spaces, so it seemed logical to carry the theme through.

Many people have been extraordinarily supportive. Mark Berthelemy has (as always) shared freely of his advice and expertise. Harold Jarche, who has walked this path himself, has made himself available as friend, mentor and adviser. Kristina Schneider has been a shoulder to cry on, and has applied all the right insults to the right people to become a friend for life. Several people have given me the names of people and organisations to contact. A man I have never met (but who knows my husband) has offered to put my details in front of the board of a large organisation.

You see, I know I'm good at what I do. And there are people who will back me up on that. The trick is to get the word out there, and people have been astonishingly kind in helping me to do that. I remarked on this in conversation with an associated recently, to which he replied, "Well the more you slice this cake, the bigger it grows."

So I have hung out my shingle. Advice, references and introductions... and prayers... welcomed!

It's a very sad thing...

For some years, I have been targeting a specific organisation as a place I'd really like to work. I've had cause to visit their premises several times and have always felt bouyed by the evident passion and enthusiasm of the people who work there. Having had my fill of cynicism and eye-rolling, I relished the idea of being surrounded by fellow wild-eyed zealots. They have always struck me as an organisation that is prepared to break with tradition, to push the envelope, to... oh heck, there's no other way of saying it... think outside the box, colour outside the lines (pick your cliche).

On every occasion, my applications have fallen at the first hurdle, and I was at a loss as to why. As recently as a few weeks ago, I made yet another application and yet again did not make the first round of interviews. This time, I was able to contact the person recruiting for the role and find out where my shortcomings were, so that I could address them next time around.

I was deeply saddened that my application was dismissed primarily because I do not hold a first degree. I have cobbled together enough pieces of formal education over the years to be accepted onto not one but two post-graduate study programmes. I am half way through a Master's degree programme. I have more informal learning than you can shake a stick at, and twenty years of experience in the field of L&D. How gut-wrenchingly dismaying that all this counts for nought if you cannot produce a piece of paper that says that you have a Bachelor's degree.

Yes, there were two other points on which I didn't demonstrate evidence of competency, and that is my fault. But the way that the response was worded made it very clear that the primary reason for my rejection was that dratted piece of paper.

You know, when I left school, I would have loved to go to university, but the money wasn't there, and the banks wouldn't agree to a loan, since I was a girl who wanted to study mechanical engineering design. Shock horror. The attrition rate among girls in that field was so high, and the employment opportunities for women so rare in those days, that the banks didn't consider it a worthwhile risk.

In the intervening thirty years, I have bust my butt to make up for what recruiters saw as a lack. I followed (and passed) two teaching diploma courses simultaneously from in the period 1980-82. In addition to the things I have already listed, I have attended more short courses than many people have had hot dinners. I have put myself through so many CBT and VBT programmes on such a wide range of subjects, it would make your head spin.

When I decided to embark on my current MA programme, most universities could not see beyond my lack of a B degree (including the organisation at the heart of this post - in spite of the fact that it is theoretically possible to gain access by other means of proving competency). When I approached my current university, they said "Good grief! Of course we'll have you." And never once have I felt that the rest of my cohort outperforms me in any way because they have something I don't. Quite the contrary, in fact.

I had honestly hoped that my disadvantaged start was something I was going to be able to put behind me. But, sad to say, it seems that this is not to be the case. Even though it is some time since I my big four-oh.

When I suffered my first broken heart, an older, wiser woman told me that the best thing to do when you've been rejected is to look good and have fun. Let him see what he's missed out on, darling. What do you suppose the professional equivalent is?

Surely we have reached a stage in our attitudes towards learning where we see beyond formal programmes? Have we not moved on from the perception that only a university can really educate a person, where university educated=superior, non-university educated=puh-lease, don't waste my time?

Yes, I am a bit annoyed. Yes, I am feeling a bit bitter, and the chip on my shoulder is probably digging into my stiff neck.

But most of all I am sad. Disillusioned.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Meaningful assessment

We're a long way from through the turbulent period that I referred to in my last post, but I just had to get this off my chest.

I have a son who is closing in on his 17th birthday. In the UK, this means that the will be old enough to start learning to drive. This, in turn, means that he is madly trying to learn the highway code for the theory test.

I looked for a few sample tests online for him to try out... and, of course, tried them out myself. Like all drivers of many years' standing, I didn't fare too well! But one of the tests got right up my nose. I got 0/20!

Unlike all the other tests, this was not a multiple choice option. This test presented a picture of a roadsign and asked what it was. Fine, you might think. When I'm driving along the road, I don't get four options under each sign from which to select the right one. So, if I am not able to recognise the sign without prompts, I should probably not be driving, right?

Only, this is where the automated testing process falls down. Because of the limitations of the technology, responses were only marked as correct if the user entered the description verbatim from the highway code.

How is "decrease speed" a more correct response than "slow down"? Why is a "speed limit" not as acceptable as a "speed restriction"?

Even supposing I was able to answer all 20 questions verbatim, how is that any indication that I know what I'm supposed to do?

Surely the true measure of my knowledge of roadsigns is that I know how to respond to them? Note to my son: Shouting out "You're telling me!" does not constitute the required response to this sign.

It all comes back to our knowledge versus behaviour argument.

Then again, even knowing what to do and when to do it is no guarantee that it will be done! I am fairly certain that every single boy racer in the town knows that the speed limit restriction is 30 miles per hour. I'm fairly sure that he also knows what he needs to do in order to observe it. But to what extent does his actual behaviour reflect this knowledge?


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

We may experience some turbulence

Things ahead are looking decidedly stormy and uncertain. The wheels are falling off in all directions. You may already have noticed a few changes on the blog. I apologise if you are adversely affected by them.

I'm in for a rough ride for the next few weeks, and there is a strong likelihood that no-one will be getting much sense out of me, so I'll spare you the gory details and see you on the other side... deo volente.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The accidental tourist looks at clouds from both sides now

My husband, a newbie blogger, shares his views of cloud computing. I think some of the issues he raises will either gel with or grate on the views of some of the readers of this blog. Which camp are you in?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Mourning the person unknown

There are times when my naturally empathetic nature causes me great distress. Today, I read about the passing of Leroy Sievers. He had not really made a blip on my radar until very recently as a result of something Andy Carvin said on Twitter.

This is the third time in quick succession that someone has died who was unknown to me, but highly respected, honoured, possibly even revered by people within my online circle. The other two were Randy Pausch and Lee Baber. When I read Vicki Davis's post about Lee's death, I followed a link that took me to Lee's Facebook page and discovered that she and I had 6 friends in common. Yet I didn't know her.

In every case I found myself wondering how I could not ahve known them. Good grief - look at their legacies! Did I have my head in the sand?

The grief of people I know causes echoes in my own heart and I hurt, too. I mourn these people I did not know. I feel cheated that I only found out about them when it was too late. I read about their work, the impact they had on the world around them. The deep affection they sparked in those who knew them. The energy they exuded. And I find myself feeling a sense of loss. A sadness that they are no more. Sure, they have all left a legacy. But they have also all left a hole. People who feel as if they have been torn open and plundered. People who must now contemplate a life where the word 'normal' just can't apply, because 'normal' was a paradigm in which the presence of the person now gone was a given.

At times like these, I feel as if I just want to pull you all closer and acknowledge and thank you for your presence, your influence, your contribution. You have become an inextricable part of my world view at this stage of my life.

I'd like to end this post by pointing at this series of Calvin & Hobbes cartoons - possibly the saddest thing Bill Watterson ever did, and he nailed it perfectly. Those of you who have been around me for a while will know that for me to use the strip as an analogy is neither unusual not a trivialisation. I consider Bill Watterson's work to include momentous wisdom on occasion, and it often resonates with things that run very deep in me.

I'd like to say with Calvin: Don't YOU go anywhere!


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Come here!

I'm sitting here in my study at home. In the next room is my younger son on his laptop. In the room next to that is my older son on his. They're playing a game called Gunz. My older son has created a clan, which he has invited my younger son to join and he's teaching him some of the techniques he has learned. They call to each other in the next room, while their avatars interact on screen.

At one point, my elder son called out, "No wait! Le tme show you how to do that, come here."

My younger son, got up and made the long and arduous journey of about 6 steps.

"No, not you!" said his brother, "Him." He pointed at his brother's avatar on the screen.

Sometimes, when one of them has learned something new, he wants the physical presence of his brother in the room, so that he can show him the keystroke sequence in conjunction with the on screen dynamics. Other times, physical presence is not required and "Come here!" is a command to be obeyed virtually, not literally.

It's an interesting dynamic, and I can't help feeling that they would do well to invent two different terms to communicate their expectations. Then again, most of the time, the circumstances seem to be the clue as to which "Come here!" applies on this occasion. So perhaps I'm just being middle-aged and overly practical (I do, after all, tend to call for the establishment of taxonomies a lot of the time these days, working as I do with teams drawn from different businesses, sectors, contexts).

I love it when my boys play nicely together. When they were little, they used to play long, involved games of pretend, which seemed to consist more of plot-setting than of actually playing (but I always thought the collaborative strategising was a worthwhile skill to develop, so I left them to it). Now that they're older, they still prefer to play as a team than as opponents - facing the rest of the avatars together (sing with me now, "It's you and me against the world...").

When they were very little and the baby took something that belonged to the toddler, the toddler would want it back without making the baby cry. So I told him, "Find something he wants more. If you can learn to negotiate, you'll have a skill that you can use for life."

To this day, my older son will go to great lengths not to do whatever the teenage equivalent is of making the baby cry. This entails teaching him everything he knows as soon as he learns it. He will even set himself up as a willing target for his brother to try out new fight moves on until he has mastered them enough for them to go out together and conquer the rest of their virtual planet.

It isn't always the older one teaching the younger, but it usually is - and my younger son accepts it as his due to be the padewan. Interesting case study for the birth order psychology adherents, I guess.

Come here. Let me show you. Let me teach you. Come here in person. Come here in your avatar form.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Yeon Duk Woo - partnerships in learning

Nothing I say about or add to this young man's address would do it any justice. Please just view it yourself and be moved, challenged... maybe even changed. Hat tip to Dave Warlick for the pointer.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Knowledge does not equal skills does not equal behaviour

This post and the ensuing comments had previously been removed at the insistence of my manager. Since I no longer work for them, I feel no qualms about reinstating the post. Unfortunately, I am unable to reinstate the comments.

One of the things that really bothers me about compliance type training is the whole assessment model and the conclusions that are drawn from it.

Increasingly, it seems to me that the way we demonstrate to the marketplace our excellence in a particular area is to acquire accreditation. We acquire accreditation by complying with the stated behaviours as laid out by the accrediting body. We demonstrate compliance with the required behaviours by... well by passing a multiple choice test, of course!

The thing is, the multiple choice test is usually so facile that pretty much anyone can pass it, so essentially is assesses nothing. Well, that's one of the things anyway.

The other is that a multiple choice test... or any written test for that matter, is not evidence of behaviour.

Let's say the matter at hand is people management. We can put our manager through any number of training interventions, ranging from boring to highly engaging. What we test at the end (if the test is written) is knowledge. As I have said several times in meetings over the past few days - if knowledge equalled behaviour, our jails would be empty.

Let's say we really branch out and devise a role play test of some sort, presenting our friendly manager with a whole bunch of scenarios in which he must acquit himself. Even supposing some of those tests are blind, they test skills. Being able to do something and actually doing it are not always the same thing.The only way to assess whether behaviour matches up to standards/expectations is through on the job assessment, which brings us back to our performance review process.

Far too often, the appraisal/review/call it what you will process is seen as something that a manager does to a staff member. Almost as often, the manager resents having to take the time away from the day job to carry out these reviews.

Over the past few days I have had to look at ways that make clear the following two points:

  • A manager is supposed to manage people. A manager is not just an operative with a higher salary. Supporting the personal development of staff members is the day job. Sadly, managers' own KPIs seldom reflect this.
  • Managers do not review staff members' performance. Managers and staff members discuss past performance, future development and long term career planning together and set in place together some objectives to help each staff member realise their potential.
In the movie Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman's character is a numeric savante. He can perform the most spectularly complex numeric calculations in his head. He knows numbers. But when asked how much change he should get from a simple purchase, he didn't have a clue. He simply could not transfer his numeric knowledge into a practical skill, let alone a behaviour.

Knowledge ≠ skill ≠ behaviour.

Monday, August 11, 2008

How do you make it right?

This post is not directly related to learning, but it has a lot to do with school and expectations and bullying and exclusion.

Nearly thirty years ago, I finished high school. I am still in touch with several of the girls who were in high school with me. Some have remained in touch ever since high school, others have regained contact with the advent of Facebook.

But there has been one girl I have been hunting for for over 10 years.

You see, I wasn't quite one of the 'beautiful people' in high school, but I wasn't far from it. I was bright, bubbly, pretty (if I say so myself), sporty. I was popular with the boys. I was in the first team for netball and atheletics (track). I was in debating team. I played significant roles in all the school plays. I sang in choir. I was on our version of an academic honour roll. In other words, I was your basic all-rounder. I don't say this to brag, simply to set the scene. The fact that I was riddled with insecurity and constantly in trouble with the teachers because I had no brakes on my tongue (still don't!) was beside the point.

When it came to playing rounders during PE classes, I wasn't the first one chosen, but I wasn't far down the list.

There was one girl who was always picked last. In fact, she wasn't 'picked' at all - she was simply allocated to the side that got second pick. She was a large, lumbering girl. While her weight was probably something she could have done something about, her lack of agility was no doubt genetic. I will call her Jenny.

Her face haunts me. Every PE lesson she knew the drill and she simply stood there, waiting for inevitable. To my shame I was always relieved that I wasn't like her, that I didn't have to deal with that ritual humiliation.

One week, it was my turn to choose, and I got first pick. I chose Jenny. I thought I had the chance to make her feel special just for once. I thought I was being so big-hearted and magnanimous, but everyone laughed, and her shame was worse than ever. Our team got soundly whipped and I was ridiculed for not knowing how to choose a side... in front of Jenny.

As clear as day I can still see her face, and the hurt that was written all over it still cuts me to the quick. Is there any group capable of greater cruelty to their peers than a bunch of teenage girls?

At our 20th reunion, I looked out for her. I hoped to hole up in a quiet corner with her and lay the ghosts to rest. She wasn't there. Why would she be? Why would she want to be reunited with us? For the ten intervening years I have hunted for her. Facebook. Friends reunited. Google. Naymz. LinkedIn. You name it. I have found people with the same name all over the place and contacted every single one of them, only to learn that this was not the person I was looking for.

Then, a couple of days ago, someone mentioned on a new FB group that she was in contact with Jenny's older sister. I asked if she knew how to get in touch with Jenny and was immediately provided with both her home number and her cell phone number (I have pointed out the risks to the person concerned, but that is another issue for another time).

Now I finally hold in my hot little hand the means to contact Jenny and... and... WHAT DO I SAY????

I never thought this far.

Maybe by phoning her and raking up the past, I will just make it all come flooding back - all the hurt and humiliation she thought she had finally left behind.

So tell me, those of you who were the Jenny of your year... how would you prefer the likes of me to handle this? By seeking exoneration from my own pain, would I selfishly be making hers worse?

Vicki, I think you have experience that could help, here. You have shared stories that resonate with this one.

Apologies for the even-more-personal-than-usual post, but perhaps it serves as a sobering reminder that two-thirds of a lifetime later, the foundations laid in high school still remain.

Thursday, August 07, 2008


Imagine if no-one ever spoke at meetings unless they were certain that they had the definitive, final solution.

Imagine if no-one ever chatted to their friends unless they were absolutely 100% sure of their facts.

Imagine if no-one ever published an academic paper unless they knew that no-one anywhere could find fault with it.

Imagine if no-one ever conducted a workshop unless they knew that they could answer absolutely every question that the attendees might raise.

Imagine if no-one ever presented at a conference unless they knew every last detail about the subject.

Imagine if no documentaries were ever released until every last piece of information had been captured.

Imagine if no-one ever sent an email unless they were sure it was complete and accurate.

Imagine if no-one ever spoke to their colleagues until they had collected every fact on a subject.

What a silent world it would be! What a small handful of people would hold all the knowledge in the world, until, as they died off, eventually no-one knew anything, because no-one shared their incomplete perspectives and the complete perspective was never achieved.


Of course, ridiculous.

So why oh why do we impose these restrictions on collaborative knowledge building, learning, sharing that happens online? Why the moved goalposts? Why the special treatment?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Speakeasy learning

This post and the ensuing comments have been removed by the author. I apologise for any inconvenience caused if you have followed a link to get here.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Learning as a journey

Apologies for those who will see this as a "well duh" post, but I was struck afresh by the analogy of learning as a journey this weekend.

On Sunday afternoon, my husband and I suddenly decided to head for the coast. I needed to feel the sand between my toes. I was born and raised within earshot of the sea and, until we left South Africa, lived at most half an hour's drive from the ocean. Since our arrival in the UK, we seem to have been moving further and further from the sounds, sights and smells that go together with coastal life. So, green or not, and in spite of the cost of fuel, off we set.

We had never previously visited the stretch of coastline that is closest to our current home, so we picked a coastal town that seemed reachable. John did the driving, and I did the navigating (whatever some people - severe language warning - may say on the subject, I am an excellent navigator).

I began to see the partnership as being analogous to that of student and teacher:

  • If we see John as the student, I was going along on his journey and had a vested interest in its success.
  • If I was in the role of teacher, I was the one telling him where to go and how to reach his objective, even though I had never been there before.
  • Because I had the map, I could have told him the entire route he needed to take when we set out, but he would simply have found this confusing. Instead, I would give him the information he needed just as he needed it: "Straight over here, and then left at the next exit onto the A14"
  • Maps are not infallible (neither are people) so there were one or two surprises along the way. We dealt with them as they arose.
  • We reached our destination together.
I got to feel the sand between my toes and stood with my feet in the (surprisingly warm) Atlantic... just as the rain came lashing down.

On the return journey, we switched places and I drove while John navigated a different route back. Long ago we realised that it was not good for our relationship for him to teach me anything. He gives information in the order in which he thinks it ought to be given. I get impatient, because I want it in a different order, and he gets impatient because I keep interrupting him with questions.

As we drove, he would tend to give me longer term instructions than I had given him: "Straight over here, then straight over the next two. Junction 21 could be complicated, but you need to go straight over it and keep going till we get to junction 9." When we passed junction 13 and it had a sign that pointed to our home town, he had wasn't following the map, so there was a period of uncertainty as I worried I might have missed the off-ramp, and he struggled to find our position on the map.

Now, I'm not trying to diss my husband here. I just think I might be the better teacher. He has other skills. But the difference in approach reminded me somewhat of the difference between just-in-case information and just-in-time learning.

Just in case tells you everything long before you're going to need it. Then when you do need it, you have to sift through your memory to find it again, by which time, the moment may have passed. Just in case also leaves you high and dry when the unexpected takes place. Just in case makes no allowance for the gap between head knowledge and practical application.

Just in time tells you what you need to know when you need to know it. Just in time keeps pace with you, so that the information you need is on hand when the unexpected happens. Just in time reflects what is happening now, so it directly addresses the practical application.

Of course, you could argue that both approaches worked equally well, since we arrived home without incident. I will say, though, that I found a way to convert the just in case to just in time. At each roundabout, I would ask "I assume I go straight over here?" John would answer the question and then follow it up with a long stream of additional information. I paid attention to the next 'to do' on the list and tuned the rest out so as not to muddy the waters of my understanding.

For me the interesting thing is that we were both working from the same map. I'm not sure how practical this is for people who work with a pre-established national curriculum and 'achievement' targets to meet. But in a corporate learning environment, the analogy follows more readily.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome...

John Romeis to the blogosphere.

John is an IT/logistics professional who has been experimenting with things like uBuntu and the like at home and muttering about his frustrations with them. I have said more than once that he should blog about it. I firmly believe that there are people out there who (a) would be interested in his observations and (b) would be able to make suggestions to overcome some of the frustrations he has experienced.

Please will the more technically minded among you drop by and encourage him. This is a very bold step for a man unaccustomed to putting himself in the public eye.

Friday smile

Ever had one of those moments where you're thought, "Rats! I wish I had my camera with me"?

I had one today. Mind you, since I was driving at the time, having my camera with me wouldn't really have provided me with a solution!

So, without benefit of pictures, let me try to describe the scene for you to start your Friday off with the same smile I did.

As I was driving in to work very early this morning, I saw a few things that I don't normally get to see an hour later when the rhythm of the day has stepped up. One of these was the following sight.

Two old dears were out for a brisk morning walk. Not quite power walking, but certainly not strolling, either. There were kitted out in matching tracksuits, baseball style caps and trainers. The lady on the left was walking determinedly with her head down. The lady on the right was talking nineteen to the dozen, with all sorts of accompanying hand gestures.

Then I noticed their caps. Neatly stitched across the front of the cap on the left was the word "Walkie" while the cap on the right said "Talkie".

I kid you not.

I 'bout split my face grinnin' at them.

They didn't notice.