Monday, March 08, 2010

On not needing to know

I have often bewailed the fact that I am neither fish nor fowl when it comes to the world of learning. I don't work in the field of formal education and my academic writing skills are the about on a par with my squash: I have a go at it, but I'm not terribly successful, and I haven't ever figured out what it is I need to do differently. Ergo, I am not an academic.

I work mainly with corporates in the field of workplace learning. But here, I encounter learning and development professionals without the slightest interest in the stuff that ignites the spark in my eyes and gets my hands waving.

Apparently, we workplace learning bods don't need to trouble ourselves with all that geeky theory stuff. Or so they keep telling me.

And yet they talk about six sigma and red hats and black hats. They talk about Honey and Mumford and MBTI and VAK. They talk about Kirkpatrick. They talk about management styles. They talk about the trends in presentation techniques.

What they don't seem to realise is that is the realm of theory. Theory they have often acquired umpteenth hand somewhere along the way, liked the sound of and adopted into their lexicon or practice without a second thought.

I find this irresponsible. Surely, before you impart something, and/or allow something to influence the way you teach/train/facilitate, you should explore it to make sure that it is sound? Otherwise, how is it any better than perpetuating rumour?

I was chatting to a young teacher friend last night and she was talking about the ways in which her school is attempting to engage parents in the education of their children. To get them to see that they are in fact their children's primary educators (music to my ears!) and their responsibility to their kids extends beyond dropping them off at the school gates washed and dressed each morning.

Some years ago, I had to receive therapy after a cycling accident. As we discussed my symptoms and my proposed treatment, my therapist asked if I were medically trained. When he saw my puzzled face, he estimated that at least half his patients (in an affluent town with an educated populace) would have trouble distinguishing between their liver and their kidney and saying with certainty how many they had of each.

I could cite a few more examples, but had best stop before I get into full spate. It seems to me that, in this age when almost any information you want or need is available to you at the click of a button, there are still far too many people seeing it as someone else's job to know stuff.

Well, whose job is it then? Whose job is it to know whether the content of your learning materials is sound? Whose job is it to know whether the management style model you're applying is reliable? Whose job is it to know what your children are being taught at school... and how well they're coping with it? Whose job is it to monitor the health of the only body (and mind) you're ever going to be issued?

I guess it's a symptom of my irredeemable geekhood that I simply can't understand how people can not want to know. How they can not be consumed with curiosity about the stuff that impacts their lives and the lives of people they care about.

Of course, none of us can know everything. And we certainly can't understand everything. There are times when even rampant curiosity is not going to be enough. When we want to know something, but simply don't understand it. Then you have to decide whether it's worth it to you to invest the sort of time and resources necessary to acquire that understanding. Often it isn't, so you cut your losses and move on.

But then don't present that material as fact to hordes of people and claim that it isn't your business to know the theory.


Garry Platt said...

"Whose job is it to know whether the management style model you're applying is reliable?"

Hi Karyn, how would you personaly go about making this assessment?

V Yonkers said...

Boy, would I like to stream you into my classroom! I write out pages of supporting information that my students never read. Without reading it, what we do in class is really worthless because they don't get the point.

Somehow, they think that others will give them the information and guidance they will need to succeed. And truthfully, this has happened throughout their education to date. I am the professor who is "forcing" theory on them. All they want to know is how to do it, not why it works (or doesn't), why they should use it, and how do we know it will work.

There is hope, however. Everyone once in a while a student will catch me off guard when they ask a really relevant question.

Karyn Romeis said...

@Garry As you already know, I'm not a great fan of 'models' since they tend to be based on a handful of arguably measurable parameters. In fact, sometimes it's just two, arranged into a neat quadrant. Nothing in life is that neat. Nor does it ever made clear on what basis those particular parameters were selected in preference to any others - or so it seems to me.

There is one tongue-in-cheek quadratic model I rather like, however. The four quadrants are problem unknown/solution unknown; problem known/solution unknown; problem known/solution known and problem unknown/solution known. This last quadrant is called the 'zone of absurdity' and I suspect that, by proposing a solution to an unknown problem, I am at risk of entering this zone.

So, speaking only in the broadest terms, I would probably explore two avenues:
(1)Go back to the research and read it with a critical eye. A Google scholar search on the original research would provide insight into what reaction that research has fostered, for a more 3D view.
(2) Tap into the network/community to find out what other people have observed in practice.

I suspect that's pretty much what you would do, too. Am I right?

@Virginia Sadly, I think this may be a symptom of our age. When it is possible to sue the council when you don't look where you're going and trip over the pavement, or to sue Macdonalds when you get burnt driving away with a coffee wedged between your thighs, have we not reached the point at which we don't need to think anymore?

When it is necessary for a bag of nuts to be labelled 'may contain nuts', surely we have passed the point of reason.

We now seem to want guidelines, instructions and warnings for everything. The problem is, it takes time to read all these guidelines and instructions... and we don't want to do that either!

Let's hear it for that "once in a while" student!

Oh... and if you have the tech, and you seriously think it would help, you can stream me to your classroom!

Garry Platt said...

Hi Karyn - I think one possible reason why academic reviews of mainstream ‘management’ models are not more accessed and taken account of by trainers and developers is in part to do with the style of writing used. In many cases, the majority in my experience, reviews, positive or otherwise of models or concepts are in written in a style and English which is incredibly hard to understand. This in my view merely reflects a ridiculous style that academia deems as necessary. I can absolutely see the need for precision but the unnecessary use of big words when little ones will do and sentence structures of an arid and ridiculous length just make things worse.

Have a read of this section of a review by Graeff (a now retired professor of Management from Illinois University) of Hersey’s SL Model:

“Since the preposition between is appropriate for linking any two variables and because Korman did not suggest a curvilinear relationship between initiating structure and consideration, but rather a curvilinear relationship between IS and other variables, and C and other variables (most likely performance and satisfaction), Hersey and Blanchard appeared to be arguing for a curvilinear relationship between maturity and relationship behaviour, and between maturity and task behaviour”.


And how about this for making a very simple statement ridiculously complex and inaccessible except on a third or fourth reading:

“The definition of relationship behaviour as it is operationalized in the model also is problematic. The definition of high-relationship (HR) behaviour switches from two-way communications and socioemotional support in Quadrant (Q) 2 (HT, HR) to participative decision making (participation via two-way communication) in Q3 (HR, LT). “

‘Operationalised’ Means: Used
‘Socioemotional’ Means: Doesn’t even exist in any dictionary I can access!

Is it any wonder academia is separate from mainstream application when its mode of communication is such, well frankly CRAP?

Karyn Romeis said...

@Garry Oh, you're singing my song! And I feel a post coming on. I think I'll respond that way. Watch this space...

Michael Hanley said...

Hi Karen - reading this has cheered me up immensely.

Like you I "work for a living" in a company, but I do maintain strong ties to the academic world - in a sense, I too "fall between two stools" or "wear two hats" (pick which metaphor you prefer!).

Anyhoo, I do know a LOT about learning theory and how to apply it in real-world situations. Here's my dilemma: I don't know who I find more frustrating: those esoteric types who imagine that they somehow have a special and unique connection to theory (much like US televangelists' relationship with God), or on the other hand "trainers" (I use the word loosely) who wallow in their ignorance, declaring proudly that they "don't need any of that old theory guff."

Like you, I am blessed with unashamed geekiness, and my forays into learning theory have been partly necessity (I studied them as past of my MSc) and mostly insatiable curiosity: if I'm going to be a good educator I want to know the whys of learning, not just the "hows". In my view, it's similar to a mechanic knowing why a combustion engine works, or a physicist knowing about gravity and relativity.

I make no excuses for this, and remain a happy nerd.

All the best,

V Yonkers said...

Karyn, I could stream you into the class, as I teach this semester in a computer lab. But none of the computers have Audio! So you'd just be there, looking pretty with your mouth moving and no one listening! But wait, I sometimes feel this happens when I talk in the class and they can hear me!

Karyn Romeis said...

@V_Yonkers Thanks for the belly laugh...although it is tinged with a little alarm at the thought of a computer lab without audio facilities in a first world institution. How frustrating that must be!

Karyn Romeis said...

@Michael I salute you, fellow happy nerd. Of course, as you point out, there is some frustration associated with our weirdness.

I remain unspeakably thankful for social media that have connected me to people like you and Harold Jarche and others who fall between two stools while wearing too much headgear. Were it not for that, I would have plunged into the deep depression that comes from being an irregularly-shaped peg in a round hole.