Monday, June 30, 2008

Okay, so it's a shirt...

I've been thinking about incorporating reward in learning design, and a recent examination of a few (men's - more's the pity!) designer shirts got my thoughts in churning again. Take a look at this...
It's a shirt, right? A grey shirt. Right, if that's all you want it to be. But this particular designer takes care to build in a few surprises for people who care to look for them. Things like this little blue button on the sleeve.

And this very bright pink lining which is only revealed when you turn the sleeve up.

And these little insets on the shoulder, better visible on this shirt:

How about this little inset on side?

Or this silk knot cuff link that comes free with those shirts with no cuff buttons?

If you want a shirt, well you get a shirt. But if you take the time to explore, you find all sorts of little surprises. Far more than I have listed here (although not all on the same shirt, I hasten to add!)

Perhaps we need to build a few things like this into our learning resources. If you want sheep-dip box-ticking, you can have it, but for those who take the time and the trouble, there are a few extra little 'rewards'.

Just a thought.

But so few people can be bothered to look for these things, Karyn. Why are you going to spend all that extra time and money for that meagre handful? Where is the return on the investment, Karyn? Well, why should those precious few motivated learners be punished with ho-hum learning just because the many can't be bothered? Perhaps they will exclain over a hidden 'treasure' and motivate the bloke at the next desk to seek it out.

Or am I just being naieve? Again.

Shirts designed by Oswald Boateng, and while you're at it, what do you think of his website?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

How well do I know you?

Reading Wendy Wickham and Janet Clarey's conversation about identity on line gave me pause. It's about more than just names isn't it? I mean, you can choose to blog under your real name or not. You can choose to join the various online spaces to which you belong under any name you like. I blog (and Facebook) under my real name, but I use pseudonyms for some of my special interest group spaces for reasons I covered in my comment on Wendy's post.

But I wondered how well we have actually come to know each other, you and I. For one thing, if you've never commented on this blog, I might not know you at all. If you have, I may still have only a limited view of you, based on your reactions to what I say, which is a pretty lopsided way to view a person.

Most of the time, I feel as if I know the people whose blogs I regularly read. I have seen their pictures, so would probably recognise them if we were to arrange to meet in a restaurant, say. But, once we got chatting, would they turn out to be consistent with the person I think I know? Janet once posted that she is quite a quiet person, which took me by surprise. What other surprises might there be? Might she also prove not to be as irreverent as I expect? Would Vicki Davis turn out to be insincere and impatient, after all? Would Stephen Downes turn out to be really great at small talk and not easily bored?

Of course, I didn't join the blogosphere to 'meet' individual people. I signed up to join the conversation. I don't only read blogs that belong to people whose company I think I might enjoy. Far from it. I read blogs that I think will stretch me, challenge what I know, expand my understanding, improve my professional practice. In some cases (especially where I have encountered the bloggers in other spaces, such as Ning communities, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) I feel as if I have gotten to know something about the person behind the blog - and that's a bit of a bonus.

In this space we could pretty much invent personae for ourselves, just as easily as we could invent names - although I suspect the personae would be far more difficult to sustain with any measure of credibility.

There are one or two pseudonymous blogs on my reading list. I often wonder - do the people who know Artichoke in person consider her writing style a dead give-away as to who she really is?

Do I really know you? If I met you, would you be as I expect? Do you really know me? Would you be expecting anything remotely like me, were we to arrange to meet face to face?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Some things just have to be facilitated

This Saturday past, I took my son to an intercounty athletics event. It was the most disorganised sports event I have ever encountered, and I'm still seething. But more of that another time.

He was there to throw the javelin and he hadn't practised since qualifying the Saturday before. Prior to that, the last time he had hefted a javelin had been when he qualified for the same event two years ago!

You see, it's all very well for the runners and the jumpers. You can go down to the track and run any time. If the track boasts a pit, you can long jump or triple jump to your heart's content. Even if there is no track, the runners can still do some work on their own. But the field athletes... well, you can hardly mosey down to the local park and start flinging a shotput or a discus about the place, now, can you? Even less a javelin (I have seen one of those go through a boy's foot and on Saturday we very nearly saw an official get kebab-ed!) You can't exactly run up and pole vault over your neighbour's fence.

Even assuming that one's parents have forked out for the necessary piece of kit.

Allow me to point out that a decent pair of javelin spikes for a (UK) size 10.5 foot (and, no, you can't wear running spikes) costs a cool £80! Then the javelin itself costs a mere £100 for a decent one. To make matters worse, different ages require different weights, so you know when you buy the thing that you'll be buying another one in about two years. Most of us stop after the shoes, relying on the competition organisers to provide the javelins.

Some things just take specialist kit and that's all there is to it. It may be a javelin. Or a spinnaker. Or a whatchamacallit doohicky thingummy. For whatever reason, the general populace might not have easy access to that kit. If they're going to develop any kind of proficiency with it, there is simply going to have to be some form of guided/facilitated learning. And you can't have just any old body rocking up and telling you what to do - it's got to be someone who knows how to use the kit.

Sometimes, incorrect use of the kit can result in injury or even death. A person could get impaled. A person might drown. A person might... well... die. Once again, some form of guided/facilitated learning is necessary. And you can't have just any old body rocking up and telling you what to do - it's got to be someone who knows what the dangers are and how to avoid them... and who knows how to communicate that to a learner.

In many cases, virtual worlds can be an absolute boon. Simulations can teach a lot. They can save lives (and maybe even money). But not always. You will not improve your upper body strength by practising the clean-and-jerk by means of a keyboard.

There are times when we simply have to look at the situation and say, "There is only one way to do this properly...." Then we have to bite the bullet and do it. Because if you aren't going to do it properly, well.... you know what Granny used to say!

Monday, June 23, 2008

So what exactly constitutes failure, then?

Note: edited today 24 June 2008.

I have long been of the view that an assessment that passes everyone is less of an assessment and more of an attendance register. If you have to have an assessment, then it has to be possible for people to fail. Or don't bother. Don't waste their time and your resources.

Recently, we were greeted with the news that the Prime Minister has issued an ultimatum to the 1-in-5 bottom schools in the country: buck up or close down. These schools have been identified as falling short of the government targets that at least 30% of the pupils should achieve "five good GCSEs" which means that they should achieve a C grade or better in at least five subjects.

There is a third option. These schools may be converted into Labour's new pet project: academies. There are mixed feelings on the subject of academies and I am not really qualified to enter into the argument on one side or the other.

According to news reports, Gordon Brown stated very strongly that there was to be no tolerance of failure.

What was a little surprising was the news, a few days later, that many of the schools tarred with this 'failure' brush had received excellent Ofsted reports following their last inspection. In the light of the deprivation and circumstances of many of the children at these schools, the value that the schools added was judged to be outstanding at best and satisfactory at worst.

So how do you assess whether a school is failing or not? Is it an absolute? Schools which do not produce pupils of whom at least 30% achieve five good GCSEs are unsuccessful. Or is it relative? Schools which do not add x value to their pupils are seen to be failing.

Under the 'absolute' approach, many schools don't stand a chance. Think about areas where:

  • parents have not completed high school education themselves
  • education is not high on the list of priorities due to other deprivation
  • English is not the first language of a large percentage of the population
  • crime levels are high or where gang culture applies more pressure than the 'system'
Under the 'relative' approach, other schools are on the back foot. Think of schools where:
  • the intake is already achieving high levels coming in to the school
  • discipline is not a problem
I'm not sure that a one-size fits all approach is ever going to be able to identify the failing schools with any consistency.

I don't pretend to have the answers on this one, but I think it must be enormously frustrating for the heads of the schools facing the chop when they have been given sterling inspection reports, only to have the same government refer to them as failing and threaten to close them down.

Friday, June 20, 2008

So, where's your no go zone?

And what impact does it have on your learners?

During my 17 years as a software trainer, I put a lot of people through their paces on Excel. But, as I've mentioned before, I never quite figured out pivot tables. So they were a bit of a 'no go zone' for me. While I could teach people how to create a pivot table, I was at a loss as to the when and why. So, if a question of that nature came up, I had to find a way to handle it. I probably caused several people to go away and create outlines instead! So there are probably hundreds of people who think that an outline is a better way of summarising figures than a pivot table... all because of my 'no go zone'.

(Note added 11 September 2008: apparently a lot of traffic is finding its way here when running a search on 'GO zone' - I think Go Zone may be more the sort of thing you're looking for)

When I was in my final year of high school, I was asked to look after a class of grade 1 girls while the primary school staff had a weekly meeting. This was standard practice and I was rather pleased to have been asked.

I sat down on the floor with my charges and asked them what they had done during the recent long weekend. One little girl was very excited to relate that "We went to Morgan Bay... and we looked in all the rock pools... and we saw sea urchins and aneno... anemo... ameno... anemomoninnies and we saw a octopus under a rock and my Daddy pulled it out by its testicles."

"I think you mean tentacles, " I said, trying hard not to laugh.

"Yes. Tentacles. And we..." She cocked her head to one side. "What IS testicles?"

I was flummoxed. I was raised in a home with no taboo topics, but at 16 I knew that we were a rare breed. If I told her the answer, there might be trouble. If I fobbed her off, I wouldn't be answering a very valid question. I compromised.

"Octopuses don't have testicles. But lots of other animals do. If you ask your Daddy and Mommy tonight perhaps they will explain."

I was only a child myself, but I assume teachers regularly face questions like this, and have to make the choice as to how they're going to handle it. When they refuse to be drawn on a subject, what impression does that give to the child? On the other hand, why should it be the teacher's job to handle the prickly topics? It's a tricky balance, but I have often wondered about the impact of conversational 'no-go zones' on learners.

As a practising Christian with a (usually) clean vocabulary, I often startle people by proving to be open to discussions on absolutely any topic whatsoever. Somehow there seems to be this notion that I should be repressed. I'm not sure how that came about.

There is no question that our children are forbidden to ask us. While we will not divulge specific details of our own sex-life, we are pretty close to unshockable. Conversations at our dinner table have covered a wide range topics that I gather would set most people's teeth on edge.

When sex education classes began at school, our sons found that there was nothing there that they hadn't already had explained to them at home. I wondered how teachers handled questions from kids who have not been given this information at home.

We hope that this will help our sons to form healthy relationships, with as little baggage as possible. Unlike Elliott in Scrubs (sensitivity warning) who, in spite of being a doctor finds it necessary to use euphemisms such as 'bajingo' and 'icky sticky' - and even those are whispered!

But it doesn't have to be about sex - and not all the tricky questions are about sex by any means. That's just the most obvious culprit. When we create no go zones in our conversation, what message does that send? The list below is a rather hastily drawn up collection of the sorts of no go zone responses I have overheard at one point or another:

  • "I'm not prepared to dicuss instant messaging/Facebook/whatever - it's off limits and that's that!"
  • "I'm not prepared to talk about drugs, but mind you don't take any!"
  • "I'm not prepared to specify what staff may and may not do in their leisure time, but don't think we won't fire you if it turns out to be something we're not happy with!"
  • "We don't need to talk about the gory details of apartheid/slavery/whatever. Just accept that it happened and it's wrong!"
  • "We're not going to discuss the 'so-called' Holocaust. It makes me feel nauseous just to think about it!"
  • "I'm not prepared to discuss the role of the British Empire in the slave trade - most of those people were better off as slaves anyway!"
  • "I'm not prepared to tell you what that word means, but don't you dare use it in my house!"
  • "Uh-uh-uh! No politics/religion, thank you!"

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On being an encourager

Some years ago, when my husband and I had been identified as having leadership potential in our local church, we attended a 'school of eldership', where the characteristics of church leadership were explored. The course leader mentioned one thing that has stuck with me to this day.

He spoke of making sure that your life contained a healthy balance of people who played the respective roles of Paul, Barnabus and Timothy. Paul, of course was the one who mentored so many leaders. Having got off to a shaky start, we went on to become one of the most prominent figures of church history, responsible for writing much of the new testament. Timothy was a young man, placed into a position of leadership, but desperately inexperienced and unsure of himself. He needed mentoring and guidance. But it is on Barnabus that I would like to focus today. This is a man whose name is synonymous with encouragement.

Since we moved to the UK, my life has been desperately short of Barnabuses (in the flesh, at any rate) and it has been this lack that has made me realise how vital this often overlooked role is. We have become so accustomed to a society that complains (but usually does little to change things) that we see accusations and complaints where none are intended. Shortly after we moved into our current house (I can't keep calling it 'new' - we've been here since March!), we were standing in the front garden, chatting to our wonderful neighbour - a redoubtable man in his 70s. He has a son who is a musician who tours with a band, so he had noted with interest the arrival of several guitars and amps among our effects. As our elder son came up to join the conversation, Bill said to him, "So - have you been keeping up with your guitar practice then?" My son - not the persecution complex type, but a teenager nonetheless - read a veiled criticism into this and pointed out defensively, "I haven't even been here. I've been staying in Milton Keynes." We had to explain that Bill genuinely wanted to know how the guitar playing was coming along and meant nothing more by the question. To his credit, my son apologised and an enthusiastic conversation ensued.

We live in a culture in which we have become accustomed to criticism. It is so easy to criticise - especially when we can use the hyperbolic words like 'too' (too much, too long, too loud), 'always' and 'never'. On the other hand, it takes thought and insight to be able to offer genuine encouragement. And genuine encouragement needs to be specific, not some vague statement of general postivity. I learnt this from all the child-rearing books I read in the early years of parenting. Telling a child "You are so clever/handsome/wonderful," is all well and good, but genuine encouragement attaches itself to a specific action.

  • "Wow! You climbed all the way to the top. Well done!"
  • "You sang that whole song so beautifully and remembered all the words. That was very clever of you."
  • "You solved 14 of these problems correctly. You're really getting much better at this. You have obviously been working very hard. Well done."
Recently, as we were driving somewhere, my husband got the mutters. We had passed one those illuminated street signs that flash a reminder at you when you exceed the speed limit. Usually, these switch off when you have dropped below the limit. Some of them even give you a smiley face. This one did neither. It flashed the reminder at my husband, even though he was already travelling below the limit. He is a self-assured man in his late forties, but he wanted his smiley face... or, at the very least, not to be 'told off'. He wanted acknowledgement that he was doing the right thing, not just some blanket admonition that didn't even apply to him.

In a classroom situation (end even with our colleagues), we can take the trouble (a) to offer praise and (b) to personalise it. But it doesn't have to stop there. Even though we are not present when users are using an online learning resource, we have the technology available to us to provide tailored messages of encouragement. There is an episode of Friends where Joey is trying to learn to speak French using a tape. He is delighted that the person on the tape says he is doing very well and, being Joey, he takes the praise to heart. The section I'm referring to can be seen from about 02:56 to 03:56 in this clip.

Few of our users are as undiscerning as Joey. They will want encouraging progress markers, but they will expect them to be relevant. So let's give some thought as to how we could build in some positive feedback.

For me, the first thing is to have some sort of initial assessment that identifies what a user already knows, and to affirm that: "Based on your assessment, you seem to be pretty clued up on x, y and z. If you prefer, you can omit these sections, although you might like to review them out of interest."

You might also choose to include knowledge check questions in the material, which afford you the opportunity to build in some notes of encouragement.

The same approach can be taken if there is to be a final assessment on the learning materials.

Of course, the most individual and sincere form of encouragement still comes from a person-with-skin-on (the online tutor, the line manager, a local champion etc.) but we can make an effort and make a start.

Any other ideas from budding Barnabuses out there?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


This is my 500th post on this blog.

It came into being (under a different name and with a different appearance) on 4 July 2005, and you can blame Mark Berthelemy for getting me started!

I won't pretend to blase about this minor milestone that so many others passed so long ago. In fact, I have been giving some thought as to what would make a fitting 500th post. Fortunately, since I didn't really have any firm ideas, Vicki Davis came to the rescue. My 500th post, thanks to her, will take the form of a word cloud based on my tags.

Go make your own.

Perhaps for my 1000th post, I'll create a custom template. That gives me 500 posts to figure out how. Gulp!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Encouraging creativity

'Twas the night before Father's day and all through the house no-one was stirring, not even a mouse.

Yeah right!

Actually, there was blind panic as two teenage boys realised they had forgotten to act on any of their mother's several reminders and buy a card for their Dad for the morning. The elder one shrugged and said, "I'll make him breakfast in bed: one of my incomparable omelettes, with some filter coffee and fruit juice."

The younger one blamed his mother for not dragging him to the shop by his luxuriant hair. The mother's dulcet voice could be heard in the next county as she gently told him, "Don't you DARE lay this one on me!" She was near to tears as she thought of the hurt her husband would feel as the morning passed without the recognition that, commercial nonsense or not, was more than his due.

Then came the sounds of loud banging from the garage. After some time, the mother went down to investigate. It was getting late and there were neighbours to be considered.

She found her younger son surrounded by bits of wood, nails and a hammer. He had gone scavenging in the garden and found the leavings of the previous owners of the house. These included several tongue-and-groove planks and some rolls of splitpole edging of the type used for garden beds. He used these to produce (taDAH!) a Father's day gift:

His Dad was so tickled with it that he immediately took a photo and posted it on his Facebook page.

Nice save kiddo!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Do they know where to find you?

Hot on the heels of, and closely related to my last post, I recently had a rather odd conversation with a prospective client. I raised the possibility of including user-generated content in a solution we were scoping out. The client wasn't ready to go that route. He was concerned that the material that the users contributed might not be accurate. To illustrate his point, he cited another forum, with several thousand members. One of these individuals had become recognised as the de facto expert on a learning resource which my client's organisation had published. He was... well... miffed. He couldn't understand why the users would go to this man via the discussion forum, rather than coming to the creators of the resource.

I couldn't help wondering: would they know where to find him?

Very few of the learning materials we are asked to develop for customers have "credits". Who designed and developed the materials? Who owns them? Where do you go if you have questions? Who can you speak to?

Well, if you hit your search engine, type in the name of the learning resource and it takes you to a discussion forum with thousands of participants, how much do you care whether any of these people actually wrote/developed/whatever the material?

So, I have a suggestion to make that may seem a bit "Well, duh!" If you want to be the person/organisation people come to when they have questions about some or other material you have produced, then MAKE SURE THEY KNOW HOW TO FIND YOU!

Enter in to the conversation yourself. Be reachable. Be accessible. Be approachable. Make it easy for them.

Not very "if you build it they will come," I know. But there you have it.

The conversation

Some time back, one of my lecturers referred to academic writing as a conversation. She was giving us hints an tips on how to write critical reviews at the time. She explained that no-one ever expects to have the last word or to write The Definitive Piece on a subject, but that each person is adding to the sum of material available on a topic, inviting response from others in the field. She spoke for some time, using words like "conversation" and "discourse" liberally.

This stuck with me, and, when we came to think about our dissertation topics, I came back to these words. You see I like conversation. Those who know me in a face to face capacity tend to describe me using words like chatterbox and motormouth. What they less often appreciate is that I listen enthusiastically and rapaciously as well, and what they relate to me will become part of my portfolio of knowledge, to reappear in a later conversation with someone else. I quite often say things that are aimed at eliciting a response of some kind. I don't mind being disagreed with and set right, just TALK TO ME! I can't learn anything from (or about) people who don't talk.

The trouble with the conversation in its academic format, as I see it, is that it's rather like a conversation between Ents. Any other sad Tolkien bores out there will remember that Treebeard says at one point (in both the book and the remarkably faithful movie) "it takes a very long time to say anything in (Entish), because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to."

The academic conversation/discourse is like a series of long, ponderous monologues. Of course, the fact that it can take anything up to two years for an article to be published once it has been accepted by a print publication does nothing to speed things up.

I completely sympathise with the hobbits Merry and Pippin whose frustration knows no bounds when it takes the Ents several days of their discourse to decide that hobbits are not orcs. The poor hobbits are almost hopping from foot to foot with impatience because the Ents have not even touched on what they consider to be far more important matters.

Like Merry and Pippin, I feel small alongside the profound minds that turn out the academic writings I encounter during my research. Like them, I want to interrupt. I want to say, "But what about..?" The only trouble is that, to enter that conversation, I have to observe its rules and learn the language. My but-what-abouts will take two years to appear in print, by which time, other things will have captured my attention. I can almost hear them say it: "Now, now, don't be hasty little Hobbit..."

But there is another conversation going on. One that is far more suited to my impatient, pondskater nature. And that is this one.

You don't have to be an Ent to participate in this conversation. You can be a hobbit, or a man. You can be an orc or an elf. You can be Gandalf or Sauron himself. It doesn't matter. It's open to everyone. If you are an Ent and you want to take two years to think about what you're going to say before you say it. You go right ahead and do that (just don't expect the conversation or the audience still to be in the same place when you get around to it).

So, over here, there is "yes" and "no" and "I agree" and "don't be daft". And over there, there is "hoom" and "A-lalla-lalla-rumba-kamanda-lindor-burúmë".

It's a bit like the difference between playing Scrabble face to face and playing Scrabulous online. But, just as I have learned to do and enjoy both of those things, the challenge for me now is to figure out how to "do and enjoy" the academic approach to the concept of discourse and conversation, so that I can hand in a decent dissertation!

The fact that I have chosen to explore the impact of the use of social media on my professional practice puts me in a tricky position. How do you explain crackle and snap of the speed-of-light, open to all, global conversation using language
that "takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to"?

I feel as if I have to deliver live commentary at Wimbledon in an imitation of the style of a medieval balladeer!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Service with a smile

One way or another, we are all in the business of customer service. I have my customers. Teachers have their pupils, their pupils' parents and the wider community. Retailers have shoppers, doctors have patients.

Sadly, we sometimes forget the relationship between customer and provider. Certainly I often wonder whether National Health Service providers ever perceive their patients as customers! I have more than once been given cause to think that they view us only as life-support systems for a pathology.

Then, every now and again, you meet someone who bucks the trend and restores the balance. Today I met a new dentist. I would like to make his level of customer service my goal in my dealings with future customers.

A couple of years ago, I broke a tooth. I went to the dentist who told me it would have to be crowned, which would cost me the little matter of £500. Until today, I hadn't been back to the dentist, in spite of being quite particular about my teeth. In spite of a history of 6 monthly visits. I just knew that £500 was hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles and I didn't have it. So the tooth remained broken.

Since we moved house, we have had to attend the things like new doctors (TBC), dentists, hairdressers, service stations.... all that malarkey.

The dentist I saw today took a complete history and checked out my teeth and gums thoroughly. He commended me for my oral hygiene (the secret is TePe brushes, folks, I can't emphasise that enough) and assured me that the broken tooth could be filled for the comparitively bargain basement price of £80. He agreed that crowning was an option but that, if and when I decided to go that route, it would cost £285 because he would make the crown himself with computer-imaging technology. He talked me through the short, medium and long term goals for my teeth and made sure that I was comfortable with all the options available. We made appointments for two fillings (another filling has gotten chipped in the time since my last visit to the dentist) and told me that he would include a free clean in the price.

I know what I'm getting
I know when I'm getting it
I know how much it is going to cost
I know what my options are in the short, medium and long term
I understand everything that is going to happen
My budget has been taken into consideration
My own personal circumstances have been catered to (I can't have local anaesthetic which contains adrenalin or I vibrate like a guitar string - not conducive to precision work!)

Sadly, he's not with the NHS, but at least he will treat my kids free.

Service with a smile... just what you expect from a dentist!

Monday, June 09, 2008

So, whose extension are YOU?

There used to be the most dreadful song called "Barbara's daughter" which included the lines:

Are you Barbara's daughter?
Are you Barbara's child?
Gee, you sure look like Barbara.
You've got Barbara's smile.
To my ear, it represents the worst kind of whining, self-pitying country and western music on the planet. The trouble is, I AM Barbara's daughter, and I do look rather like her (but I don't really have her smile - that came more from my Dad), so people used to sing it to me an awful lot, and I was always expected to react as if it was a new joke.

I grow tired of people trying endlessly (and unsuccessfully) to adopt a South African accent, and trotting out phrases with which I am expected immediately to identify because of where I was born.

Have you noticed how people have a tendency to think of other people as extensions? My Dad never knew me (or my sister) as people. He knew us as his daughters. He couldn't have told you a darn thing about either of us as people. If we showed any hint of being unco-ordinated (as teenagers are wont to do) or if we argued with him, he would snap at us, "You're just like your bl**dy mother!"

My younger son gets so tired of having hordes of swooning girls breathily asking "Are you so-and-so's brother?" When I phone the school, I say "It's so-and-so's Mom, here." On the rare occasion that I phone the landline at my husband's office, I identify myself as "John's wife". When my kids bring friends home, they say "This is my Mom/Dad" which is hardly helpful information. On one of our holidays on the tiny Swedish island where my mother-in-law grew up (but left more than 50 years ago), a complete stranger approached my husband and asked "Är du Stina's son?" (Are you Stina's son?).

We seem to spend much of our lives being identified as somebodys' something. Yet I think most of us would dearly like to be seen for who and what we are. My sister once gave me a birthday card that read:
From those who know you, those who love you, and those who know you and still love you.
That's what it is, isn't it? We want to be known and accepted (or even rejected) on the basis of who we really are. Not on the basis of some assumption about ourselves as extensions of this or that person, place or thing.
The reason I raise this is that I suggest it is a tendency we need to guard against in our professional capacity. Teachers who teach the younger siblings (and even, in some cases the offspring) of pupils they have taught before sometimes have a tendency to assume that they will show the same talent or otherwise for the subject, that they will have the same tendency to play practical jokes or argue or whatever it may be. A science teacher once told me that she knew the moment she saw my younger son's name on the register for her class that she was in for an exciting year, having taught my older son. Since my younger son never quite aspired to the stellar potential of his brother, the poor lad was set to be a disappointment from the off. Hardly fair!

Are we sometimes guilty of viewing the target audience for our learning resources as being the users of the resource? Thereby reducing them to extensions of a "thing".

When we are developing a learing resource, an approach we often take is to draw up a panel of fictitious people who will use the resource. We give them names, ages, hobbies and interests, family circumstances, etc. and we consider at every stage whether the learning resource is going to meet their needs. They are at the core of the development process.

It's a start.

I'd like to see us find ways to broaden our perception of our learners as people, individuals - even when we are delivering an e-learning solution to an audience of thousands.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Well duh! A little something I learned about my car

Perhaps when you read this, you will roll your eyes and say, "Sheesh! Everybody knows that, Karyn!" Or perhaps like me, you will dash out to your car, check the accuracy of the statement and slap your forehead, thinking "After all these years... if only I'd known!" I would certainly like to hear back from you either way. I would also like to hear from you if you discover that this is a load of bunkum.

Anyhoo, this (original author unknown) comes courtesy of my husband (who also slapped his forehead)...

Quick question, what side of your car is your fuel tank? If you're anything like me, you probably can't remember right away. My solution is to uncomfortably stick my head out the window, strain my neck and look. If you don't do this in your own car you definitely have done it in a borrowed or rental car.

Well ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to share with you my little secret so you will no longer look like Ace Ventura on your way to the fuel station or put your neck at risk of injury.

If you look at your fuel gauge, you will see a small icon of a fuel pump. The handle of the fuel pump will extend out on either the left or right side of the pump. If your tank is on the left, the handle will be on the left (image source unknown). If your tank is on the right, the handle will be on the right (Image source: Irish _Eyes). It's that simple!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Xenophobia in South Africa

This landed in my Inbox today, shortly after I had responded to Rina's comment on yesterday's post. I can do no better than to add it verbatim here, and share how my heart aches. I'm a ridiculously optimistic person, but even I have entirely lost hope.

May 27, 2008

CAPE TOWN, South Africa

South Africa is taking stock after two weeks of xenophobic riots. By the latest count, 50 people have been killed and thousands injured. Over 600 rioters have been arrested as the violence spread through all nine of the country's provinces. The images are shocking. Large, well-armed mobs of black people rampage through the townships, even the center of the commercial capital, Johannesburg . The necklace (burning tire) style of killing, so familiar from the civil strife that swept the country in the early 1990s, has made a horrific return. The plight of the foreign Africans has been desperate, with some 30,000 displaced and many of their shops and shacks ransacked or destroyed; unknown thousands have gone back home.

The damage to South Africa 's image both within Africa and beyond is very large. Perhaps worst of all, the riots have raised the question of whether the country really made a miraculously peaceful transition from apartheid to multiracial democracy, as so widely trumpeted, 14 years ago. In a ghostly reversal of history, mobs are once more in the streets, and as in apartheid days, the military has been called out to control them. The ruling African National Congress is used to thinking of large, politically mobilized township mobs as masses demanding democracy, and the soldiers out to bring them into submission the instrument of apartheid oppression. Now the roles are reversed, posing some disturbing thoughts about whether one has viewed the past correctly. Certainly the sight of workers attacking workers is a nightmare for the left. The greater fear is that this could all easily spill over into intra-South African tribal conflict.

Nobody knows how many illegal immigrants there are in South Africa . Most estimates suggest that up to four million Zimbabweans have fled here from Robert Mugabe's rule of brutality and enforced poverty. Mozambicans make up the second-largest group. But South Africa 's borders are porous and there are also large numbers of people from Malawi, Nigeria, the Democratic of Congo , Somalia and elsewhere in Africa. At a bare minimum there must be five million such illegals, though some think there are twice that number. Xenophobia is not new -- over 30 Somali shopkeepers were murdered in Cape Town in the last two years -- but the country has not witnessed civil strife on anything like this scale before.

The causes are obvious. A Markinor survey earlier this month found that only 42% of South Africans had jobs. Millions are housed in shacks lacking many basic amenities. It is now winter here and at night on the Gold Reef, on which Johannesburg was built, temperatures can fall below freezing, so the homeless can no longer live on the streets. In addition, soaring food prices and shortages of maize, the African staple, have left many hungry. Tempers have frayed and many point to foreigners as a major source of crime.

But the greatest complaint, inevitably, is that "They are taking our jobs." There is some truth to this: Employers generally find Zimbabweans and Malawians make desirable employees -- they are often better-educated, speak better English and work harder. In my little valley in Cape Town every single domestic servant or gardener is now from one of those two countries.
Some are political refugees from Mugabe's Zimbabwe but mainly they're economic migrants, drawn by South Africa's more developed economy. South Africa's per capita income is, for example, 36 times Mozambique 's.

Thabo Mbeki's government has floundered in response, clearly unaware that it has been sitting on a powder keg for some time -- despite warnings from African ambassadors here. Astonishingly, President Mbeki has failed to visit any of the trouble spots or even vary his program of frequent foreign visits. This has merely added to the general impression that the disaster is due to the government's having allowed everything to drift -- it simply couldn't be bothered to do its job. It failed to exercise immigration control; halved the number of riot police; abolished the rural commando system that used to patrol rural areas; propped up Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe, causing millions of Zimbabwean refugees to flee to South Africa; and did too little about jobs and housing for locals. Above all, in its pan-Africanist naïveté the Mbeki government assumed that all Africans are brothers. It failed to realize that to allow uncontrolled and massive immigration into a society already overflowing with unemployment is inevitably explosive.

The government has been frantically trying to suggest that right-wing whites or Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha movement are behind the attacks. This is ludicrous. Chief Buthelezi has in fact distinguished himself in this crisis. He is the only major black leader to tour the trouble spots, to commiserate with the refugees and apologize to them, and to sternly threaten that any of his supporters who join the rioters will be expelled from Inkatha.

ANC leaders have preferred to give homilies, from a safe distance, about how when the ANC was in exile they received hospitality from many African countries and everyone must accordingly treat other Africans as brothers now. This fails to understand the difference between a country hosting a few thousand ANC exiles and the competitive impact in the labor, housing and other markets of millions of illegal immigrants.

The government has treated the problem as one of xenophobia only, as if it is all about people having the wrong ideas in their heads. The underlying causes have not been tackled and there is no sign that they will be. In its pan-Africanist enthusiasm the government has now signed a protocol allowing free movement of people within the 15-nation Southern African Development Community. When this comes into effect shortly, many million more Mozambicans and Congolese could well attempt to move to South Africa. Apostles of African unity like Mr. Mbeki cannot see why Africa should not follow the example of the European Union. In effect the street mobs are demanding the opposite. Further collisions can hardly be ruled out.

Mr. Johnson is southern Africa correspondent for the Sunday Times of London.

Monday, June 02, 2008

True greatness from Paderewski

A musician friend of mine in Cape Town sent me this story today:

Wishing to encourage her young son's progress on the piano, a mother took her boy to a Paderewski concert. After they were seated, the mother spotted an old friend in the audience and walked down the aisle to greet her.

Seizing the opportunity to explore the wonders of the concert hall, the little boy rose and eventually explored his way through a door marked "NO ADMITTANCE."

When the house lights dimmed and the concert was about to begin, the mother returned to her seat and discovered that the child was missing.

Suddenly, the curtains parted and spotlights focused on the impressive Steinway on stage. In horror, the mother saw her little boy sitting at the keyboard, innocently picking out "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."

At that moment, the great piano master made his entrance, quickly moved to the piano, and whispered in the boy's ear, "Don't quit; keep playing." Then, leaning over, Paderewski reached down with his left hand and began filling in a bass part. Soon his right arm reached around to the other side of the child, and he added a running obbligato. Together, the old master and the young novice transformed what could have been a frightening situation into a wonderfully creative experience.

The audience was so mesmerized that they couldn't recall what else the great master played. Only the classic, " Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."
When I think of how the great master might have reacted - what a hissy fit many great artists might have thrown - I am amazed. There's a lesson in there for all of us... and I won't patronise you by spelling it out!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

On not being Gretzky

Today I went to watch my husband play ice hockey for the first time in a long time. The occasion was a now-traditional memorial fixture between his team and a favourite rival. A few years back, while returning from a game against my husband's team, a member of the opposition was killed in a car accident. Since then, every year, the two teams meet for this game over and above the usual fixtures which see them facing off against each other.

It needs to be mentioned that my husband plays for a recreational team of ... ahem... more mature players. The rules are adapted accordingly or they would spend a great deal more of their time recovering from injury - especially since they don't trouble themselves with such minor issues as "hockey season". They play all year through!

What I saw today was:

  • some guys with the head knowledge of where they needed to be and what to do when they got there, but no longer possessing the speed to get there in time (my husband falls into this category)
  • others who lack the instinct to transfer the drills they practise to the game - utterly devoid of a hockey brain, but out there trying their best
  • some who had learnt to play the game too late in life ever to master the techniques needed to be able to play with any degree of aplomb
Wayne Gretzky famously said "I skate to where the puck is going, not to where it is/has been" (depending on which version of the quote you encounter). This presupposes that you have been playing the game long enough to have developed some skills, that you have the ability to predict with accuracy where the puck is going, and that you have the ability to do something meaningful with it when you get there.

With learning technology developing as fast as it is, and new apps appearing and disappearing at an alarming rate, I often feel that I am doing pretty much what my poor husband did this afternoon: that it is all I can do to chase the puck endlessly, knowing full well that by the time I reach the place it's currently headed, it will have gone somewhere else!

While I have been playing the learning game as a professional for a long time, now, I still lack the ability to state with confidence where the game is going (to the extent that I chicken out of the round of "annual predictions for the year ahead posts"). All I have to hope is that, when the puck and I find ourselves in the same space at the same time, whether by good luck or good management, I prove to have some skill with it!

One thing I do know. When I finally stagger off the ice and into retirement, I will be wrung out and panting, but exhilarated. I will know I gave it my best shot and that it was one hell of a game!