Browse Category: Smart things

The Better Way to Learn by Yourself

women writing and learning1. Self-directed learners never surrender their dream. Many people fail to set and achieve goals because they’ve lost the ability to inspire themselves. Dreams create direction. How many people do you know who’ve quit dreaming and stalled unhappily, stunted by the practical conditions of their lives? How many are resigned to quiet desperation because there are bills to pay, kids to put through college, too many years invested in getting where they are….

2. Self-directed learners focus on their gifts. They know that attempting to become all things leads to mediocrity at best. Ask top performers about their success and they will emphasize having focused on doing what they do best. Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed that “Most people go to their graves with their music still inside them.” The self-directed are life’s music makers.

3. Self-directed learners see themselves as volunteers, not victims. At the core of self-direction lies an internal locus of control. The self-directed take responsibility for their choices. They understand that any change must begin inside themselves. They respect the external forces in their lives but refuse to be controlled by them.

4. Self-directed learners act despite their fears. Uncertainty and change are inevitable, but being immobilized by them is not. Initiating action – any action – sets into motion events that don’t happen without the courage to begin. 6. Self-directed learners thrive on interdependence. All the benefits of self-direction can be lost in an organization or team unless self-directed learners master this art. It’s essential to trust and rely upon others. Success is impossible without interconnections.

Can this stuff be bottled? Can it be taught? I’ve concluded that a better strategy is to think of uncorking what already exists.

We trainers need to help people tap into their invisible assets. For some, that means identifying their sense of purpose, dreams and gifts for the first time. For others, it means cutting through the fog that “working for a living” can create so they can once again see these characteristics clearly within themselves. With that clarity will come the courage and commitment to grow and learn.

In 1923, Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet: “No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge. The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness. If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.”

If we bring people to the threshold where they can see their invisible assets, they’ll do whatever else it takes.

Great terms for online educators

Performance support

Gives workers the assistance they need to complete a given job task while they’re performing it, rather than asking them to apply what they’ve learned later on. The purpose is to help the person perform a real task in real time, rather than to teach some broader set of skills and knowledge for future use.

Trainingwoman smiling in front of computer

The learners may or may not be working through a real-life job task, but learning (as opposed to completing a particular task) is here the primary intended outcome; participants are expected to enhance their knowledge and skills. Online training comes in two basic forms. In the first, the learner interacts only with an instructional software program; that is, a computer-based training (CBT) program that could be popped into the learner’s computer on a diskette or a CD-ROM is delivered online instead. In the second form, the learner interacts online with other people – an instructor, some classmates or both. If the interaction is synchronous, that means you’re sharing ideas in “real time,” with one person responding as soon as the other contacts him or her; examples include a chat line or videoconferencing over the Internet or a “virtual classroom” that brings instructors and students together in real time on what amounts to a shared, interactive Web page. In asynchronous formats, participants can retrieve messages at their leisure and respond whenever they like; e-mail, online bulletin boards and listservs all operate asynchronously. Some online courses offer both CBT components and human-interaction components. Thus, Web-based training or WBT (i.e., any kind of training delivered via the World Wide Web) may refer to CBT or to person-to-person interaction or both.

Collaboration

Online collaboration occurs, of course, whenever people interact with one another via computer. But the term is used here to describe a particular kind of activity that is different from the person-to-person interaction that occurs in an online training course. In this sense, collaboration refers to people working together online to accomplish a particular job’s task. As with performance support, the primary goal is to complete the task; learning is viewed as a byproduct. As with the interaction in online training, this collaboration may be either synchronous or asynchronous. It can include the kind of troubleshooting situations in which the computer jock at the other end of the phone can see what’s on your computer screen and fix what you’re doing wrong – or working on a “virtual team” with people in different locations around the world.

TECHNOLOGY

The hardware and software that allow you to create online-learning materials and deliver them to all those learners out there.

Development tools

The software you use to create online-learning materials. With authoring systems (e.g., Asymetrix’s ToolBook, Allen Communication’s Quest or Macromedia’s Authorware), you can create a computer-based or Internet-based learning module, complete with questions, graphics and test scoring. And you can add materials (like video) created in other software programs. Protocols are sets of standards that define how traffic and communications are handled on computer networks. Their common use ensures that computers, modems, printers and videoconferencing equipment made by different manufacturers can communicate with each other. “T120″ is the standard for dataconferencing; “H.320″ is standard for videoconferencing over ISDN lines; “H.323″ is standard for LANs and intranets; “H.324″ is standard for what computer jocks like to call POTS, or “plain old telephone service”; and “TAPI” is standard for Internet telephony (using the Internet lines to transmit real-time audio). Programming and authoring languages let you build a software program and instruct it to perform specific tasks. Useful ones for online training are Visual Basic, Java, and the ubiquitous HTML (the World Wide Web’s formatting language).

Distribution systemscomputer inside

Hardware and software that let learners see, hear, or otherwise interact with your training materials. Examples of transmission technologies include satellites (which bounce data, images and sound over vast distances, say, from your corporate headquarters in Chicago to your Tokyo branch, using electromagnetic waves); cabling; Internet telephony; whiteboards (twin electronic blackboards that are sort of like visual walkie-talkies: what one person writes on her whiteboard, the other can see on his); video cameras; and “streaming” of audio, video and data (“streamed” meaning broken down so that large digital files can be piped through a computer network without taking too much bandwidth). Networks are the hardware and software that connect one computer to another. Ten years ago, you heard a lot about LANS (local area networks) and WANs (wide area networks). Now the major players are: the Internet, a global system of microwave links and patched-together telephone lines that’s run in a common language (TCP/IP) by a mostly volunteer army of gurus and enthusiasts; the World Wide Web, an Internet application that such point-and-click “browsers” as Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer give users access to; intranets, corporate networks that use the same technology as the Internet but put the linked computers, and their sensitive information, behind virtual “firewalls” to repel unauthorized visitors; and extranets, “intranets” that have been expanded to include, say, a company’s key outside vendors and customers.

Media

Video, text, animation, graphics, sound – anything that affects the audio or visual presentation of training material. And there’s plenty of software available to help you create, track and store all these.

User interfaces

The face your computer presents to you when you turn it on. Old DOS-based programs gave you a blinking cursor and the chance to use a lot of arcane commands like “alt-F5″ and “cd\”; the “graphical user interface” (GUI, pronounced “gooey”) of Macintosh and Windows give you icons and a “desktop.”

PROJECT ISSUES

These roots should look familiar to any trainer – they’re the basis for any good course, whether via online learning or in the traditional classroom.

Analysis

Doing a needs assessment, determining the learning objectives, assessing the trainees’ capability (which can include what equipment is available to them for online learning).

Evaluation

Determining how learners are responding to the online environment (What do they find accessible? What’s hard to use?), as well as pursuing the classic questions of training evaluation: Did they master the material? Are they using new skills back on the job? If so, is it helping the business?

Learning management

Tracking students’ performance (Who completed which course and when?) and their future needs (Who ought to take which course next?). Depending on the type of online training being offered, you may also need to do some facilities management: Make sure the equipment is up and running on the day of class, everybody’s Internet connection is working and so on.

Project management

Overseeing a training project up to the moment it reaches students: budgeting, generating reports, and performing other administrative functions.

Teaching techniques

Elements that efficiently tailor a course to the kind of skill being taught and to the style and level of the learner. Simulations, games and role-plays are all teaching techniques. So are responding to trainees’ learning styles and anticipating reactions.

A quicker primer on learning styles

The Visual Learning Stylevisual learning graph

The visual learner absorbs information by reading it or seeing it on paper. A supervisor can communicate with visual learners by electronic mail, memos, job aids and flyers (any of which can be created and distributed at the supervisor’s convenience) and be reasonably sure the message was received. Visual learners are often voracious readers. It seems like the visual learning would be the ideal employee, but before you try to identify and recruit only visual learners, remember the disadvantage is everything must be written; this is the person who holds up a demonstration to write down steps, must take notes at even the briefest meeting and needs visual job aids to remember procedural or policy changes.

The Auditory Learning Style

These are the team members who have to hear it to learn it. The advantage of working with auditory learners is the speed with which the supervisor can communicate. You need only tell an auditory learner of a change and be reasonably sure it will be implemented. On the other hand 1) auditory learners may ignore, or simply not absorb, desk drops or electronic mail 2) the supervisor has to be face-to-face with auditory learners to convey information and 3) auditory learners may be easily distracted by noise and conversation.

The Kinesthetic Learning Style

Kinesthetic learners are hands-on learners. They need a walk-through, role-playing session, screen prints, practice or examples to understand new requirements. The down side is these require a supervisor’s time to prepare. The up side is once a kinesthetic learner understands how to do something, he or she can perform the procedure or make the change consistently without reminders or job aids. Kinesthetic learners generally demonstrate excellent organizational abilities and are very methodical. They also tend to be able to work in busy, noisy surroundings with incredible focus, since the constant bombardment of spoken and written information is not distracting.

The Didactic Learning Styledidactic learning style

Unlike employees with the other predominant learning styles, the didactic learner is easily identified. Probably the term “didactic” is used because “argumentative” has a negative connotation. This is the person who has to ask questions, understand the background behind the change and propose an array of “what ifs” to digest the information. Before you arrange a transfer out of your team for your didactic learner, remember this is also the team member who will ferret out potential problems, identify ambiguities and expose dubious decisions. Try not to view the questions and concerns as objections. If you cut the didactic learner off, not only does he or she then “tune out,” but the team misses out on answers to questions they should be asking. Once satisfied with the answers, like the kinesthetic learner, the didactic learner generally does not need visual or vocal reminders.

Identifying Learning Styles

Should a supervisor try to identify the learning styles of everyone on the team? If you will be working with the same small group for an extended period, it will facilitate communication to know how everyone processes information. It would be efficient to know if you can leave Susan a note about a meeting, or tell Joe about a new end-user requirement and be sure they got the message. If you are supervising a large group, attrition and reorganization might make identifying each team member’s learning style a dubious investment of time.

It would be handy if everyone could tell you his or her learning style, but while most people can tell you if they learn best from text book, lecture, demonstration or discussion, most people cannot readily identify their own learning style. Many successful people have learned to effectively compensate for the limitations of their learning style. The visual learner may be a world-class note taker, the auditory learner could be vocalizing internally, and the kinesthetic likely learned to visualize actions. Didactic learners especially, accused of being contentious, learn to stifle their concerns.

Coping with Learning Styles

As a supervisor, your motto should be “Write it, review it, demonstrate it and defend it.” For any important change, prepare a hand out, review the information on the handout aloud, walk through some examples, and allow time for questions and answers with your employees. The goal is to communicate to all the employees in each of the learning styles.

You need to accommodate different learning styles during meetings to keep everyone’s attention. Create agendas with outlines of the main topics. Provide pencils, pads and highlighters. Track main points on a white board or easel. Make sure there is enough light during films or videos for note taking. When you see vacant stares or heads nodding, or hear side conversations, try another method of conveying information.

Supervisors are measured by what their employees achieve. To be successful as an individual and a team, you must have an informed and capable work force. When you respect the diversity of learning styles in the workplace, you can communicate effectively to transfer the skills and knowledge your team needs to succeed.

Sharon Kay has a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration and a Master of Arts in Organizational Management both of which she obtained from the University of Phoenix. Her experience includes seminars and workshops on communication, quality, time management, supervisory and leadership, problem solving and decision making, diversity, managing people and performance, managing change and personal growth. She recently retired after ten years as a frontline supervisor from AT&T.

einstein writing what are you thinking on board

Breaking the grip of bad assumption behaviour

When an assumptions questionnaire works well, the first sign may be a mostly quiet room. Faces will show that silent, innerdirected thinking is taking place. (A completely different expression than one indicating either boredom or caution or outer-directed thinking.)

woman and man on sofaPeople may be reluctant to talk about their answers to the questionnaire. Some may have immediately bought in to the new assumptions but prefer to skip the “By gosh, you’re right, teacher” behaviors. Others, their old thinking deeply challenged, may be unwilling to discuss something when they are not sure what they believe anymore. They need time to think. And some may want to speak up in defense of their old choices. But they may just be fighting a delaying action, waiting for the change discomfort to pass. Such “constructive temporizing” is often signaled by an exploratory note in people’s voices.

But suppose the questionnaire does generate heated objections? If a single person emits a howl of rage, you have probably flushed out an I-don’t-want-to-be-here-and-I’ll-be-damned-if-I’ll-learn-anything agenda. The questionnaire has surfaced, in advance, some of the very defenses the person came prepared to erect. Better to spot such people now than later when they launch a surprise attack and burn down a key learning point.

On the other hand, if several people raise strong objections, the questionnaire itself may be preaching false doctrine. Questionnaires can be used to challenge old incorrect assumptions, but not to teach new incorrect ones.

WHAT TO DO NEXT

Once the participants have completed an assumptions questionnaire, the trainer’s self-discipline faces a severe test. Two mistakes are just begging to be made. First, you will be tempted to go through the questionnaire and use each preferred response as the text for a mini-sermon. Or you may try to use the questionnaire as a catechism: “Tell me what you learned from the questionnaire. Demonstrate that you are now a true believer.”

Both impulses should be resisted. At this point, three outcomes are possible: People have learned the lesson or they want more time to test it or they have rejected it. And no words you speak at this point will improve the odds on any of them.

On the other hand, people may need to speak to you. Some might be puzzled: “I’m not sure I understand number….” Some might want their learning affirmed: “Does this really mean that…?” Some might need an opportunity to say: “But I always thought…” (usually a good sign that someone is in the process of changing her thinking). And, on rare occasions, someone may want to celebrate: “Of course!”

Your best tactic is to ask: “Do you have any questions? Are there any particular responses you want to talk about?” Then any requests for information should be answered succinctly, any statements that signal learning is occurring should be affirmed (without elaboration), and then – when the trainees have no more to say – everyone should proceed to the next step of the exercise.

BETTER THAN LEARNING CONTRACTS

An assumptions questionnaire can be a lot like changing your car’s oil: The results may not be visible unless you don’t do it. If the questionnaire accurately neutralizes people’s blocking assumptions, the only evidence may be the subsequent absence of those assumptions from the course. People will get on with their new learning without having to waste time defending their old learning. (And if you misjudge the assumptions people bring into the course, everyone may pass off the questionnaire as just another of those weird things trainers do.)

Trainers often open a session with a contracting discussion designed to do the same job proposed for questionnaires – that is, to get blocking assumptions out in the open and, the trainer hopes, neutralized. In theory, learning contracts are great. In practice, results are less predictable:

* The trainer usually ends up owning the contract. We come to a training session loaded for bear, complete with our carefully designed learning sequence, four-color projectables, and custom-printed materials. Do we really dare to risk letting the trainees write the learning contract? Of course not. They might decide they want to take a different course. Or five different courses. So contracting discussions usually end up as a polite way for trainers to proclaim the special relevance of what they intend to teach, and for trainees to nod their heads politely while they think, “We’ll see.”

* Contracting discussions seldom uncover radically different assumptions. At the beginning of the course, no one (except old be-damned-if-I’ll-learn-anything) is likely to challenge the trainer on a serious difference. Each person is feeling his way, trying to gauge the trainer’s style and calculate the survival skills needed.

* Blocking assumptions can be too slippery for contracts. We are all inconsistent in our thinking. We can believe in contradictory assumptions, and we can shift from assumption to assumption as the focus of our thinking changes. So trainees may not take seriously, at a distance, trainer assumptions that differ from their own. They may start to show signs of resistance only when the trainer asks them to risk experimenting with new work behaviors based upon unaccustomed assumptions.

Good assumptions questionnaires counter these drawbacks in six ways:

1. Questionnaires force people to deal with contradictory assumptions simultaneously. When reading from the computer screen, a person might object: “E-mail messages just go on and on. Writers take forever to get to the point.” When writing on the same screen, however, that person might happily declare: “E-mail is a lot easier. I can just put down my ideas as I think through what I’m trying to say.” But no one could announce, with a straight face, and in the same breath, “I hate long, rambling e-mail messages; but others welcome the long, rambling e-mail messages I write.”

2. Questionnaires can force people to confront deeper assumptions that drive their behavior but contradict their declared beliefs. (See the accompanying questionnaire for trainers on page 59.) Arthur, for instance, is no dummy. With years of experience developing products, he knows that his proposals are critical to the success of the company and that the marketing vice president must be able to understand them. What he cannot fathom is his inability to change how he writes them. We all have an “inner audience” to whom we habitually write. Arthur needs to discover that his inner audience is populated by engineering professors from his past – and that the most dogmatic one probably has the loudest voice in his memory. A tough questionnaire choice might start to free him from having always to appease those fearsome pronouncements.

3. Questionnaires allow for private learning. Asking people to change a belief mobilizes powerful resistance. And resistance loves to resist. A trainer who publicly asks people to challenge their blocking assumptions will trigger mostly fight or flight. But a well-designed questionnaire leaves people alone to wage their learning battles in private.

4. Questionnaires trigger the unblocking process; the rest happens in harmony with the individual’s own learning pace and mode. The purpose is not to convert trainees – in the opening 20 minutes of the course – to the trainer’s assumptions. The purpose is to get them to start doubting their old blocking assumptions and to start testing some new assumptions against their own experience.

5. Questionnaires not only enable learning, they help safeguard it. Assumptions protect learning – good learning or bad, old learning or new. A questionnaire not only challenges blocking assumptions, it puts into words better alternatives. When people take their tentative new skills back to the worksite, they need a shield against the counterattacks that will inevitably be launched by the old assumptions still in force there. Only new assumptions that they understand, have tested, believe in, and can talk about will serve.

6. A questionnaire provides a nonconfrontational way to publish the trainer’s assumptions. A questionnaire can be a way to say: “Here are some things I believe in. What I teach has to be congruent with these assumptions, or it will not make sense to any of us.”

And perhaps we should add a seventh benefit: A questionnaire can force trainers, ahead of time, to call to consciousness their own assumptions, then to make sure they are consistent and bear scrutiny.

DANGEROUS ASSUMPTIONS

einstein asking what are you thinkingLike other powerful tools, assumptions questionnaires can cause damage if not used carefully. Don’t set traps. A good questionnaire forces people to make difficult, uncomfortable choices. But it should never be used to trick them into making “wrong” choices. The first objective is neither to expose ignorance nor to make people believe the same things the trainer believes. It is to unlock their minds so learning can get in.

Don’t force trainees to reveal their answers. Thanks to their schooling, most people equate marking answers with being tested, and choosing differently with choosing incorrectly.

Don’t try to fine-tune people’s attitudes. When writing an assumptions questionnaire, the temptation is to cover all the bases and sort out subtle differences of perception. Pick a few important ideas, then make the distinctions between them clear. Let the questionnaire do its work. A good assumptions questionnaire can actually teach (see sidebar page 60). Trainers cannot strengthen the lesson by talking. But they can obliterate the lesson by talking too much or by saying the wrong things.

Be careful of the deep stuff, like prejudices learned in childhood. Unless you are an extremely skilled facilitator, a probing assumptions questionnaire might be a disaster in a diversity workshop.

Get the first draft vetted. Then the second draft. Then the third. As writers, we can never be sure what we said. We only know what we think we said. And our close colleagues are likely to understand what we meant to say. Get outsiders to read your questionnaire and tell you what choices it actually offers.

A final caveat: Questionnaires are not for everybody. Trainers committed to the if-I-don’t-say-it-they’ll-never-know-it teaching philosophy may find that questionnaires don’t work for them. Effectiveness suffers when participants are stifling the urge to shout, “Be quiet! We’re trying to learn something!