Archives for category: Learning

This book is a manifesto for change in organizational behaviour. It exhorts readers to make the leap from being compliant cogs to indispensable creative geniuses inside an organization. Godin argues that the process of making oneself indispensable is a learned skill, and his book is the manual. Needless to say, it’s a great read, full of wisdom and inspiration, but tough to apply in practice.

Godin is an inspirational writer, and it’s worth quoting a big chunk of text to illustrate that here:

“Our society is struggling because during times of change, the very last people you need on your team are well-paid bureaucrats, note takers, literalists, manual readers, TGIF laborers, map followers, and fearful employees. The compliant employees don’t help so much when you don’t know what to do next.

“What we want, what we need, what we must have are indispensable human beings. We need original thinkers, provocateurs, and people who care…Every organization needs a linchpin, the one person who can bring it together and make a difference. Some organizations haven’t realized this yet, or haven’t articulated it, but we need artists.

“The indispensable employee brings humanity and connection and art to her organization. She is the key player, the one who’s difficult to live without, the person you can build something around.

“The system we grew up with is based on a simple formula: Do your job. Show up. Work hard. Listen to the boss. Stick it out. Be part of the system. You’ll be rewarded.
…If you’ve been playing that game, it’s no wonder you’re frustrated. That game is over.
There are no longer any great jobs where someone else tells you precisely what to do.

“Leaders don’t get a map or a set of rules. Living life without a map requires a different attitude. It requires you to be a linchpin.”

As I read the book, I tried to think of linchpins that I know. There aren’t that many. Or schools that are mentoring students to become linchpins. I can only think of one – Kaos Pilots in Aarhus, Denmark.

So how can we identify a linchpin? It’s someone who knows how to be human, to contribute and interact. It’s someone who isn’t afraid to do emotional heavy lifting at work to make art even in the face of opposition and negative feedback from superiors. It’s someone who isn’t afraid. “The linchpin feels the fear, acknowledges it, then proceeds.” Someone who knows how to say “No”. According to Godin, there is a certain type of person who says “no” all the time because that person has goals, is a practical visionary and understand priorities.  These linchpins will disappoint you know in order to delight you later; they are so focused on their art that they know that a “no” know is a worthy investment for the magic that will be delivered later.

Be warned, however. “It’s entirely possible that once you choose to become indispensable, you will no longer be loved.”

If you can accept that, then think about how we can reform our school systems to get there.

Godin suggests that we should only be teaching two things in school:
1.    how to solve interesting problems
2.    how to lead

“Schools can teach us to be socially smart, to be open to connection, to understand the elements that build a tribe. While schools provide outlets for natural-born leaders, they don’t teach it. And leadership is now worth far more than compliance is.”

How do you prove to others in your organization or community that you are a linchpin? You have to show, not tell. “Projects are the new resumés,” says Godin.

Another piece of good news from this book is this idea: “The easier it is to quantify, the less it is worth.”

Linchpins have to fight their own inner resistance and fear of failure every day. “Resistance is the voice in your head telling you to use bullets in your PowerPoint slides because that’s what the boss wants.”
“Cog workers have very little freedom in their jobs. Their outpus is measured, their tasks are described, and they either produce or are fired.”

His basic message is simple: Make a choice. “Choose to be a laser beam, with focused intention, or a scattered ray of light that doesn’t do any good.”

“What makes someone a linchpin is the understanding of which hard work is worth doing. The only thing that separates great artists from mediocre ones is their ability to push through the dip. “

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Google Wave and Wolfram Alpha have a lot in common, and I’m convinced that both have tremendous potential as change-drivers in education and collaboration. Both were released to great fanfare in 2009, followed by a subsequent hiss of media letdown as the digerati elite quickly discovered how difficult both were to master. But educational communities have persisted and made impressive progress adopting these tools. I believe Wolfram will change the way we teach and learn, and Wave is going to change the way we collaborate and communicate.

Google Wave was released as a pre-beta preview on an invitation-only basis earlier this year, and it’s basically a tool for collaborative communication which allows groups of people to share anything in real time – documents, video, music, photos etc. It’s very chaotic and confusing at the outset, and challenges all the built-in reflexes developed by email use. But I’ve always hated the way emails to multiple recipients build up during a project’s duration, and how you have to open them up each time somebody adds a line, a comment, an updated document; how you have to label all the bits and pieces to be able to aggregate them for search and retrieval, and I’m hopeful that Wave will create a new modus operandi for collaborative communication. I also love watching the crowd-sourcing develop in real-time and the impressive commitment of the early adopters, mostly volunteers, to inform, support and accompany the thousands of dazed and confused users like myself who are motivated to learn but don’t know where to begin. Be warned, as Louis Gray put it, “…if you’re diving into this new technology, expect do be exerting a lot of energy to stay on top of it, because messaging just got accelerated.”

A good place to start is this post at Bit Rebels featuring Fernando Fonseca who has created a newbie wave as well as a GW helpdesk.
There’s also a complete guide to Google Wave here.

Wolfram Alpha, a computational search engine, was released earlier this year, and the media – not having enough time to really test and understand it – jumped to the conclusion that it was a potential “Google killer”, which of course it isn’t. Wave is already being used in colleges and universities as a collaborative note-taking tool, and there is concern that this would make it easy for lazy students to piggy back off the work of others.

Wolfram Alpha has generated similar concern that it can encourage laziness and cheating in math students. It can solve complex math problems and spell out the steps leading to those solutions. But Stephen Wolfram insists that computer-algebra systems like Wolfram Alpha actually improve education because they allow students to explore complex problems on their own and intuitively determine how functions work, rather than just learn rote processes. He claims that “it’s better to let them stand on that platform and go further.”

One of my favourite uses for Wolfram is as a conversions app – for currencies, for metric to imperial – the beauty of it is that you get the comparative graph, for instance the dollar/euro rate over the past 12-months – giving you a much deeper grasp of the relationship between the two variables than if you punch it into a converter. It’s also a homework helper – take a look at some of the videos here from Wolfram Alpha Homework Day in October.

An outstanding, important post from Stephen Downes, called “An Operating System for the Mind”, in which he argues for 21st learning skills on the basis of the need to “acquire facts in a format appropriate to your knowledge system. 21st century skills are, in short, an operating system for the mind.”

What I found really striking and powerful about his argument was the idea that the reactionaries, or status quo defenders – whom he dubs “common core people” – are actually embedding handicaps to growth and real learning into our educational systems. ie Those who argue that skills can’t be taught without first acquiring a lumpen mass of obsolete and irrelevant facts in a wide array of subjects, those are the people who “want the means and the ability to implant unquestioned truths into the minds of children, and this in an environment where the possession of unquestioned truths becomes to be more and more of a handicap, an impediment, a barrier to personal growth and prosperity.”

“…while it is necessary (and possible) to teach facts to people, it comes with a price. And the price is this: facts learned in this way, and especially by rote, and especially at a younger age, take a direct route into the mind, and bypass a person’s critical and reflective capacities, and indeed, become a part of those capacities in the future.”

“People need such greater capacities in literacy, learning, prioritizing, evaluation, planning and acting. And as their need for these dynamic skills and capacities increases, their need for facts decreases. Indeed, the more these skills are needed, the more the teaching of facts as facts actually impairs the teaching of these skills. The more static our teaching, the less dynamic the learner can be.”

It’s a chilling wake-up call, and in conclusion he issues this warning: “Today…if you simply follow the rules, do what you’re told, do your job and stay out of trouble, you will be led to ruin.

“… it works for a while, and seems like the safest place to me, but all the while, you’re approaching a waterfall. Whether it be a financial crash, the degradation of the environment, war and terrorism, or even something as simple as a car accident or family crisis, you will need more and more the ability to keep yourself afloat in troubled and rapidly changing circumstances, and an abundance of facts will not help you, it will instead sweep you over the waterfall.”

Interesting podcast discussion on unschooling at Jerry Michalski’s Yi-tan series. Yitan is a weekly live podcast call that Jerry has run for four years, covering change and technology at all levels. Dave Pollard offers his “ah-ha” moment of unschooling and self-directed learning, and one caller points out that all the unschoolers she knows in California have one parent who is either an engineer, a scientist or involved in technology or the internet. Jerry defines unschooling as “facilitating learning for the learners”, where children do their own learning and pursue their passions and where parents act as coaches and advisors.

Here’s a cool new school that just opened its doors in New York: Quest to Learn, the brainchild of Katie Salen, a games designer and professor of design and technology at Parsons The New School for Design in New York. Grounded in the latest research on learning, video games and digital media, the school opened its doors to 6th graders this week for the first time.

The school day is divided into four 90-minute blocks organized into domains:

1. Codeworlds – a combination of Math and English

2 . Being, Space and Place – English and social studies

3. The Way Things Work -math and science

4. Sports for the Mind – game design and digital literature

According to Q2L’s website: “Quest supports a dynamic curriculum that uses the underlying design principles of games to create highly immersive, game-like learning experiences for students. Games and other forms of digital media also model the complexity and promise of “systems.” Understanding and accounting for this complexity is a fundamental literacy of the 21st century.”

One of the underlying principles is game-based learning, whereby students are able to take on the identities and behaviours of explorers, mathematicians, historians, writers and evolutionary biologists as they work through the curriculum. For example, one unit of The Way Things Work challenges students to get into the minds of scientists devising a pathway for a beam of light to reach a target. This lesson touches on math, optics, creative thinking and teamwork.  Sounds like the perfect antidote to our mass education model which asks students to simply copy and paste into their brains.

Summertime brings a slower blogging pace as well as the joys of catching up with friends, eating outdoors and not wearing a watch or making a to-do list.

Dmitry Orlov writes at Club Orlov a thought-provoking piece entitled “You don’t have to go to school”.
“A small but already by no means negligible number of Americans is starting to realize what their future looks like: no retirement, no job, no savings, plus they are getting old. Their only possible means of support in old age is their children.

“And so, in the meantime, let’s continue to mindlessly send our children off to “learning” institutions, where they will be properly supervised at all times, bored half to death, medicated into submission should they rebel, even by simply refusing to pay attention, not taught anything worth knowing by demoralized, underpaid public servants, and then spat out into the world with their spirits crushed.”

He goes on to provide a translated account of a Russian woman’s experience taking her three children out of school. I highly recommend it.

The Guardian earlier this month ran a story based on a survey of 226 top employers in the U.K. showing a 25% fall in vacancies, a slump in recruiting levels not seen since 1991. The study, carried out by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), showed that competition for jobs is much fiercer, with an average of 48 applications for every graduate vacancy. Vacancies in engineering have dropped 40%; only energy, water and utilities have registered an increase of 7.1%.

So what to do? Umair Haque has come up with a good template for discussion called the Generation M Manifesto. The M’s refer to “movement” and “meaningful stuff that matters the most”. “Every generation has a challenge, and this, I think, is ours: to foot the bill for yesterday’s profligacy — and to create, instead, an authentically, sustainably shared prosperity”.

Spotted this on John Thackara’s consistently enjoyable and thought-provoking Doors Of Perception newsletter: sounds like a very interesting cross-disciplinary project.

AALTO UNIVERSITY: FOR LIFE, OR UNDECIDED? (TEXT OF TALK) A major new university is to be named after the Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto. Aalto University, which opens in 2010, is the result of a merger between the Helsinki School of Economics (Finland’s top business school, with 4,000 students); the University of Art and Design (one of Europe’s top design and art schools, with 2,000 students); and Helsinki University of Technology (the main technical university, including the country’s principal architecture school, with 15,000 students). Four hundred people are already busy preparing the new university, but I was asked to speak at symposium in Helsinki called “Beyond Tomorrow” about what the new university should do, and be. The University has stated that it will will “make a positive contribution to Finnish society, technology, economy, art, art and design, and support the welfare of both humans and the environment”. I proposed that Aalto University should stand for something more precise than this: an unconditional respect for life, and for the conditions that support life. Read more at: http://www.doorsofperception.com/archives/2009/05/post_43.ph

Another interesting educational institution that I hadn’t heard of until this week: the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy. I met Cinzia Scaffidi, of Slow Food, at a meeting on plant science and crop diversity in Tunis this week, and she told me about this unique school which was founded in 2003. “Food is the meeting point of many disciplines,” she said. The objective is to create an international research and training center, working to renew farming methods, protect biodiversity and maintain an organic relationship between gastronomy and agricultural science.

I like the link-in this provides to the current debate in the U.S. about how to re-think liberal arts programmes, where there is a strong focus on bringing in areas like mapping urban food systems.

Dmitry’s Orlov’s entertaining and insightful “Reinventing Collapse” has a good riff on the ongoing theme of “the post-secondary education model in the U.S. is broken”.

“…American colleges and universities often fail to achieve in four years what Soviet secondary schools achieved in two (9th and 10th) grades. That is they fail to produce graduates who have adequate general knowledge, good command of their native language and the ability to acquire specialized knowledge without any further institutionalized assistance.”

“The American higher education system succeeds brilliantly at one thing: producing a subservient graduate who has no choice but join the labor force on the terms dictated by her future corporate masters.”

He argues that higher education in the U.S. is “most commonly about training: the imparting of temporary, quickly obsolescent skills, not universal knowledge…. But it is mainly about securing unquestioning obedience within a complex rule-following system.”

As the governing literati argue amongst themselves about how to revamp and fund the now-defunct model of the $200,000 liberal arts education, it’s worth taking a look at Orlov’s point about the merit of imparting good general knowledge to students when they are in the 9th and 10th grades, rather than waiting until they are 18 + and making them pay through the nose for it.

Le Monde’s education supplement looks at the theme of general culture this week, citing sociologist Edgar Morin’s definition as a base line: “It is what, based on writings, the arts, thinking, helps us to orient ourselves in life and confront problems we face in life. Reading Montaigne, La Bruyere, Pascal, Diderot or Rousseau nourishes our mind and helps us to resolve our problems in life.”

Statue of Michel de Montaigne in Paris

Statue of Michel de Montaigne in Paris

But even in France this staple of the secondary education has been withered away thanks to a perception that it is too elitist. Some critics have suggested that France needs to emulate the U.S. model, where the fundamentals of general culture are imparted during the undergraduate years. Increasing numbers of French students are fleeing the traditional universities like the Sorbonne because these places are viewed as disconnected from the workplace and hostage to far-left unions, preferring to enroll in more expensive, vocation-oriented private schools.

As Montaigne said: “Since I would rather make of him an able man than a learned man, I would also urge that care be taken to choose a guide with a well-made rather than a well-filled head.”

The debate rages on. Mark Taylor’s op-ed piece in the NYT last month: “End the University as we know it.”