Learning about learning about …

I was recently reading a short piece from Peter Honey (of learning styles fame)
in a CIPD blog post in which he writes, saving the most important item for last in his list:

Learning to learn – the ultimate life-skill

You can turn learning in on itself and use your learning skills to help you learn how to become an increasingly effective learner. Learning to learn is the key to enhancing all the above.

It’s all excellent stuff, and very central to the consideration of learning technology, particularly that dedicated to supporting reflection.

Then I started thinking further (sorry, just can’t help it…)

If learning to learn is the ultimate life skill, then surely the best that educators can do is to help people learn to learn.

But learning to learn is not altogether straightforward. There are many pitfalls that interfere with effective learning, and which may not respond to pure unaided will-power or effort. Thus, to help people learn to learn, we (as educators) have to know about those pitfalls, those obstacles, those hazards that stand in the way of learning generally, and we have to be able somehow at least to guide the learners we want to help around those hazards.

There are two approaches we could take here. First, we could try to diagnose what our learners are trying to learn, what is preventing them, and maybe give them the knowledge they are lacking. That’s a bit like a physician prescribing some cure — not just medicine, perhaps, but a cure that involves a change of behaviour. Or it’s a bit like seeing people hungry, and feeding them — hungry for knowledge, perhaps? If we’re talking about knowledge here, of course, there is a next stage: helping people to find the knowledge that they need, rather than giving it to them directly. I put that in the same category, as it is not so very different.

There is a second, qualitatively different approach. We could help our learners learn about their own learning. We could guide them — and this is a highly reflective task — to diagnose their own obstables to learning. This is not simply not knowing where to look for what they want to know, it is about knowing more about themselves, and what it may be within them that interferes with their learning processes — their will to learn, their resolve (Peter Honey’s article starts with New Year’s resolutions) or, even, their blind spots. To pursue the analogy, that is like a physician giving people the tools to maintain their own health, or, proverbially, rather than giving a person a fish, teaching them to fish.

Taking this further starts to relate closely in my mind to Kelly’s Personal Construct Psychology; and also perhaps to Kuhn’s ideas about the “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. Within a particular world view, one’s learning is limited by that world view. When the boundaries of that learning are being pushed, it is time to abandon the old skin and take up a new and more expansive one; or just a different one, more suited to the learning that one wants. But it is hard — painful even (Kelly recognised that clearly) and the scientific establishment resists revolutions.

In the literature and on the web, there is the concept called “triple loop learning”, and though this doesn’t seem to be quite the same, it would appear to be going in the same direction, even if not as far.

What, then, is our task as would-be educators; guides; coaches; mentors? Can we get beyond the practices analogous to Freudian psychoanalyis, which are all too prone to set up a dependency? How can we set our learners truly free?

This may sound strange, but I would say we (as educators, etc.) need to study, and learn about, learning about learning. We need to understand not just about particular obstacles to learning, and how to get around those; but also about how people learn about their own inner obstacles, and how they can successfully grow around them.

As part of this learning, we do indeed need to understand how, in any given situation, a person’s world view is likely to relate to what they can learn in that situation; but further, we need to understand how it might be possible to help people recognise that in themselves. You think not? You think that we just have to let people be, to find their own way? It may be, indeed, that there is nothing effective that we are wise enough to know how to do, for a particular person, in a particular situation. And, naturally, it may be that even if we offer some deep insight, that we know someone is ready to receive, they may choose not to receive it. That is always a possibility that we must indeed respect.

And there cannot be a magic formula, a infallible practice, a sure method, a way of forcibly imbuing people with that deep wisdom. Of course there isn’t — we know that. But at least we can strive in our own ways to live with the attitude of doing whatever we can, firstly, not to stand in the way of whatever light may dawn on others, but also, if we are entrusted with the opportunity, to channel or reflect some of that light in a direction that we hope might bear fruit.

Again, it is not hard to connect this to systems thinking and cybernetics. Beyond the law of requisite variety — something about controlling systems needing to be at least as complex as the systems they are controlling — the corresponding principle is practically commonplace: to help people learn something, we have to have learned more than we expect them to learn. In this case, to help people learn about their own learning, we have to have learned about learning about learning.

People are all complex. It is sadly common to fail to take into account the richness and complexity of the people we have dealings with. To understand the issues and challenges people might have with learning about their own learning, we have to really stretch ourselves, to attend to the Other, to listen and to hear acutely enough with all our senses, to understand enough about them, where they come from, where they are, to have an idea about what may either stand in the way, or enable, their learning about their learning. Maybe love is the best motivator. But we also need to learn.

Right then, back on the CETIS earth (which is now that elegant blue-grey place…) I just have to ask, how can technology help? E-portfolio technology has over the years taken a few small steps towards supporting reflection, and indeed communication between learners, and between learners and tutors, mentors, educators. I think there is something we can do, but what it is, I am not so sure…

Learning about learning about learning — let’s talk about it!

E-portfolios and identity: more!

The one annual e-portfolio (and identity) conference that I attend reliably was this year co-sponsored by CRA, on top of the principal EIfEL — London, 11th to 13th July. Though it wasn’t a big gathering, I felt it was somehow a notch up from last time.

Perhaps this was because it was just a little more grounded in practice, and this could have been the influence of the CRA. Largely gone were speculations about identity management and architecture, but in was more of the idea of identity as something that was to be developed personally.

We heard from three real recent students, who have used their portfolio systems for their own benefit. Presumably they developed their identity? That’s not a representative sample, and of course these are the converted, not the rank and file dissatisfied or apathetic. A message that surprisingly came from them was that e-portfolio use should be compulsory, at least at some point during the student’s studies. That’s worth reflecting on.

And as well as some well-known faces (Helen, Shane, et al.) there were those, less familiar in these settings, of our critical-friendly Mark Stiles, and later Donald Clark (who had caused slight consternation by his provocative blog post, finding fault with the portfolio concept, and was invited to speak as a result). Interestingly, I didn’t think Donald’s presentation worked as well as his blog (it was based on the same material). In a blog, you can be deliberately provocative, let the objections come, and then gracefully give way to good counter-arguments. But in the conference there wasn’t time to do this, so people may have gone away thinking that he really held these ideas, which would be a pity. Next year we should be more creative about the way of handling that kind of contribution. Mark’s piece — may I call it a friendly Jeremiad? I do have a soft spot for Jeremiah! — seemed to go down much better. We don’t want learners themselves to be commodified, but we can engage with Mark through thinking of plausible ways of avoiding that fate.

Mark also offered some useful evidence for my view that learners’ interests are being systematically overlooked, and that people are aware of this. Just let your eye off the ball of learner-centricity for a moment, and — whoops! — your learner focus is sneakily transformed into a concern of the institution that wants to know all kinds of things about learners — probably not what the learners wanted at all. There is great depth and complexity of the challenge to be truly learner-focused or learner-centred.

One of the most interesting presentations was by Kristin Norris of IUPUI, looking at what the Americans call “civic identity” and “civic-mindedness”. This looks like a laudibly ambitious programme for helping students to become responsible citizens, and seems related to our ethical portfolios paper of 2006 as well as the personal values part of my book.

Kristin knows about Perry and Kegan, so I was slightly surprised that I couldn’t detect any signs in the IUPUI programme of diagnosis of the developmental stage of individual students. I would have thought that what you do on a programme to develop students ethically should depend on the stage they have already arrived at. I’ll follow up on this with her.

So, something was being pointed to from many directions. It’s around the idea that we need richer models of the learner, the student, the person. And in particular, we need better models of learner motivation, so that we can really get under their (and our own) skins, so that the e-portfolio (or whatever) tools are things that they (and we) really want to use.

Intrinsic motivation to use portfolio tools remains largely unsolved. We are faced again and again with the feedback that students don’t want to know about “personal development” or “portfolios” (unless they are creatives who know about these anyway) or even less “reflection”! Yes, there are certainly some (counterexemplifying Donald Clark’s over-generalisation) who want to reflect. Perhaps they are similar to those who spontaneously write diaries — some of the most organised among us. But not many.

This all brings up many questions that I would like to follow up, in no particular order.

  • How are we, then, to motivate learners (i.e. people) to engage in activities that we recognise as involving reflection or leading to personal development?
  • Could we put more effort into deepening and enriching the model we have of each of our learners?
  • Might some “graduate attributes” be about this kind of personal and ethical development?
  • Are we suffering from a kind of conspiracy of the social web, kidding people that they are actually integrated, when they are not?
  • Can we use portfolio-like tools to promote growth towards personal integrity?
  • “Go out and live!” we could say. “But as you do it, record things. Reflect on your feelings as well as your actions. Then, later, when you ‘come up for air’, you will have something really useful to reflect on.” But how on earth can we motivate that?
  • Should we be training young people to reflect as a habit, like personal hygiene habits?
  • Is critical friendship a possible motivator?

I’m left with the feeling that there’s something really exciting waiting to be grasped here, and the ePIC conference has it all going for itself to grasp that opportunity. I wonder if, next year, we could

  • keep it as ePIC — e-portfolios and identity — a good combination
  • keep close involvement of the CRA and others interested in personal development
  • put more focus on the practice of personal-social identity development
  • discuss the tools that really support the development of personal social identity
  • talk about theories and architectures that support the tools and the development?

Grasping the future

We had an IEC departmental meeting yesterday, with all kinds of interesting ideas being floated about how to move forwards. (For outsiders: the Institute for Educational Cybernetics is the department at Bolton that hosts CETIS). I’m now sure there is room for new development of an approach to technology dissemination that we could consider.

This idea didn’t quite make it into the main discussion yesterday, which is partly why I wanted to blog about it here. Coincidentally, this morning via LinkedIn I see an article from yesterday on TechCrunch about Oblong, which I can use to help explain.

Yesterday Scott was talking about doing lots of “cool” stuff (tools, books included) so that some of them have a chance to take off and be one of the next big things — most of them probably won’t if we’re honest (like my book on Electronic Portfolios…). I was rather feebly trying to say that I can see a related gap that the IEC is in a very good position to bridge. Let me explain better and more clearly now.

When we have good ideas, part of the thing we have to come to terms with is that others often don’t get it straight away. If you think about it, this is pretty obvious — the insight you have is dependent on your current state of awareness, that you have spent quite some time building up. But then comes the real problem. It is much too easy to see the job of getting others to adopt your idea in terms of just persuading them. The wonderful presentation; the super-clear explanation; the appeal to how useful the thing is by referring to the amazing things that can be done: any of these may tempt us to believe it is the answer.

But, as anyone with teaching experience knows, it is often a much longer process. Even if calculus were really wonderful, you couldn’t persuade people who can’t even do algebra properly, with the most persuasive presentation in the world. They really can’t get it yet. But you can think in terms of progressive learning, through the stages of maths that have been worked on for centuries now. Similarly, there are many people you can’t just win over to, say, logic programming. In my direct recent experience, I could say the same about concept mapping, and in particular the diagrammatic conventions that underlie both that and RDF graphs, and indeed Topic Maps. A very similar story could be told of various technology specifications or standards. Take a look at RDFa, for instance, and the supposedly pragmatic decision by schema.org to adopt microdata in preference. “But you just have to understand it”, one might complain, “and you’ll see how much better it is!”

(Aside: to see how much better RDFa really is, see Manu Sporny’s blog.)

The vital and central point is that many technical people, I believe, misconceive of the task. They see it in terms of presentational effort, whereas they would be much better off thinking of the task in terms of learning and development.

We could hear echoes of Piaget here, perhaps. People have stages of their cognitive development. But I’m not a follower of Piaget (any more than of Marx) and I’m proposing not to follow any fixed scheme here. Rather, I’m saying that people — technical people in particular — if they are to maximise the chances of something they have created being adopted widely, need to look at the real potential adopters and create helpful models of what the relevant developmental stages are for those potential adopters, rather than for humanity in general.

And that brings me back to our potential role — the IEC’s role — here. We know about, we are in touch with, we incorporate several technical wizards and several far-sighted and innovative educators (and even a few who are both!) I think we can take on a mission to work out how to educate the innovators, the creators, the producers, about this task, this responsibility if you like, for working towards wider adoption. We could tell people about how important and useful it is, centrally, to plan out a sequence of stages, to motivate non-adopters towards adoption. Each stage needs to be graspable by, and motivating to, the audience. And it’s not necessarily only plain learning that needs to be mapped out, but individual stages of development (remembering the Piaget concept again), and that can take time.

Maybe this is part of the essence of the idea of “timing” of innovations. I’m saying that it’s not just good fortune, but some of it can be reasonably predicted, given a good model of people’s cognitive developmental stages, their experience, and the knowledge and skills they have accumulated. Just focusing on technology adoption, there could be a rich seam of research here, taking case studies of technology adoption, and working out why adoption happened, or not.

So back to the serendipitous example. Obviously adoption is greatly helped by well-placed articles (such as the one linked above) from reputable sources. But the article itself gives more clues. I quote:

“both Kramer and Ubderkoffler agree that consumer technologies like the Wii and the Kinect are perfect in helping to transition people over to these future concepts of computing.”

Then, a bit later:

“But first, Oblong knows they need to be able to bring relatively affordable products to market. And again, that’s what Mezzanine is all about. “Our goal here is to change how people work together,” Kramer explains in a slightly (but only slightly) less ambitious statement.”

So they are perfectly aware that getting people to adopt this new technology involves providing motivating experiences, and if they can’t afford them they won’t have them. They are also aware of the distinction between the future aspirational goal, and the humbler steps that need to be taken to approach it.

So, it looks like some people — probably the people who are going to be successful in getting their things adopted — understand these points well. My experience suggests that many more don’t. I can certainly say I struggle to keep hold of the central points here, and am easily tempted away to variations of the simplistic “give them a bigger prod and they’ll understand” way of thinking. But surely, shouldn’t part of what we offer as education in educational technology (or indeed cybernetics) be to get a more truly useful set of ideas more firmly into people’s consciousness?

In the end, what I think I’m saying is that we need to help the current enthusiasts / experts / technology evangelists grasp the reality about how, so often, the adoption process is limited or bounded by the stage of development of the potential adopters, and thus refocus their efforts towards formulation and envisioning respectful, plausible models of how their (no doubt) great innovations can be grasped and adopted, step by step in a future process perhaps, if not (the desired) all at once, now!

A partially reconstructed competence maze

At the CETIS 2009 conference on Wednesday we built a consensus model on the floor — or at least, made a lot of progress towards one — connected to competence. Not many people turned up in the end — we had more booked onto the session than came — but that was more than compensated for by the quality of those that were there. As promised, we talked a great deal, but not as a whole group, and used the traffic cones, string, paper, pens and staplers. I transcribed the “maze” onto CmapTools, and have posted it on the session wiki page, so no need to reproduce it here. We did indeed make as much progress in three hours as some groups seem to need years for, though it was clearly not finished.

There was a lot of very interesting discussion going on. As I had suspected, this generalised well from my own experience, recounted in a previous post, that one-to-one discussion is much better for helping one’s own model to develop than is discussion in a larger group. So, in the meeting, I discouraged conversations that were either across the floor, or threatened to involve the whole group, even though, as it happened, we probably could have got a long way with these as well, because of the small numbers involved. But it was more important to trial the method properly, so we can be more confident that it will work when scaled up to, say 20 or so people working simultaneously.

Personally, I will take a close look at the output, put together with my recollections of all the great conversations I had over one or other traffic cone, and apply them to the extension of my developing conceptual model. If anyone else wants to take the CmapTools file, and elaborate it with their own ideas, I’d be very interested to see the result. During the conference session, I had very consciously held back from putting in ideas from my own conceptual models, at least in the first half, so that what developed was independent of that. I did participate in the second half, working on what had been built up, and trying to play a normal role of a collaborative participant. Now, I’d like to repeat the exercise again, with this, or in related domains.

I’d keep the traffic cones as they are. Mark Stubbs commented that they were a good size. They aren’t the biggest ones you can get, but they are proper normal full-sized traffic cones. The string, paper and fibre-tip colouring pens were workable — not very neat, but adequate, and perhaps a little untidiness helps to keep the informal atmosphere that in turn helps people relax and discuss deeply and openly.

But I’m driven to incorporate the ideas from the top-level ontology I’m developing, as mentioned in the most recent post here. Perhaps we could decide which top-level categories are most helpful for collaborative conceptual modelling, and pop different coloured sports cones on top of each traffic cone, depending on the type of thing it is representing. In the models in earlier posts, I have used a four-way distinction:

  • material things, including agents and non-agents together
  • real instantiated processes that are proceeding, or have completed
  • repeatable patterns of all kinds
  • expressions, including assertions of fact and predictions

It might be helpful to distinguish agents from non-agents, and assertions from predictions. It’s not clear what will be most helpful in the practical situation of this “floor-based conceptual modelling”. There need to be enough categories to help people recognise what they and others are meaning, but not so many that they are themselves difficult to understand, or confusing. I’ll be thinking about it, talking with people, and waiting for relevant comments from readers here…

What can be conceptually modelled?

Is there a useful, simple, easily understandable set of categories (or “top ontology” ) for helping people know what kind of thing they are thinking of when doing conceptual modelling or concept maps?

I started to think about this kind of thing when writing my book on e-portfolios, because I wanted a decent basis for discussion of what kind of information there is, or could be, in e-portfolios — and also, what kinds of things can e-portfolios refer to. I couldn’t find anything that was simple enough and easy enough to understand, or that I thought would really be helpful to my readers. So I wrote a short section on that in my book.

But then, doing all this recent conceptual modelling work, for European Learner Mobility and other things, the same issues came back. For example when we talk about a “qualification”, what on earth are we talking about? Is is a (physical) piece of paper? A definition of some sort? A status in society? A string of letters? Perhaps the concept of qualification is multi-faceted, and means all these things and more. But that isn’t much use for a conceptual model, where concepts need to be related to other concepts. These different meanings of “qualification” participate in radically different relationships with other concepts.

So, I’ve taken the ideas started off in my book, and put them in a separate web page, which can be developed as people share their feedback with me. It is intended to help people reflect on and understand what kind of concept or thing they mean, when doing conceptual modelling, so aiding communication in and about concept maps.

Here, then, is a link to the page with my “top ontology” — open to discussion and development. Please comment (through whatever medium), and help me make it into a useful resource.

Forum overkill

You’ve probably noticed for quite a while that many of us now apply considerable caution at being invited to join a new list, a new forum, a new network, a new way of interacting, or anything similar. Not surprising, I agree. But until now I didn’t have a good formulation of why. I’ve just read a message from a colleague, bemoaning – well that would be too strong a word, but you can guess what I mean and he meant – the lack of activity on a forum that he set up for us a while back. Even when it was being set up, as well as wishing him well, I had a sneaking feeling that there were already too many.

If you know my ideas at all, you will probably know that I’ve been developing ideas on multiplicity of personality/persona/whatever-you-like-to-call-it. Particularly the idea that a set of values attaches to a particular context of value, and in each one of these we usually manage to achieve one or more clear roles, a certain consistency of behaviour, and of personal values. This is the sort of context like “family”, “work”, “club”, except that each person has their own, probably different, list of the value contexts which they distinguish.

And you may have read about another related key idea for the future: that portfolio-like tools could well help us both recognise and manage the information and values relevant to these contexts, contributing to a process of ethical development, to the benefit of individuals and society.

But you are less likely to know about my PhD work, which was more about the cognitive contexts of complex tasks. We can manage a complex task by dividing it up into a set of contexts, in each of which we have a certain appropriate set of rules for action (small-scale behaviour), prompted and fed by a corresponding set of information that is relevant to those rule.

If we think back to the very old days before the Web, when Usenet News seemed to be mainly for technical folk, it was apparent that one newsgroup seemed appropriate for each distinct and separate topic; or maybe task. It was when life on the Net became a little more complex and less easily separable, that I started to think that it would be nicer if we could have fewer newsgroups, but more choices to filter within them. That kind of system still hasn’t become widespread – or at least not that I can tell. I’m still expected to join many different lists, many of which overlap.

Or at least, it has come to pass in a strange way: through blogs. A blog is no longer written in a particular group, but available to anyone, who then filter it: usually only on the person of the writer, but sometimes on the tags which are associated with each post. And I’ll stick with the idea that it is strange, because when writing a blog, I feel disconnected; I cannot be sure of who the audience is. Thus, I am not sure of the values that I want to display or put forward. Perhaps blogs only really work for people with complete integrity?

I’m going around this the long way, but I feel the need for the circuit. If we want to be comfortable with a non-universal value set, we need the security of a known group, where values can be observed, sensed, and acted on. Where those who don’t share the values stand out, and preferably get out. But on the other hand, we want to separate discussions where the topic is of interest to different sets of people.

So, please, someone out there who is writing code, here is a request for the kind of forum where I can join with other people who share my values in a large group, but where everyone only gets to see posts on the topics that interest them.

And I’m still going to be reluctant to join new forums of any kind.