Reflecting on learning and seeing the world in exciting new ways.

Archive for December, 2010

Children publish scientific research paper

I was sent a link by a colleague to a science research paper published by 8-year-old students. It was written by a group of 25 British schoolchildren and published in a peer reviewed journal, Biology Letters. Anyone who has ever had an article peer reviewed will know what a big deal this is; the process is painstakingly onerous and often drawn out as the paper is written, submitted, sent for reviewed, reviewed twice (or more), feedback is given, then further revisions are made before the paper is finally published, if it even made it that far. That a class of students managed to succeed in carrying out their own scientific research and publishing it in a peer reviewed journal is more than impressive!

Beehive animationThis project is an excellent example of authentic learning in action. The children were engaged in a complex process involving carrying out research about a topic and documenting both the process and results. Their findings, although not credited as ‘earth shattering’, were unique and their process was both valid and appropriate. The full paper about buff-tailed bumblebees learning to recognise nourishing flowers based on colours and patterns makes for great reading. It is written entirely in the children’s voice yet clearly includes all the necessary scientific language and processes. I am full of admiration for their teacher who turned a classroom learning opportunity into something incredibly extensive and robust. Whether or not these children go on to careers as scientists, writers, or even researchers, they will have all participated in a process that most adults would find challenging.


Moving from delicious to Diigo

Delicious logoI have long been a big fan of delicious or, more specifically, online social bookmarking. Years of travelling or working between various sites and on different computers very quickly allowed me to see the benefit of saving my collection of links in the cloud (backed up, of course) rather than on a local machine. I recently gave a presentation for staff about using online bookmarking. Although it was set in the context of delicious, hopefully the message would be transferable to any other platform. Since 2003, delicious has been my preferred tool of choice but, admittedly, very little seems to have changed or developed within it over the years.

This morning, the Twitterverse was aflutter with news that Yahoo may be shutting down Delicious. Tweeters were aghast; how could Yahoo do this? What would we do now? A quick search for online bookmarking tools turned up this blog post about the five best online bookmarking services. I’ve got to say that this video has made Diigo look incredibly appealing, particularly its ability to highlight and annotate passages of text, rather than whole sites.

Diigo logoI’ve decided to jump on board the Diigo train, probably later than many but hopefully in time to allow me to successfully make the transition from delicious. I’m hoping that my network of users from delicious will also come on board so I can reconnect with them. Apart from joining in with the initial collective outrage at the possibility of delicious being ditched, I’m surprised how quickly I’ve change allegiance to a new platform. I realise there are many others to choose from, and that many people have been using online bookmarking sites other than delicious for a long time, but I’m hoping that Diigo will work for me.

I have begun by exporting my delicious bookmarks into html format. A few weeks ago I decided to split my existing delicious account in two and have one each for personal and professional use. I hadn’t actually begun populating my new account – probably just as well given that I’ll be moving platforms now. However, once I’m up and running, you’ll be able to find me here.

The Tipping Point

The Tipping PointI am reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. I’m a firm believer that it’s the little things that can make a big difference, especially when it comes to change and new directions. I also see that it’s easy to forget the significance of these little things until it’s too late; much like a journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step, great things can be achieved as the result of little things. As much as any other factor, the importance of people and their actions can be crucial in achieving change, as well as a positive and effective working environment..

The law of the few

In chapter 2, Gladwell talks about The law of the few and three personality types which can affect change or start ‘word of mouth epidemics’, as he calls them.

  • Connectors: A connector is someone who brings people together. They know lots of people but, most importantly, they genuinely like people. They see possibilities in everyone they connect with. I can think of three friends who are connectors. They can assemble a crowd at a moment’s notice but are not necessarily the centre of their social groups. What makes my connector friends even more special is that they don’t realise how significant their ability to bring pepole together is nor how responsible they have been for widening so many social circles around them.
  • Mavens: I think I’m a maven. Think about teachers, bloggers, writers, helpers … mavens like to collect and share information with others not for what they get out of it but in the hope that someone else will gain something from it. They are not persuasive but get a kick out of sharing information in order to educate or help others make the best decision for themselves. Mavens are perpetual teachers and students.
  • Salesmen: We all have our own ideas about salesmen. They are persuaders, or people who set out to convince others to make a decision or buy something. I’m definitely not one of these. The best salespeople are optimistic rather than pushy and work to combine the skills of connectors and mavens in order to achieve success – quite an art.

The workplace environment

Turning the lens to the workplace environment now, where do these personality types come into play? I’d say that a good educator needs to be all three. However, how likely is it that an individual will excel in each of these areas? Probably, not very. This is where a positive team environment comes into play. The best functioning teams recognise and harness the skills of their members and their combined strengths complement each other. A good team leader is one who enables this to happen and empowers team members to realise their full potential, both individually and as a group. That, in itself, is an art, particularly where change management is concerned.

Thinking about my work experience, I have worked with some very adept connectors whose ability to open doors and connect the right people to the right job at the right time is invaluable. I have learned much from enthusiastic mavens who have willing shared their knowledge about various topics and equipped me with the skills and information I’ve needed to make my own decisions about how to proceed next. And let’s also say that I have worked with a fair few salesmen in the past; the results have varied from being promised the earth to being promised nothing at all, but all sold with a million dollar smile. 😀

Training vs professional learning

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Red rose animationOr so the saying goes. However, I am a strong believer in the power of words and see that names, titles and labels can be incredibly important. A single word or phrase can bring up connotations that are either completely appropriate, 100% inaccurate, or somewhere in between. Sometimes words are synonymous with another; other times, words are used interchangeably when one is actually a subset of another or in reality bears little correlation whatsoever. It’s like calling a rose a dandelion just because they are both flowers. That’s close enough, right?

Professional learning

I work in the field of professional learning for tertiary educators. Not training, not professional development, but professional learning. In fact, although I am passionate about learning, training or being trained holds little appeal to me. I love working with professionals to facilitate and co-construct learning. It’s an exciting area to be working in.

To me, the role of training is to provide specific knowledge, skills and competencies in a specialised field. There is little variance in content and the learning outcomes are very tightly defined. Training is likely to be both pre-service and ongoing; a substantial amount of training of this type also occurs on the job.

Training is extremely important in, for example, technically-based professions. After all, we’d want to know that the person fixing the aeroplane we fly in is highly trained in their specialist subject: aircraft repair. More specifically, I’d want them to know great amounts of detail about the exact aircraft they were repairing, while having the practical skills  and competencies required for the job as well as a general understanding of the principles relating to aircraft repair, mechanics and so on. Here, training is vital.

So what about professional learning in the workplace, then? Isn’t it important that everyone in a similar role knows how to do their job within the scope of an organisation’s way of working. Of course it is, to a certain extent, but there is so much more to it. This is where professional learning comes in.

This diagram is how I see the relationship between professional learning, professional development and training in its simplest form:

Professional learning diagramThere are times when it may be appropriate to skew the size of each circle in relation to the purpose for learning and outcomes desired. Sometimes learning needs to be highly focused on a particular area or involve specialised skill development; that’s really important. However, for the most part, I prefer to see training as a subset of professional development which, in turn, is a subset of the wider concept of professional learning.


Jay Cross states in Informal Learning: “It should come as no surprise that workers don’t like training. Most training is built on the pessimistic assumption that trainees are deficient. Training is the cure for what’s broken. Consequences include:

  • negative reinforcement (correct what’s wrong, take the test, do this or else) instead of positive (great job!)
  • unmotivated learners (who wants to accept that they are inadequate?)
  • learner disengagement, unrewarded curiosity, spurned creativity (because the faculty implies, “my way or the highway”)
  • training (we do it to you) instead of learning (co-creation of knowledge)
  • focus on fixing the individual rather than optimizing the team (because the individual trainee will submit to being fixed but the organization is reluctant to join in group therapy).” (Cross, 2007, p. 96)

Some of these are statements are very heavy handed, although I do agree with most of them. The two that ring most true for me are the first and fourth points. By its very association of ‘jugs to mugs’ (fill ’em up!), training is often based on a deficit model consisting of an assumption that there is something wrong or missing (a needs analysis will often show this) and needs to be fixed. Input training and output the solution? Not so simple. The fourth points suggests a very top-down approach: “we do it to you” leaves the learner little control of their learning, resulting in low levels of empowerment and even less autonomy in their overall and ongoing professional development.

Learner autonomy

So what is the distinction between professional development and professional learning, then? For me, it’s about learner autonomy; professional development usually involves decisions made by others on an employee’s behalf (management, a curriculum or syllabus, industry standards etc). It has a valid place in the wider scheme of professional learning and might include some aspects of training, but is not the be all and end all of a professional’s ongoing development. Quality professional learning should offer opportunities and synergies in all three areas depending on the needs of the learners and the goals of organisation or industry they work in.

Cross, J. (2007). Informal learning. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.