Monday, February 20, 2012

Benchlearning: jugling with figures for deeper learning

In Ethiopia, I worked with an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) who had funds for small organizations. Year after year there was feedback from the organizations that approval of their funding took way too long. The employees involved were claiming that it was not their fault and that they were doing everything to approve quickly. As an advisor to this organization I decided to follow a number of cases made a table with the data obtained for each step in the process. It showed exactly how long the application lasted in each step. Every individual step didn't last too long but their were so many steps. With these figures in hand, we had a common truth and fairly quickly we agreed that a number of steps in the procedure should be cut. I was actually flabbergasted that my table worked so well, especially because it was a problem which had a long history of conflicts.

So when Nelly Spanjersberg told me about benchlearning I was very interested and curious. I think it is very innovative to learn from fact and figures, and not merely from reflection and feedback. So I was happy that she arranged an interview with Corline Koolhaas, projectleider benchmarking en benchlearning Rijk, projectleader for the Ministries. Here's the interview I had:

What is benchlearning?Benchlearning is an innovative way of learning, and therefore difficult to explain. The danger is to explain is with an 'old' vocabulary, which may not fit this new way of learning. For example: an innovation as the mp3 player is hard to explain with the words of the old ways of listening to music, there are so many new possibilities. We are working on benchlearning since 2009 and have yet to be developed a better language. But I will try anyway!  

The goal of bench learning is creating a better government without making a judgment about what is right and wrong. In the case of bench learning we want to create a new vision, rather than a strategy in place. Benchlearning helps to discover: are we moving in the right direction? The traditional way of working with statistics and benchmarking worked like looking in a mirror. In benchlearning you do not you look back, but you monitor what is happening around you, with no hypothesis, and without predetermined indicators. Having predetermined indicators restricts your vision. In benchlearning you have a look at information available and arrange in in new ways, but without a set first hypothesis. You go looking for patterns. This leads to a deeper form of learning than through indicators or other means. 

Furthermore, the collective process of meaning construction is very important. You will look at the figures together: what does this mean? This means you work to change ideas and culture, yet without talking about 'culture' or 'change'. It is extremely important that you not filter yourself but that people are going to interpret what the numbers mean. Because most people want change but do not want to be changed. They must draw their own lessons"  

How does the benchlearning proces look like? "We start by making conversation starter sheets. This is a collection of figures around a particular topic. Then we assess what figures surprise people and why. After that we organize meetings, on these subjects with a central question. It is important to not to do this in a meetings environment, but in an exploratory, different setting. People should be open and confident to share. It is important that they are not judged behind their backs on what they share. These meetings lead to new insights and meaning-making about what happens in practice".

What are situations in which benchlearning fits well? "You have do it where you have a good breeding ground, there should be a clear problem. There must be some cracks. The method lends itself to larger organizations for internal sessions, but you can also apply to benchlearning amongst companies. It does not work when you are working with highly judgmental people who do not want to explore what is going on. If people in the bargaining or negotiating modus they cannot learn. Furthermore, it is important to ensure you have participant of an equal level within the organization who can inspire each other."  

What is the function of the data, the figures in benchlearning? "
The figures provide the confrontation with the real world. Sometimes a problem is already recognized as a major problem, but the numbers make it more manageable. Figures work very well to discuss actual practices, even with people who are afraid of figures. With them you present the information just in a different way. By presenting the numbers (which are often already available!) in a different way, you get a very different conversation. Often people talk past each other. In bench learning you create common ground by the use of figures and a central question. "
I am definitely inspired by bench learning and still want to see if I can try part of it in my own practice. For example, it could be interesting to start a session with teachers with data on the use of social media by students and teachers? Seems interesting to see what kind of conversation that brings.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Brain science meets social media

Brain learning is currently a hot topic in the Netherlands amongst learning professionals.  I read the book Brein@work van Ria van Dinteren en Nina Lazeron..  They interviewed various scientists and are translating new insights from brain science into practical consequences for organising effective learning situations. An example: sleep is very important for processing new information and new stimuli.

I'm working a lot with sociale media and communities of practice. Both are means to make learning processes stronger and more effective. I'm convinced you can win a lot by starting online for instance. Friday I attended a session for trainers about training methods. Very interesting to compare what methods you use. However, there was a case discussion about managers who were too direct in their communication and hence did not create a good working atmosphere in their teams. The result was a bunch of unhappy employees and a lot of gossip. The solution was a three hours training for the managers. I'd believe it is more useful to work for shorter periods and try to know what the managers think, and see it as a change process.

I'm very happy to work with Ria van Dinteren to prepare a session on Brein meets social media on the 16th of February in the Netherlands. We hope to combine insights from brain science with the way you can use social media in learning processes. It may provide a strong underpinning for certain ways of working. Many of the things I do I believe in based upon my own experiences and insights, hopefully my practices can improve by using these new discoveries about our brain.

One of the questions I often hear is: Does Google make us stupid? Dr. Paul Howard Jones is analysing the latest scientific research to investigate this question. You may watch the following youtube video. His main message is: technology is not good or bad for us, it is important HOW we use technology. The internet may solve problems and may create problems. Google can make us smarter as well as more stupid, depending on the context of use. 1,5-8,2% of the population is using the internet in problematic ways (eg. addiction). Especially action games may be addictive because they give us a dopamine boost and hence a good feeling. His explanation is quite general, however, in the last 5 minutes there is an interesting question about teachers who have to compete with games after school. Students who game may increasingly consider class boring.  The solution of Paul Howard Jones is to make the lessons more engaging, for instance by using mobile phones and other technologies. Technology is not making us stupid, but we have to make smart use of it. Here's the full video.

Ria and her team have pulled out the most important brainprinciples - important for learning. I will share the most important principles briefly (here's a Dutch article about brain learning -I'm not sure there are good English resources about the principes, let me know in a comment if you know English resources). After outlining the brainprinciples I will try to relate them to using social media in learning processes.

  • The emotional brain - we can use the power of emotion while creating learning situations and facilitating learning processes. You can use interesting stories to match information and emotions for instance. It also helps to have fun in whatever you are doing, it helps to retain information and a memory. Relating this to social media, you could say it is important to surprise people with an interesting new medium, especially at a time when routine has set in. Asking your students in class to send a summary by SMS which is shown on the screen may be exciting. And you may use digital storytelling. Blogs can be appealing because of the personal storytelling inherent to the medium for instance. On the other hand, the emotional brain principle also shows that using social media is also a potential pitfall, for instance when technology becomes a hurddle for participants, taking away attention from the important topics to technology. I once had a group experiencing a lot of technical problems with the first webinar. This was an immensely negative transforming experience for the group and there was some continuous fear for webinars.
  • The brain of connections - Brains are not static, but dynamic and changing. Continuously, new connections are formed in our brain. It is very important to connect to a known context and experience to make learning easier. For instance, link theory to work experiences and it will be easier for people to understand it and to relate to it. While using social media you can use this phenomenon by coupling the online world to the real world, by using words from the real world. I often use words like bungalow, library etc. I also talk about conversations online rather than 'typed messages'. Maybe more important is using connections to real life situations by asking people to share their daily work situations online. If you can respond to real work dilemmas, the brain will immediately link and develop new connections.
  • Het information processing brain - we can only remember a limited amount of information. Repetition makes sure we better retain important information. I still remember the french line: bon, beau, nouveau, joli, gros, haut, long, petit, jeune, vieux, mauvais, m├ęchant, autre, vast, meilleur et grand because we had to repeat it many times in class... For good processing we need enough sleep too. Ofcourse this calls for sandwich models in which you use online and face-to-face to discuss similar topics in different ways..  
  • Nourishing our brain - Our brain needs nourishment to learn: oxigen, movement, sleep. Apart from these important physical needs the brain also needs to be nourished with a nice environment and some challenges. How can we translate this to the way we may use social media in learning processes? We can nourish the brain online in different ways as offline, with lots of links, clicks, videos, an attractive blog. It can be exciting to find interesting resources online or to create your own beautiful prezi. In one online trajectory I made sure there was a large library. I thought is was not really necessary after all, because participants were really short of time due to some work-related pressures. Surprisingly I discovered two participants had really clicked through and enjoyed looking at almost all the resources! The other participants had not, but that's the advantage online- we can feed participants differently!