Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Learning the Meerkat Way

For the past several months, I have been a part of a project team where we are designing and developing a Career Map and Self-Assessment Tool for the Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MiHR), Canada. 

When we started our work with the client, one of the team members, Nigel Llyod, suggested that we call ourselves the “MiHR CATS (Career map and self-Assessment Tool)”. That's when my tryst with meerkats began. 

If you haven't seen a meerkat before, it is a furry little animal that belongs to the mongoose family. They live in all parts of the Kalahari Desert and in South Africa and are very social animals. Just like meerkats, we are all working together in a group as a part of the project. We also have a sentry (aka our Project Manager) who keeps track of everything in our project. And like meerkats that dig burrows for food and survival and live in underground networks with multiple entrances, we are digging into the mining industry and trying to uncover various careers in mining in Canada and how these tunnels of competencies connect with each other. So, meerkats have become the symbol of our project team and our client addresses us as the MiHR CATS! 

The same evening, after we had named ourselves, I stumbled upon the television series 'Nature of Things' that profiled a meerkat family. This started my journey to discover more about meerkats. If you haven't watched the documentary series 'Meerkat Manor', you must watch it! (See here) The leading actors of this show were a part of experiments conducted by Thornton and coworker Katherine McAuliffe to see if meerkats show some form of teaching. 

On this journey, there were many fascinating things that I learned about meerkats. But as a learning experience designer, what really stood out for me was that meerkats are natural teachers. And I was curious to know how they did it. 

While most other animal pups learn by observation, meerkat pups learn by practicing and by doing in addition to observation. Meerkat adults engage in active instruction and create opportunities for pups to learn. 

So here's how they do it!

  • The most favorite food for meerkats is the venomous scorpion. Meerkats are immune to some types of poison but the stingers can still cause considerable damage. So, before they eat their prey, meerkats bite off the scorpion's stinger to disable any attack. 
  • The helper meerkat (also called the demonstrator aka the teacher), brings food to the young pups based on their begging calls. To start the foraging lesson, young pups are given dead scorpions to eat. As the young pups grow more mature, the helper meerkat brings in live scorpions with the stingers removed. Once the pups learn to bite off the scorpion's stinger, the helper meerkat brings in live scorpion with stingers and all. 
  • All learning is done in phases and the lessons vary according to the age of the pups where the prey changes from being dead, to being injured (or disabled) and finally to live scorpions. The pups are given opportunities to practice their skills and move from incompetence to becoming competent hunters. 
  • There is feedback involved. If the pups aren't able to hold on to the live prey, helpers bring it back and nudge and encourage the pups to try again. The pups learn by observation and acquire key information from the adult helper meerkat and then apply what they learn to eventually catch their own prey one day.

It may seem simple, but meerkats apply many learning principles better than we humans do!
  • Active learning: The learning is focused on solving a problem that of finding food and survival. It is a real problem and the teacher meerkat shows how it is done and creates opportunities for the pups to learn. 
  • Competency-based learning: Although not explicitly based on the 'theory of mind'; helpers respond according to the type of begging calls. The way we'd understand this as instructional designers is that tasks are tailored according to the competency level of the pups and are organized in increasing levels of difficulty. 
  • Learning by doing: The pups get opportunities to practice what they learn and apply their learning in real-life tasks.
  • Learning as a two-way process: Young meerkats 'pull' key information from the adult helper. At the right time, the helper meerkat 'pushes' feedback to help pups learn. 

So, that's how meerkats do it. And so do ants. There are possibly many other animals that 'teach' their young. As we look at identifying newer and more innovative approaches to learning, it is important that we make the connections back to how nature does it and gain more useful insights from the animal world. 

And thanks Nigel, for the big meerkat from Cambridge, England who is now a proud member of the meerkat family here in Vancouver. We are a happy family! 
The Goel Meerkat family. Hugs are always appreciated :)

Saturday, May 30, 2015

What Makes You An Expert?

The #lrnchat conducted on 21 May 2015 was a blazing round of thoughts, opinions, and views on 'Authority and Expertise'. 
As many of us learned, there were variations in how we defined experts (it was difficult to come up with a definition in the first place). But here are some interesting definitions in 140 characters or less:
Quinnovatora1) expertise is a level of understanding that goes beyond being able to do, to being able to improve on #lrnchat
ryantraceyA1) Knowing more about something than other people. Therefore, apparently I’m an IT expert. #lrnchat
JD_DillonA1) Subjective but recognized capability from which others can benefit #lrnchat 
hjarche@lrnchat expertise today is access to a diverse, giving, knowledgeable professional network of trusted relationships #lrnchat
OhThatRachelA1) I would have to go beyond just saying “knowing a lot” but actually being validated in that knowledge. #lrnchat
brunowinckA1) Expertise: having a deep enough knowledge to cover a domain sufficiently well that u can act or share with a relative assurance #lrnchat

A1: Expertise is being able to handle the unexpected, not just the expected. #lrnchat
JaneBozarthFor me now expertise is less having it all in my head and more being resourceful/knowing where to find/knowing who #lrnchat

On Quora, George Siemens (@gsiemensdefines an expert as:
An expert is someone who has sufficient experience and knowledge in a field to be able to recognize novel patterns from noise. Or, more abstractly, it's the ability to collapse possibilities of a topic/domain to their most salient in order to decide/act meaningfully. 

Scientists have debunked that 10,000 hours of practice does not make you an expert. So, if it is not practice, what is it that makes someone an expert?

Well, I am no expert on expertise. But based on our discussions during the chat, some of my reading on this topic and my interaction with experts that I have really enjoyed being around, here are some key characteristics that I look for in experts:
1) They are knowledgeable. 
2) They have valuable experience.
3) They are able to communicate their expertise.
4) They are connected to other experts.
5) They are humble about their expertise.
6) They are continuous learners.
7) They like to share their knowledge and wisdom.
8) They know the limitations of their own knowledge.
9) They have contributed to their field/area of expertise.
10) They are acknowledged as experts by others including their peers.

This old post by Lorelle Vanfossen, What gives you the right to tell me? highlights some of the key issues we had discussed during the #lrnchat and makes for a great reading. Lorelle says: "What you know is important, but how you use what you know, and plowing the path rather than following behind, makes the difference in defining an expert."

In this HBR podcast called 'Learning what wiser workers know', Dorothy Leonard, author of Critical Knowledge Transfer ​and Harvard Business School professor talks about retaining organizational expertise. While the focus of the conversation is about the need to transfer organizational knowledge and the tools and processes to do so, the definition of expertise is worth pondering about especially as it relates to an expert being open to sharing, being humble, and being a lifelong learner. 

She calls this organizational expertise ‘deep smarts’. She says, “One of the reasons that we focus on deep smarts and not just any kind of expertise, is that by definition, we’re talking about business critical, experience-based knowledge. And the managers who select or nominate experts whose knowledge is business critical and experience-based do have some sense of what’s important to keep things running or to innovate.” 

She goes on to say, “So one of the wonderful things about getting newcomers to work with experts is that you have a terrific opportunity for innovation. That does mean that the experts and the learners alike have to have a certain amount of humility to listen to each other and observe each other. But we have seen terrific instances where an expert with 30 years of experience learns from someone who comes in with a different set of skills, and vice versa. And it’s that two-way transfer. That’s why it’s a push-pull, not just a push.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as one would understand to be, is a world of experts. So, how do they define expertise? In a book published by Center for the Study of Intelligence, 'Analytic Culture in the U.S. Intelligence Community', the author, Dr. Rob Johnston, says: "Expertise is commitment coupled with creativity. By this, I mean the commitment of time, energy, and resources to a relatively narrow field of study and the creative energy necessary to generate new knowledge in that field. It takes a great deal of time and regular exposure to a large number of cases to become an expert."

He goes on to say, "Experts are individuals with specialized knowledge suited to perform the specific tasks for which they are trained, but that expertise does not necessarily transfer to other domains.

There are other paradoxes to expertise and sometimes being an expert can be a weakness. From the same book, "Although one would expect experts to be good forecasters, they are not particularly good at it. Researchers have been testing the ability of experts to make forecasts since the 1930s. The performance of experts has been tested against Bayesian probabilities to determine if they are better at making predictions than simple statistical models. Seventy years later, after more than 200 hundred experiments in different domains, it is clear that the answer is no."

Perhaps, this is where establishing teams of experts that offer more balanced expertise comes into play. But good teamwork and establishing collective intelligence is a challenge for another day. 

It seems that my study on this topic has just started. And in the journey of exploring various perspectives, I have taken the recommendation by George Siemens and got myself a copy of "The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance".  

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. ~ Socrates

Monday, May 4, 2015

Loving What You Do: The Unfair Advantage

Monday mornings are Freakonomics podcast days. This morning, I heard the most interesting and inspiring podcast. The host, Stephen J. Dubner took me along on a magic show and then Steve Levitt spoke about 'The bagel man' and about loving ants.

The podcast was titled, 'Think like a child'. It talked about how kids ask so many questions, how they are able to observe everything, and how they think out of the box to solve problems. Many ideas discussed in the podcast took me back to my old blog post, 'What children can teach us about learning' and how their curiosity and observation helps them learn so many things so quickly. 

There were many great ideas and concepts but the most powerful one that resonated with me was all about having fun and loving what you do. Infact, the entire post and the title was inspired by a single sentence that I heard in the podcast:

Steven Levitt said:
"Enjoying what you do, loving what you do is such a completely unfair advantage to anyone you are competing with who does it for a job."

I love my job and love doing what I do. So, I do believe I have an unfair advantage over someone who thinks being a learning consultant is just a job.
To add to this powerful idea, here's something more. Not from the podcast but a related idea.

Ron Culberson talks about his two step approach to success: do it well and make it fun. This totally makes sense. It you don't do your job well, just having fun at it won't cut it. For humor to work, you need to be excellent at work. In this article, Ron shares some of his tips on what if you can't find a job that you are excited about

Do you have an unfair advantage? Are you in a job that you are excited about? Do you #loveyourwork?