Saturday, January 23, 2016

Mindful Learning


Is there a connection between mindfulness and learning? If yes, how can I become a more mindful learner? How am I helping others become more mindful learners? As an instructional designer, am I adding to the mindless mindsets that prevent me from producing real learning and consequently prevent my learners from being more mindful? These are some of the questions that I have been thinking about this month. 

It all started with a conversation on 01 Jan 2016 and a 'Happy New Year' greeting exchanged with my father. As we wished for good health and happiness, we also wished for more mindful living in each moment. Dad spoke about the power of our breath and how by focusing on our breath, we can be more present in that moment. At the end of our conversation, I was left with a peaked interest in how I can interpret and apply mindfulness in my life; both personally and professionally. The personal journey is for a different space and time but I am keen to share my thoughts, ideas and reflections about the how I studied mindfulness as applied to learning. 

The technique of meditation and mindfulness existed in the eastern philosophies long ago. It may have started as a new-age corporate mantra and many corporates are practicing some form of it, but it seems to be becoming a part of the L&D performance mix.  Closer home, here's what some elementary schools in Vancouver, BC have tried. The curriculum is called MindUp and the initial research seems promising and kids seem to be doing better at math. Bottom line is that there is enough evidence out there to realize that mindfulness is not just another fad.

In this blog, my focus is not on meditative mindfulness. Though it doesn't hurt to appreciate and embody that concept. There are many definitions of mindfulness and many websites dedicated to mindfulness; like this one here. But there's one particular definition that appeals to me from a learning perspective.

"Mindfulness is a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context.

This is from an article by Ellen J. Langer that you can read here. This is the article that really got me thinking about mindfulness and its application to learning and life. After reading the article, I picked up Ellen's book, 'The Power of Mindful Learning', where she goes on to say: “When we are mindful, we implicitly or explicitly (1) view a situation from several perspectives, (2) see information presented in the situation as novel, (3) attend to the context in which we perceive the information, and eventually (4) create new categories through which this information may be understood.” (Langer,1997, p.111). The book describes seven myths that detract from our ability to learn. The seven myths are: 
  1. The basics must be learnt so well that they become second nature. 
  2. Paying attention means staying focused on one thing at one time. 
  3. Delaying gratification is important. 
  4. Rote memorization is necessary in education. 
  5. Forgetting is a problem. 
  6. Intelligence is knowing "what's out there." 
  7. There are right and wrong answers.
The idea is to break these myths, be open, believe that there are other perspectives and then seek those different ideas and perspectives to create new ideas. It is important to learn more about the context of information, knowledge or learning by asking the 'why' question. 

Here's a great interview by HBR that reveals how Ellen describes many applications of mindfulness. When asked in the interview, What's the one thing about mindfulness you'd like every executive to remember? Ellen said, "Life consists only of moments, nothing more than that. So, if you make the moment matter, it all matters. You can be mindful, you can be mindless. You can win, you can lose. The worst case is to be mindless and lose. So when you're doing anything, be mindful, notice new things, make it meaningful to you, and you'll prosper."

To me, all of these ideas and thoughts related to mindfulness, apply very well to how I like to think about experiential learning - where the learner is an active creator of learning instead of being a passive unit in the learning process. As a catalyst of learning, I would really like to be more mindful in my design approach and create learning experiences that channel and enable mindfulness. One way to do that is to reduce and eliminate distractions and superfluous content by simply focusing on learning designs that help learners do better at their jobs instead of  spending time clicking through pages of content to 'understand' or to 'know'. In 2016, I am hoping to be more mindful; to slow down and be more present and alive in the moment and focus on asking more 'whys'. 

On a lighter note, here's a beautiful and heartwarming advertisement that was launched by Cineplex theatres in Canada in Dec 2015. It will definitely make you think about the big picture and will gently remind you to be more mindful and focus on what really matters :) 

Monday, December 21, 2015

My Reflections on 'Learning How to Learn'

This year, I completed my third #MOOC course called 'Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects'. This course is offered by University of California, San Diego through Coursera and is taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley, Prof of Engineering at Oakland University and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski, Francis Crick Prof at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

The course is geared towards anyone who wants to understand how the process of learning works and know more about some of the techniques to learn effectively. The course is organized around four main themes:

  • What is learning
  • Chunking
  • Procrastination and memory
  • Renaissance learning and unlocking your potential

Through this post, I want to reflect on my experience with the course and what I learned about learning. 

One of the highlights for me was the discussion around the use of the Pomodoro technique. I knew about this time management technique using a 25-minute timer but hadn't used it in a while. I really enjoyed applying the technique to some of the projects I was working on at the time and I am happy to report that I was able to work much more effectively. But this technique may not be for everyone. Try it to find out if it works for you.

My favorite theme from the course was 'What is learning' and within that learning how and when to use focused versus diffused modes of thinking. In the course, Dr. Oakley highlights how an interplay between these two modes is a crucial aspect of learning. 

  • Focused mode of thinking is where we purposely focus on and use our attention and concentration on what we are learning. I think of it as a strobe light highlighting only one character on the stage so all my brain energy is focused on that single character. 
  • Diffused mode of thinking is where we learn when our mind wanders. In this mode, there is nothing specific we are focusing on and our brain is in a relaxed state. I think of it as a situation when the stage lights are dim so I can't really see any particular actor or prop and my brain is free to think of something that's more big picture or something that's unrelated. In this state, my unconscious mind is connecting the dots that I did not connect previously. Working in the diffused mode is what explains how you have an answer to a problem you were struggling with, right when you wake up in the morning. Sleeping on it really works! 

This is how Dr. Oakley describes these modes using the pinball metaphor.

Although we need to work in both these modes to learn anything, you cannot be in the focused and diffused mode at the same time. However, you can move from one to another and bring some of the big picture thinking, problem-solving ideas and insights from the diffused mode into the focused mode. Here's how some creative people like Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison moved from one mode to the other. It is darn interesting to read about how they switched their attention! 

I am still working on the best technique for me to move from one mode to the other. I have found that during my morning walks, I am more or less in a diffused mode and I do tend to get some great ideas on how to solve problems. I don't necessarily carry a notepad to write the ideas down! So, I am now trying to record small audio snippets of some of the brightest moments and will see how that goes. Happy learning!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Why I #lrnchat

Every Thursday at 5:30 PM PST, a bunch of folks get together on twitter and chat about all things learning in our weekly #lrnchat @lrnchat#lrnchat started in 2009 and this is what we are all about.
There are several reasons why I #lrnchat. But if I had to sum it up in a single word, I'd say I #lrnchat to ENGAGE


I engage with the topic of conversation.
What do we chat about? Well, the themes from October include:
- Learning and Rest
- Creative Thinking
- Learning from Animals - What an inspiring and insightful chat with special guest, Animal Behaviourist, Jason G. Goldman. See transcript
- Learning Science
The topics are things we may find ourselves thinking about but there are not enough platforms to talk and discuss our ideas. I have always found something of interest and the topics are always things that matter to learning and performance. 

I engage with others when discussing the topic.
Any topic is only as good as who is chatting about it. Every time I #lrnchat, I find myself in the company of people who are passionate about learning and performance. People from all parts of the globe join in. Although twitter restricts us to use 140 characters, these folks say so much more. The conversations produce relevant content and resonant ideas and thoughts that stay with me much after the chat. Some participants are industry veterans and others are newbies. But in the #lrnchat room, everyone is treated as equal and welcomed and encouraged by the moderators along the way. I can't say that we all always agree about the topic. But the beauty of such a chat is that when I interact with people who are different from me, there is an opportunity for me to gain new perspectives and start thinking 'differently'. It is a way of reducing and eliminating my filters. And I value that a lot. The connections that I have made and the ideas that we continue to exchange, have helped me solve problems, inspired me to do things differently at work and led me to go back and pursue some of my childhood interests and hobbies. See who participates in #lrnchat.

I engage with myself and discover more about myself and my views.
The focus of #lrnchat is on how people learn, what influences them, and what they learn. And these are exactly the kind of things that I have learned about myself through the chat. For me, this chat is another way of self-discovery and lifelong learning. When I don't quite know how I think about a topic - which side of the conversation I am on - chatting with others helps me crystallize my own thoughts and position. I am able to give a voice to my view and realize that it matters. Some of the posts that I have written on my blog are a direct outcome of the ideas exchanged during the chat including: 

#lrnchat often forces me to think deeply about things that I haven't thought about much. I have read more articles, blogs and books because I want to learn more about the topic and form an opinion of my own. All this learning and reflection leaves me refreshed and energized. But it is not all serious. The chat is sprinkled with funny anecdotes, silly remarks, entertaining pictures and interesting personalities. This is the fastest hour of my week and I love it!


I hope you’ll consider joining us. If you have an idea about a #lrnchat topic, let these good people know. @britz @LnDDave @kelly_smith01 @JaneBozarth @ryantracey @Tracy_Parish @jsuzcampos