Monday, July 27, 2015

My take on the #Blimage Challenge: Learning is A-Mazing!

I jumped into the #blimage challenge. Although no one challenged me to it, it was too much fun to ignore! 

#Blimage means 'Blog' and 'Image'. It all started with one tweet and has since become so much more. The co-conspirators are Steve Wheeler  (@timbuckteeth), Amy Burvall (@amyburvall) and Simon Ensor (@sensor63).

Steve Wheeler explains the #Blimage Challenge this way:
“You send an image or photograph to a colleague with the challenge that they have to write a learning related blog post based on it. Just make sure the images aren’t too rude. The permutations are blimmin’ endless.”
My inspiration for this post came from the image shared by Clark Quinn in his response to the #blimage challenge where he wrote about how learning can flourish in the right culture.


Image shared by Clark Quinn 
When I looked at this image, it spoke to me instantly. 

What is a maze? an intricate network of winding pathways with one or more blind alleys and is usually designed as a puzzle...but this also defines what learning means to me and how I think about learning experiences. 

Mazes and learning have a much more deeper connection. Infact, it was after building a maze that Tolmon and Honzik were able to discover latent learning in rats and brought forward the cognitive view of learningAlso, learning and mazes is not limited to rats. Honey bees have been known to navigate different types of mazes and learn the navigation structure to improve their performance. For us humans, mazes and labyrinths have a deep history that cuts across various subjects including architecture, mythology, astrology, sociology, psychology and many other subjects. The history of mazes goes all the way back to the 5th century BC when the first maze was discovered, the Egyptian Labyrinth, by Herodotus, a Greek traveler and writer. 

But what makes this image interesting to me is the similarity between mazes and learning - or atleast the way I see it.

1) Multiple Paths - There are always many paths to learning. Some are obvious and others are waiting to be discovered. Some are short, others are long winding. While it looks predictable, more often than not it can be quite erratic. There are unexpected twists and turns in the journey of trying to solve a maze just like there are serendipitous learning moments in our own personal journeys.
2) Structure and Chaos - Paths, walls and hedges provide a structure to the maze. It may seem chaotic, but there is a plan and there is a well-thought out design underlying the construction of the maze. In the absence of the hedges or walls, it is tough to solve a maze. Similarly, it is tough to learn anything in vacuum. A learning goal and good instructional design provides the necessary structure and motivation and a way forward to continue. Learning may seem chaotic but underneath the layers, there is usually a solid design that provides the necessary structure. 
3) Mix of Challenge and Fun - Sometimes a maze can be fun and at other times it can be very challenging and deeply reflective. There are deep holes to avoid and mental blocks to leap over. Learning is pretty much the same. 
4) Learning by Doing - In a maze, the act of doing something and taking a step is, in itself, is a cause for learning. Trial and error is the only way to crack the maze and solve the puzzle. Similarly, one cannot learn by staying at the edge of the scenario and the possible experience. One needs to get in there, get the hands dirty, learn by doing and by making mistakes.
5) Personal Accountability - Just like a maze has to be traveled and experienced individually, like it shows in this image, so does a learning journey. One has to feel responsible and take accountability for one's own learning. Others can offer tips and share their stories but one has to walk the maze independently.
6) Journey Matters More than the Destination - Nothing exemplifies 
this better than a maze. If it was all about simply solving the puzzle, one would jump the hedges and break the walls. But anyone who has stepped into a maze knows better. The journey of walking through the maze is far more important and eventful than reaching the end. Learning is pretty much the same. It is an ongoing journey to self discovery.

Learning is A-mazing and this #blimage challenge just reinforced that one more time :)
Hope you enjoyed this post. I certainly had fun writing it! 

For those who are interested, Simon has created a pinterest page as a way to organize all the images that have been used in the #blimage challenge and you can explore the blog posts inspired by the images. David Kelly has curated the same information but tagged as an alphabetical list of blog posts by authors. Steve is also collating all posts tagged as #blimage.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

How Serendipitous Discoveries Make Great Learning Stories!

I pause the usual programming to share this story and I apologize for the long post. I originally posted this on facebook for my family and friends and quickly realized that this is becoming a learning experience. More about that at the end of the story...

But here it is, as I wrote it on my facebook wall with the accompanying picture.

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My elder sister and family have recently moved to Vancouver and this weekend, they finally got their hands on their car! Since it is a big car, we all decided to head out and make the most of the sunny day. We decided to visit Lynn Valley Suspension Park. But seems we were not the only ones! We went in circles for about an hour trying to look for a parking spot but ultimately did not find one. With a packed picnic basket, we made our way to Ambleside beach. After a quick bite, we decided to walk up to the pier and stand at our usual spot. And under my fingers I felt something on the wooden plank. It was an earring. Not just any earring. I believed it was my lost earring that I didn't know I had lost at Ambleside! And we haven't been to the pier since April or maybe March.

So, there it was...a serendipitous discovery of what was once a part of me and my life...just sitting there, waiting for me.

My family was amused at what just happened. Let me say they 'respectfully' did not believe it was my long lost earring. All reasoning was...well logical. I mean, it had been more than 4 months and I didn't even remember if I wore it then or several months before that. And many others would/could have the same pair. And yes, all the rains and all the hands and all the crab fishing ropes and nets did not dislodge this earring from the wooden plank.

But logic apart, I 'knew' it was my earring. In fact, I had bought this pair for my daughter while I was on a business trip to Ghana, Africa. I had thought it was light-enough for her small ears and it matched perfectly with a necklace. But how I came upon it yesterday, was shocking, amusing and so humbling.

We started out for a different place and for some reason, we did not find a parking spot at Lynn. Then, we almost decided not to walk to the pier. We all actually did come back to the car but could not resist being at Ambleside and not walking up to the pier. But more importantly, of all the spots, and the seven of us who were standing on that particular side, I had to go stand right 'there' with my hand on top of the earring. If any of the others would have found it, it would mean nothing to them. But somehow, I was to find it.

Anyways, I couldn't believe it and took a picture and kept the earring in my pocket. I always keep the other halves of my lost earrings safely. Because... you never know. So, we came home and I started looking for the other half. I did not find it in the usual places. I kept thinking about it all night. And in the morning, I just knew where to look for the other one.

And there they are. Finally, a pair. Together again. Some things are just meant to be together and the universe conspires to bring them back together against all odds, logic and reasoning.

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The term, Serendipity means a "fortunate happenstance" or "pleasant surprise". Although it is one of the ten English words hardest to translate in other languages (as per Wikipedia), we have all had our tryst with serendipity. I am fascinated by the word 'serendipitous'. It sounds beautiful...almost magical.

As a learning designer, I first came across the words 'serendipitous learning' back in 2011 via Jane Hart's blog. I was quickly drawn to this aspect of learning as it was so different from my usual logical, organized, structured and analytical bent of mind. Later, I read a paper by Ilona Buchem about twitter and microblogging as serendipitous learning spaces. More recently, I read Jane Bozarth's column here and how, as instructional designers, we can create and support serendipitous learning. 

So, there was some serendipitous aspect to discovering my earring. It was certainly unexpected and there was no obvious objective to look for the lost earring. In the pursuit of something else, I found something else. Sure, there was some value after finding it, but there was nothing ground-breaking about it - not as many other famous serendipitous inventions and discoveries (penicillin, microwave, post-it notes!) 

But here's the fun part. To me, this is what real serendipitous learning is all about. 

After I made the discovery and shared it with my friends and family, I was overwhelmed by their likes and comments on the post! My story ran home with a few people who had perhaps made similar discoveries in their life and had a story to share. In less than 24 hours, I saw 70+ likes and read beautiful comments... and the 'likes' and comments continue to pour in as I type this post.
Now, for the 'real' serendipitous learning out of an equally serendipitous discovery. 

This incident and the experience really made me think.

I was wondering if we could do something to become more serendipitous in life and cause more of such chance encounters that have a happy or beneficial consequences.

I read some more about serendipity and that made me really step back and reflect about the things that can make us more serendipitous. And, this is what I discovered :) 



What makes us serendipitous learners and discoverers?

1) Don't be afraid to walk a path that is different from your plan
We could not find a parking spot to save our lives that day. We were disappointed and frustrated. After we got over the anger, we all huddled and decided to go somewhere else and do something completely different from our original idea. There was no suspension bridges to cross in the new plan - but we were now looking forward to a picnic on the beach! We gave chance a chance and that allowed and enabled serendipity to happen. 

2) Be sensitive; observe and absorb everything that you come across 
Although some people refer to such series of events and chance encounters as luck, I would think that serendipity is more about being observant. An inquisitive mind that remains curious to know and to find out more is more likely to make serendipitous discoveries. Louis Pasteur said, “In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” My fingers felt something on that plank and I decided to find out more. If I had dismissed what I observed and felt as something trivial or uninteresting, you would not be reading this post today and there would have been nothing for me to learn. 

3) Share your small serendipitous learning discoveries with others
When we share our discoveries and learning with others, it makes them share their stories. It then becomes a chain reaction of serendipitous learning and each person involved and connected in this path gains from the conversation. In less than 24 hours, my post on facebook made me realize how we all have these serendipitous moments that invigorate our lives and by sharing it with others, we 'pay it forward'. I have found that often, it is a single question that leads to a train of thoughts, meaningful conversations and co-inspiration towards generating even better serendipitous discoveries and learnings (#lrnchat: What did you learn today?)

I leave you with this thought by Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, who shared this during a keynote address at the 2007 ASIANetwork Conference:

" I would define serendipity as the art of appreciating a new possibility when you come across it unexpectedly, the willingness to veer from your projected path and take one you never thought of. Serendipity is particularly valuable when things, inevitably, do not turn out as you wished. At such moments, if you are a serendipitist (a word that James Joyce coined in 1939, in Finnegans Wake), you discover that the new possibilities before you are in fact more useful than what you had intended to do, that what you found turns out to be better than what you were looking for."

PS:  I also learned that the word 'serendipity' comes from Serendip, an old name for Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), from Arabic Sarandib, from Sanskrit Simhaladvipa "Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island." 
On 28th of January, 1754, Horace Walpole coined the term 'serendipity' in a letter, referring to a fairy tale called 'The Three Princes of Serendip'. These princes 'were always making discoveries by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of'.

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 :)