Monday, May 13

(originally posted by Peter Isackson)

Curiously, Clark and I don't seem to know for certain whether we "furiously" agree or not. This seems rather typical of the whole learning business. I tend to agree with Clark that we do agree! The problem is that at different times we are probably referring to different phenomena. My suggestions were very general, pointing towards the overall strategy for handling a variety of content, which I see as process (transforming input into output). I also glanced at questions of content selection in the light of cultural variation. When we focus on specific content needs, particularly the "learning objects" we hope to find somewhere or need to produce ourselves, we are faced with these cultural problems, which, as Clark points out, constitute helps or hindrances depending on 1) the profile of the individual learner 2) the trainer's awareness or even real knowledge of that profile. I think a lot of work needs to be done on both at the same time. I don't believe we have any valid human models yet for dealing with this efficiently (i.e. converting information into effective strategy) and everyone else (i.e. the knowledge management specialists) seems to be focused on structuring the information. I believe that this is only the first step and may need some guidance from the strategy side to develop the right structural models.

A new theme occurred to me today and I have no idea what it's worth or how far it can be taken, so for the sake of my own ongoing reflection I'll state it here (I need to set it down somewhere!) and await any constructive or, why not, destructive criticism. It is curiously linked to the bee in Clark's bonnet, but inverted (the stinger is on the other end!). The notion has to do with the teacher’s or trainer’s state of knowledge -- not the learner’s -- before and after a course. I am not, however, suggesting pre- and post-testing! I am suggesting that it should evolve, almost as much as the learner’s state of knowledge and that we should take an interest in tracking this evolution. The context I am referring to is that of collaborative online learning. This wouldn’t be the same thing for traditional face-to-face teaching (but see my final remarks below), and even less so for pre-programmed eLearning (which I see increasingly as isolated or modular learning objects, whose meaning and impact derive from the variable contexts in which they are used more than from their internal merits).

My notion is that of a kind of open or “improvisational teaching”, a strategy that specifically aims at learning to teach a particular course by teaching it, after defining its overall structure and logic. It proceeds from two observations:

1) no one can fully anticipate what will happen in the learning process, particularly in distance learning,
2) we do not necessarily know in advance what resources, among all that are available, will prove the most productive for real learners (in all their cultural variety).

My notion of improvisation is borrowed from jazz, one of my previous occupations*. To be good at improvising, you have to learn not only the art of soloing (which you at least partly invent), but you must also know the chord changes (+ variations) of the tunes you are playing, the chosen style for each number, your precise role in the ensemble sections and, especially if you are accompanying rather than just soloing, have a good idea of the style and system of each of the other players. These multiple constraints nevertheless leave you free to discover through playing the things that work and don’t work both in general and specifically with regard to each type of musical event. The most interesting thing about working with other musicians is what you learn from them each time you rehearse or play. And of course the more you play a particular tune, the easier it gets to keep it going and to find ways of innovating and surprising without upsetting the underlying logic and the other musicians.

In short, I’m in favor of under-planning one’s course strategies and leaving room to for us to learn from the learners themselves. Actually it’s less under-planning than avoiding over-planning. This means, without sacrificing one’s “authority”, learning how to encourage the learners to bring things to you (discovery of appropriate resources you may not have been aware of, new ideas or ways of looking at the material, patterns or sequences of behavior that produce learning more effectively than your initial game plan). In other words, we should seek to be instructional co-designers rather than instructional designers.

It might be said that what I’m describing is a form of beta testing. But its implications are very different. You beta test something that is fully designed down to the last detail. What I’m suggesting is a system in which we as trainers and designers are actively concerned, at least the first time around, to integrate elements that come from the learners, or rather our own interaction with the learners. This can obviously only apply to collaborative training. But it can lead to strategies for producing learning objects. Much needs to be said on how to conduct this approach (how to create the overall model, how to manage events, how to communicate with learners, how to react to embarrassing mistakes, how to make permanent or replicable everything one learns, etc.).

After a brief search on the web, I found that David Hammer of the University of Maryland, in a context of traditional face-to-face instruction, calls a similar approach “discovery teaching” and identifies some of the areas of resistance to it by teachers. My contention is that it is less risky and more appropriate in an online environment. It is also easier to structure, plan and capitalize on.

* I ended up living in Paris because, after participating in a free-for-all jam session organized by Steve Lacy at the American Center nearly 30 years ago, I was offered a permanent job as a pianist (accompanying dance classes at the Université de Paris) and accepted it in order to become fluent in French!