Tuesday, May 26, 2009

How Do You Build A Team?

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you allTeam
The belief that working in teams makes us more creative and productive is so widespread that when faced with a challenging new task, leaders are quick to assume that teams are the best way to get the job done . . .

. . . Contrary to conventional wisdom, teams may be your worst option for tackling a challenging task. Problems with coordination, motivation, and competition can badly damage team performance. Even the best leaders can’t make a team deliver great results. But you can increase the likelihood of success—by setting the right conditions. – Harvard Business Review May 2009.

I stumbled across the article Why Teams Don't Work by Daine Courtu. Having been a coach, team-teacher, team-leader and also team member in many successful (and some unsuccessful) teams,
I immediately pounced on the pages and scanned the content.

Courtu interviews J. Richard Hackman, Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at Harvard University, and author of the book, Leading Teams.

Hackman, a notable expert on teams with a lifetime of experience in studying and working with teams, has an authoritative opinion that makes a lot of sense to me. He comes over as a straight thinker who cuts to the chase when it comes to matters about the worth of teams.

Hackman’s stance is that teams can generate magic (didn’t we always believe that?) though we shouldn’t always count on every spell working the way we’d like. In his book Leading Teams, Hackman rationalises five critical conditions governing the balance between success and failure:
  1. "Teams must be real. People have to know who is on the team and who is not. It’s the leader’s job to make that clear.

  2. Teams need a compelling direction. Members need to know, and agree on, what they’re supposed to be doing together. Unless a leader articulates a clear direction, there is a real risk that different members will pursue different agendas.

  3. Teams need enabling structures. Teams that have poorly designed tasks, the wrong number or mix of members, or fuzzy or unenforced norms of conduct invariably get into trouble.

  4. Teams need a supportive organisation. The organisational context – including the reward system, the human resource system, and the information system – must facilitate teamwork.

  5. Teams need expert coaching. Most executive coaches focus on individual performance, which does not significantly improve teamwork. Teams need coaching as a group in team processes – especially at the beginning, midpoint and end of a team project.”
Ka kite anō – Catch ya later

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Community and The Book

Dean Shareski’s post, How The Book Destroyed Community, embeds a video of Rory McGreal who posits that the book is the biggest destroyer of human community, especially learning commmunities. While I agree with Dean’s reflective stance on this matter and respect his discretion, I found McGreal’s cover hard to digest.

McGreal maintains that the book first caused people to learn without the aid of community - that when the book first came into its own as ‘the portable book’, people found they no longer needed community to help them learn about things - that they could easily pick up a book, and without the community, learn
all they needed to know on their own. He maintains that because of the book 'no community is necessary'.

Shred of truth

While there are some threads of truth in these ideas, McGreal delivers a sermon, not unlike that of a preacher who wishes to admonish the book with a controlled restraint on the fire and brimstone.
I wonder he's ever thought of how the book came to be published in the first place.

Is the arrival of a brand new book the effort of a single person working on his or her own, composing, writing, printing, bookbinding and distributing? Is it true that 'no community is necessary'?

William Blake would have come close to achieving this amazing feat. Blake was an engraver, artist, craftsman and poet who also published his own writing. But he was an exceptional person.

Books are rarely written, printed, bound and distributed by the authors, never mind the paper making, unless perhaps as a community activity in school where the book becomes an agent of learning in more ways than one.

A book of verse

In 1994, I published a collection of verse on a limited budget. The book displayed the publisher’s name, Linneth, a composite of my wife’s first name and mine. There was no way I could publish the book entirely on my own. I approached a printer in town, who made a living through the support of local communities. The printer employed some of these people, but did not own a paper factory. So paper had to be bought from a manufacturing company employing people from communities in another town.

Cover of a book of verseMy good friend, Kevin Meehan, who had a small part-time printing business supported by friends and acquaintances, helped me print the cover. A book-binding company in town assisted me to get the pages bound with the book-cover. This firm was also supported by communities as some of their members were employees.

These processes involved some industrial involvement, some cottage industry and some amateur effort. None of that industry could have existed on its own, and all of it contributed to community. The amateur practice was me, for I wrote the 72 pages of verse in the first place. I supplied the printer with a Word file of the text typed by me, saved on a floppy bought new from the local electronic store.

Much of the verse I wrote was about my family and of the communities around Wellington where they live. Without community, much of the writing in the book would never have happened, let alone have been published. As well, most of what I had learnt that took me out to these community industries came from books, including the phone numbers of key people involved.

Communities everywhere

This story of my little book of verse is not unique. But it gives small mention of the library communities within a country and throughout the world that are supported by the book.

I come from Dunfermline where I was raised as a child. It is also the birth-town of Andrew Carnegie who gave away most of his fortune to fund the establishment of many libraries, schools, and universities throughout the world. While Carnegie's money was for building libraries, he never paid for a single book. He believed that books should be provided by the communities through the work of local councils.

So I wonder how 'the portable book' could possibly be charged with the destruction of communities. It seems that it’s doing the exact opposite by supporting communities, allowing them to come together, and providing the basis for community activity and input as well as offering a reason for networking to grow and exist within these communities.

What I’ve described here are aspects to do with the book that not only foster community activity but also bring communities together in the same way the production of many other technological artefacts do. There are many other aspects to the book that contribute to communities and how they exist, function and grow. Just ask anyone from Fair Isle what contribution the book makes to that community today. It is hardly one that’s on a road to destruction caused by the book.

Biting the hand that fed

Sadly, McGreal’s approach is typical of a view shared by some people. In the long past history of the book, people with similar dispositions burned bibles, books and booklets by the billion. Not only do they eschew and denigrate the technology that brought them to where they are, they also wish to forget how it got there in the first place.

That they are so embittered about what the book did or did not give them is sad. Biting the hand that fed gets a little sympathy from me if only for their state of mind. I’m powerless to do anything about that.
Nor can I do much about their understanding of causality.

What I challenge, however, is the way that some of them seek to persuade others to share their same jejune and narrow point of view.

Haere rā – Farewell

Friday, May 22, 2009

Metalearning and Other Ghastly Sounding Words

And I thought the word ‘metacognition’ was too heady and ghastly sounding for the blogosphere. I felt guilty about referring to this ugly term in my Middle-earth posts.

Now we have a full blown discussion about it half-way round the Globe! Tony Karrer spawned a debate on what he refers to as metalearning. As usual, he made me think, but not specifically about what he was posting about.


Wikipedia (I’m a great fan of this site) defines metacognition as:

cognition about cognition, or knowing about knowing. It can take many forms; it includes knowledge about when and where to use particular strategies for learning or for problem solving.

I had a strong hunch that metacognition was closely related to, if not the same as metalearning. I’ve since discovered that metalearning is a more specific term, though it has a range of meanings.
Metalearning in education

When it comes to educational aspects, Wikipedia quotes
Donald B. Maudsley, defining metalearning as,

the process by which learners become aware of and increasingly in control of habits of perception, inquiry, learning, and growth that they have internalized.

The above description explains the brand of metalearning I’ve become more familiar with.

Metalearning in teams

Wikipedia makes a distinction when metalearning is used in the context of performances of teams and relationships:

(T)he dynamic process whereby a system (relationship, or organization) manages to dissolve limiting dynamics such as point attractors and limit cycles that impede effective action and evolve liberating and creative dynamics represented by complex attractors whose trajectories in phase space, by never repeating themselves, can portray creative and innovative processes.

If you can make sense of that
on first reading, you’re a genius!

Having spent half an hour at least, thinking and researching the meanings behind these words and phrases, I found they took me back to a topic I’ve revisited several times on this blog in the last year. Complexity seems to find its way into everything I look at to do with successful teams and sustainable communities.

After unpacking the seemingly garbled sentence, I found that it offered a lot to do with thinking and learning involving teams and relationships. It seems that metalearning is a well established study, applied to the way teams and organisations perform.


Formerly initiated by Marcial Losada, metalearning is the study of how groups of individuals in a team contribute to its performance. Metalearning does this in a way that enables a team's thinking to evolve uninhibited, so that new ideas can emerge.

By understanding and controlling the balance between the external and internal references to do with that thinking, the results can lead to high performance in business teams. I began to wonder if this is really what Tony Karrer had in mind when he wrote his post.

The Losada Zone

The various ratios of positivity and negativity involved in human interaction that can exist, lies within what’s called the Losada Zone. Negative feedback can act as a warning signal, whereas positive feedback encourages the status quo. Losada found that high performance teams have a so-called P/N (positivity/negativity) ratio that is high (5.6), medium performance teams have a lower ratio (1.9) and low performance teams come in with a still lower ratio (0.36).

Such a ratio is a measure of and is related to the connectivity potential within a team. The Losada Line (at 2.9) signifies the lower limit, separating people who have the potential to achieve a complex understanding of others from those who have a lesser ability to do this. Those who succeed are said to be above the Losada Line, and those who fall short lie below it. The terms ‘flourish’ and ‘languish’ are used to describe the two states.

Frequent innovation
The elaborate fractal 
High performance teams possess creativity and are capable of recurrent innovation. They tend to work along the lines of complexors. Coined by Marcial Losada, the complexor describes the form of outcomes of successful teams in the recursively intricate way they emerge and evolve. Intimately mapped on to complexity theory, the characteristics of complexors resemble fractals, elaborately regenerating themselves.

Point attractors, though not the exact opposite of complexors, are outcomes that are akin to the fate of a wind-up toy. Effectively they refer to performances that decay, lead to inaction and go nowhere.

Where to from here?

It appears that metalearning applies to and can be applied to the performance behaviour of teams. Becoming aware of the need for openness and being receptive to new ideas in a way that permits these to be advantageously and
constructively considered is something that, presumably, can be learnt by members of a team or community. 
Earlier in May, Jay Cross posted Become a Chief Metalearning Officer. Having thought more about all this, I have three questions:
  • Is it possible that by managing and applying specific learning processes, a better performance can be reached in teams that are already partly on the way to attaining success?
  • Does this special type of learning lie within the province of the individual's control?
  • Can this sort of ‘management’ be controlled and executed by a manager?
If the answers to these questions are in the affirmative, perhaps we can use metalearning to help our world.

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The World's Knowledge Computable

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you allOpens a new window at http://www.wolframalpha.com/
Ever get irritated using your favourite browser? Are you often not able to find what you’re looking for? WolframAlpha could be your solution.

My son, Jack, kept me in the loop with this new development:
WolframAlpha a thoroughly intuitive machine that does more than just the thinking for you. Still in its infancy, WolframAlpha is a powerful computational engine as well as an intuitive tool - less content, more computational.

Stephen Downes describes it as not the sort of thing people will browse through, or even use as a search engine, but if you want the miscellanea formerly found in the World Almanac, this is your source.
Stephen Wolfram, scientist, inventor, author and business leader, created WolframAlpha to make the world’s knowledge computable.

Check out Stephen Wolfram’s introduction to WoflramAlpha.
It is impressive!

Or check out
WolframAlpha for yourself!

Ka kite anō – Catchya later

Monday, May 18, 2009

Wine Tasting, Learning and The Mind

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all200th PostThe Complex Brain
The brain is a really complex organ. It has an astonishing ability to learn, and the speed of this is often taken for granted.

Yesterday I read a series of articles on wine tasting and how the nose can quickly become sensitised to the subtleties of aromas present in wine bouquets. One paper from RealScience gave us this:
“You don't need wine-tasting classes to detect subtle differences between pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon. Just pour yourself a couple of glasses and sniff. Your brain itself will quickly make you a modest wine expert. And you can drink the lesson plan. A new study (2006) from Northwestern University shows that the brain learns to differentiate similar smells through passive experience. This sheds light on how we learn to identify thousands of smells from birth.”
The long and the short is that by sniffing specific wines, the nose can become acutely sensitive to a particular aroma and can learn to recognise it in just a few minutes. What’s even more astonishing is that the memory of the bouquet can be retained for 24 hours or more with little or no effort.

Apparently this is all due to a special part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex, which is to do with sensing smells, as well as emotion and motivation.

A Bottle Or TwoIt's all in the nose

So what’s so special about sniffing wine?
It’s all to do with learning. What’s more,
it seems that this particular type of learning
is extremely fast and facile, being rapidly updated by further sensory experience.

It’s what’s called neural plasticity.

In a brief discussion with Stephen Downes on knowledge and learning, we came to the conclusion that it was too easy for a learner to get stuck in a habitual rut. It required some considerable acumen and strength of thinking to lift oneself out of that into a facile learning mode. "Learning is practice and reflection", said Stephen.

But with the old orbitofrontal cortex, it would appear that updating according to change, from whichever way the wind blows, happens almost instantly. Learning anew and quickly is customary for that part of our brain. Perhaps the rest of it that’s to do with thinking and learning could learn a thing or two from sniffing the bouquet from a glass of cabernet sauvignon!

 Ka kite anō – Catch ya later

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Hiv U evr wundird wot it wiz lyk B4 dikshinariz?

Hiv U evr wundird wot it wiz lyk B4 dikshinariz? Wen da wurdz wiz spelt NA way U lyk? An ya cud spel wurds difrint onda sem payj an nobdy nyu ye cdnt spel? Sumtyms a git emale letirs frm da kidis in skule an dey ryt lyk dis. Sumtyms i git txts frm da kidis onda cell an dey txt jis lyk dis. Its frendly cos dey txt jis lyk dey tok. Sumtyms i repli da sem wey an i gits a frendly txt back.
Das kyewl. Dat makes me feel wun o dey kiddis. Das kyewl 2.

So what’s with txt language? I notice that the e in ‘text’ is now dropped when referring to txting on a mobile, even in formal texts. The word is nearly new and is appropriate.

I sit close to several teachers of English in the office at work. They are cool people and although some are boomers like me, they all agree that language and how we write it is evolving all the time.

I have a special interest in language. It is so relevant to thinking and learning in a subject. It’s the bricks and mortar of being able to think.

When I was very young my reading and writing was atrocious - I’d no chance of spelling that word correctly either. My spelling was shoking. My mother, who was concerned about her son’s literacy, tried valiantly to entice me to read. She bought me novels. I read some but not much. I preferred to read comics. My mother disapproved of comics.

My grandmother, who was experienced and knew what her grandchild liked, would secrete a bundle of comics under the bedspread in my room for me to enjoy. She knew the worth of comics. She knew that ANY reading was better than none. She knew that it was the mind that needed the skill to lift the letters and words off the page and understand - that it didn’t matter if it wasn’t approved high school reading.

My reading skill was improved by me reading comics. Eventually I graduated to reading short stories and novels
and hundreds of books on Science for that was my interest.Hannah reading at the age of 5

oks have always been a part of my life since then. Linda and I read books, and our house is often a mess with them. Both our daughter's are avid readers.

My daughter Catriona, barely 3 years old and well before she could read, would take her favourite book down from the shelves in the hall.

She would sit and turn the pages. Sometimes she would sniff them. Sometimes she’d hold the book upside down when pretending to read it, for there were no pictures. That didn’t avert her fascination. It was one of my little books of poetry, the smallest book on the shelves. Catriona identified it as her book because of its tiny size. She never tore a page and always returned it to the shelf when she was finished playing with it.

When our children were both primary school age, our living room floor was always littered. In our house you could take your life in your hands by trying to walk across the living room floor in the dark. It was always littered - with books.

When Catriona was older, I would sometimes find her reading under the blankets with a torch when she was really supposed to be asleep. I just left her to it. She’s 15 now and has read every Harry Potter book published, some of them twice.

She has also read Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. I've seen the movies, but I've never read the Lord Of The Rings books. I found them hard to read.

Catriona uses txt language on her mobile all the time, yet she writes in near perfect English when she does her assignments for school. Her spelling’s not bad either. There’s a lesson to be learnt here

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

New Ways Of Learning?

Kia ora tātou – Hello Everyonea fractal
Ever thought about a new way of learning? Tony Karrer did.

I applauded his innovation for contemplating its possible existence. It has been discussed a lot in the blogosphere recently, some of it spawned by ideas associated with so-called digital-natives.

Though I don’t really ascribe to the digital-native idea, and I’m also sceptical about there being ‘new ways of learning’, I have to admit to believing that there are probably many billions of ways of learning, if not an infinite number. If this is coming over as a contradiction, read on.

Thinking and learning are intertwined. While I’m not contemplating a discussion on the chicken-and-egg nature of their relationship, it’s likely that in any new-born child the thinking is there, if only in a primal form, before the learning begins. Studies show that there are numerous developmental stages wherein thinking skills develop in the young child as it grows.

Higher thinking skills

We contemplate the higher thinking skills that children at school may develop. Presumably these skills have to be learnt too. So you might understand why I mentioned about the chicken-and-egginess of thinking and learning.

Beyond a certain elementary stage of learning, it becomes difficult to say whether the learning progresses because of development of thinking skill, or the thinking develops because of learning.

It's unique

There are several schools of thought that believe human thinking, despite all its multiple facets, is quite unique. For instance, bees think differently than humans. It has been shown that bees exhibit a consciousness, and that validates the idea that they also think. Regardless of their different plane of thinking, they have organisational skills which in many ways appear to be superior to humans.

A characteristic of human thinking is its diversity. While every human mind has its own opinion in some form, a feature of the humanness of the thinking behind that opinion is that it is likely to be different from others who hold an opinion on the same topic or idea.

However small the variation is between one opinion and that of others of the group, the fact that there are differences is a manifestation of that humanness. No two human minds think exactly alike - on any topic.

It takes a
willingness to comply and a considerable amount of training for any significant number of humans to enter into community work with the dedication and single-mindedness exhibited by a colony of bees. Humans just don’t think that way. Some might say that they are too diverse in their thinking to be like bees. Here lies my point. Humans think like humans. Bees think like bees.

I posit here that no matter how much we learn about bees, we will never be able understand how bees think, let alone be able to think like a bee, no more than a bee could ever think like a human mind. The same could be said about human thinking in relation to that in other animals.

Take me to your leader

What sort of thinking does an alien possess? Just imagine an alien watching two humans in conversation. Let’s assume that the alien is input-fed by some mysterious and unlikely contraption that transmits understanding about the conversation with all the relevant and important features being conveyed.

A human witnessing the same conversation might understand the significance of dress code and how it influences the way one person might view the other. Or it might be accent, or culture, or just simply difference of opinion and background. All of these may be subliminally registered by a human observer because that observer thinks like a human.

The human observer knows what a raised voice means or may even be familiar with a nuance in cultural dialogue. What I’m suggesting is that the alien would not/could not possibly understand the significance of these hidden codes even if they are observable. To the alien they would make no perceptible contribution to the discourse between the two conversationalists. To the human observer, they could convey some of the most significant messages. Humans think like humans. Aliens think like aliens.

Our Sci-fi aliens

The likelihood is that the alien would not be able to comprehend the significance of much of the conversation never mind the subliminal messages. The frame of reference of an alien in understanding everyday human things, ideas and concepts, let alone cultural idiosyncrasies, would be too far removed from the environment familiar to humans here on earth.

Our conception of aliens tends to be groomed by science fiction, and how that depicts how aliens will appear. Did aliens write the Sci-fi? No. The vision transferred to us from Sci-fi is how another human thinks aliens might appear and how they might think. I posit we will find that aliens, when they arrive, will not think like humans at all.

Artificial intelligence and the rest

We are on the brink of discovering what true artificial intelligence (AI) can offer. I wonder at how we will regard the AI when it is developed to the stage when we can truly and appropriately compare it with human intelligence, and that time is close. It’s not so strange that the intelligence of computer minds has, in the past, been judged by comparison with what is expected in response from a human mind, the most highly developed intelligence that we know. What else could we use as a comparative when observing intelligence? This situation is both inevitable and unfortunate.

I’ve no doubt that there are an infinite number of ways of thinking that are different than human ways. If they were understood, they would certainly be ‘new ways of thinking’. But it is also just as certain that they will be ways of thinking that we can neither conceive of nor understand. The likelihood of human-made AI being significantly different from our own is small. Can it also be said that learning by artificial intelligence is unlikely to be significantly different from what we know of learning in humans?

Haere rā – Farewell

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Learning, Models and Other Tricks

Have you ever thought why models are so often used in teaching and learning? They formed part of what used to be called teaching aids, more recently termed learning resources.

In the high school that I attended, we had a resource room. Senior students were given access to this room for study purposes and when helping a teacher prepare lessons. The day I was permitted into the resource room I could not stop thinking about the amazing things I saw stored there. It was only years later when I became a teacher that I realised why my teachers had guarded the room and its content so vigilantly and with such reverence.

Effecting learning

I recently ran my blog through Wordle. The result at the head of this post shows what has obviously been the most important thing on my mind when I wrote recent posts. It also made me think that despite my familiarity with the word, learning and how it is brought about is not always looked upon as common ground when discussed in depth with others in the field. Tony Karrer’s recent post has hosted a debate on ways of learning and associated ideas, a follow up to his post on Learning Goals.

Learning by association

The renowned scientist, Dr Jacob Bronowski, who was also an intellectual, expert code-cracker, mathematician and author, gave celebrated lectures on BBC TV in the 1960s. During one of his lectures, he demonstrated how a feat of memory through association could be performed, and he displayed this both by his own memory acumen and with the help of a trained member of his audience.

The 'trick' involves some preparation. A list of (say) 20 commonly known items, personal to the memoriser, is committed thoroughly to memory so that not only the list order can be recalled but also the position in that list of any of its component items.

Once this is accomplished, the memoriser is then shown a series of up to 20 new items in sequence, such as cards drawn randomly from a full pack of playing cards. For each new item shown, the memoriser simply ticks it in the mind by association with each of the previously memorised personal items in sequence.

When complete, the memoriser is asked to name an item by its number in the list and knows what the item is. As splendidly amazing as this act appears when first seen, it is based on learning by association. While it is true that this method has limited application to some learning, it shows how rapid and facile the mind and memory can be in the simple act of learning content.

Models and their place in learning

Learning by association is not a new idea.
It is the working part of how learning is assisted when a model is used. It is called upon when a map is used in learning geography or an elaborate digital model is used in learning the function of interior parts of a plant cell. Models work by drawing on previous experiences and learnt ideas, and relating to these when learning something new.

Model of DNAOften the simplest models are the best, even when they may relate to a complicated theory, concept or phenomenon. Though elaborate models may look fascinating, they rarely convey useful learning to the beginner. Learners need to be already familiar with parts of the model itself. As intricate and captivating as the Watson, Crick and Wilkins model of DNA may be, it conveys nothing about its chemistry to those who have never learnt elementary Chemistry.

Learning and memory

It is well known that before any skill can be acquired learning a second language, knowledge of vocabulary is fundamental. It is also becoming recognised by educators that the language of a subject, and knowledge of vocabulary in particular, is required for the learner to be able to think in terms of the subject and also to converse about it with others.

Without the vocabulary of a hitherto unknown subject it is impossible for a beginner to acquire any useful subject skill. Motor skills have similar fundamental elements when it comes to the first time learner picking up the ropes of a new skill.

There is no evidence to suggest that the memory required while learning and remembering a vocabulary (content learnt by association) is fundamentally different from that needed to learn and remember the higher skills. When concepts or skills to be learnt become more complicated as the learner progresses, a stage is invariably reached where the learner has to work at them to make the leaps. Once made, these too can be learnt and remembered. Higher thinking skills are required to be learnt to continue to progress. This is often forgotten by the expert who is addressing learning in the subject, the so-called cognitive apprenticeship theory.

Learning is recursively elaborate

A concept, idea or formula learnt in one discipline can find a use in another that’s seemingly unrelated. A child who recognises the relationship between similar patterns of learning in two distinct disciplines makes a cognitive leap. Intelligence is intimately linked with the ability to connect patterns in this way.

The animated equations depicted here are of elementary algebra. They show how the same basic tactic can apply to two distinct areas of learning in Science. A child who masters the simple algebra relevant to this also learns the skill to work within an unbelievably large number of its applications. The scope for it is huge, and it finds use in many common everyday tasks, from a simple calculation in an expenses return to estimating how long a car journey is likely to take.

This recursive application of algebra is by no means a unique feature in learning, for there are many millions of patterns that cross seemingly unrelated disciplines. The ability to understand and recognise these patterns is one that is familiar to the compilers of intelligence tests. It was believed that such tests, according to various scales, could be used to classify and measure cognitive ability. Though there may well be some merit in the idea of pattern recognition being linked to cognitive ability, the means created to measure this fell short of something useful, never mind fairness.

Cutting corners

The recursive nature of learning often compels us to take short cuts that sometimes lead to a misunderstanding that a concept has been learnt. It may even suggest that it doesn’t need to be learnt; the word content springs to mind. I’ll use an example from elementary Chemistry to demonstrate this.

Finding the chemical formula for a simple compound, such as aluminium oxide, can be done a number of ways, all of which have the potential to yield the same answer:
  1. use Google - provided the student can apply the search routine and recognises a reputable site when one is brought up, the correct formula might be found,

  2. recall the chemical symbols for the elements oxygen and aluminium, and that oxygen has a valency of 2 and aluminium has a valency of 3, then apply the recalled rule for writing correct chemical formulae,

  3. referring to the periodic table of the elements (or just simply knowing it) the student uses the atomic number of oxygen to write the electron configuration of its atom - having used a similar process to write the electron configuration of aluminium, the student may determine the common valencies of both elements and then apply method 2.
Understanding how the formula is found is part and parcel of understanding so-called ‘valency theory’ in Chemistry. Learners who can Google the formula for any simple chemical compound don’t really need to know much chemistry. While method 2 barely touches on some of the principles involved in valency theory, knowledge of how to use method 3 takes the learner closer towards how to apply that theory and to understanding why chemical compounds form between elements in the first place.

Most students who go on to study Chemistry in senior school will learn both methods 2 and 3. They may become so proficient at writing chemical formula using method 2 that they can write several correct formula in the time it takes another student to type in the Google search criteria in following method 1, let alone what’s needed to choose a suitable trustworthy site to browse.

All of the above methods for finding a formula can be learnt and each method has its merit depending on the need. But to say that all a learner needs to know is how to use an Internet search engine to find the formula of a simple chemical compound is not actually learning any Chemistry. Yet this is often used as an argument for not teaching content. There comes a time when the learner just has to face learning some content, and this applies to many distinct disciplines.

Models can be conflicting

One of the many curious phenomena studied in secondary school Science is that of the behaviour of light. This well studied topic requires a series of models to explain how light can behave in different circumstances. A feature of two celebrated models for light, that of the particle or photon and that of the wave, is that neither model explains all the observable properties of light.

While both these models can be used to explain and predict the behaviour of other phenomena not directly related to light, it takes an enlightened learner to understand that they are just models. This peculiarly useful awareness is a higher learning skill. It allows the learner who is very familiar with models used within a discipline to understand their limitations and permits recognition of when a particular model is applicable and when it is not. Recognising that a model and the phenomenon it mirrors are not the same things is extremely important in Science.

The lesser analogy

Unlike the model, an analogy is not trying to depict in any way how the thing or concept exists. It is a direct mapping between unrelated elements of one idea and another. There is no need for there to be any true resemblance between the thing or concept and its parallel used in analogy.

Unfortunately, analogies are often used erroneously as models. For the learner, the analogy is far more involved, the behaviour of one thing being considered while thinking of the associated behaviour of another.

It calls for the most use of imagination, being a parallelism that’s left mainly up to the ingenuity of the thinker. As they are necessarily specific, analogies are severely limited in their broader application.

Facile in association

The mind seems to be facile in the way it can link seemingly unrelated things and learn by association. Perhaps this is why the model enjoys its time honoured place in learning at all levels, for it is so successful.

Models enable a direct mapping of what is seen onto what is being learnt. Good models permit this to be assimilated easily by the learner so that they can apply what’s learnt. Through pattern recognition learners can find further application of what they have learnt.

The enlightened learner, who also understands the difference between the model and the idea, concept or phenomenon that it is mirroring, can flip between models used to reflect these. Introducing the learner to this important difference between the model and what it reflects is the province of good teaching.

Ngā mihi nui – Best wishes

You Are Sentenced To A Day In A Comic


This week's Day in a Sentence is shaping up to be a real Toondoo follow-the-leader event. And what a leader! Kevin Hodgson led the scene with a fantastic idea in a comic:

\My Day in a Sentence\

Gail followed suit with a double whammy:


Not to be outdone by buzzy Illya who decided to have a break and sniff the flowers:


while Bonnie put up a Big Show:

\Dover's DS!\

put to music by Anne

\Digital music\

a sound second only to Ken's fireworks . . .


that unfortunately put him on the Moon and the blast probably didn't do anything for Jo Hawke's SOL testing for he said this,

"Those cartoons are great! I tried to make one for mine, but it lagged too bad, and I got frustrated. So I'll write it out instead:

Students were in and out of class all week for SOL testing, and the only way to figure out who was *really* absent was to spend a good quarter of a class sorting through multiple PDF attachments of rolls and then checking the list of students who didn't actually show up -- for all three sessions each day! And we get to do it again all this week, too!"

Update 11 May 09
Then Gail H said,
"I wish that I could design a cartoon that would make visible the two-way tug many teachers must feel because they are torn between "test-prep" pressures and the desire to offer their students 21st century venues for learning."
Here's my best effort Gail. Maybe you could improve the captions at Make Beliefs Comix.com.

related post - >> ( 3 ) ( 2 ) ( 1 )

Rangimarie - Peace and harmony

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Comic in a Sentence!

Day in a Sentence IconKia ora tātou - Hello everyone
Kevin Hodgson (aka Dogtrax) is having a week off DIAS. He is great at writing and designing comics.

Let’s have a rave-up while he’s out!

So let yourself go!

Put on your funniest persona, and write your side-splitting

Comic in a Sentence!

One of Bonnie's Travellin' RaisinsGet your giggle-pot bubbling, chuckle out your day in a sentence, and post your words in a comment here. Your hilarious product will be posted E O T W.

(For those who'd like to follow Kevin's innovative example, here's the link to ToonDoo).

( 4 ) << - related post - >> ( 2 ) ( 1 )

Rangimarie - Peace and harmony

Monday, May 4, 2009

What I Learnt from a Year of Blogging!

Kia ora tātou – Hello EveryoneOne Year Birthday Cake
Do have a virtual slice of my blog’s birthday cake.

One year has passed since I made the decision to attempt a spot of blogging. It has been colourful and worthwhile. So has the learning, which is great, for learning is still my goal. I have Michele Martin to thank for all this for it is she who enticed me into taking part in the Comment Challenge in May 2008.

World Map Statistics from Google Analytics
During this past year I published 193 posts on newMiddle-earth Blogspot. According to Google Analytics, people from 73 countries visited Middle-earth in the last month – a total of 1352 visitors. The most visits came from USA (529) followed by New Zealand (342) of which 325 came from Greater Wellington. The actual numbers shown here indicate relative estimated ratios rather than actual visits, since I didn’t collect data on RSS use.
That means You
I have 10 loyal followers from countries throughout the world.

I got a lot of help, and by different means, from many of the visitors to Middle-earth.
‘Visitors’ means YOU!

I take this opportunity to thank you for following this blog and for your support.

What have I learnt?

It is difficult to say, even at this stage, precisely what has been the most useful thing learnt. A lot of that learning has been about me, and I don’t mean that in a navel-gazing way. Nevertheless, there are observations that I feel are notable and I’ll list those here.

Google Analytics and PostRank

I was introduced to Google Analytics (GA) and later to PostRank (PR) and found that, as expected, data gathered from GA on the popularity of posts correlates well with ratings gathered from PR. While there are differences, these two data gatherers complement each other. I learnt that the popularity profile of a post created a tail over time and that the fatness and length of that tail bore some relation to the ongoing interest that visitors had for the content of the post.

Blog persona
Typealayzer Brain Chart
I came across the Web2.0 application Typealyzer and learnt that posts I’d written had the persona of a thinker. There was a lot of discussion throughout the blogosphere on the worth of Typealyzer.

I found that most who knew about it misunderstood what it was reporting. I learnt they held the
erroneous belief that Typealyzer was analysing their personality type rather than the persona of what they wrote and posted on their blog.

Telling a story

I learnt the merit of telling stories in posts and found that among the most popular posts were those that tell stories for they had the longest and fattest tail in their popularity profile. Posts that do this invariably reach a high rating on GA and PR often within a few days.

The example post Blogging, When A Thing Is Worth Doing Badly, which has held its PR rating since January 2009,
shows this trend.

Reading Ease

I was introduced to the concept that writing can have a quality known as reading ease according to the Flesch scale. So I researched the use of Flesch Reading Ease in Word. I later analysed the writing of other bloggers who, incidentally had favourably high Flesch ratings and prodigiously popular blog sites.

90:9:1 rule and so-called community

The rather contentious 90:9:1 rule seems to be obeyed quite well on newMiddle-earth Blogspot. From a total of 1352 visitors in the past month, a count of 13 visitors submitting 25 comments closely follows the order expected from the 90:9:1 rule. Other similar periods examined using GA yield comparable ratios.

While this may seem trivia to some, for me it represents confirmation of the difficulty involved in soliciting participation in so-called communities, notably those that are referred to as learning communities. Anyone who has followed my posts on themes to do with communities will perhaps understand that it is not by coincidence that this theme is threaded through my posts from the first month I began blogging.

Who are the commenters?

A significant observation about my commentsphere is that, almost without exception, commenters are also bloggers. The supposition is that people who do not have their own blogs will visit and read rather than participate in discussion. However, it’s also improbable that all visitors who do not leave a comment are not themselves bloggers.

Post topic and content

I found that posts about my commentsphere and the people that are likely to contribute to it, also reached predictable high ratings. This was one of the first observations I made when I set up GA on my blog. I can predict with an unerring accuracy that a post about the commentsphere will soar in its ratings.

Elearning - an exceptional topic

I was delighted to find that posts specifically about elearning, carry substantially high ratings in both GA and PR. A giant among those is The Elearning Apprentice, posted in October 2008, which has a fat tail that pulls a rating matching that of recent also-rans.

Another extraordinary post in terms of its popularity characteristics is Working With Online Learning Communities, which has such an amazingly even visitor rating from day to day, it has not varied significantly since the tail first took shape.

Google Analytics Popularity Graph
Highly complex

As absorbing as all this gathered data is to me, I am still quite unable to make logical sense of the characteristics of ‘my part’ of the blogosphere. I suspect that it is highly complex and likely to be even more so because of the varied nature of the post topics that I choose to write about. I concede that my range of topics is eclectic enough to cause me a considerable headache if I try to make too much sense of some ratings.

Why am I interested in ratings?

My original intention was to study communities in the blogosphere with the purpose of understanding more about what engages learners. I’ve never lost interest in that study. I’d always hoped that post ratings in GA, PR or other such analytical data gathering tool would provide me with avenues for studying community engagement. They do provide some of these, but the data is far more complex than I first envisaged.

The more I observe and learn about community engagement, the more absorbed I become in it. Communities and their complexity are fascinating things.

An exceptional opportunity

What I find is fascinating about my commentsphere is the huge variety of personalities and the backgrounds of the people who I regularly commune with, either through their comment on my blog or on their own blog. They range from colleagues who, like me are interested in sharing ideas on teaching and learning to business managers, from academics working at faculty in universities to CEOs of companies, from consultants in elearning to school principals.

Within those groups of wonderful people are blog-colleagues who I first met in the blogosphere when on the Comment Challenge in May last year. Among them:

Andrea Hernandez, who has been supportive of me blogging from day one - I wrote a post, about one of her goals for the year which she has adhered to,

Bonnie Kaplan, who reminded me most recently
in a comment of the fun we had during the Comment Challenge,

Sue Waters, who sent me a series of emails recently while we collaborated to track down a virus and who was one of the Comment Challenge organisers,

Tony Karrer, who invited me to join the eLearning Learning community to which I now regularly contribute,

Virginia Yonkers, who is one of my most frequent commenters and a great blogging companion,

Kevin Hodgson, who emailed me yesterday to ask if I’d mind hosting a Day In A Sentence on my blog again. It’s an opportunity not to be missed. It’s all about people.

Ngā mihi nui – Best wishes