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Category Archives: Observing Learning

Norway Killings by Anders Breivik – Is it just the tip of the Iceberg?

Anders Behring Breivik is a name that the world won’t forget in a hurry, even though it may be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Breivik who rationalized his killing spree through a 1500-page manifesto in which he spoke of how the vote-seeking politicians were instrumental in the spread of multiculturalism in Europe, doesn’t comes across as a brain-washed fanatic, the kind we’ve learned to associate with the acts of terrorism. Yet he killed about 90 young Norweigians. Why?

Though I don’t know the answer to this question, and I believe that nobody really does – except of course, Breivik; but if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that it lies in the fact that now-a-days societal changes are happening too fast.

If we glance back at the history of the world, such changes were slow. If we specifically look at the Indian example, the spread of Islam happened over a period of 500 years, and by the time the British arrived in India, Islam had ceased to be a foreign religion and their culture had already meshed with the Hindu culture, initially through force, then through inter-religion-marriages leading to ethnic mixing, and then through the political moves of the Mughal rulers. So by the 18th century, the Muslims along with the Hindus began calling India their home. Thus, when the British arrived, they were the outsiders, while the Hindus and the Muslims were the insiders – regardless of their own differences.

500 years is a long time to accept another culture, and even become amenable to its ills. When your mindset changes over a dozen or more generations, you don’t even feel it.

You can possibly surmise the reasons why the assimilation took so long. The reasons were simple: Low population, no technology, and of course, the kings, who didn’t have to establish the vote-banks.

Now we experience whirlwind changes. Take the example of the unrest in Middle-East. It spread so quickly, because it was aided by technology. The case of islamization of Europe is similar. It’s happening too quickly for people to adapt. It isn’t easy for a culture to give up its values in a matter of decades. It requires centuries.

However,

  • with technology, people don’t have to walk on foot for years to reach another country;
  • with greedy politicians who are looking for votes, people don’t have to learn another language nor customs to become part of the host-country’s society; and
  • with the world not wanting to take stronger, collective measures against fundamentalism, people don’t have to give up being fanatics!

So the kids growing up in these host countries feel that they are being treated as step-children by their own country – and because the leaders of these countries are busy looking at their vote-banks, one of these kids begins to think that if the society is ready to condone the terrorist acts done by one or more members of these “pampered” communities, they too have the right to do the same, and save their own culture from losing its identity.

I think that we are looking at just the tip of the iceberg. We shouldn’t think that in a population of 6.7 Billion, there won’t be another such misguided soul. I also think that the only way to prevent more incidents of this kind could be to review all religions and communities and weed out the irrationalities from them. The question is – who’d bell the cat? It has to a collective effort from the political and religious leaders of the world, who will have to throw away their personal axes and write a new world order, with common goals and methods, and with a structure that is rational not fanatical.

We cannot accept intolerance as a given for one group of people and close our eyes to it, and treat it as an exception in another. Intolerance begets intolerance. It’s contagious too. It won’t disappear from the world, unless it’s weeded out from everywhere.

 

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I Need No Education – A Suicide Pact for the Future.

The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.
– Albert Einstein

With each passing year, and with each new educational “reform” I believe in this pity statement a little more.

We have to realize that education prepares the society for what lies ahead, and what lies ahead includes challenges and competition. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again – when a child learns to walk, the parents don’t give him or her a pair of crutches – but that’s exactly what we are doing to our education system. We give degrees to kids who don’t possess the knowledge to deserve that degree and when they walk into an organization for an interview, we crush their hopes that we ourselves had helped them build, by telling them that they don’t have the skill or the talent.

Let us look at the duality inherent in our system through this case.

A busy career-focused manager in her forties is a mother of a 10-year old. The boy who studies in a primary grade gets homework assignments and is learning to learn. The father of the child works in another organization and his job requires him to travel, which obviously means that he doesn’t have a lot of time to spend with the child.

The child is a normal, happy child, who hasn’t been bitten by the competition bug, and he doesn’t mind that his performance is really top-of-the-band. But the parents do. They want their child to perform, and so they continue to chide him, often indirectly (“Do you want help with that subject?” “Another tuition perhaps?”) and while they are at it – they also want their kid to learn how to play the Casio/Guitar/Violin etc.

Note that the child is stressed not because he has to learn what’s there in his books but because of those ten other things that his parents want him to do, so that they could brag about him in the society.

Now imagine the worst. The kid doesn’t pass. Ignominy of the ignominies. The parents have to hang their heads in shame. The kid might not feel shame, he might just be sad, but the parents feel it all – and through them the child feels it. And then the kid realizes that his parents are ashamed of him – and he ends his life.

This of course is a fictional scenario, but one that has been written after reading a lot of news reports on this matter.

The truth is that the society, which is made of grown individuals, has already found a way out. Though there might be exceptions who may think otherwise, but all parents have to educate their children and the education system doesn’t change itself because one quirky parent wants to raise a child with strong conviction and correct values – this applies to all of us.

Dos – As practiced by the Teachers as well as the Parents.

  1. Don’t let a child fail. Do whatever it takes to ensure this. Keep the questions at BL1 and 2, Let the exams be all objective type, let there be no penalties for incorrect reasoning, as long as the answer is correct…I could really go on and on about this…as this really is going to paralyze our society one day.
  2. Always praise the child for every crooked line he/she draws (or any other silly thing you can think of)
  3. Make sure that the child has enough tuition/vocational training programs to keep him occupied while you work.
  4. Tell the child that he or she is the best.
  5. Always be there to help the child out of every tiny problem.
  6. Help the child in doing the class-assignments – or do them yourself – or pay someone else to do them for the child.
  7. Simplify “being educated” to “getting a degree.”
  8. Value “degree/certification” over “skill and learning.”
  9. Follow the principle, If you pay the fees you get your certificate, instead of following the old, tattered principle, if you learn, you get your certificate. (Note that this is closely related to the first point.)

Don’ts – Again, as followed by the teachers and the parents.

  1. Don’t let the child realize that the world out there will accept real performance.
  2. Don’t tell the child, even a grown-up teenager that goodness and badness both win or lose…it isn’t that goodness always wins and badness always loses.
  3. Don’t let the child understand that earning money even by doing the simplest of chores is good. (After all it could be bad for the image of the school and also of the parents.)

Do you see the problem?

We are taking the easy way out. We are being selfish. Instead of doing what’s needed, which is setting up the right value system for our next generation, instead of acknowledging that the world of tomorrow will be a tougher place to live in, we are stressing out the kids by pushing them to perform in areas that won’t matter when they grow up.

The essence of these changes is that they:

Allow the parents and the teachers to breathe easy by removing the imminent threat of suicides, without striking at the root-causes, which comprise the incorrect value-system and the self-esteem needs of the parents.

Push the threat of nervous-breakdowns and suicides further into the child’s future, when he is grown man or woman – but then…who cares what happens to them when they grow up? Not our responsibility anymore, are they? The parents would’ve grown old by then, the teachers would’ve retired…and they’d all wring their hands and say, “we did the best we could – but it’s the bad-bad world that led to this.”

 

 

 

 

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Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – Is it just Around the Corner?

It isn’t everyday that you read a book that makes you feel grateful for not being born sooner or later, but exactly when you were born. It is only once in a long while that you come across a story that makes you look for that inflection point in the history of humanity, which made the world become what it is today.

This isn’t a review that I am posting today. It isn’t even a suggestion or a recommendation that you read this book. It is a short Thank-You-Note to Aldous Huxley who penned “Brave New World”, and made me feel grateful for being what I am and for what I have been given – the freedom of choice. I don’t want to discuss the extent of this freedom; I don’t want to flick out a tape to measure it; I just want to experience it.

Huxley had written this novel in 1931 – a time when Behaviorism had matured, its spread aided by the industry; and a time when scientific advances were being announced every day.

Conceptual Summary of Brave New World

Let me quickly summarize the concept of “Brave New World” for you.

The world has “evolved” (degenerated?) where humans are mass-produced under controlled conditions, using the Bokanovsky process. The humans come in different varieties or castes, each variety suited to accomplish the task that it would be required to perform. Thus the humans range from Alphas (the highest caste) to the Epsilons who are nothing better than zombies. The production as well as the education of humans is the responsibility of the State. Sex for procreation is a taboo, people are expected to spend all their free time in the company of others, and ideas of individuality are considered dangerous.

Ivan Pavlov, Sigmund Freud, and Henry Ford have become icons in this world of the future. The calendar begins with the year of Ford’s birth (the story is set in AF 632 or about 530 years from now.)

Education of all the castes is carried out partly while they are asleep (by making them listen to numerous repetitions of such statements that define the desired behavior) and also makes tremendous use of behaviorist principles (repetition, reward, and punishment.)

The Wake-up Call

The goal of the story is to contrast the life-style and philosophy of the Reservations (places that refused to change) and the world – and it is this contrast that wakes you up. You find yourself wishing that the world had taken a midway approach, and then you realize that you sub-consciously begin to see yourself in both the worlds, wondering how “A Brave New World” is a very real possibility – and how you need not wait 500 years for it to happen.

Returning to my ruminations…

 

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Social Influence – Part III – How Social Influence can be Applied by a Trainer?

This is the third and the final post in this series on Social Influence.

Our discussion so far tells us about the existence and impact of Social Influence. In a classroom, it can become a debilitating force when exerted by a disruptive participant. It can also alter the behavior of the participants for no “apparent” reason, thus, making it important for the trainer to understand the social under-currents in a classroom to ensure learning effectiveness.

Let us look at the six important factors of SI, once again; and review them from a trainer’s viewpoint.

  • Charisma
  • Reputation
  • Manipulation
  • Peer Pressure
  • Emotion
  • Authority

Of the six factors of SI that we learned about through the previous post in this series, Charisma and Reputation reside with the trainer, and the trainer can use them to exert a positive, directional influence on the class. The trainer needs to aware of Manipulation, Peer Pressure, and Emotion, so that he or she may identify their presence in a classroom and take appropriate measures. Authority is a factor that is always present with the trainer, but the trainer needs to use it with care.

Here’s how each of these factors could work in a trainer’s favor.

Charisma:

In the previous post of this series, we discussed the charismatic participant, who automatically begins to exert a certain influence on the other participants in the class. Now, let’s see how charisma becomes a trainer’s ally. If you are already a trainer, chances are, you already possess a certain charisma. This charisma could be a product of your good looks, your quick wit, your body language, your good dress sense, and/or your ability to tastefully and subtly make a statement of affluence.

Hidden in the above statement are clues to enhancing your charisma. If you think that you don’t look good, work on your looks. Reflect upon the possibility of a gym-membership, or a visit to a beauty parlor! If you think you aren’t quick-witted enough, read up anecdotes and practice them upon your unsuspecting relatives. Dress well for your training programs, improve your posture along with rest of your body language, and of course, don’t look like a pauper when you walk into the classroom. You must be a cool dude, who prefers to wear Bermudas and who sports a tattoo on his neck, you might want to wear tee-shirts to the training program – resist your urge. Wear good clothes, sensible shoes, a formal watch; and women trainers, please wear the bare minimum of jewelry – make an impact! Be charismatic!

Reputation:

This is simple to understand, though somewhat difficult to apply. Build your reputation – not so much as a trainer, but as an expert in the area in which you train. For instance, if you are a Communications Trainer, you should be considered an expert in that area. Expertise will help you exert a very strong influence on the class. The cognitive dissonance will be reduced substantially, if not eliminated completely. Your expertise will help you make your training programs more efficient.

If, however, you are not an expert (nor have willingness to become one – especially in the current era of multi-skilling,) bring the “knowledge of experts” to your classroom. Learn about the subject, and what the experts have to say about it. It will lead to similar though not equally strong influence.

Manipulation, Peer Pressure, and Emotion:

I am taking them up together, because I don’t think that a trainer can do a lot with these factors, but I believe that their awareness could help the trainer reduce friction and improve harmony in the classroom.

The first step is, of course, identification.

Try to identify:

  • the possible manipulator.
  • people who’d given to peer-pressure and groupthink.
  • People who might have an emotional connection with one another.

Now,

  • Restrain the manipulator, by taking charge and letting the class realize that your SI is greater than the prospective manipulator’s.
  • Raise the confidence levels of people who might succumb to peer-pressure. Motivate them to ask questions for seeking clarifications.
  • Establish physical distance between people with emotional connections.

Authority:

As a trainer you are always equipped with Authority. Authority is the greatest of influencers. Wars would never be fought if it weren’t for authority, terrorism would vanish from the face of our dear Earth, if not for authority! On the other hand, no organization would be able to create value in the absence of Authority.

Thus, with Authority, the issue has more to with its usage. How should you use the authority that comes with being a trainer?

I’d recommend staying aware of the flip side, and reviewing the feedback to determine whether your authority is being received positively or not.

Authority will make the participants do what you ask them to do (remember the Milgram Experiment?), but whether or not they do it willingly is a question that you need to answer…and then ask yourself, whether unwilling participation is better than willing non-participation!

I guess that there’s a lot a trainer can achieve by understanding and then using Social Influence correctly.

 

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Social Influence – Part II – Its Manifestation in a Classroom

This is the second post in this series on Social Influence and its manifestation and application in a classroom.

As trainers, it’s important for us to understand how Social Influence impacts a training program. The six main factors of Social Influence can easily be traced in the behavior of the students or trainees in any classroom.

Let us discuss the presence of the following six SI factors, in a classroom.

  • Charisma
  • Reputation
  • Manipulation
  • Peer Pressure
  • Emotion
  • Authority

Charisma:

It is an accepted fact that some individuals are more charismatic than others, which means that they are better endowed in terms of looks, personality, and/or wealth.  Some participants come into a training program with one or more inherent advantages or Charisma. For instance, a beautiful woman or a handsome man, with automatically become an Influencer. Similarly, a woman who walks in carrying a Gucci handbag, or a man who strides in wearing a Rolex watch or dangling a BMW key; would automatically exert an influence on other not-so-charismatic participants.

In case of a disruption of training, a role-play, or even a question-answer session, others will expect such individuals to lead, and will sub-consciously follow them.

Reputation:

Reputation isn’t a natural advantage – it’s more of a man-made one. A person may have a reputation that others in the classroom are aware of – and it might put him in the shoes of an Influencer. Thus, a “perceived” expert could easily influence others into accepting something completely incorrect.  For example, in an open training program attended by participants from different organizations, an employee of a bigger and more respectable company will be able to exert considerable influence over participants who work for lesser known organizations.

As a trainer, you should try to identify such Influencers even before you step into the classroom.

Manipulation:

In short training programs that address a diverse audience, manipulation might be completely absent; however, in longer duration training programs, or programs that address a group where people have known one-another for long, could fall prey to this SI factor. Manipulation requires a manipulator (a good non-training example is the typical politician.) A manipulator would have a way with words. He or she would influence others in the class with a definite purpose. (for example, to become the teacher’s pet/ to become the class-bully / to have fun on the trainer’s expense…and so on.)

Manipulators are difficult to identify, and when identified, they’d be difficult to manage.

Peer Pressure:

This factor is often seen either in long-duration programs, or in programs attended by participants who know one-another well. Peer Pressure or groupthink has a negative impact on the learning of the entire group, because it makes everyone think in the same direction – it takes an unhealthy toll on critical thinking, and leads to unquestioned acceptance of the group’s ideas.

In most classrooms, Peer Pressure is easy to identify.

Emotion:

Emotion is a very strong Social Influence Factor, in general. In training programs, you often don’t see this factor in its full glory. However, I’ve been fortunate enough to witness it a couple of times – once when a couple decided to take a course that I teach and then when two people in one of my courses, fell in love. These two participants would usually support each other’s answers to my questions. In the group activities, I’d put them in separate groups (to ensure that their emotions didn’t disrupt their learning,) but even then they’d try their best not to contradict each other.

A General Note Here:

If we look at the world history, it’s easy to see how love can make a couple take a stance against their entire community. Though their impact is considerably more dilute, yet, friendships, even belonging to a temporary group, can all lead to some degree of social influence.  Look for it.

Authority:

Authority is the factor that I am sure, requires the least amount of explanation. If you haven’t read about The Milgram experiment and Agentic State Theory, you should, because they explain the impact of authority extremely well.

Essentially, the Social Influence of Authority is absolute. Once someone’s been given the authority to do something, or get something done – people seldom question it (though there’s no physical barrier stopping them from questioning the authority.) I’ve seen this SI factor at play in one of my recent training programs, which was attended by young instructional designers along with their content head. In one of the discussion, some of the participants deviated from the guidelines. I had noted the deviation and was about the intervene, when the content head raised one of her eyebrows and looked at the errant participants – the discussion immediately moved back to track.

Authority works like nothing else does!

In my third and final post in this series, we’ll learn how trainers can use this knowledge of Social Influence to improve the effectiveness of their training programs.

 

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Four Important Differences between the Online Learning Environment and the Classroom Learning Environment

My temporary absence from the blog can best be explained through the hackneyed, cliched, beaten-out-of-shape excuse of having been busy. I was indeed busy with matters in the real world and so the demands of the virtual world were automatically shunted back into the yard.

A quick analysis of my behavior helped me draw some parallels with the online learner’s behavior.

There’s a world of difference between the environments of the online learner and the classroom learner. These differences often result in learner behavior that doesn’t explain itself readily to us.

The Four Important Differences between the Online Learner’s and the Classroom Learner’s Environments are:

  1. Distance from Family & Friends
  2. Flexibility of Time
  3. Strength of Supervision
  4. Urgency vs. Importance

Distance from Family & Friends

During the learning process, the online learners are much closer to their family/friends than their classroom counterparts. While classroom learning requires that the learners transport themselves to a specific location for completing a training program, the online program merely requires online access and so people often take online courses from home.

Thus it becomes difficult for the online learners to ensure that while they are going through their online classes, they aren’t disturbed. They often are, and in absence of a formal learning environment, it becomes difficult for them to refuse the demands of friends and family. This leads to either a short break in their learning schedule (to talk, to reply, to help) or a longer one (to go for a movie/game together.)

Flexibility of Time

Even if we leave everybody else out, the online learners have to play with the dangerous double-edged sword called “flexible timings.” When timings are flexible, we tend to procrastinate more. When we can do something whenever we want to do it, we get down to doing it only at the last moment. So the online learners with the flexible time option often find themselves running errands for those who don’t have the same option. “You can do it later, I can’t” makes them feel guilty about refusing to do the errand.

Strength of Supervision

The Online learners usually don’t have any sort of direct supervision. This isn’t good. I agree with Dr. Knowles’ Andragogy in principle, and I do feel that he captured the intentions and the motivation of the adult learner well. However, the intrinsic load for the learning content varies and content with higher intrinsic load often requires that the learners put their minds into high gear.

Direct supervision helps. It enables the learners to stay focused and master such concepts. The online learners are responsible for cultivating this ability to stay focus, despite the cognitive load of the content. Unfortunately, as we’ve discussed earlier, online learners often study in environments that aren’t all that accommodating.

Urgency Vs. Importance

Every question that pops up in a classroom learner’s mind is urgent as the class has a definite time frame; every concept that’s taught needs to be handled by the mind immediately. In the case of online learning, the situation reverses. Everything else around our online learners becomes urgent. The course, though important, isn’t urgent. The submissions become urgent only on the due date – however, the days before the due date are lost because of those urgent (though unimportant tasks) that demanded to be done first.

I too was led astray by some urgent matters! I hope to tune out the urgent but unimportant matters in the coming month; and attend to this dear blog of mine.

 

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Prior Learning in Adults – A Double-edged Sword?

A double-edged sword has to be wielded with care. My experience with adult learners has taught me that the heaviest and the deadliest double-edged sword that most adult learners own is their prior learning.

The Principle of Experience in Knowles’ Andragogy suggests “he/she accumulates a growing reservoir of experiences that becomes a resource for learning”. There’s nothing wrong with this principle. In fact, from the Cognitivist’s angle, this “reservoir of experiences” helps us design effective learning content. But how the adult learner chooses to use his or her prior learning, would in fact, determine whether it would facilitate or impede the acquisition of new learning.

Here’s what happened when Sloth and Froth attended a short orientation program on Organizational Behavior. The program focused on understanding the factors that motivated people.

Sloth, as you know, had spent most of his life closeted in his office-cum-bedroom, with his mom doing his bidding all the time. While thus closeted, he spent his time reading all sorts of books, and this led him to become a “reservoir of theoretical knowledge.” Obviously when the training came up, he found it rather difficult to haul himself to his car and then drive to the training venue. He reached a little late and took his seat after mumbling an indistinct apology to the trainer. The day had begun for him.

Froth, on the other hand, lived alone and preferred to spend her spare time with her friends. She liked to learn what she could apply – nothing more, nothing less. Froth cooked her own food and she maintained a tidy apartment. She had been looking forward to this training program, the entire week, and so on the morning of the training day, she was prepared. She reached the training venue a little before time, and even had an opportunity to talk to some of the other participants.

The trainer began with a quick icebreaker, which didn’t really go down well with Sloth. “Let’s not waste time,” he said into the ear of participant who sat on his right, who gave a non-committal smile.

Before the trainer could begin, Sloth had a question. He wanted to know whether the MBTI would be covered in the training. Right after the trainer had begun, something made Sloth remember something about the theory of X and Y, and so he asked, and when the trainer said that it wasn’t part of the program, Sloth offered to tell others about it. His offer was turned down politely, but the refusal continued to rankle in Sloth’s mind. He made a note of it in his mind, and waited patiently for the discussion to begin. There would be a discussion, all training programs had them – it had something to do with the adult learning theory, thought Sloth.

The response that Sloth’s query invoked in others could be called mixed. The fresh incumbents were in awe of him and felt inadequate. Those who knew Sloth knew what was to come when the discussions began.

In the discussions, Sloth tried to become the center of attention, but he quickly lost track. Though he had much to share, his contribution wasn’t relevant. Instead, it steered the participants away from the core discussion. Froth however was more interested in reviewing how what she had learned mapped or didn’t map to her prior experiences. These feelings she shared with her group-mates, who then began sharing their experiences as well. The facilitator tried to help Sloth, but his prior learning had already hardened into an attitude and it was almost impossible for him to leave his mold so soon.

You know the end of the story…don’t you?
Froth went home richer and happier. Sloth went back grumpier and dissatisfied. Froth didn’t have prior knowledge of Organizational Behavior theories – she had prior experiences though. She shared them. Sloth didn’t have prior experiences, he had prior knowledge, and the knowledge interfered with his ability to learn more. They both exhibited the same adult learning behavior – they wanted to share what they knew!

Let us review the success of the training program.

The training program was created for people who needed an orientation; it was designed for the newly minted managers. Most of the newly minted managers had profiles that matched the audience profile for the training. It was assumed (and not incorrectly) that the executives who were recently promoted to being managers would not have spent many years of their lives going through the motivational theories. For this reason, the program was successful for 14 out of 15 participants. It worked for everyone, except you-know-who. The trainer went home happy – the learners went home happy…everyone was happy except the person who knew it all – but who couldn’t use any of it!


If not wielded carefully, Prior Learning could be a dangerous weapon!

If you are a learner with tons of knowledge, do the right thing. Read the next post on this blog to discover how you could rein in your knowledge and direct it usefully.

 

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