Taking time to learn something new

IMG_0457Some knitting projects take me a weekend; others several months. I have just finished this small blanket. It is made with various hues of deep blue, purple and gray with accents in black. I think it’s an analogy about adult learning and how it takes time to absorb new material.

Here’s where I’m going with this: Last week I was teaching a software application of a patient database. The workshops weren’t long, but the goal was to show existing employees the upgraded features of the software. While the feedback of the classes was very good, many said they had to practice with the new software to feel comfortable. This made me think of “cognitive load.” Some topics are very dense and take time to comprehend. Throwing a lot of new information within the span of a short class showing dozens of screens can be daunting.

I gently told the learners that the material itself is not new. They still have to enter demographics or clinical data, or progress notes. It’s just that the buttons or icons or menus have changed. I didn’t teach processes; just mechanics. In truth, I empathize with the learners. A new software interface takes time to comprehend even if their work doesn’t change.

So, whether a knitting project can take an afternoon or several months, sometimes after working on it a long time, that’s the best reward.

Asking for Directions (or how much Cognitive Load?)

directionsGPS is a life saver.  It’s fast and efficient.  You can ask your GPS to take you the scenic route or the fast route via the major highways.  You can ask your GPS to speak in a woman’s voice or a man’s voice.  Some GPS devices have the option to speak in a British accent.

I recently heard a National Public Radio episode about people’s experience with GPS.  Callers chimed in with a whole host of stories.  One caller named his GPS, “Sweetheart.”  He would say, “OK Sweetheart, we’re going to Jessie’s apartment today.”  What a hoot.  Likewise, people cited their frustrations when sometimes things go awry.  The GPS would send people down side streets only to end up 3 miles extra from their destination. Plus, who hasn’t had the “Recalculating” message sound when you overshoot an exit.  It goes on excessively.

This whole episode comes to mind as I am on a business trip this week.  I’ve never been to this particular city, so of course, I had my GPS.  How handy.  It got me directly to the hotel and the site where I will be training all week.

So, here’s the rub.  Cognitive load.  Working memory and long term memory.  I found it difficult to get a handle on two lefts, straight through a light, then the next left.  I forgot it the moment I got to my destination.  “Consider the “rule of 7.” George Miller, an early researcher in cognitive load theory, who suggested that the largest number of discrete pieces of information the brain could manage was seven, plus or minus 2” as quoted by Jane Bozarth’s article “Nuts and Bolts: Brain Bandwidth – Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Design, Learning Solutions, 2010.

I’ll never forget some sage advice a real estate broker once told me.  Learn two or three main streets in a town or city and know how they intersect or bisect.  That’s how you’ll learn a new town.

How true.  Main Street to King Street, Main Street to Prince Street and Main Street to Pleasant Street.  That’s downtown Northampton!

Reactions to the Blizzard of 2013

blizzard2013streetThere was an interesting story in the Boston Sunday Globe recently about a family who lost power during the Blizzard last month. The electricity didn’t work for three days and the entire family was at a loss of what to do.  No TV, no internet, no gameboy.  Cellphones worked until the battery was drained.

The author, a deputy business editor from the Globe, Mark Pothier recounted his story about being powerless in this “hyperconnected” world.  While he and his family suffered no heat and light, it was the connectivity to the outside world that he felt at a loss.  There’s no doubt that, comparatively, natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti, hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy whose hardships lost more than “dormant flatscreens and missed Facebook updates” (his quote not mine).  A blizzard of 30 inches of snow with the loss of power for two or three days is minor event.

But all this makes me think of the generational differences as we discussed and read in Adult Learning Theory.  “One of the key tenets of sound online course design (and implementation) is that courses should be learner-centered.”  (Kaminski & Currie “Education for a Digital World, p 196).  This can be a challenge since learners come from a variety of age groups, sociological backgrounds and lifestyles.  In any given class, a participant or learner can be one from Gen X or Gen Y or a Baby Boomer.  In a perfect world, design of online courses would benefit both the individual and the collective group.  Kaminski goes on to say that the generational concept was introduced by Karl Mannheim (1936) who said groups of individuals born within the same age period share a commonality – a similar world view.

As a Baby Boomer, we remember the Blizzard of 1978.  Although I was in college at the time and safely sequestered on campus, my husband remembers getting stuck on Route 128.  No cellphones.  People were stuck on the highway.  We remember blizzards.  They were not detrimental.  “The storms never damaged our spirits.  We weren’t dependent on instant access to 24-hour entertainment,” Pothier writes.

So, sorry Gen X and Gen Y if we remember previous blizzards.  We remember the disasters, but we didn’t have cellphones to help us in an emergency.  We were at the mercy of time.

Aging, Learning and Singing!

quartetHave you heard about the recent movie, Quartet?  In a nutshell, it stars Maggie Smith.  The plot centers on an old age home full of retired classical musicians and opera singers.  It was originally a play by Ronald Harwood which we saw a few years ago at the Merrimack Repertory Theater.  The characters come together in an effort to sing for a gala of Verdi’s Rigoletto.

This example makes me think of the Adult Learning theory on “theories of the life course.”  As we all go through stages in life from childhood to adulthood, we approach life experiences and learning in different ways.  This is cited in Tennant and Pogson’s “Learning and Change in the Adult Years” (Ch 4). They refer to Eric Erickson (1959) who highlights the stages of life as a developmental theorist “who recognizes that a strong sense of identity leads naturally to a capacity for interdependence.” This charts the life course in terms of phases or stages: periods of stability, equilibrium, balance along with periods of instability and transition. (pg 88-89).  An alternate theory to life stages is highlighted by Neugarten (1976).  She states that circumstances within age brackets are not set in stone, but are flexible with social time, historical time and chronological time.  But it is Merriman (2007) “Learning in Adulthood,” that nicely sums up life stages: “it is how we learn from experiences, rather than how life experiences constrain or limit our learning.”

This parallels the plot of the movie: The main character, Jean, arrives at the old age home. She is the ex-wife of Reggie.  I would surmise, at that stage of life, they fought and argued. They were not in balance and very unstable.  Predictably, in the movie, the characters come together at the climax. They all get along for the annual gala.

While the movie highlights the foibles and frailties of aging, it’s also about the triumphant efforts to keep singing!

Thoughts on Aging and Life-Long Learning

I had an interesting thought this week while reading “Learning and Change” by Mark Tennant (Tennant, “Learning and Change: A Developmental Perspective, Jossey-Bass, 1995). I found I am fascinated with aging and the whole cognitive process. The study of WAIS – Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale was particularly interesting.

crosswordThis comes to light over the last few months when by sisters and I learned our 85 year-old Aunt has onset Alzheimer’s. We were flummoxed to discover that this brilliant self-taught NY intellectual, who could complete the NY Times crossword puzzle, who is knowledgeable in art history and classical music, who is well read and a political activist and who was once the deputy commissioner of NY housing commission, not only forgets her keys, but also gets lost in her own neighborhood.

That said, it has interested me that life-long learning is a process. Research shows that there is a natural decline in intelligence with age, but with training and learning, the process can be somewhat reversed. Tenant sites some well documented studies that there are shortcomings to standard tests including social and cultural bias. (Tennant pg 17).

Our town library has a wonderful life-long learning program in conjunction with Framingham State University where professors come to the library and lecture on a myriad of topics. My husband and I have seen topics on the Civil War, migration of New England birds, architectural details of Rome and Dennis Lehane’s mystery books. With all that, I am amazed at the wide scope of expertise the lectures provide, but the interaction among the participants (mostly older folk) is amazing.  Although I am many years from retirement, it is a true testament that there are life-long learning programs offered at libraries, assisted living facilities, universities and museums.

We may lose our computational skills (I never had mathematical prowess), but it’s the accumulated life experiences that matter (Tennant, pg 34).

Back to my Aunt. She’s wonderfully active, lucid and agile; it’s just that things get muddled. Taking advantage of life-long learning activities (either as a participant or as a leader) would be good to instill cognitive skills – and even pleasure.

Adult Learning Theories #602

What do you want to be when you grow up? That’s a question children face all the time. My grammar school best friend, Joanne, wanted to be a nurse. Her mother was a nurse; her sister was a nurse. She followed in their path and went to nursing school to become a nurse.

Unlike Joanne, I took a circuitous path to my career as a trainer/instructional designer. My career didn’t follow a linear path. I tinkered with other fields, but found my passion in adult education and training. There is nothing like combining education with experience. Two years ago, I decided to go back to graduate school and arm myself with education, to understand and build skills, tools, strategies theories and best practices. That’s what appeals to me… To marry education and experience.

As a footnote, I have started a tips and techniques blog called, Bells & Whistles Training blog on a monthly basis. The goal is to be more efficient and proficient in using software applications. Feel free to jump over and see if a tip can help you be more efficient.