An obnoxious story about learning by experience

When I was a toddler – I don’t think I had started Kindergarten yet – I taught myself to count by twos.  I didn’t actually know that was what I was doing, or even that it was a valuable skill.  I was just playing a game I made up, counting playing cards while dropping them on one side or another of a picture frame on my grandmother’s living room table.  When a card dropped on the far side of the frame, I would say its number out loud: (one), TWO, (three), FOUR, etc.  I didn’t attach any significance to my game until sometime later, when I was in the car with my mother and one of her teacher friends and the friend said something about when (at some later point in my schooling) I would learn to count by twos.  I declared, “I already know how to count by twos” and proceeded to demonstrate.

Is that an obnoxious story?  Forgive me if it is, but this week’s assignment is to write about “learning by experience” and that’s my earliest memory of doing so.  My mathematical prowess did not survive into adulthood; I grew up be neither an astrophysicist nor (to my abiding regret) a champion poker player.  But to this day, if you need to count something by twos, I’m your gal. 

 Looking back, I see that “doing” has always been my favorite mode of learning.  Sometimes this has happy results (the card game) and sometimes not (my first experience of riding a bike with hand brakes left me with a broken tooth in the front of my mouth until a dentist friend repaired it decades later), but I’d still much rather (as Nike says) “just do it” than spend hours reading about it first. This correlates moderately well with my learning styles profile: My card game was “solitary” (the adult Elaine scored 13 out of 20 on that mode), and “aural” (14), but I’d have to say it was also “physical” – which was one of my lower scores (8).  Perhaps toddlers learn by physical means because they are less developed verbally?

 Of course, learning-by-doing has its limitations.  It’s fine to dive in and write a speech when you’ve never really written one before; less fine to dive in and perform brain surgery under the same conditions. (Fortunately, I’m not a doctor – though I have written speeches for them.)  As a speechwriter who learns by experience, I read a great deal – and not just business books.  And I analyze well-written speeches, see what makes them work for me – and where I think they fall short.

In the movie Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray character relives the same day over and over again, until he learns the things he needs to do to grow as a person.  People who learn by experience have to be careful to take in a range of experiences and inputs, or we risk rehashing what we know over and over again.   This might work well for someone in a factory, who repeats the same action every day; but knowledge workers must recognize that the world’s store of knowledge increases daily, and unless our personal stores of knowledge follow suit we will render ourselves obsolete.


Who teaches? Who learns?

My journey to teaching writing in a corporate setting continues: For the next month or so I’ll be blogging occasionally about issues related to designing and teaching courses online.

Most of the online training I’ve had so far has been very passive – clicking through screens full of text for hours on end (okay, maybe half-hours, but it sure seemed like hours) and answering the occasional multiple-choice question.  In that kind of asynchronous web-based training, the “teacher” remains invisible – the Great & Powerful Oz behind a curtain of html.  Web-based training was not a particularly rewarding experience for me as a student; I’m not a passive person. And it’s hard for me to imagine that it’s rewarding for the instructor/designer/creator (or if we’re sticking with the Oz metaphor, the Wizard).

One of the things I enjoy most about training is collecting feedback from the students.  Since all of the training I’ve done so far has been real-time, real-world-based, that feedback has come from seeing the light dawn on a student’s face or hearing well-reasoned answers to my questions.  So far, no applause.  But I’m still hopeful.  But Oz, our web-based trainer, will never get to experience those things.

Synchronous instructor-led online training offers slightly more feedback for instructors: they can see and hear the students and interact with them in something close to real-time (though the magic of technology can’t eliminate the awkward pauses of dead air in between speakers).  In instructor-led online training, instructors function in much the same way they do in classrooms: as facilitator, expert, authority, resource, coach.  Additionally, they are able to personalize instruction to clarify confusions or suggest additional resources.  And students are able to ask questions and enrich the “classroom” discussion with their own thoughts and insights.  These things are not possible with an asynchronous, web-based program.

Culture and Communication

Therapist and pop-culture phenomenon John Gray has built quite a career (and bank account) by insisting that “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.” In Gray’s bipolar cosmos, communication issues are inextricably bound up with anatomy, or biology, or hormones, or something. (I have to admit I’ve only read more than a few pages of one of his books, but I have heard him lecture and despite the fact that he seems like a personable and well-meaning man, I always come away feeling sort of alien. I don’t fit into his paradigm, perhaps because I’m not from Venus; I’m from New Jersey.)

Anyway, what I think Gray is getting at is emotional intelligence. And I do agree with him that different people hear and react to things in different ways. But many factors influence this, beyond (or perhaps in addition to) hormones.  Culture, for one, is a major component of social awareness and relationship management. Take someone who is completely in synch with the dominant forms of behavior in his or her native country and plop them in a culture with different expectations and his or her EQ can drop like a stone.

I recently interviewed an executive, an Indian gentleman who grew up and has spent his whole career in India.  At the end of our conversation, I asked him the same closing question I use in every interview: “Is there anything I haven’t asked you that I should have?” 

When I’m talking with Americans, that open-ended query often yields the most interesting answers about things I never would have thought to ask.  But this Indian executive read the question differently. “Oh,” he stammered, “I would never presume to tell you what you should do. You know the information you need much better than I do.”

In that instant I felt like “Speechwriter from Mars.”  Perhaps I should have thought about potential cultural differences between us before I opened my mouth, but at least I was able to hear and recognize them once he responded.  I reassured him that if he answered, I would not feel criticized – that, in fact, he may have some knowledge to share that I know nothing about, so his answer could be a great help to me. 

Now he’s an intelligent man, with advanced degrees from India’s finest universities, but plop him in an American classroom and he’s not going to get much out of the experience…unless the teacher identifies and addresses how his expectations may differ from those of his classmates.  

Or unless he gives some thought to cultural differences himself.  Communication, after all, is a two-way street.  But I do think in that situation it’s more the responsibility of the person native to the culture to lead or guide, just as you would make sure a houseguest visiting for the first time knows where in your house you keep the towels.
Have any of you had experiences where your emotional intelligence seemed to desert you, or where it was seriously out of whack with the people you were dealing with? How did you handle it?


Any Questions?

I have always believed that I am terrible at asking questions.  Yet I’ve had many people tell me that I’m great at it – that I ask interesting, thorough questions; even that it was the best interview they’ve ever had.

So where’s the disconnect?

I think – and I realized this in class today – that it’s all about my goal. When I’m working, I gather information with a very specific purpose in mind, whether I’m writing a speech or a profile or an essay. It’s a purpose outside myself and that somehow makes asking questions “okay” for me.

Outside a professional setting – when I’m meeting someone socially, for instance – I generally don’t have such a clear purpose, so I’ll come away from the meeting lacking key bits of information that seem obvious to others. “Where did she grow up?” I don’t know. “Where does he work?” Sorry, forgot to ask. Actually, I’ve gotten better at this over time but it’s still a very mechanical process for me – almost a checklist I go through in my mind.

I had assumed that my (self-perceived) question-asking deficit was going to be an issue for me as I learned to be a trainer.  I mean, sooner or later you have to stop lecturing and ask a question.  How would I know what to ask, and when?

So I approached the Constructivist theory of education with extreme caution: drawing the knowledge out of one’s students cannot be accomplished via a lecture, after all. Questioning – by all participants – is integral to the process.

And yet, when we did a brief teaching exercise in class today, I heard my voice advocating that my group teach in a Constructivist style. And as if that weren’t strange enough, I actually formulated some of the key questions we would ask. Wouldn’t ya know, it was fun.  Not only that, but the class seemed engaged (even in the very banal task we were assigned to teach).

That’s why I grabbed a Constructivist for my final presentation. No doubt in my mind that this is a theory I need to learn more about.  If I can find the joy in asking questions and watching my class create the answers…well, that will be positively Transformational for me.

What theories of education are you drawn to? And why?

Quiet, Please!

So the last time I was in school, I learned things – many of which turned out to be useful – and I thought thoughts – some of which turned out to be intelligent.

I’m doing both of those now, too, but what’s interesting to me is that the times I’m learning the most – the times when I swear I can actually hear my mind expand and feel the rush of air and light through the newly opened space – are the times we pause for reflection.

The “Moment of Silence” turns out to be a teaching tool, one way of breaking up a long lecture into 15-minute chunks to keep the students involved. I understand this principle: When someone expects one of my clients to fill an hour at a conference I tell them they’re going to get a 20-minute speech followed by as much Q&A as the room wants. No way I’d let someone talk for any longer than that!

Once, early in my career, I had to write a two-hour speech for a famously grumpy executive to deliver in Japan. We questioned, we even protested, but the organizers insisted it was a cultural thing: the Japanese audience would be highly offended if he spoke for even a minute less. Two hours of simultaneous translation later, my famously grumpy executive and his unfailingly polite audience were all sick of the sound of his voice. I’ve had a 15- or 20-minute limit ever since, and nobody’s culture seems offended by it. (My personal culture is most offended by speakers who talk too long.  But I digress.)

So the Moment of Silence. It serves a mechanical purpose in the classroom. And at yesterday’s class it also helped me, somewhat miraculously, synthesize what I’m learning with why I’m learning it. It allowed me to remind myself of my strengths, which I don’t often do.

Now, I’m used to doing a lot of stuff that doesn’t directly look like work. I believe it’s important for my creative process, and often I’m right. When I need an idea, I’ll do some background reading on the subject I’m tackling and then go do something else, like take a walk, and let the ideas ferment in my head before I sit down to write. But fermenting is not the same as reflecting. In the fermenting process I am deliberately NOT thinking directly about a thing; the Moment of Silence offers time to confront a question head-on.

So as of today, there’s a new policy here at Bennett Ink: the daily Moment of Silence. I have a pile of things I’ve set aside to think about – including but not limited to this – but I’ve been too busy “doing” to think. Now I see that thinking is an important thing to do, all on its own.

Are you thinking about anything in a new way – or for the first time? How is it helping you?

House of Mirrors

Have you ever been to a carnival and stepped into a house of mirrors?  I did it once.  It’s a disorienting experience, and I didn’t much like it.  Everywhere I turned, there I was: sometimes reflected back exactly as I am but dozens of me – sometimes distorted, occasionally thinner (okay, that part wasn’t so bad).  The idea is to find your way through the maze of reflections until you reach the exit.

So what does this have to do with writing?

I recently decided that I could add value for clients by teaching the principles of effective business writing.  For that I need a professional credential, so I trotted off to NYU and enrolled in a certificate program in adult learning.  This makes me an adult learner learning how to help adults learn.  Are you starting to see the mirrors yet?

Even more than that, it turns out that to learn how to help other adults learn I have to examine how I learn: What engages me and why?  What loses my attention and why?  What snaps my mind shut like a broken window shade?

I’m used to being, you should pardon the expression, “reflective” when I learn.  But usually the thing I’m reflecting on isn’t ME.  And so I wonder, will thinking about the process of learning enhance the process or will it just make me feel self-conscious?

I expect to get more out of this house of mirrors than I did at the carnival – all I took away from that experience was a headache. But at this stage it still feels strange, being simultaneously a participant in and a subject of the class.  Does anyone else feel that way?