By Mirjam Neelen
As always, this year’s Learning Technologies conference covered a wide range of topics, such as emerging technologies, learning models and strategies, engagement, social learning, the science of learning, and of course aligning learning to the business. It’s clear that a strong L&D professional has access to a creative, diverse tool box and knows how to make use of it effectively.
What struck me as always is the gap between the “visionary” talks, for example Thimon de Jong’s keynote on living and learning in the connected society, and the experiences that both conference attendees and presenters share about what actually happens in organisations. Don’t get me wrong, these are still really interesting examples of projects or strategies that people have designed and implemented and they’re usually tackling very complex problems. For example, Sharon Claffey Kaliouby’s session on compliance training, which I chaired, clearly brought to the surface that it’s a sensitive balancing act to deliver an effective learning experience that truly impacts behaviour, while at the same time protecting employees from punitive approaches by organisations.
The various sessions on aligning learning and performance strategies to the business (Charles Jennings on 70:20:10, Laura Overton with “How L&D can work smarter for greater impact”, Tobias Kiefer with “The future of the L&D department”, and so the list goes on) shows that L&D still struggles massively to drive that so needed change. It’s not “just” the need for L&D to work closer with the business, it’s also the need for supporting employees in increasing their performance through “pull” instead of “push” models. One example is working out loud (WOL) (John Stepper), which is a way of networking in which you invest in relationships and find ways to make your work visible and frame it as a contribution. Working out loud circles are small peer support groups in which you work towards a goal. In addition to working out loud, there is also self-directed learning (Stella Collins), and personal knowledge mastery (PKM) (Harold Jarche). These three topics are highly integrated. For both PKM and WOL, you need to be quite a strong self-directed learner. I didn’t attend Jarche’s session unfortunately as it was running in parallel with Stella Collins’ one on self-directed learning and I chose to go there. Jarche’s illustration, which I found on SlideShare on how to practice PKM (see figure 1) clearly shows that employees need quite some skills to be able to do PKM effectively.


Figure 1. Jarche’s How to Practice PKM
Collins explained various interesting facts on neuroscience and learning, for example on the importance of sleep on learning, however, I was a bit disappointed because there was nothing tangible in the sense of “this is what I’m going to try to support self-directed learning in the workplace” and from my perspective, self-directed learning is critical. The only takeaway I got from her session is that we should stop relying on managers because we cannot expect each and every manager to be strong at supporting learning within their team and it’s more effective to face reality than fight it. Stepper’s session on working out loud was very appealing to me, in the way that it sounds quite “easy” to get started with it and it makes a lot of sense to do so because employees need to take control over their own learning to be effective, adaptive and stay competitive. Stepper explains that there’s a set of skills and behaviours that employees can learn in order to work out loud: build relationships, show generosity, make work visible, discover with purpose, and having a growth mindset (note that this has been under debate recently and Dweck has been defending her research here). The process starts simple, with recognition and appreciation and then ideally it slowly builds up to contributions that help others and perhaps at some point, you’ll receive something in return. Stepper calls the model “guided mastery” and he explains it as small steps, practice over time with feedback and peer support. As a “working out louder” you need to ask yourself three questions. First, what am I trying to accomplish? Next, who is related to my goal and finally how can I contribute to them to deepen the relationship? I think this approach can be effective in many different contexts. It’s not rocket science but it’s about finding ways to get started and maintain it and understanding what impacts people’s willingness to do it, such as intrinsic motivation, autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
My favorite sessions were the keynote by Thimon de Jong and Will Thalheimer’s session on spaced learning (and microlearning and subscription learning, as you can see in his slides here). De Jong was just plain funny and had fascinating stuff to share. He talked about how the data that is out there “knows us” and what that implies. For example, a tool such as Crystal Knows trawls through and interprets the things we share on the web and creates a scary accurate personality profile out of it. According to De Jong, this is what we want. We want our data to be used. To illustrate this, he talks about some research that Vodafone conducted in which their customers expressed that they want Vodafone to use their data more in order to get a more customised experience. And we’re willing to sacrifice our privacy as long as we get something in return. He also talks about a trust transition, meaning that we no longer rely on institutions for reliable information, we Google it, hence moving from institutional to personal. I find it intriguing that De Jong didn’t seem to worry about this transition. It was also mentioned by Julia Shaw in her strong talk on memory hacking (on how easy it is to make people believe a fake memory as being real through imagination). She stated that it becomes less important to remember facts because they’re so easy to find on the web. I could write a separate blog on this topic (and probably multiple) because I think the message that this is not a problem is a concern. It comes down to ideology and even reality (as in “what people do and believe” – Google it and you’ll be fine!) not being aligned with evidence from science. The statement that we don’t need knowledge as much anymore and that we need to focus on more generic skills is very popular at the moment (also see my blog with Paul Kirschner on 21st century skills). To put it very simply, if you don’t have sufficient knowledge and vocabulary to follow news or any type of information, then you’ll fail to interpret this information correctly. You could argue then that you can critically analyse this information using Google but there’s no such thing as being able to “think critically” or “problem-solve” without proper domain knowledge. Of course you can look up things, compare and contrast, analyse, etcetera if you’re not sure of something but the point is you’ll be more unaware of what you’re unaware of if you don’t have enough domain knowledge and hence you might not be aware that you need to look something up etcetera. This is exactly why collaboration is so important in organisations to solve complex problems. You can benefit from each other’s knowledge as people with different domain knowledge view the problem through a different lens. I’ll leave it at that (for now ☺).
Thalheimer’s session on spaced learning is close to my heart because although I support the notion that “work is learning and learning is work” I also feel that we need to be careful to truly understand how employees learn most effectively. We also need to increase employees’ awareness of effective strategies in order to be able to support them in managing their own learning. Thalheimer explained that spacing is one of the most reliable findings in the learning research but unfortunately it’s one of the least utilised methods in the workplace learning field. In short, repetition works, retrieval practice with feedback works, and spacing works. What does the latter mean? I’ll use one of Thalheimer’s examples to explain. Read the scenario on the left hand side and then try to decide for yourself what the correct answer is on the right hand side.
The correct answer is A. Research has clearly showed over and over again that retention is better when we a) leave “non-learning” space in between practice sessions (how long exactly is not so clear) and b) that we need to apply “looped” learning, meaning that we need to repeatedly come back to previously learned concepts (gluten free foods, in this case). It might feel counterintuitive but the point is although it will take more effort short term, it will increase retention long term.
One of the biggest strengths of Thalheimer’s sessions was that it’s applicable in our jobs. Right away. And this aligns with the feedback that I heard over and over again from attendees: “I want a takeaway. I want to walk away from a session with something I can try, something I can start using.” Although we appreciate inspiring talks, in the end we want to get better at what we do. After all, we’re passionate about learning, right?