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What can software learn from kung fu?


What do Photoshop, martial arts, church, the military, accounting software, Star Trek, video games, digital video, web programming, online forums, chess, and cooking have in common? The Next Level. There's always something new to aim for and as you progress through each level, the motivation to go higher keeps growing. How many of you have felt the seduction--where you go into something thinking you'll never care about anything beyond the bare minimum entry-level, only to find yourself sucked in?

Next thing you know, it turns out you did want to learn CSS. Because once you know CSS, then you can do... (and on it goes). Turns out you did need something beyond what iMovie could do, so you just had to get Final Cut Express. Turns out you did want to earn the rank of "bartender"-- full forum moderator status on javaranch. Turns out you did decide to go for your SCWCD certification in Java. And why not get a brown belt?

Where there is passion, there is always the idea of a "next level".

The next level doesn't have to be explicit, like belt levels in martial arts, the specifically numbered levels in a video game, or a military rank. Sometimes the next level is simply a new, more advanced capability. The key point, though, is that even if the next level is implicit, everyone recognizes it. Or at least everyone involved in that activity. If you're at a Star Trek convention and the guy behind you in line starts speaking conversational Klingon, that says something. For that audience--the hard core trekkies--this guy has achieved an implicit high level of trekness. (Not that I'd know ; )

Even with something as seemingly mundane at work, you see it. The one woman in the office who truly "gets" tables in MS Word. Although she might have reached table mastery status simply because she was forced to, more often it was because she started down that path and found herself hooked on learning just a little more.

No matter what the job task, the feeling is something like this: "If I could just do [insert some capability just slightly beyond what you know now], then I'd be able to do this one cool thing." And just as with any video game, once you've got that new "superpower", the next natural desire is to learn the next thing... If you can find a way to give your users something to reach for... that next level... in terms of new capabilities that allow them to do still cooler things, you have a much greater chance of inspiring passion. Because reaching for that next level is what leads to greater engagement, and improves the chance of having users stay in flow (FYI: the August issue of Fast Company has a nice little article on Flow! It's not online yet; they still show July as the current issue.)

It's all about kicking ass.

Of course, some companies do exactly the wrong thing by making what should be, say, a level 2 task feel like a level 8. In other words, you shouldn't have to feel like you must "get to the next level" to do the most basic thing. The point of the next level concept is that users should feel like it's worth the effort to get there. That it's challenging, but for all the right reasons. That the new cool thing they'll be able to do justifies the time and energy spent learning, researching, practicing. So the featuritis vs. the happy user peak plays a role here.

Remember, learning is like a drug to the brain (actually, it is a drug). The best user experiences--combined with a clear path to greater expertise and the promise of more time in flow--are like a healthier, happier form of crack. One of the best examples of this drug-dealer model in software is Apple.

With iMovie, for example, the first one is free. But once you're hooked, you find yourself wanting capabilities found only in the $299 Final Cut Express. You find yourself wanting, no needing to do things you never even imagined before you started playing around with iMovie. And for a certain percentage of users, even Final Cut Express will have limitations. Now you need the $999 Final Cut Pro or--for just a few dollars more, what the heck--might as well go for the whole Final Cut Studio. They've managed to teach you to want the most expensive versions of their products. Then they do the same thing with sound (Garage Band --> Logic Express --> Logic Pro). It seems Apple has figured out the optimum price points for their "next levels", in order of FREE, $299, then $999.

But even if the goal is not to teach or inspire users to appreciate your higher-end products, just having goals to strive for is what matters. Whether the promise is that you can become a first-level moderator, a church usher, one who can use the RAW features of Photoshop, a CSS guru, a Sun Certified Business Component Developer, a double black diamond snowboarder, or a 3-dan go player... never forget that where there is passion, there is always a next level.

Software--or any product--can learn a lot from the martial arts, and I suppose the idea of rankings/belts/levels is probably the least of it. But it's a great place to start.

So what's your next level? Do your users know what the levels are? Too often, users could get excited and motivated if only they knew more. If you hear a user say something like, "But I never you could do that!", consider that a problem. How many more people would have stuck around if they'd known? With your software, product, service, club, subject you teach, whatever... is there a steady series of new possibilities out there worth reaching for, and more importantly, are you doing something to help users get there?

Posted by Kathy on July 19, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

College matters... sometimes

Whew -- I did not expect this level of response to the "Does College Matter" question, so I decided to make a new post rather than try to address it in comments. First, thank-you so much to everyone. I'm definitely NOT advocating 100% learning on your own, for anything. As I made clear in my recent "Ten Tips for Trainers" post, I sure don't want my bain surgeon to be self-taught. Or my architect. And I'm really hoping those air traffic control folks and nuclear power plant controllers had a lot of "official" coursework.

But putting Skyler's scenario aside, what does "going to college" actually mean today? Shel, from everything I've been learning and seeing -- college is not what it used to be, at least for the 3000 or so US colleges and universities that aren't in the top tier. You and your fellow students also came from a dramatically different K-12 system than the one out that kids are graduating from today. You of all people know how much the world has changed, yet schools and education delivery
has been the same for nearly a century.

Does the traditional four-year undergrad degree thing still makes sense? Does it make sense as the default for all high-school grads? It feels so old-fashioned to me in the face of so many other changes and the impact of Moore's law and internet time. We live in a wildly different world from the one that inspired the current program we still all accept largely without question. Can there be more creative options? Look how many of the best schools offer nearly all their courses in some non-local manner. The idea that MIT now has virtually open-sourced their courseware! Self-learners have access to at least a part of one of the best educations available. For many years, Stanford has been in the position of having to justify to their board why they still need a physical campus.

For every benefit of college, we should at least consider that there might be other ways to get at least some of those benefits. And some of those other ways might be better (not just cheaper).

More options for life-credit.
More options for distance learning.
More online forums and video chats.
Programs with that offer more creative combinations of some on-campus and some distance programs.
Faster programs.
Programs that perhaps go back and forth between learning and working.

How many of you who went to college as I did--right out of high school--have wished you could go back to school now... now that you could appreciate it in a way that you never could at the time you actually went...

Maybe there should be third-party "learning designers" who you pay to plan and choose the best options and put together a perfectly tailored custom program from a variety of learning vendors (instead of throwing all your learning eggs into one school basket) that still includes some general education, but in the way that makes the most sense for that particular student, and uses both online, distance, and *some* face-to-face learning. If a parent (and more importantly, the student) thinks that leaving home is important, that can be a component as well (although I'm still voting for the crash-course with a backpack and a rail pass thing). The students could go to a kind of "advanced learning camp" that could be anything from an off-campus dorm (complete with cafeteria), or something more primitive.

Just about every time someone justifies college -- many (not all) of the things they point to could be met in other ways. Do you really need four--or usually five--years of sitting in classrooms listening to lectures (weak - weak - weak)? Think very seriously about how many of your teachers and classes really were exceptional? How many do you really remember? It'll be hard to convince me that there's no other way for a young person to gain an appreciation for thinking.

There's still a huge problem with employers (and hiring HR people) who look only at the piece of paper for hiring and promotions and pay raises. Many of you have pointed out just how ridiculous that still is. But that's a whole different issue...

For me, after teaching myself programming, I did take computer science courses at UCLA, because I was deeply interested in advanced artificial intelligence, and couldn't find books at that level that I felt would be enough for me to truly understand it. I didn't have mentors in that field at the time, so taking night classes while I worked was a great option. They were only $300 each. Later, I taught classes at UCLA Extension, and one of the perks was that you could take classes, so I took more.

So this isn't a college vs. no college argument; one can certainly *take college courses* without going for the full monty degree thing. I wouldn't trade quite a few of my college courses for anything (including a few when I was in real college on the four-year degree path). BUT... and this is the big one... I can say that about only a handful. I will never get the rest of those years back.

Roger Schank, Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon, founder of Institute for Learning Science at Northwestern, and former Chairman of the Computer Science department at Yale, knows a lot more about this than I do:

"Whenever I teach a class, I ask students why there are in college. They tell me things like, "It's a four-year vacation," "The parties are good,", "It will get me a good job later," "It's what everyone does, so I never thought about an alternative," and so on. The issue of learning never comes up. No student has ever mentioned it in class, although I ask the question quite often. Why is that? As I said earlier, school isn't really about learning at all. It's about certification. College students today attend school to get a degree that they hope will get them something they want...
... we never ask a student if he learned a lot, we ask how well he or she did. Evaluation is based on the judgement of others when it comes to "official" learning. Students feel they did well when others say they did well. It is the rare student who says that he or she learned a great deal and thus was very happy with the educational experience."

He points out the irony when he asked that all cognitive science professors commit to never giving multiple choice tests:

"Now, every cognitive scientist knows that there is no value in such tests; nevertheless the faculty objected. "Who will grade all the papers that students turn in?" they asked. "We don't have the money for more teaching assistants, and I want to do my research."

"School isn't really about learning; it's about short-term memorization of meaningless information that never comes up later in life. It is intended to satisfy observers that knowledge is being acquired... Our major universities--the ones which parents dream about their children attending--were originally created to produce theologians... the idea has persisted into the present that school should provide a "general education".
I was on the faculty at Yale for fifteen years... Other department heads talked grandly about how they would broaden students worldview and create well-rounded young men and women... People tell me that philosophy or some other course taught them, "how to think." Didn't they know how to think before they took philosophy? A good deal of cognitive dissonance is at work here. Because people labored so diligently at school for so many years, they convince themselves that there must have been a lot of learning going on."

If someone hands you a test from all but a small handfull of the courses you took in college, how many questions could you answer correctly? And before you protest, "That's not the POINT!" think carefully about what the point really is, and more importantly--could at least some aspects of that point be satisfied in some other more applicable, less expensive, more effective way?

Again, wow, thanks so much for all the thoughtful comments, and especially for the encouragement about what Skyler's doing. I'm just glad that Dori's going to be posting what her son is up to, though, so I can still get a little vicarious parent-of-the-college-kid experience. Dori, would you ask Sean if he'd like one of those pink faux velvet bean bag chairs?

Posted by Kathy on July 17, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack

Avoid cliches like the plague

The brain pays attention to the unexpected. The surprising. Mistakes and failures. When everything works as planned, the brain can just go on about its business scanning for tigers, potential mates, and anything else that causes a chemical reaction. I referred to this in an earlier post about learning as the WTF principle, and the getting what you expect is boring posts.

But nothing beats the post Marian Bantjes made on the speakup blog about design cliches. It's tacked my wall for inspiration. If you haven't seen it, go NOW. I'll wait...

OK, now that you're back--when I was still a Sun employee, the education marketing folks scheduled a photo shoot for a catalog/brochure on their customer training courses. When I heard about the new brochure, I pleaded, "Whatever you do, PLEASE don't show happy people smiling and pointing at the computer screen." Happycomputerpeople

But it was too late...

Try checking out the brochures of technical training companies, and see how little real differentiation there appears to be. I'm not saying there aren't huge variations in quality, topics, methods, etc.,-- I'm saying that you'd never know it from the look and feel of their communication. And I'm not just singling out computer training--the overall "sameness" problem shows up everywhere from computer books to banks to churches to software to cars...

Before you can get them to be passionate, you have to get their attention. If the stuff on your website or brochure or book could be interchanged with any of your competitors, it might be that you're using a cliche, or at least falling into the conservative standards. The trap of "professionalism." If we'd listened to all the people who told us the Head First books would never sell because of their perceived lack of professionalism, it would have been a huge mistake.

We're in the process of having a logo designed for a new book series and imprint (I haven't revealed the name yet, but I promise to do so very soon), and I'm frustrated by how easy it is to find something you like and then realize that it would perfectly well for a zillion other companies or worse -- a zillion other companies in completely different fields.

So I guess one of the ways to be identifiable at every scale is to ride herd on cliches. Keep a tight rein. At the end of the day, it all comes down to how well you think outside the box.

Posted by Kathy on July 16, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Does college matter?


Your son wants to play in a band. You think he should be an engineer. You're majoring in bioinformatics because your parents told you it was a good career choice, but you hate it. You love to write code, but now your parents are telling you "it's a bad move, what with outsourcing and all..." You spent your first two years of college maintaining an inhuman blood alcohol level, when it hits you--you've taken out loans to pay for this drinking.

We've all accepted that a college degree == $. (Ignoring Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, of course.) College means higher lifetime earnings, and there's plenty of research to back that up. On the other hand, we've also learned that there's scientific evidence that money doesn't mean happiness (assuming you're over the baseline level of poverty). So if there's almost no correlation between money and happiness, but college means more money... where's real happiness in all that?

I've watched the wildly conflicting comments on the future of IT/programming as a profession between Dori Smith on "don't do it" and Robert Scoble on how "Microsoft can't find enough programmers".
But I'm far less interested in whether majoring in a high-tech field is a good idea today than I am in whether the question even matters. The average education in computer science, engineering, and even medicine is partly obsolete within 18 months. Some weird variant of Moore's law I guess. The conventional wisdom says that the specifics of what you learn are much less important than the fact that you're learning the fundamentals, and you're learning to learn--things you'll need to maintain your skills and knowledge in a quickly changing world.

The problem is, you virtually never hear a student say that. It's always the parents or someone speaking on behalf of the educational system. When was the last time you honestly heard (and believed) an actual current college student claim that the true benefit of their formal college education is in learning to be a lifelong learner? That's just bulls***.
With very few exceptions, college in the US is more about drinking than it is about deep learning.

Others claim that the benefit of a college degree is really more about socialization and independence. I've heard reasonably smart adults say, with all sincerity, that spending $80,000 so little Suzy could learn to live on her own was worth it. I think there are a thousand different, and often better, ways to achieve that. Suzy could join the peace corp, for example, or go on one of those "learning vacations" where you do an archealogical dig. Hell, just a three-month long trip through Europe with a couple friends and a rail pass (or, as a friend of mine did, a bike trip across Turkey) is certainly going to do more for socialization and independence than a traditional college environment, and at a tiny fraction of the cost.

The real curiosity, for me and others, is why we spend so much time railing against the decline in public schools for K-12 in the US, while higher education practically gets a free pass. The only major complaints you hear are about the rising costs, when to me--that may be the least of it.

In Declining by Degrees, a PBS documentary and book, one of the central questions is about why we aren't looking more closely at what really happens between admission and graduation. Or I should say, looking at what doesn't happen. From the intro:

"The decline in the quality of American undergraduate education has not yet become a major public issue. Americans may be cynical about their public institutions and leaders, but their skepticisim does not extend to the nature and content of a college education."

"... the result of this mentality (we are resisting the temptation to label it "mental illness") is graduates who are narrowly educated--and often are "trained" for work in fields that will have changed before the ink on their diplomas is dry. Those graduates have scant understanding of civic responsibilities or of the possibilities of life beyond work. Accumulating a sufficient number of courses and credit hours to earn a college degree is, in the public mind, synomous with being educated. But having a diploma bears little resemblance to being educated. "Higher" education has been lowered."

So here we have a pile of issues:

* Does it still make sense to major in a high-tech field? (and the offshoots I didn't mention about whether gender makes a difference)

* Does it really matter what you major in, or is the benefit of college something beyond the actual field of study?

* If college = money, but money != happiness, what does that mean with respect to a college degree?

* Does it still make sense to go to college... at all?

But I think the biggest question of all is something entirely different:

Where does passion fit into this equation?

Everything I hear about is whether a kid -- male or female -- should pursue this field or that field, what the long-term career prospects are, etc. I almost never hear much discussion about whether it matters if they have a passion for. It's true that sometimes college is the best way for them to discover their passion, but I've seen way too many young people traumatized by the thought of telling their parents that after three years of pre-med, they're switching to something like... ornamental horticulture (a big area of study at my alma mater, Cal Poly SLO).

The reason this matters to me now is because I'm right in the middle of it. I've been watching Dori with some envy... going on visits with her son to check out prospective colleges, talking about application forms, entrance exams, all that stuff I naturally assumed I'd be doing when my daughter Skyler turned 16 or 17. The older she got, the better she did in school, and the brighter her teachers found her to be... the more certain I was that she'd follow "the natural path" of the countdown to college that starts somewhere around 10th grade.

But it didn't work out that way. Skyler, it seems, could not care less for conventional wisdom, what her friends do, what the numbers say, and most especially--what her mom might think. Skyler believes that life's too short to spend that many years on something you don't love.

So she decided to just work for a while until she figures something out. And then a few weeks ago, she announced the discovery that Boulder is home to a world-class vegetarian cooking school that in addition to cooking classes, includes courses in professional development ranging from creating a business plan for a restaurant, to starting a personal chef business.

Vegetarian cooking is her passion. She believes in it, she loves it, she takes great pleasure in it. She evangelizes it to others. What horrifies me is that even though I knew she felt this way, it never occurred to me that this was something she might consider instead of college. But she got me with this one:

"Mom, your degree was exercise physiology. You spent your first five years out of college as a glorified aerobic instructor. Then you taught yourself programming, took a few night classes at UCLA, and made a huge career switch into computers, and found you loved it. You have your own computer book series. Yet you told me you had just a single computer class in college, and you hated it. So... tell me again why college was so great for you?"

And then the kicker:

"I have no idea if I'll ever open a restaurant or develop this into a professional career, but whatever investment I make in this will serve me and make me happy for the rest of my life. I'll be using what I learn here in my personal life, almost every day, regardless of my career. How many people can say that about 90% of what they learned in college?"

The part I still have to get over is that feeling of a missed opportunity. Of unfulfilled potential (too many Microsoft ads?). This was a straight-A kid. One far brighter at 12 than I'll ever be. One of those about whom people say, "She could succeed at anything she wants." yet what we all secretly meant was, "She could succeed at anything we think she should want."

Lucky for her, she learned at a much earlier age that passion matters. That money is far less important than joy (and that money doesn't buy joy). And that whatever decision she makes now, does not determine the rest of her life. She understands that the chances of anyone having a single career for life -- or even a decade -- are asymptotically approaching zero. And that nothing -- not finances (or lack of) or gender or age -- will stand in her way if she decides to learn something. And if what she wants to learn at some point in the future is best studied in a formal higher education environment, there's nothing to stop her from going to college then.

Still, I look longingly at the cute Target dorm furniture and think, "maybe one day..." Then I hear what my friends are paying in college tuition, and snap out of it.

I'm no longer convinced that we should assume a traditional four-year college should be the automatic default for all high school grads, esepcially given the state of these institutions today. And I seriously wish people would stop looking at me with pity and concern, shaking their head when they realize Skyler ("but she always seemed so bright...") isn't going to a "real" college. Wake up and smell the 21st century...

Posted by Kathy on July 14, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (66) | TrackBack

Every user is new and different...


Have you ever been told to RTFM? In online forums, especially, I see that response to questions that have obviously been asked a thousand times. "Read the FAQ" or "Do a search--this has been done to death already." And you get the same feeling when you call a tech support line... that subtle implication that you didn't do your homework. That you're wasting their time.

Every so often, this issue would come up on when a moderator would tell someone to do a search, rather than answering (or encouraging anyone else to answer) the poster's question. It's natural for a moderator to become exasperated or just bored hearing the same question over and over and over again--especially in the beginner forums. Another moderator would usually give a gentle reminder that, "for this person, that question is new. This whole topic is new. And if you shut down the question with 'search the archives for that', you've killed any chance of someone bringing in a fresh perspective." Our policy is to usually encourage the user to search the archives in addition to having a fresh discussion in the forum. The give-them-a-fish-and-teach-them-to-fish-at-the-same-time approach.

It's so easy to feel like we've been doing the same thing forever, but as long as there's a new person at the other end of the exchange, it is not the same thing.

I talked about this earlier in Creating Passionate Fans, about musicians playing the same music for decades, yet leaving you--the listener--feeling like it's their first time. Last Saturday, the NPR Weekend Edition interview with Carole King talked about her new "Welcome to my Living Room" tour. What got me was her response to Scott Simon's question about whether she gets tired of being asked to play one of her hits from 30 years ago... a song she's been playing now for three decades. She said that sometimes it is hard, at first, but then something happens...

"Every audience is new and different, and they breathe new life into the song."

I need to remember this. Every user is new and different. Every reader is new and different. And as long as the user is new, then the experience of their interaction with the product, service, book... is new and different. Every new user breathes new life into what we create and deliver.

Maybe there's something in that thought that you can grab onto when you're feeling frustrated or bored. Maybe helping your software developers have more interaction with users can help pull someone back out of the "phoning it in" stage. Maybe helping them see the result of their work in a real, human, context would help.

I'll leave you with this comment from my earlier post, from Dan Steinberg (editor of Java.net, and former radio guy):

"Many year's ago I worked for a radio station where, at the top of every hour, we would say "WMJI - Cleveland's Magic 105 point 7". The reasons were that every station had to identify itself with its call letters and city of license and many stations hid it in a slogan like this. Hour after hour, day after day. In an average year each of us said this roughly 5 * 6 * 50 = 1500 times. Somewhere, someone was hearing it for the first time.

The program director took us to see Barry Manilow - it wasn't that any of us wanted to see him (or actively didn't) but he wanted us to see how Manilow performed songs that he'd sung hundreds of times over the years. The lesson wasn't lost on me.

As much as this helped me as a jock, it reinvigorated me as a teacher. Someone somewhere was getting the point of the mean value theorem for the first time on the hundredth time I'd taught it. Each time the discovery felt fresh to me and I hope to them. Thanks for this trip back."

Rumor has it that Dan's going to put some of his radio expertise back to work in the podcast world, and by remembering that somewhere, someone's hearing his podcast for the first time... I have a feeling he'll have something very special.

What do you do to help yourself--or those who work for you--keep things fresh?

Posted by Kathy on July 12, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Ten Tips for New Trainers/Teachers


Just because you've used lots of software doesn't mean you can write code. Just because you've been in lots of buildings doesn't mean you can be an architect. And just because you've logged a million frequent flyer miles doesn't mean you can fly a plane.
But if that's all ridiculously obvious, why do some people believe that just because they've taken classes, they can teach? (Or just because they've read lots of books, they can write one?) The problem isn't thinking that they can do it, the problem is thinking they can do it without having to learn, study, or practice.

I'm amazed (and more than a little disheartened) how many people believe that simply by virtue of their being skilled and knowledgeable in something, they're implicitly qualified to communicate, mentor, teach, or train that thing. It devalues the art of teaching to think that because you've been a student, you can teach well. That because you've experienced learning, you can craft a learning experience.

But with that out of the way, nobody needs a PhD (or in most cases -- any degree at all) in education or learning theory to be a good teacher. Just as there are plenty of great software developers and programmers without a CompSci degree. People can be self-taught, and do a fabulous job, for a fraction of the cost of a formal education, but they have to be motivated and they have to appreciate why it's important. The irony is that most people with this attitude would themselves be insulted if the tables were turned--if their students didn't think they needed to learn anything from them... that just going on instinct and winging it would be enough.
So this is my starter list for new trainers and teachers (I won't debate any distinctions between "teaching" and "training"--we're talking about one who designs and/or delivers learning experiences, so I don't care what you call it, what your subject is, or even how old your learners are. The fundamentals of how humans learn are pretty constant, even if the application of those fundamentals can look quite different on the surface).

There are two different lists here--Eleven Things to Know, and Ten Tips for New Trainers. This is for newbies, so I'm sure I have nothing new to say for those of you who are already experienced teachers/trainers.

(A list of reference links is at the very bottom of the post. These aren't anything more than an off-the-top-of-my-head list, so please don't think of them as The Complete Story! And yes, I'm way overgeneralizing, or this would be book-length.)

Eleven Things to Know

1) Know the difference between "listening" and "learning".

Listening is passive. It is the lowest, least-efficient, least-effective form of learning. That means lectures are the lowest, least-efficient, least-effective form of learning. Listening alone requires very little brain effort on the learner's part (and that goes for reading lecture-like texts as well), so listening to learn is often like watching someone lift weights in order to get in shape.

2) Know how the brain makes decisions about what to pay attention to, and what to remember.

And here we are back to emotions again. Emotions provide the metadata for a memory. They're the tags that determine how important this memory is, whether it's worth saving, and the bit depth (metaphorically) of the memory. People remember what they feel far more than what they hear or see that's emotionally empty.

3) Know how to apply what you learned in #2. In other words, know how to get your learners to feel.

I'll look at this in the Ten Tips list.

4) Know the wide variety of learning styles, and how to incorporate as many as possible into your learning experience.

And no, we're not talking about sorting learners into separate categories like "He's a Visual Learner while Jim is an Auditory learner.", or "He learns best through examples." Every sighted person is a "visual learner", and everyone learns through examples. And through step-by-step instructions. And through high-level "forest" views. And through low-level "tree" views. Everyone learns top-down and bottom-up. Everyone learns from pictures, explanations, and examples. This doesn't mean that certain people don't have certain brain-style preferences, but the more styles you load into any learning experience, the better the learning is for everyone--regardless of their individual preferences.
(And while you're at it, know that most adults today do not truly know their own learning styles, or even how to learn. The word "metacognition" doesn't appear in most US educational institutions.)

5) Know the fundamentals of current learning theory!

(Check out the book links at the end of this post.)

6) Know why--and how--good advertising works.

It'll help you figure out #3. Be sure you recognize why this matters.

7) Know why--and how--good stories work.

Consider the learner to be on a kind of hero's journey. If Frodo is your student, and you're Gandalf... learn as much as you can about storytelling and entertainment. Learn what screenwriters and novelists learn. Know what "show don't tell" really means, and understand how to apply it to learning.

Humans spent thousands upon thousands of years developing/evolving the ability to learn through stories. Our brains are tuned for it. Our brains are not tuned for sitting in a classroom listening passively to a lecture of facts, or reading pages of text facts. Somehow we manage to learn in spite of the poor learning delivery most of us get in traditional schools and training programs (and books).

8) Know a little something about "the Socratic method". Know why it's far more important that you ask the good questions rather than supply all the answers.

9) Know why people often learn more from seeing the wrong thing than they do from seeing the right thing. Know why the brain spends far less time processing things that meet expectations, than it does on things that don't.

10) Know why it's just as important to study and keep up your teaching skills as it is to keep up your other professional skills. Yes there ARE professional organizations for trainers, with conferences, journals, and online discussions.

11) Know why using overhead slides to deliver a classroom learning experience can--sometimes (often)--be the worst thing you can do.

(Although yes, in many cases using slides for some select pieces of a course are important, beneficial, and crucial. What we're dissing is the practice where the entire class, start to finish, is driven around some kind of slides or presentation.)

12) Know how -- and why -- good games can keep people involved and engaged for hours. Learn how to develop activities that lead to a Flow State.

Ten Tips for New Trainers

1) Keep lecture to the absolute minimum.

There is nearly (but not always) something better than lecture, if learning is the goal. If your class involves a combination of lecture and labs, then if you're short on time--always cut the lecture, not the exercises! (Unfortunately, this is the opposite of what most trainers do.)

2) It is almost always far more important that your learners nail fewer subjects than be "exposed" to a wider range of subjects.

In most cases, it's far more important that your students leave able to DO something with their new knowledge and skills, than that they leave simply KNOWING more. Most classroom-based instruction can be dramatically improved by reducing the amount of content!. Give them the skills to be able to continue learning on their own, rather than trying to shove more content down their throats.

If your students leave feeling like they truly learned -- like they seriously kick ass because they can actually do something useful and interesting, they'll forgive you (and usually thank you) for not "covering all the material". The trainers that get cricism for not covering enough topics or "finishing the course topics" are the ones who didn't deliver a good experience with what they did cover.

3) For classroom trainers, the greatest challenge you have is managing multiple skill and knowledge levels in the same classroom! Be prepared to deal with it.

The worst thing you can do is simply pick a specific (and usually narrow) skill/knowledge level and teach to that, ignoring the unique needs of those who are slower or more advanced. And don't use the excuse that "if they don't have the prereqs, they shouldn't be here." Even among those who meet the formal prereq requirements, you can have drastically different levels. Especially if the teacher who delivered those prereq courses was in the "covering the material" mode. Sure, your students may have been "exposed" to the prereq material, but just because they heard it or read it does not mean they remember it now, or that they ever really "got it."

Techniques for dealing with multiple levels:

* Be sure you KNOW what you've got. Find out before the class, if you can, by speaking with the students or at least exchanging emails. If you don't have access to students prior to the class, then learn as much as you can during introductions!

* Acknowledge the different levels right up front. The more advanced students are far more likely to get pissed off when they think you don't even realize or appreciate their level. By acknowledging it, you recognize their abilities and set the stage for having them act as mentors to the others.

* Have multiple versions of exercises! Have a "base" level of lab activities that everyone must complete, but have additional interesting, challenging options so that your advanced people aren't growing bored or frustrated waiting for the slower people to finish their exercises.

* For slower people, include graduated hint sheets for exercises. (More on that in the next point.)

4) Work hard to get everyone to complete the lab exercises, but NEVER give out the solutions in advance!

This is closely related to #3, because the most likely reason trainers don't have all students finishing labs is because there are some slower learners (and I don't mean "dumber", but simply less knowledgeable or experienced in the topic than the other students, or they just have a learning style that requires more time).

Be sure every students has been successful at the exercises! And if you give them the solution in advance, you've robbed them of the chance to seriously kick ass by working through it even when things get difficult. On the other hand, you don't want students to become completely stuck and frustrated, so use something like the technique below:

Using graduated hints can work wonders. Prepare three or more levels of hint sheets for the exercises, with each level more explicit than the last. The first level can offer vague suggestions, the second can be a little more focused, and the third can be fairly explicit. Students should be allowed to use these at their discretion, so it's best if you don't force the students to go to you for each new level. Make them available, but make it clear that it's important they turn to them only after [insert number of minutes relevant to your exercise].

After teaching literally thousands of programming and other courses, I can say with certainty that the vast majority of your students will NOT simply go to the most explicit hints right off. But this is conditional... I'm assuming that the exercise is relevant and interesting and challenging without being ridiculously advanced or clearly takes more time to complete than you're able or willing to allow for the exercise. If your exercises suck, for whatever reason, then hint sheets won't fix it.

5) Do group exercises whenever possible, no matter what you've heard.

I've heard every excuse, "Adults don't like to do group exercises." or "Professional developers don't like to do group exercises." or "People don't like to do group exercises when they're paying big bucks to be here." or "People from outside the US don't like to do group exercises... ". They're all bulls***. There is a huge social component to learning, regardless of how much we try to eliminate it in the classroom. There's a way to do interactive group exercises that works surprisingly well, and is usually quite easy.

A simple formula for group exercises

* Use groups of no more than 3 to 5. Try to go above 2, but after 5 you'll end up with some people hanging back. With 3-4 people, everyone feels more obligated to participate and be involved.

* When you assign an exercise (like, say, a two-page diagram of an enterprise architecture that they must label and explain), have each person START by working individually for a couple of minutes, THEN get them into their groups (be sure that they know who their group is BEFORE they start any work on the exercise).

* Eavesdrop on the groups and comment or just make sure they're on the right track. Drop hints or give pointers if they're veering into an unproductive approach.

* After a certain number of minutes, give a heads-up warning "60 seconds left..." so they can finish up.

* Be certain that someone in each group has the responsibility to record what the group comes up with. One person should be the designated spokesperson.

* After the exercise is done, keep the people in their groups and query each group about their answers, or any issues/thoughts they had while doing it.

Note: the first few times you do this in any new classroom, students might be quiet or skeptical about doing it, but after the first two or three, they'll have a hard time imagining how you could do it any other way.

6) Designing exercises

The best execises include an element of surprise and failure. The worst exercises are those where you spend 45 minutes explaining exactly how something works, and then have them duplicate everything you just said. Yes, that does provide practice, but it's weak. If you design an exercise that produces unexpected results... something that intuitively feels like it should work, but then does something different or wrong -- they'll remember that FAR more than they'll remember the, "yes, it did just what she said it would do" experience.

Note that paper and pencil exercises are GREAT. Even if your teaching programming or any other topic that involves doing. In our books, for example, we have simple "magnetic poetry" code exercises that don't involve everyone having to go to the computer. You can design even simple multiple-choice quizzes, although the more sophisticated the better. Be creative with creating workbook style exercises when you're teaching challenging subjects. In a programming class, for example, I'll have paper exercises (that they do both individually and in a group) that involve everything from, "fill in the rest of this class diagram with what you think should be there" to "fill in each empty method on this sheet with bullet points or pseudo code for what you think should happen there."

Depending on the classroom, you could even have an exercise that involves one group "teaching" something to another group. Assign group A to figure out the File API, for example, while group B has to research how and why the Serialization mechanism works the way it does in the lab you just did...

As hokey as they are, sometimes game-show style quizzes can still be fun. Especially when there's a set of topics that DO require boring, rote memorization. When they have to burn in certain key facts... you can liven it up and make it a little less painful.

The exercises in our Head First books (especially HF Java) are examples of paper execises we do in classrooms, that are separate from hands-on programming "lab" exercises.

The best form of longer lab exercises get learners in the flow state! This is where your game design studies can really come in handy. Remember, the flow state comes from activities that are both challenging but perceived as do-able. Get the challenge level right! Having multiple levels of hints means that a single exercise can work for a wider range of skill and knowledge levels without being too easy or too hard -- both of which will prevent the flow state.

Exercises should feel relevant! They should not feel like busy work or strictly practice (although for some kinds of learning, extra practice is exactly what you need, but in most cases -- you're looking to increase understanding and memory rather than simply practice a physical skill).

If students don't get the point of the exercise, you're screwed. It's up to you to either have an exercise where the point is dead-obvious, or that you can make a case for. The exercise does NOT need to be "real world" in the sense of the actual, complex world you live in. It should, however, reflect a simplified virtual world with its own set of rules. In a learning experience, you're usually trying to help them learn/get/remember only a single concept at a time. Way too many lab exercises that attempt to be "real world" have so much cognitive overhead that the real point you're trying to reinforce is lost.

7) Leave your ego at the door. This is not about you.

Your learners do NOT care about how much you know, how smart you are, or what you've done. Aside from a baseline level of credibility, it's far more important that you care about how smart THEY are, what THEY know (and will know, thanks to this learning experience) and what THEY have done. I'm amazed (and horrified) by how many instructors don't ever seem to get to know anything about their students. You should know far more about them than they know about you.

At the beginning of class, you do NOT need to establish credibility. You nearly always have a certain amount of credibility in the bank, even if they've never heard of you. You can LOSE that credibility by doing things like lying (answering a question that you really aren't certain about, without admitting that you're not sure), or telling them you really DON'T know what you're doing. But you'll usually hurt the class if you spend time talking about how great YOU are.

The best way to let them know what you've done is in the context of a question someone asks, where you simply say, "Well here's how I solved that on an accounts database I was working on at...." But even better if you say something like, "Well here's how one of my clients/students/wo-workers solved it..."

8) Have a Quick Start and a Big Finish.

Get them doing something interesting -- even if it's just a group discussion -- very early. Don't bog them down with YOUR long introduction, the history of the topic, etc. The faster they're engaged, the better.

Don't let the class fizzle out at the end. Try to end on a high. It's like the movies... where they usually put the best song at the very end, during the closing credits... because this often determines the feeling you leave with. Ask yourself, "what were my students feeling when they left?" Too often, the answer to that is, "overwhelmed, and stupid for not keeping up". And usually, the fault is in a course that tried to do too much. That tried to cover (whatever the hell that means) too much.

9) Try never to talk more than 10-15 minutes without doing something interactive. And saying, "Any questions?" does not count as interaction!

Whether it's a group exercise, a lab, or at least an individual paper and pencil exercise of some sort... get them doing rather than listening. But be sure that the interaction isn't perceived as a waste of time, either.

10) Don't assume that just because you said it, they got it. And don't assume that just because you said it five minutes ago, they remember it now.

In other words, don't be afraid to be redundant. That doesn't mean repeating the same material over and over... but it often takes between 3 to 5 repeated exposures to something before the brain will remember it, so take the extra time to reinforce earlier topics in the context of the new things you're talking about. Great teachers know how to slip in the redundancy in an almost stealth way... where the thing is looked at again but from a different angle. It's up to you to keep it interesting and lively.

11) If you're not passionate, don't expect any energy from your learners.

That doesn't mean being an annoying cheerleader. Be honest, be authentic, but be passionate. It's your job as a trainer to find ways to keep yourself motivated. A lot of teachers/trainers feel it isn't their job to motivate the students. But that's ridiculous. Even the most motivated person in the world still finds it hard to stay motivated on each and every topic... especially when it gets tough. Think about how many technical books you've sat down to read on topics you were extremely interested in, but then couldn't find a way to keep yourself reading. Motivation for the overall topic and motivation for the individual thing being learned are completely different. You're there to supply the motivation for the individual things you're trying to help them learn.

Your passion will keep them awake. Your passion will be infectious. It's up to you to figure out how to stay passionate, or quit teaching until you get it back.

And finally, don't think of yourself as a teacher or trainer... since that puts the focus on what YOU do. Remember:

It's not about what YOU do... it's about how your learners feel about what THEY can do as a result of the learning experience you created and helped to deliver.

Rather than think of yourself as a teacher or trainer, try getting used to thinking of yourself as "a person who creates learning experiences... a person who helps others learn." In other words, put a lot more emphasis on the learning and a lot less emphasis on the teaching.


Related posts on this blog:

The brain's crap filter.

Most classroom learning sucks

Getting what you expect is boring.

Crafting a user experience.

Keeping users engaged.

Users shouldn't think about YOU.

Learning doesn't happen in the middle.

Books and blogs

Lessons in e-Learning

Designing world class e-learning

E-learning and the science of instruction

Simulations and the future of learning

What video games have to teach us about learning

Digital game-based learning

Chris Crawford on Game Design

Mind Hacks

Mind Hacks blog.

A whole new Mind

Memory: from mind to molecules


The Writer's Journey
(not just for writers!)

Purple Cow
(not just for marketers or product designers!)

Cognitive Science Foundations of Instruction
(Dated, but has some really interesting research)

Eide Neurolearning Blog

This is just a start for consolidating some of my learning links. I have another huge set of book links, but I'll post those separately. Have fun!

Posted by Kathy on July 11, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

I know something you don't


Almost everybody loves to be the first to know something... or rather the first to reveal it to others. Whether it's a clever hack, a little-known easter egg, or a juicy bit of insider gossip. And nowhere is this more obvious than with passionate fans.

Last week I was talking to a store clerk with Pink Floyd playing in the background. Somehow we got to talking about the whole Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz sync thing, when he quite proudly (and a little conspiratorially) revealed the lesser known Echoes/2001 synchronization. For this guy bagging my carrots, it was a minor "I Rule!" moment.

He knew something interesting that I didn't. More importantly, it was something that promoted his Pink Floyd/rock fan status. He got whuffie for being the One Who Knew. (Don't know what "whuffie" is? Good. Because that means I get whuffie for being "hip" enough to know it before you. ; ) [I'm kidding --> note the winkie.]

In my t-shirt post I said:

Where there is passion, there are t-shirts.

Let me update that a little:

Where there is passion, there are t-shirts with sayings or symbols only a true insider understands.

I know guys who wear t-shirts with obscure references as a kind of "test" to see who belongs in their social circle. One male friend of mine said that if a woman ever recognized what his home-made t-shirt says, he'll know he's found the woman of his dreams. (It's some very subtle suggestion of an old Monty Python sketch). He's still single...

Look at your product, service, business, cause. When we reverse-engineer passion, we virtually always find secrets, legends, trivia, etc. that only insiders know. We virtually always find a custom and continually evolving lexicon that helps separate the newbies from the serious.

If you don't have anything like that... get started. Ideally, your passionate users/fans will take over creating and propogating some of this. But since we're reverse-engineering passion here, to try to jumpstart things--make sure you have memes worth spreading! If you're the owner, founder, designer, lead singer, whatever... surely there's something interesting in your background. If you're the marketer, find something.

If you're sure there's honestly nothing the least bit interesting, scandalous, clever, or funny, make something! (But please don't make s*** up! Not today, when truth isn't as highly-valued as one might hope). In other words, have something worth discovering. Worth hunting for. Something a guy (or gal) could get whuffie for being the first to reveal at a cocktail party or user group.

Obviously not all insider knowledge is equal. A sex scandal involving the previous CTO probably isn't worth as much long-term value as the story about the user who -- through your product -- saved the lives of seven baby dolphins. If you don't have legends in your business, try to find some. Try to help encourage them. Your users are your best source of fascinating, memorable, amazing stories, but you'll never know unless you have a clear strategy for finding and capturing those stories.

Are you asking for user stories? Are you propogating stories? Are you embedding "secrets" that only the hard-core will discover? Easter eggs that everyone knows don't count for nearly as much as the stuff that's higher up the hard-core passionate users scale.

And if you don't know about the whole Scoble/cheerleader/Tom Cruise thing, then you're obviously not one of the true A-list insiders.
; )

Posted by Kathy on July 6, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

You're emotional. Deal with it.


No matter how enlightened and politically correct we've become, most people still tend to believe that when making decisions, men are less driven by emotions than women. Men use left-brained (metaphorically speaking) logical, rational thought. Men are persuaded to buy or act based on thinking, not feeling, while women do the opposite. You know, that whole Mars and Venus thing.

This wouldn't be so bad if those left-brained characteristics weren't seen as being more... virtuous.

Newsflash: emotions are sick and tired of being treated like second-class brain citizens! They're taking back their rightful place in the world, thanks to the work of brave neuroscientists like Joseph LeDoux and Antonio Damsio (author of Descarte's Error). These two, and a handful of others, withstood the mocking of their peers ("Wait... let me get this straight...you're basing your career on studying emotions [laughs hysterically, spits coffee out of nose]. That is hilarious! Oh, Antonio, you almost got me on that one... ha-ha-ha." But thanks to their strength of character, and scientific abilities, they've finally started to offer honest-to-goodness, left-brain-compatible, bonafide scientific evidence of how crucial--and pervasive--emotions are in our lives.

You're all making decisions emotionally. You can deny it all you want, but you should be grateful for emotions. Without them, you'd remember almost nothing. Without them, you wouldn't learn much. Without them... you'd probably be dead. (And not much fun at parties or, for that matter, in bed ; ))

The key points for learning and marketing and creating passionate users is to keep this in mind:

People don't choose rationally to listen to your message and then have a feeling about it. They choose to listen to your message because they have a feeling about it.

If you're basing your communications solely on logical, rational, reasoned facts... the brain is not your friend. Emotions are the gatekeeper... if you want in, you gotta talk to the amygdala.

This doesn't mean that reason isn't crucial. In my little bar charts, logic is still there. You make a decision emotionally, but part of that decision is based on using logic to figure out how you'll feel in the future about your decision. In other words, you'll use logical thinking to predict whether you'll continue to feel good about the decision, or whether in the end... the guilt will be too much. Or that it's not worth the arguments you'll have with your spouse over it. You know the story.

And yeah, I've way over-exaggerated the bar chart to get your attention. In truth, when emotions or logic are not in balance, bad things happen. But we've spent the last several decades putting logic on a pedestal while poor emotions get kicked around and denigrated. In the end, guys, you're just as driven by emotions as women. Trust us... testosterone SO does not enhance your powers of reason. True, we women often show it differently... and certainly more freely than the average male. We don't have as much to prove there, and we always knew that emotions would one day gain the street cred they so richly deserve.

We've just been waiting for the neuroscience to catch up.

For more on emotions, check out the links above on LeDoux and Demasio, and don't forget Dan Pink's book A Whole New Mind, on why you must not only embrace your inner "right brain" attributes, but work and learn to enhance them. Or face being outsourced, automated, or something else bad I can't remember.

Sooner or later, guys, you'll have to learn to cope with the knowledge that you're not nearly as rational as you thought. But I bet if you look back at the last big purchase you made, you'll know in your heart of hearts that no matter how good it looked on paper... you bought it because of how it made you feel. Deal with it. : )

Posted by Kathy on July 5, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (27) | TrackBack

T-shirt-first development


T-shirts matter.

This is what the merchandise store at the JavaOne conference looked like last week, after three days. Those bright green arrows are pointing to all the empty shelves. And the store was still open; that poor guy in the photo is choosing from among the two remaining t-shirt styles, one of which is toddler-size only.

Each attendee got a commemorative "Happy 10th Birthday Java" shirt just for registering, and vendors on the show floor gave out t-shirts like candy all week. So even though everyone had a pile of free t-shirts to take home, they couldn't wait to whip out their MasterCards for another one. Or maybe for a $50 fleece. Or a $300 leather Java jacket.

(I was really mad that they sold out of the "Skateboarding Duke" shirt before I had a chance to buy one! I would have paid a lot.)

Guy Kawasaki (the original Mac evangelist for Apple) said it in his 1992 book Selling the Dream: make the t-shirt before you make the product.

If you're a team lead, project manager, open source evangelist... make the t-shirt. If you're promoting a business, service, supporting a cause... make the t-shirt. And the more subversive, the better. If the t-shirt is for internal use only, see how far you can push before marketing or legal steps in. The more maverick the shirt, the more valued it becomes. At Sun, for example, there was always somebody trying to make an underground, unapproved shirt featuring the Java mascot Duke. If you were lucky enough to get one, that meant something.

I know...it's just a frickin' shirt. How can a t-shirt mean something? Think about it. Go look in your closet. Go look in your garage. How many special t-shirts are you holding onto for sentimental reasons? Be honest. How often have you lusted after someone else's limited edition shirt? If you're really honest, you'll remember the time you "borrowed" someone else's special t-shirt and "forgot" to give it back.

It's not just t-shirts, of course. It's bumper stickers. Window decals. Lapel pins. The back window of my car has decals for the two things I'm particularly passionate about--Apple and Parelli Natural Horsemanship".


A few years back, Wired online had a fun article on the marketing phenomenon of the Apple stickers. And I just saw a Jeep the other day with a window decal that said:
"It's a Jeep thing. You wouldn't understand."

I believe in these companies, despite whatever questionable things Apple (or Jobs) might do. I believe in what the Macintosh represents for the creative (and now, since OSX, geek) community. I feel that a small part of who I am is represented by the fact that I have--and love--Macs. And these aren't just shallow "coolness" values... but my sincere belief that because of the Macintosh, there are ways in which I kick ass that weren't possible before. Ways in which--through the books I create--I am helping others learn to love what they do and do what they love. [I think it's just as cool when people have a passionate anti-Mac stance. Their rejection of all-things-Apple is something they're proud of.]

And I believe intensely in what Parelli has done for the state of horsemanship throughtout the world... helping hundreds of thousands of people move from a controlling, dominating relationship with horses to one of partnership and willingness and playfulness.

For me, the key intersection of these two companies is JOY. Mine. The real question is why I--and so many others--want to share (or show off) their relationship to a company, cause, product, idea, band, sport. We'll save that exploration for another time, but for now -- the main point is this:

Where there is passion, there are t-shirts.

Where there is passion, there are ways to express that passion to others, with t-shirts and bumper stickers and mugs as the primary vehicle. Does this mean that we want the t-shirts because we have passion for these things? Obviously, yes. But what if there's something even more interesting here... what if some part of why we're passionate is because of the t-shirts? And no I don't mean that we choose what to believe in simply because it's got a cool t-shirt (although, there's some shred of truth in that. I chose to run my first half-marathon, despite being in no way trained for it, because I HAD to have the t-shirt, and that was the only way to get one). What if the availability (and quality) of these "pride items" help to reinforce and build on the passion we have the potential for developing?

Remember, a big part of passion is connecting with others who share that passion. And showing your support/enthusiasm/belief is an element of what makes you a member of the group. By sporting the shirt, you belong.

So to those who see this as just one more terrible example of American consumerism -- worshipping the corporate logo gods -- I think that's missing the bigger point. It doesn't matter if it's a company, or a sport, or a cause. The "pride items" are about announcing some small piece of who you are to the world. Think of how much you can learn about a person just from those two things. What, for example, does it tell you about someone if they have a "Bush/Cheney" sticker on their car vs. a Peta decal? What does it tell you if they're wearing a Betty Rides snowboard shirt vs. a "No I won't fix your computer" shirt from Think Geek?

If you don't have a t-shirt for your product, service, or cause...get busy. And with Cafe Press, there's no excuse. It costs nothing. It's not the best quality, but it's a start.

And on that note, I'm horrified to realize that I haven't updated my cafepress site in years, and haven't put up a single thing on passionate users. Bad, bad Kathy. So... I'm going to spend the next day recrafting my cafe press store to have some of the artwork and cartoons from this blog.

Bonus dating tip: want to get to know someone? Don't just check out their bookshelf and iPod playlist. Check their drawers.

Boxers vs. briefs, cotton vs. silk, garters vs. no garters can only tell you so much. It's the t-shirts that reveal the soul. So, what are you wearing right now?

[Disclaimer for the cynical--this post is partly tongue-in-cheek. But you'll have to guess which part.]

Posted by Kathy on July 4, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack