Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Pull versus Push

Imagine you have a choice of trainings.

One is a training format with teams competing against each other in predetermined subjects in a league format. Each team "owner" gets to select a captain, coach and then they build their team from there on. From that point on, it is the teams responsibility to build their skills so that they could win the competition. The members of the team were purely volunteers - so there was no conscription.

Contrast this with a training where you attend as individuals, show up for classes and a stick hanging over your head in case you miss a class. The mode of instruction is classes - normal facilitator led sessions spread over a few days. At the end you give an exam which decided if you pass or fail. Imagine that both of these have a spread of about 6-8 weeks.

Which one would you choose and why?

Sure, the same commitment is required for both and the people who are committed in one will also be committed to the other. But dont you think that the former will get you a wider level of interest and audience participation than the latter? Which one of these is pull and which is push? Are both pull - but for difference audiences? OR are both push?

I would vote for pull anytime...whatever makes people do what they are doing by their own volition, they do it because they want to do it rather than they doing it for someone else or somebody else's targets!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Does technology impede learning - 1

When I was a little boy, I had the chance to go to a traditional mantra class. Like Bal Vihar classes organized by the Chinmaya mission or Carnatic music classes, the teaching was purely oral. Our Guruji explicitly prohibited the use of books - as he said it impeded the learning - which placed a lot of emphasis of intonations and pronunciations and rhythm. He was able to resist it so far - books were available very easily and so the books made inroads into our class. And he was right - the books did impede the learning for some (the older ones who could read Devanagri). That was temporarily though. Later on, they got used to using the books when they had a doubt or some such. And for me it proved useful when I wanted to pick up the threads of the mantra where I had left it off. If I did not have to access to a book, that learning would have been lost forever.

Why I say this is because I am sure when books first made their appearance, people reliant on traditional methods must have cried hoarse saying that the "new" technology will "impede" learning.

One more example. While growing up, my mother often told me about the "mental sums" that they were encouraged to do while in school. She opined that the lack of mental maths was making our understanding of maths that much difficult. And that we did too much of "statement sums" with "Step marking". Tough to say if it did or did not, but my road in maths was not easy. Many years later, I did get over the fear of maths and became quite comfortable with it. I mean, it is like not liking a vegetable - karela of example. I would never order a main dish of karela, but if it is there as part of the course, I might try it out. Ditto maths. I would never have majored in maths, but was able to sail through engineering with a generous use of calculators.

Moving to to calculators. My dad learnt engineering using slide rules and log tables. I had the power of a scientific calculator while I studied. The next generation would probably have a computer (or more likely, a cellphone) handy.

It is arguable that each of these technological advancements - writing, calculators etc. slowed down the progress of learning. Just that I dont agree. Each technical advancement makes us able to rise to better challenges.

To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it."

This is my thought for those who think that the internet or Google is making us stupid. We could have argued the same on libraries or books or anything else that we have advanced over the years!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Push cars and the future of learning

Push cars is one of the new game app on the Apple Store. We downloaded this quite by chance.
It takes off where "Unblock me" (video above) and its parking counterpart (same game using cars) left.

Myself and the little one have been playing this with gusto for the past few weeks (except somewhere during the iOS5 upgrade, the game went kaput). There are versions of physical unblock mes available - and are used quite widely in schools as part of their co-curricular (usually paid separately) activities.

Where push cars scores is making the whole damn thing so mobile, and just so simple. The bad cars have to crash while the good cars have to escape. Every city introduces a new car (good or bad) with slightly complex features and keeping it all in mind, one has to ensure that the good cars escape and the bad cars crash.

The levels are not simple. And require quite a bit of contrarian thinking to make it work. And yes, they are far better than mindless single person shooting games - there is no exposure to mindless violence.

I believe that playing such games enhances childrens (and adults) thinking skills - far more than when they are taught about thinking skills. It is self driven, quite challenging yet solvable, the mind is open and receptive as well and they learn by doing. Unbeatable combination!

Is this the future of learning?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Good and Bad

The little one and the father prepared for yet another story session. A common routine for us is that every now and then, the little one will bring something he has created - a drawing, a model or something - and we have to create a story out of those things. The story usually has no limits - you can concoct the most implausible story with those things.

This time it was two small ship models - armed to the teeth with dazzling weaponry and bristling with technological capability that has not yet been invented or perhaps even conceived of.

"Here are the two ships. Which one do you want?" he says, offering me something with no real choice. I take it.
"I want to be the good ship. Now tell me what do you want to be?"
"I will also be the good ship."

"What? If both ships are good, then what story will we make?"

I smiled at the observation. We did make a story with no "bad", but he had stumbled on a very basic question, had he not!

Friday, November 4, 2011

How to communicate

A few years back, I had the great opportunity to sit in one of the trainings conducted by this “one man army”. He blew us away by his knowledge, his timing and his ability to hold nearly a room full of people with about 10 odd years of technology experience. So, with about 15 people, effectively it came to about 150 years of experience. And he was able to convince us all – regardless of what questions we threw at him – on the subject at hand. The best part of it was that he was not the slick, suave, savvy presenter that you think would do this. His language was quite rusty – not some convent educated fake accented English – he did not use any jargon – he used a lot of common sense and simple examples and in my books, he will perhaps be the best trainer who I have ever trained under. Why? He was able to connect with the audience like no other. No fake smiles, no brotherhood – just pure subject matter expertise – and ability to relate and connect with people and their field of work.

That actually took me back to a performance I had attended many years back. Actually couple of them. The Chakyar Koothu (I have had the privilege of attending more than one of these sessions by a master story teller, who is no more) is one example as are the professional traditional story tellers. They are usually seen at festivals and they tell stories. It is usually one person telling the story and they are usually accompanied by one or two musicians. They break into a song or a quote from the scriptures or joke about or even dramatize a bit. But each point they make drives the story ahead. And each digression they make brings them back to the main story. Each audience example they quote hammers the point into the audiences head. Great communicators they are – as much as they are great influencers. They hold the audience spellbound with their delivery.

Watch any great TED talk and you will find that much is common to the above two paragraphs as well.

And in the end there is no difference between a great facilitator or a great story teller…

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Trainings I loved

I distinctly remember the first training I loved. Perhaps it was on day 1 or day 4 as a management trainee. It was a full day session and run by this very friendly gentleman. I don’t recall the topics that we discussed that day nor do I recall the whole objective of it, but it did make us all feel very good. The exercises they made us do and the way it was structured all made for some really good “feel good” factor. As management trainee, I really thought, I had arrived – as did the others in our batch. And it was done, unconventionally for us at that time – which has now become the new conventional. We were used to classroom seating – this one had conference room seating. We were used to dull drab presentations, this one blew our minds away. And I remember the facilitator had great personality – he could build rapport in an instant and all of us connected with him. There were group exercises and de-briefs and it was a challenge for all us management trainees to outdo the other. Overall, a great learning experience.

The second training which I loved was the “first time managers” training in a very well known global software services company. It was a “rites of passage” as well – and we will cover that at some point. But they way it was done – as an outbound training is still fresh in my mind. From then on, I have been to many an outbound and offsite training, but even today, I would rate this particular training higher than the rest. So, what made this different and what keeps it so different even today? The first thing was the fact that the duration was about a couple of days. The second was that the training was quite intensive. The third was that it was quite experiential – there were more self learnings than the things that the instructor taught us. We had travelled out as a group and came back as a group. The bonding that the group had was amazing – something I have not come across ever. (This was one aspect that I felt could have been better tapped, but that’s for another day.)

The third training I distinctly remember was this training conducted by an individual (actually there were two like this at separate points in time). This was a fairly technical training and the trainer was professional and extremely knowledgeable and had great facilitation skills. I have not come across this deadly combination ever after. Either people have knowledge but cannot really share or facilitate. There are others who are great communicators but lack in depth or the ability to talk to the trainees “in their language”. And there are some who are just professionals who know a narrow interpretation of their worlds and are unwilling to look beyond it.

So, the first two trainings were different for me at that time, but the third example of normal classroom trainings completed the circle of what memorable trainings are all about.

Great facilitation, time commitment, group bonding, challenges and self learning - have I missed something?