Monthly Archives: February 2006

Ohio Board Tells Students, “Thinking Isn’t Important”

Ohio Board Undoes Stand on Evolution – New York Times (free subscription required)

The Ohio Board of Education voted 11 to 4 Tuesday to toss out a mandate that 10th-grade biology classes include critical analysis of evolution and an accompanying model lesson plan…

Okay… this makes no sense to me. What is the problem with a critical analysis of evolution? Is the case for evolution so bad that it can’t withstand critical analysis?

What is science, anyway, but systematic, critical analysis?

Emphasis added below:

“This lesson is bad news, the ‘critically analyze’ wording is bad news,” Martha W. Wise, the board member who offered the emergency motion, told her colleagues during 90 minutes of contentious debate here Tuesday afternoon. “It is deeply unfair to the children of this state to mislead them about the nature of science.”

Whoa. Back up the truck. First of all, this deserved an emergency motion? Pure political maneuvering:

Michael Cochran, one of three lawyers on the 19-member board, criticized Mrs. Wise’s supporters as undoing a lengthy process that had led to adoption of the standards with an emergency motion on an afternoon that four members, three of whom support the lesson, were absent.

“It is absolutely disgraceful that we’ve had this for three years, and we can’t wait another month,” Mr. Cochran said. “I think that’s by design. Not intelligent design, but by design.”

Second, how is teaching critical analysis, the foundation of science, “mislead[ing] them about the nature of science”?!?! Misleading?! Holy cow, that’s a whole new type of stupid.

When I first read this, I was dumbfounded for a few minutes. How could anyone say that teaching kids to question theories is a bad thing? Further, how could anyone get hung up on the phrase “critical analysis” as the root of the problem?

Plus, last time I checked, evolution was far from proven. It’s still a theory, though a well-regarded one. To my mind, that means we should be even more aware of its holes, poking and prodding at it until it either collapses or is finally proven. That, at its core, is what science is all about! Come up with a hypothesis (theory) and then try to disprove it: look it up — that’s the “scientific method.”

I am flabbergasted that the Ohio school board would hold such a dim view of science. It’s ironic that the board probably thinks it is protecting science with this foolishness. All they are doing is taking a huge step backward.

Homeschooling and education

The Learning Circuits Blog: Homeschooling and the Creative Class
Hm… Until a few years ago, I didn’t know much about homeschooling. Then I met my wife. Her brother and sister were homeschooled. Her family has unfortunately endured a certain amount of ridicule because of that. It became a topic of conversation between us, and though still not resolved completely, was important in the decision to marry.

I have absolutely nothing against homeschooling. I do still have some questions about it, but the biggest thing holding me back from being gung-ho about it is me: I’m not sure I’d be a good homeschooling facilitator.

I barely have the self-discipline to do my work. I see how my sister-in-law and my friend handle homeschooling their kids, and it takes a lot of work and organization. It’s a job, really. Very rewarding, and certainly worth the effort if I’m to hold those kids up as examples, but I don’t know if I have that kind of energy. And that’s a depressing thought. If I don’t have the energy to teach my kids,

  1. what does that say about me and my relationship with my kids?
  2. I have to pay for a private school, or
  3. I have to send them to public school

Honestly, I’m not too thrilled with spending the extra cash for a private school. And I’m not sure I trust the public schools anymore. (In general, I do support public school teachers. After all, I almost joined their ranks myself. But the environment in a public school is getting worse, both culturally and academically, and it worries me.) So, that leaves me with homeschooling. And I’m not sure I can pull that off either.

hmm…. good thing I have a few years to noodle this one over some more.

Re-igniting passion

Creating Passionate Users: Re-igniting passion

We can’t expect passionate users, if we ourselves can’t hold (or rediscover) the passion we felt for the work we chose.

That is an excellent point. When the world is beating down on you with a sledgehammer, it’s easy to lose sight of the passion you had when you first began in your field. And for those responsible for providing training to others, that can really hurt effectiveness.

Passion is infectious. But so are boredom and apathy. If you are a trainer, your passion can change the way a student perceives your subject. If they thought it would be stale you can convince them that it is exciting because it’s obvious that you find it interesting. Conversely, if you appear bored to tears yourself, it becomes very easy for the student to mentally check-out.

In the blog I’m quoting, Kathy refers to a book she recently read on teaching/learning: Harvard University Press: What the Best College Teachers Do.

What makes the best teachers so good?

From the Harvard Press website book summary:

The short answer is–it’s not what teachers do, it’s what they understand. Lesson plans and lecture notes matter less than the special way teachers comprehend the subject and value human learning. Whether historians or physicists, in El Paso or St. Paul, the best teachers know their subjects inside and out–but they also know how to engage and challenge students and to provoke impassioned responses. Most of all, they believe two things fervently: that teaching matters and that students can learn.

Okay, so passion is important in learning. That’s all great and inspiring for instructor-led, face-to-face training situations. But what about the corporate training world, where students/employees are geographically dispersed and getting together in person isn’t feasible? How do we apply these concepts in an environment where instructional designers are creating self-paced material that gets delivered online? How do you communicate passion through a cold, impersonal computer screen?

I’ll be honest with you: I don’t have the answer.

I do, however, have some ideas. (Actually, to continue with the whole honesty thing, they aren’t really my ideas. This is more of a list of things I’ve heard and agree with.) None of these are a silver bullet. Some are just minor things; others take a lot more effort (but presumably have a larger impact). Not all are practical for every situation, nor is this an exhaustive list. But they all have the potential to communicate passion. Consider using some of these techniques in your next designs.

  • Use stories and narrative. Create a plot and draw your user in, don’t just show the screens or the process steps and move on.
  • Use pictures showing faces with strong expressions.
  • Use graphics that add excitement (but make sure they are relevant to the content! See “e-Learning and the Science of Instruction” by Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer for more)
  • Don’t be afraid to show a little personality – even if it’s corny.
  • Use color.
  • Use audio. (but don’t just read the text or use irrelevant sounds — again, see “e-Learning and the Science of Instruction”)
  • Give the users a choice in the order they go through the material. If it doesn’t have to be a linear presentation, let them choose what to learn next.
  • Pepper the lesson with questions that present problems in real-life situations.
  • Write in the first person. It makes the user feel like there is someone there.
  • Use case studies from your own experience – especially failures and ‘a-ha’ moments. E.g., “When presented with both a ‘Remove’ and ‘Delete’ button, be sure you know which does what (see section 5.2). When I was first learning how to use the user administration screen, I was trying to remove a user from a test group, but accidently deleted my boss from the system!”
  • Make unexpected parallels to common non-work experiences. Compare a file management system to a toaster (yes, I did that in my first user manual).

There are plenty more possibilities. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Maybe I’ll post more ideas later. Maybe I’ll expand upon some of these. (Then again, maybe not … I’m fickle that way.)

How do you infuse your passion into your deliverables? Leave a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Video games and simulations

To continue with the theme of my last post…

Clark Aldrich talked about the similarities of video games and training simulations in one of his blogs for ASTD’s Learning Circuits:

Computer games must teach skills that are actually used and improvised upon, not just parrotted back on a test, which turns out to be even harder than telling a complicated story.

He goes on to give a great example, taken from Half Life 2, of the training provided by the game. The game is an example of a simulation—not one we’d ever run across in real life, hopefully, but simulating an imaginary world and situation. If we applied those same ideas to simulations of real-life environments, we’d have some amazing training.

e-Learning Glitz: misunderstanding video games

Community Connections Forums – Bells and whistles (if you’re not a member, you get redirected to the home page… sorry.)

It’s a little unusual for me to quote from a discussion forum, but this really rang true for me. It’s a quote from the e-Learning Guild’s Community Connections (from the editor of their e-magazine) in response to a question about convincing stakeholders that all the noise and flash they want in their course is distracting from learning, not improving engagement.

I think you’ll find the support you need in the book by Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer: .e-Learning and the Science of Instruction. See the section beginning on page 117, “Psychological Reasons to Avoid Extraneous Sounds” and the section beginning on page 120, “Psychological Reasons to Avoid Interesting but Extraneous Graphics.” Both sections are applications of the coherence principle, and are backed by research. “The problem … is that interest cannot be added to an otherwise boring lesson like some kind of seasoning.” We have known this since Dewey in 1913; it amazes me that somehow the word never got out.

Too often I’ve seen salesmen try to sell me courses by how “cool” the interface looks and all the neat stuff it can do. Actually, that doesn’t apply just to courses. I’ve had people try to sell me Learning Management Systems that looked great, but did nothing, and were actually overcomplicated by the glitz.

And I’ve had stakeholders (and inexperienced designers) try to get me to include flashing, sliding text in a course because it looked cool. Ack.

Inevitably, someone in the industry backs up the inclusion of more flashy interfaces and widgets with “the generation coming up has grown up with flashy video games and it keeps them engaged.” Now, while it’s true that there is a lot we can take from video games and apply to e-learning to great effect, we need to be careful of the reasons we are including “glitz.” The remainder of the e-Learning Guild post addresses an important distinction:

. . . games don’t have distracting-for-the-sake-of-being-flashy graphics in them, unless the distraction is deliberate in order to break the player’s concentration. True, there’s a lot going on in computer/playstation/xbox games, but everything there is there for a reason, and it isn’t to jazz it up (at least not in the well-designed games). It’s all intentional and related to the game itself. I think e-Learning designers get fooled by the light and noise into thinking that the stimulation is somehow needed in order to keep the player’s attention, rather than being an essential part of the immersion into the game environment (or part of the suspension of disbelief). Or something like that.

That’s an important point that isn’t brought up very often. People don’t look closely at the thought process behind game design. Each active element is there for a reason. If you can pick up an object, for example, odds are that you are going to have to use it somehow (either that, or it’s there as part of a challenge to make it harder to find the object you really have to use). Even if it isn’t something the user interacts with and is just an active visual element, in good games those types of items are there to move the plot along, or provide a clue, or provide an immersive experience—it isn’t always obvious at first, but it usually turns out that way.

For example, in the game Myst: Exile (or was it Riven?) there is a section where you run across some seal-like creatures sunning themselves. The animation is great, and fun to look at. It’s not immediately obvious that there is anything to do there but watch, but in the end you realize they serve a dual purpose of hiding a symbol you must find and providing a vital audio clue for a later puzzle. So what could have been dismissed as eye candy turns out to be vitally important.

The point is not to eschew all “glitzy” implementations in e-learning, as some would, but rather to use the glitz to enhance the content in a meaningful way. If we could come up with training that enhances content with visuals and active elements as well as they are used in video games, rather than just to give the user something else to look at, our completion rates would probably sky-rocket. And who knows… maybe comprehension would increase as well!

cell phones + driving = drunk driving

Driven to Distraction

I absolutely love it when I find research that backs up my position.


Psychological research is showing that when drivers use cell phones, whether hand-held or hands-off, their attention to the road drops and driving skills become even worse than if they had too much to drink. Epidemiological research has found that cell-phone use is associated with a four-fold increase in the odds of getting into an accident – a risk comparable to that of driving with blood alcohol at the legal limit.

If you’re talking on a cell phone in a complex conversation, you might as well be driving drunk. And let me remind you . . . that’s illegal (not to mention stupid).

One thing this summary article does not do is define what a complex conversation is, but I assume that is spelled out in the research itself. I’m going to insert my own opinion here and say that the level of complexity that has a detrimental effect probably differs with the individual, but I’ll also bet it encompasses more types of conversations than most people would assume.

Some further interesting quotes:

A special eye-tracking device measured where, exactly, drivers looked while driving. Even when drivers directed their gaze at objects on the road (during simulations), they still didn’t “see” them because their attention – during a cell-phone call – was elsewhere.

This quote goes beyond cell phones:

They concluded that the complexity of the conversation was what compromised concentration, whether the driver talked by phone or to a passenger. Thus, distractions inside one’s own head can be just as disruptive as environmental distractions.

Strayer and his colleagues compared data for hand-held and hands-free devices and found no difference in the impairment to driving, thus, they say, raising doubts about the scientific basis for regulations that prohibit only hand-held cell phones.

And in the “tips for drivers” section:

Second, drivers should also be aware that whether a cell phone is hands-on or hands-free makes no difference in terms of mental distraction. According to the research, the mental activity of conversation, whether in person or over the phone, is what takes one’s mind off the road. What happens in the head happens regardless of what happens with the hands.

And it doesn’t matter how smart you are…

Susceptibility to distraction while driving has nothing to do with smarts or skill. In fact, psychologist Durso and his doctoral student Andy Dattelpoint out that although experts can do many things automatically, detecting hazards is not among them. Thus, Durso says, “anything that disrupts resource management can have consequences even in experts.”

Risk aversion can hurt you

Creating Passionate Users

Risk aversion can take a good idea and make it useless. And risk aversion is rampant in corporations. That’s one of the points in Kathy’s post. It’s a long post, and it’s late, so I’m not going to go much into it, but here’s a quote:

. . . many of the “leaf nodes” (what Microsoft and Sun and others refer to as “individual contributors”) tend to be innovative and brave, but many of the “branches” (i.e. layers of management) can’t stomach the risks. In their (admirable) desire to be strong and stable, the “branches” put safety above all else.

What kind of safety? Sometimes managers are putting the best interests of the company first. That’s great–they’re often more experienced and have a better grasp of the bigger context. But (and it’s a really big but) sometimes they’re just worried about their own damn job. In other words, the leaf node/individual contributors often think about the effect of their work on users, while the mid-level managers often think about the effect of their work on their job. And whose fault is that? All those layers of bosses. Even one risk-averse boss in the chain-of-command can do major damage to innovation, spirt, motivation, etc.

The major point in her post, though, is what can be done to combat risk aversion killing your spirit. Her list:

  • Regularly review the assumptions behind all your decisions.
  • Practice letting go
  • Push the boundaries strategically, one-by-one
  • Use blogs to build support within the company
  • If all else fails and the culture of risk-aversion is stealing your soul, consider going into “short-timer” mode.
  • Keep reminding yourself that life is short!