Sustainable Learning LO11360 -Joe's Jotting's #66
Wed, 11 Dec 96 08:05:52 -0800

(Joe's note: After seeing the jottings I sent about the Nass, Reeves
book, Rick was kind enough to suggest that I share more of these with
the LO list. I write about two of these a month. They have been
distributed to about 450 people inside HP and another 20 or so
outside. Most of them are about 1500 words.

The point of these is to stir up discussion. I hope they do that.)

Joe's Jottings #66 - 11/27/1996

Sustainable Learning

Teachers are heroes. I know of great ones, good ones, and lousy ones, but
I don't know of any educational organizational structure that I would give
anything but a grudging grade of C. The problem, of course, is that
hero-based processes are very difficult to sustain.

Dan Keller is a great one, a consultant who teaches a variety of technical
topics at HP and other companies. People who have been his students,
including me, have consistently left his classes with lots more skills
than we had going in. Recently, he offered a two-day class for some of
his partners in the consulting world on "Techniques of Instruction." He
was kind enough to invite me and two other HP people to sit in, and we all
learned a lot.

Dan says that he learned his basic instructional framework at Bell Labs
many years ago. As with many things like this, it comes under the heading
of "simple but not easy." Dan calls his framework, "Balanced
Instructional Technique" (BIT). BIT is a repetitive cycle that consists
of three activities: explain, exercise, and evaluate. He suggests that we
go through this cycle at five minute increments or for each teaching
point, whichever comes sooner.

This sounds straightforward, but it is not easy to do. First, we have to
break up our materials into less-than-five-minute chunks. Then, we have
to get the students to DO something with the material during each chunk.
And, lastly, we need to ask the students to reflect on the item, again
within each chunk. The reflection doesn't have to be a full-scale
philosophical essay; it can be a quick question and answer. Or the
exercise and evaluation might be combined such that the results of the
exercise show how well the student understands the material. This process
wreaks havoc on my usual "slides-shown-per-hour" metric.

"OK," says I. "This process demonstrably works well for the immediately
useful, practical things that Dan teaches, like programming languages and
systems administration. But how well might it serve for more theoretical,
conceptual subjects?"

A few days after going to Dan's class, my wife and I happened to attend a
discussion led by Dr. Lee S. Shulman. Shulman is a professor of education
at the Stanford School of Education and has just been named president of
the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The Foundation
wants him so badly, that they are moving the Foundation offices from
Princeton to Stanford so he'll take the post. Shulman is a world-class
expert on teaching and teacher training, and, what's really impressive, is
that, to keep his hand in, he teaches an 11th grade history class at
Menlo-Atherton High School, in addition to his work at Stanford.

Shulman shares a lot of the despair around education today. But, he says,
we definitely do have teaching models that have been proven to work well.
Deploying these models widely is a non-trivial problem, but we do know
what works.

Shulman's favorite educational model is made up of these six principles:

1. Activity

2. Reflection

3. Collaboration

4. Generativity

5. Passion

6. Community

Shulman says that this model addresses two questions that he has studied
for many years. The first is based on his observation of extra-curricular
activities. "Why," he asks, "will students who cut and flunk most of
their classes, faithfully show up after school to do competent work for
the school newspaper or the drama club?"

His second question is a touch more philosophical. How can we resolve
this paradox: that the amount of knowledge in the world is growing at an
increasing rate, while the time we have to teach that knowledge to people,
especially to the young, is staying constant, at best, and most likely

Let's look at how he thinks that the model helps with these questions.

Activity is important, as we all know, because it forces us to use all our
senses to deal with the knowledge. Even if we don't actually learn or
reinforce learning by doing, the activity itself becomes a "memory-hook"
on which we can hang the learning going on at the time.

Reflection helps in several ways. First, reflection causes us to look at
the material a second time. Next, we have to go through the personal (and
active) process of tying the knowledge to the other things we know or are
learning. Third, we can see how that knowledge affects broader mental
models we have or generates specific short term actions or insights.
Reflection makes us think about actually using the new knowledge in some

Collaboration has two characteristics. First, Shulman says that people
learn better in groups. Group work requires some sort of activity, which
usually reinforces the learning. More important, however, Shulman feels
that collaboration is one answer to the issue of the rapidly growing
knowledge base. He feels that people can become specialists in a given
area and then share their knowledge in order to solve general problems.
This sharing process, of course, is a reinforcing activity in its own

Collaboration, however, is a skill that also must be learned. And one of
the reasons why Shulman's model hasn't (yet) revolutionized education, is
that we (society) don't teach teachers how to collaborate nor do we reward
them for doing so. (We call it cheating.) So, of course, teachers can't
and don't teach collaboration to their students. It's a negatively
reinforcing, vicious cycle.

Generativity is also a concept that deals with the knowledge explosion.
Shulman believes that, as the amount of information in the world explodes,
we need to focus our precious teaching time on the relatively few basics
that will allow students to generate future learning themselves.

To make the matter even more complicated, some of these basics are process
focused (e.g., how to collaborate) and some are content focused (e.g., the
multiplication tables, historic facts). And, the basics change, so that
the education establishment has to keep the lists up-to-date. That's a
social and political problem. For example, Stanford recently asked itself
whether it needed to expand its basic courses to focus on Eastern history
as well as Western civilization. It's a tough problem, and the lack of
solution or of even a process leading to a solution, is another reason
that U.S. educational systems are struggling. But, it's a problem that we
might be able to solve within a given community or company.

Also, generativity takes time. Shulman quote Mae West, "Anything worth
doing ... is worth doing slowly."

Passion is obvious. We are emotional beings. We react to passion in our
teachers, and we long to generate passion within ourselves. Shulman
argues that true learning has to carry with it the emotional energy that
literally cause chemical reactions in our brains that create memories and
behavior pattern pathways.

Shulman's last point is community. Collaboration is done in community.
Moreover, motivation (i.e., passion) is created in community. The truant
kids show up for the school newspaper because they know that their peers
are depending on them. Community implies both visibility and mutual
dependence. Community requires the forming and supporting of shared

How well do we build community when we have our kids behind the closed
doors of single teacher classrooms?

Dan Keller and Lee Shulman are singing from the same hymnal. Thanks to
these and other heroes, we know how to create learning in the small, but
what can we do to _sustain_ learning, to create processes that will help
good teachers be great and help the great ones have influence beyond the
walls of their classrooms? What can we do to create processes that enable
life-long learning within ourselves?

And if these giant problems are beyond our ambitions, how can we make sure
at least that, within the boundaries of HP-IT, we take advantage of what
Dan and Dr. Shulman know and practice?


Joe Podolsky



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