It is pouring rain on a spring evening in 1989 and I am looking at the crowd of kids in front of the school. I see Kristen with the older 8th grade guys. I want to impress her with a cool bike trick. I see it in mind...... ride like a blur, jump the curb just before the crowd and fly by and impress her and everyone else!
I had about 100 feet and I got going as fast as I could, it was going to be awesome! I hit the curb, and the curb hit back. The bike stopped and I didn't. I flew in front of the crowd but not how I had envisioned. The older guys helped me up as blood ran down my skinned knees and elbows. Kristen was standing there with her hand over her mouth. I couldn't tell if she was laughing or concerned but she definitely was not impressed. Everyone was asking if I was ok but I just had to get out of there. I tried to laugh it off and quickly grabbed my bike and took off with the rain mixing with tears in my eyes.
I learned a lot that night and hundreds of other nights and days over the years where I've made mistakes that have taught me some of my biggest lessons.
Isn't that what experience is though...having gone through something and come through the other side with real life lessons? In a hiring situation, you want to know that the applicant has been in similar situations, made mistakes and learned from them so they won't make them when they are working for you. Otherwise we would just hire the person who read the most or took the most classes related to what we want them to do. No way, we know that those without experience, are going to make mistakes and we don't want them making mistakes while working for us.
From a teaching and training design perspective, we should try to ensure that our learners make their first mistakes in a safe place, designed to prepare them for the real world. In order to do that, we need to build in real life examples where they can (and should) make mistakes. I wish that I could have learned some of the lessons of that rainy night in a safe, dry place. I still have scars on my knees to remind me.
Having had a long commute over the past 4 years, I listened to many audio books. At first, I felt like I was cheating. It was definitely easier than reading but was I getting as much out of it? This question, along with my time in the Peace Corps teaching where there was no school and no books. Where most of what I learned could not be found in a book, started me thinking back to how people learned before books, before the printing press and before writing.
Humans have always learned best from stories and storytelling. I think we all remember listening to stories and many of you now read some of those same stories to your own children. Stories with lessons. The Boy Who Cried Wolf is one I often have to tell my 6 year old and I recite Green Eggs and Ham every time my girls refuse to try a new food. Try it and you may I say.... I also remember bible stories from youth group when I was young.
When we listen to a story, our brain is taking those ideas and concepts and trying to imagine or create images of what is happening, just as if we were seeing it or had seen it before. Like a memory. Images make the imagining even easier. That is how the brain retains the information/lesson and is able to recall it and make a decision based on it when they see or experience a similar situation.
That is how we evolved and it helped us survive and thrive and build culture and community and values. These stories can use analogies, add context and relationships to concepts that are often difficult to grasp if you've never experienced them before. These stories, context, relationships and analogies were often personalized for the audience making them more valuable.
The learner could then easily visualize and then practice on their own and get immediate feedback and make corrections and try again, improving each time after getting feedback initially from the story teller/teacher/coach and once confident enough, from their peers. Each of their peers may have had a different set of stories, contexts, relationships and analogies to share with each other and could share different aspects with each other. And the story grows, and the confidence and competence grow...and the learning continues.
The stories were eventually accompanied by drawings and paintings on cave walls, then tree bark. Storytelling combined with images, bringing stories to life. (Stories, sermons, plays, opera, Radio shows and silent movies turned to television and the movies of today). This was a game changer for learning. We had the images now that went along with the story so our brains did not have to go through the effort of visualizing it in our minds. It also brought consistency. When we listen to something, each of us has a unique image in our minds. Now the image was the same for all of us and that helped to build better understanding and tighter communities. Many ancient conflicts were caused by different interpretations of the same stories. I wonder if consistent imagery may have prevented some of those from happening. Maybe today?
Long ago those images evolved into sounds and letters and writing the stories down allowed them to be told far away from the storyteller and long after they died. Now if you could read, YOU were a storyteller, spreading the word. It was a tremendous benefit of course, but not as good as the original storyteller. They could still tell the story but most likely did not personalize it to fit the audience needs with context, relationships and analogies.
When we read, it is similar to listening to a story, but there is an added layer. It is much easier for us to turn language into images in our brains than text. There is a translation that needs to take place in our minds before the imaging part can begin. By ages 10-12 this translation is nearly automatic but it is still there and can get in the way with new words, or reading difficulties such as dyslexia.
Those letters then went on a printing press and those stories could be spread far and wide and populations learned to read and the storyteller lost importance in the developing world. The storyteller is still very important to a large part of the world who cannot read and do not have electricity for radio or television.
In education today, there is very little storytelling, very little personalized context, relationships or analogies and even less practice and feedback. We put learners into classrooms and expect that they all learn the same things, at the same pace without personalization. And since they are all hearing the same things, they can't share different experiences and help each other grow. Practice is limited and typically saved for home and feedback even more limited.
You can do well if you learn to memorize what to write down on the periodic tests, but by the time you have to apply it in real life, you don't recall much of what you wrote on the test so long ago. And you can pass each year, even if you only remembered 70% of what to write down on the test. Those 30% gaps can add up quickly and make it harder to learn and harder to move ahead. Knowledge gaps can be very stressful for learners and when stressed or threatened, the learning part of the brain shuts down. When learners are scared, stressed, frustrated or threatened at all, they aren't learning.
We need to go old school with designing learning. We need to go back to storytelling, personalized with context, relationships, analogies to add value for learners and include continuous opportunities for practice and feedback. The more frequent the practice and feedback, the faster the learners will become confident, build competence and move from curiosity to mastery.
So I am reading this book right now titled Opening Skinner's Box. I had learned about Skinner and his experiments a long time ago in my early studies but this book gets into more depth and I am reading it now under much different context and finding it very interesting.
One thing that I find particularly interesting is his writing on how rewards can shape behavior. It seems obvious, I get rewarded, I keep doing that thing that got me the reward. So in the business world, we incentivize people to do what we want them to do. The problem is that this doesn't work very well, especially with financial incentives and people aren't sure why.
Reading through the book, I got to a section in which Skinner found that when he rewarded his test rats on a regular basis, their motivation was lacking, but when he randomized the rewards, their motivation went crazy. I know we aren't rats and some of what Skinner wrote is very controversial, but I started thinking about this a lot. That seems crazy, I would prefer to get rewarded all the time as opposed to just randomly, wouldn't I?!
But then it hit me. The thing about rewards is that when they are given out regularly (like a raise or annual bonus), they are expected and are NO LONGER REWARDS. A reward is unexpected and fun and gives us the dopamine we need to keep us motivated to perform and get to the next level.
How do we apply this to designing learning experiences?