Category Archives: my stuff

How to be disruptive: a retrospective primer, with meerkats.

‘Disruptive’ doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Being disruptive used to mean you’d be in trouble pretty soon: with your teachers, your parents; with other kids’ parents. You know — grown-ups. Back then, being disruptive was seen as bad, and not something that would get you very far in life, beyond maybe the head teacher’s office.

Times change. ‘Disruptive’ has now acquired cachet, to the point where it seems in danger of becoming one of those overused words (see also content, innovation, gameification, strategy, etc.) signifying that the speaker might not actually make things for a living1. But underneath all the buzzwords and hype is a kernel of truth: there’s loads of potential value in disrupting those patterns that keep you, or your organisation, down. Shake things up a little.

(I’m not talking about knock-and-run here, by the way — it’s much more like “hmm, I wonder what happens if I do … this?” It’s actually very science lab.)

Over the last couple of months, while I’ve been literally and metaphorically packing up my office, I’ve been thinking a lot about disruptivity and its role in my recent career. I’m using the word ‘disruptivity’ deliberately here, rather than ‘disruptiveness’ or ‘disruption’, since both of those seem to me to connote someone else having screwed something up in a way that is antisocial and anti-progress. Disruptivity is good disruption: it has agency, and can number among its antonyms complacency, stagnation, and that nice cozy place with the sofas, the ‘comfort zone’.

It’s easy to stay inside your comfort zone if you work in a big organisation: there are established procedures and methods, and a culture of handing these things down to the next person. In a big organisation, you really don’ t have to think too hard if you don’t want to, because nearly any question you care to ask has an answer that begins “well, the last time we had to do that, …” I guess it’s probably not worth getting too pissy with organisations about this, because human beings have behaved this way for tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of years, and on the whole it’s served us pretty well. But the flip side of organisational memory is that procedures and practices have a way of stifling creative thinking by squashing people down into silos. You are a lecturer; you are a psychologist. You will give lectures in a prescribed format, in which you will talk about psychology as defined by the requisite accrediting body. You will go to psychology conferences and conduct psychology research. You are a subject-matter expert.

And yeah, I was pretty compliant to begin with. I mean, I didn’t know anything; who does, after spending most of their life in formal education? But, after several years’ consideration, my response to this way of working is “Yeah … no.”

There’s a technique in the cognitive psychology literature called analogical problem-solving [PDF], in which you take your bleeding-edge science problem and try to reframe it in a more familiar context. Analogical problem-solving allows you to take advantage of all the schemas and chunking you’ve developed by spending time in the familiar domain, thereby freeing up more of your cognitive resources to think about the problem at hand. It strikes me that an important prerequisite for disruptivity is the desire or ability to travel towards unfamiliar domains — exploring foreign spaces and the behaviour of the people who live/work there can actually help you think about your existing problems in new ways.

Here’s the thing: all the really cool people I meet are the ones sticking their heads out of their organisationally-sanctioned silos, and asking “Hey, what are those people over there doing, and might it be of value to us?” — the meerkats of the workplace, if you like. Curiosity is disruptive; it’s pretty hard to remain in your comfort-zone when you’ve wandered out of your area of expertise and into someone else’s. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy doing peer observations with my lecturing colleagues: you see styles of teaching and ways of thinking about classroom interaction that you’d otherwise never be exposed to. Good conferences (you know, the ones where there’s space for conversation, not just showboating) are the same.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it actually seems easier to cross these borders on the Internet than in one’s own workplace, maybe because people who are into online networking have effectively put up a sign on their virtual office door that says “please, bother me — I love it!” Compare that with how it feels trying to set up a meeting about that thing with that guy across campus when you’re both really busy. Asynchronous digital media are intrinsically disruptive, because they put you next to people in countries, cultures and professions that you’d never otherwise know anything about — and those people are often meerkats with disruptive ideas of their own. Though I didn’t know it at the time, signing up to Twitter was one of the smartest things I could have done for my career. In fact, about half of those people currently most influential in my life have come to me through the Internets — and they are, without exception, cross-disciplinary ninjas, people for whom the idea of existing in just one silo is just plain ridiculous.

Like Richard Wiseman’s studies showing that ‘lucky’ people are really just those who notice new possibilities [PDF], a big part of embracing disruptivity comes from being open to the potential in life’s random encounters. Example: several years ago, through an old friend of my husband’s, I met the very lovely Rachel Potts. Her job had nothing to do with my job: she worked as a technical author for a software company, while I was a psychology lecturer. But we kept having the most awesome long conversations about communication. And one eventual consequence of this was that I ended up giving a talk at Technical Communication UK. Until then, I’d barely known that technical communicators even existed, much less that they might be interested in applying cognitive psychology to their own work. But boy, were they. And so,
in making my own journey out into a scary new space, it seems like I disrupted a few other people’s complacency, too. (Of course, you can argue that by attending a professional conference, those people had signalled that they were looking for a bit of disruption in their working lives — but props nevertheless to the TCUK team for expanding their speaker base beyond the traditional edges of technical communication.)

If your social circle isn’t putting you together with people who understand your geek thang, just get out there and talk to people who work in a different area. From my conversations with technical writers (most of which were mediated via Twitter; don’t diss the 140), I learned about software simulation. That struck me as pretty cool, so I learned how to use Adobe Captivate and, with a little help and only minor drama, created some resources to help my students learn how to drive statistics software. Conversations with technical authors also helped steered me towards the field of user experience, which has come to form such a huge part of the way I think about interfaces, learning and cognition that I’m shifting careers to go work in UX. The consequences of disruptivity are sometimes unpredictable, but they may also be transformative.

Maybe you like the idea of disruptivity and the cultural exchange of visiting someone else’s sandbox, but career changes and meeting people all sounds a bit extreme? Well, you don’t even have to introduce yourself: just read the Internets. There are all manner of smart bloggers out there who might not do what you do, but who write about it so clearly that you get it, and you get why it’s relevant to you. If you work with people and/or ideas (and if you’re reading this, I’m pretty sure that you do), I’d particularly recommend Seth Godin and Rands, and also, though he’s perhaps more of an acquired taste, Merlin Mann.

Your search doesn’t even have to be all that targeted: for me, it started almost by accident with Lawrence Lessig’s ‘Free Culture’ talk from OSCON 20022. What possible value could a psychology lecturer find in a long talk about copyright? Okay, how about a perspective-shifting way of delivering lectures? Lessig’s presentation, and this talk by Dick Hardt, provided the change of reference-frame I needed to give my teaching a good kick up the ass. The ensuing domino effect of making those changes led to research, funding, and paid consultancy, plus a couple of international conferences. And it hooked me up with some really interesting and cool people, and they turned me on to a whole bunch of other new stuff to use in the classroom, like Pecha Kucha. Disruption begets disruption, and after that it’s pretty hard to go back into your silo.

No, check that: it’s impossible to go back into your silo. Disruptivity means rejecting the easy life. You will no longer be satisfied with the explanation that “this is how we do things around here”, because you will know that out there, someone else is doing it better, smarter, more efficiently. You will know this because I read a thing, wait, let me email you the link … You won’t win every argument this way, but you will go forth armed with evidence, and your organisation will be a better place for most of your interventions, which of course is what the whole disruptivity thing is all about.

Lastly, if you really want to be disruptive, leave. [If there’s one link from this post that encapsulates disruptivity, it’s that one. Click through and read; it’s only short.] Leaving isn’t an inevitable consequence of embracing disruptivity, but I’d say it’s a likely one. I mean, you can’t spend all that time out of your silo and not wonder about what else might be out there. But consider, too, that your decision to leave also changes things for the organisation you are leaving. It forces your manager to think about whether you need to be replaced. Co-workers who rely on you will have to seek out alternatives; maybe your decision to leave will prompt some of them to become meerkats. Everyone gets a reminder that there is life out there beyond the organisation’s walls, and I consider that to be an inherently good thing.

So, yeah: leaving an organisation can be your last gift of disruptivity. Make it a good one :)

[This post is dedicated to all my awesome colleagues at UCLan who have borne my clumsy attempts at disruptivity with incredible grace and patience. I will miss you more than I can say.]

[Students — you’re getting a post of your own. Watch this space.]

1 I kid, mostly. I mean, I use these words a lot. But I also think that, when the buzzwords start flying, it’s useful to gauge the ratio between talk and eventual action. And there is a lot of talk on the Internets.

2 In fact, if you want to live a more disruptive life, you should probably just hang out with my husband, since he was the one who turned me on to the Lessig talk, and he stumbles upon a lot of interesting and diverse content.

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How your meetings could be more like classes

Recently, I read a post by Rands about how to run a meeting, and was blown away. Not because of Rands’ excellent writing (though it is; it always is), but because in explaining the attentional dynamics of how to run meetings, he was really explaining how to manage a classroom. I had a bit of a lightbulb moment right there.

I’d never thought about meetings as places that could be like a classroom before, despite the fact that many of the meetings I attend are actually held in classrooms. (Collect one Dunce Point; do not pass GO, do not collect $200.) Oh sure, I understand that you need a facilitator to ensure that everyone who has something to say gets to say it, and that people whose verbosity exceeds their contribution don’t dominate the space. But what Rands is talking about is attention wrangling: making sure everyone stays focused and contributes, and that people go away with their knowledge and understanding improved, and with a clear idea of where they are going next.

This is absolutely what being an educator is all about.

Rands writes:

A referee’s job is to shape the meeting to meet the requirements of the agenda and the expectations of the participants. Style and execution vary wildly from referee to referee, but the defining characteristic is the perceptions of the meeting participants. A good referee is not only making sure the majority of the attendees believe progress is being made, they are aware of who does not believe that progress is being made at any given moment.

… which isn’t really all that far from:

An educator’s job is to shape the class to meet the requirements of the curriculum and the needs of the learners. Style and execution vary wildly from educator to educator, but the defining characteristic is the engagement of the learners. A good educator is not only making sure that the majority of the attendees are learning, they are aware of who is not learning at any given moment.

If you want to take this analogy further, you can think of traditional, top-down, boss-runs-everything meetings as primary education, where the teacher is very much in charge, and hands down information with minimal critique or interrogation from those in attendance. At the other end of the spectrum, adult education at its best is all about facilitating sessions with a light touch, allowing everyone to explore the material for themselves while staying on track. And gosh, I wish I attended more meetings like that. I mean, by the time someone’s old enough to attend a business meeting, they’re old enough to be treated like an adult, right?

Rands’ post made me think about the discussions we are having in higher education as we start questioning the old didactic model and moving towards something more interactive, student-led, and — whisper it — enjoyable. And I started wondering how well those arguments might be applied to the management of meetings in the workplace. Just as it’s a huge waste of resources to have students in class who are not actually learning (or who are doing so in functionally-limited ways), the cumulative workplace productivity that gets pissed away because the bodies in the room aren’t engaged doesn’t bear thinking about.

Disclaimer: I’m not exactly inventing the wheel, here. While I want to believe that many of you work in places where meetings are managed sensibly, I’m assured that there are plenty of workplaces in which meetings are still very much a problem. So if you do work somewhere where meetings are useful, if not actuallt enjoyable, then the rest of this post may not be for you — though I hope you’ll appreciate it as an intellectual exercise, if nothing else.

The person leading the session must add value. Historically, education has involved sitting passively and listening for an hour or two at a time while someone dispenses information, a sort of pre-digital iTunes U on highly degradable reel-to-reel tape. Clearly, in an era where most things worth knowing find their way onto the Internet, and students have to pay to attend university*, such behaviour is nuts: Nevertheless, there remains a population of educators whose idea of teaching is to read aloud from their slides. While I can’t substantiate or quantify this with reference to the literature, I have noticed that when people find out this is something I’m interested in, many of them are quick to tell me about this lecturer they had at university who used to read aloud from … you get the idea. Old-school models of what classes should look like still persist.

Likewise, workplace meetings of the kind where one person talks and everyone else listens are still alive and kicking. Seth Godin argues that disseminating information is a legitimate type of meeting, but I’m less and less sure of this as my time starts feeling increasingly precious. (Though maybe I’m just becoming increasingly precious ;-P). Just as there is a grassroots movement underway to try to rid education of the kind of ‘teaching’ that is really reading aloud, so we should be taking the same approach to eradicate broadcast-style meetings. Surely in both cases it would have been better to send round a document in advance, then take advantage of valuable face-time to have some sort of informed discussion?

Good session management means making sure everyone in the room understands why they are there. Devil’s advocates will by this point be arguing that not everyone reads documents that are sent around. Well, not everyone engages in information-dump meetings either. I mean, you can get me into the room and you can impose a no-laptop rule and whatever other sanctions you choose — but fundamentally, if I can’t see the point, I’m going to go off and be a tourist inside my own head, since that’s where all the really interesting stuff is happening. As educators, when we see this this disengagement happening in the classroom, we try to do something about it by emphasising to those in the room the relevance of what is being discussed. Sadly, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of facilitators I’ve encountered who have run meetings in this way, ensuring everyone is really engaged and taking the time to draw out the more recalcitrant attendees. And I think that’s kind of a shame.

As group size increases, monitoring and remediating disengagement gets harder. I hypothesise that there’s a direct relationship between a facilitator’s skill and what size group they can wrangle at once without disengagement setting in. I had originally written that larger groups are fine for broadcast-style meetings — but actually, larger groups just encourage anonymity, diffusion of responsibility, and loafing. And anyway, if you you’re going to broadcast, why not circulate a video or document so people can watch or read it at a time that’s convenient for them? It’s worth considering the participant’s experience: small groups increase the potential for better-quality interactions between those present.

To keep people engaged, you have to sustain their attention. My most popular post on this site is When giving presentations, the only rule that matters is the rule of attention, and I’m pretty sure this whole argument applies to meetings too. If you don’t get people’s attention to start with, you won’t even get as far as being able to convince them of the relevance of what you are saying. But once you have their attention, you have to wrangle it, or it will just wander off again; attention is fickle. Moving things along every five, ten, or fifteen minutes will help; the brain is crazy for novelty.

Nevertheless, even an agenda won’t save you if each item on that agenda lasts for half an hour or more; even the most pertinent meetings can lose our attention if they go on too long. Here’s Seth Godin:

Understand that all problems are not the same. So why are your meetings? Does every issue deserve an hour? Why is there a default length?

Excepting the rule of attention, rules are a millstone. I’ve seen people discuss photocopying for half an hour, for no other reason than there was sufficient slack in the meeting schedule. Courtesy for other people’s time goes a long way: while this might be all you have to do today, the other person could be squeezing you in between studying, caring for an elderly relative, and working a part-time job. My nightmare is people who schedule one-to-one meetings lasting an hour or more to ‘chat’ about a single issue, with no plan or structure in mind. I mean, at least in a one-to-one tutorial, the ensuing discomfort could be offset by having some pre-prepared exercises to work through, giving the whole thing a bit of structure. Hey, there’s another tip from education: do the preparatory work — it’s a whole lot less excruciating for everyone concerned.

Rules do pervade education: parcelling up learning into arbitrarily-quantised chunks of 60 or 120 minutes is, objectively, pretty weird, when really what you’d like is to teach X until you are done teaching X, or until the students have run out of attention, then call a recess. But much as I find it hard to justify two-hour lectures, I understand that this rules-based architecture is driven by the practicalities of scheduling lecture theatre allocation across the whole campus, for a population of several thousand students, each of whom is pursuing one of a hundred or so different three-year degree courses. Suddenly, organising a one-hour meeting for seven people across different sections of your company doesn’t seem quite so bad, huh? ;o)

It’s worth distinguishing between ‘rules’ and ‘constraints’. By rules, I mean ‘hand-me-downs’: the things we do because the guy before us, or the guy before him, did them that way, and that we’re too lazy to change. Constraints are quite the opposite: these are deliberately-adopted restrictions designed to keep us on track and force us to be creative. Agendas, when adhered to, are one form of constraint; the curriculum can be another. There’s a whole organisational cult around the daily scrum meeting, which is short and time-limited and forces people to get to the point. I know people who work in teams that run a daily scrum, and from talking to them, it sounds excellent. However, it’s almost certainly less well-suited to academics, since the nature of our work means we’re mostly solitary, even when we are doing collaborative research — leaving aside that many of us don’t observe a standard 9-5, or have predictable hours day to day.

Two thoughts to finish with. First, as the estimable David Farbey pointed out at TCUK10,

“Team working is “I’ll do X, you do Y” — not circulating a document for everyone to read.”

And the second, which just scrolled past on Twitter right now (synchronicity or apophenia? It doesn’t really matter): Meetings aren’t work. They’re what we do as a penance for not rolling along like clockwork..

Postscript: Okay, there’s one other rule I like, too: the rule of two feet, as practiced at unconferences and barcamps. If, despite your best efforts, you’re not learning or contributing, go somewhere else where you can learn or contribute. I understand that this might be contentious (leave class? walk out of a meeting?), but I dare you to tell me that there’s never been a meeting, or a class, where the only thing stopping you from leaving was a vague sense of awkwardness that you ought to be there — and I happen to think it can be done gracefully, without being rude.

* Note for North Americans and others: until recently — the last decade or so — a university education in the UK was effectively free. Yes, really free, as in beer. Summary here; you can trace a lot of the bitterness in UK higher education from the moment that Tony Blair’s Labour government (yes, they’re the ones who’re supposed to be socialists) decided to turn universities into businesses. Important exception: Scotland, because it is awesome and now decides its own education funding policies, still does not charge Scottish students top-up fees. Pro tip for future students: be born in Scotland.

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On success and reward in academia

So it’s been six months since I blogged here, which is frankly atrocious. Having said that, it doesn’t really feel like six months, because everything is whooshing past at such a rate (although interestingly, while we all like to agree that time is speeding up as we get older, the evidence for this is equivocal).

Anyway, time to fill the void. Hi, void. How are you?

VOID: HI, CHRIS. WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?

I’m coming to that, but I need to tell you some stories on my way there.

VOID: OKAY. I LIKE STORIES.

(Aside: are you following @FEMINISTHULK on Twitter? You should; CAPS LOCK has never looked so attractive.)

This post is coming out of several conversations I’ve had recently about what it’s like to be an academic, and how academics spend their time. I think a lot of this is really not transparent to people who don’t work inside academia; a lot of the time, I don’t think it’s all that obvious to students, either.

First up, here’s Mark Changizi on why he just left academia:

You can’t write a grant proposal whose aim is to make a theoretical breakthrough.

“Dear National Science Foundation: I plan on scrawling hundreds of pages of notes, mostly hitting dead ends, until, in Year 4, I hit pay-dirt.”

Lots of research is by nature theoretical and speculative, the kind of thing you just need to chew on, indefinitely, until you make a breakthrough. But increasingly, funding bodies are turning away from this sort of thing in favour of applied research. Indeed, there’s a massive hoo-hah about HEFCE‘s new Research Excellence Framework (the thing that used to be the Research Assessment Exercise — that is, the attempt to objectively measure how “good” a university department’s research is) and exactly what they mean by ‘impact’.

It’s pretty hard for theoretical research to have impact. (I guess the clue is in the word ‘theoretical’.)

Mark again:

in what feels like no time at all, two decades have flown by, and (if you’re “lucky”) you’re the bread-winning star at your university and research discipline.

But success at that game meant you never had time to do the creative theoretical leaps you had once hoped to do. You were transformed by the contemporary academic system into an able grant-getter, and somewhere along the way lost sight of the more fundamental overthrower-of-dogma and idea-monger identity you once strived for.

Mark’s a theoretician, an absurdly talented one (I can’t even envy him for that, because he’s such a nice guy) — if anyone should be able to thrive within academia, it’s him. But he’s gone, because universities are changing from environments in which academics are free to consider ideas and theories into income-seeking machines.

Wait — you thought universities were about educating people? Well, keep reading, but you might want to be sitting down.

Mark’s experience is different from mine — he’s a theoretician, and I, after many years of not knowing how to describe what I do, have finally started calling myself an applied cognitive psychologist. (My mind is much better at applying theory to existing situations than it is at coming up with entirely new ideas about how the world works.) But what our experiences of academia have in common is that it’s hard to find anyone who will reward us for doing the things we do best, even when those things are ostensibly pillars of academia.

Example? Sure. Here are the things about my job that people senior to me notice whether I am doing:

* Authoring research papers (preferably in high-impact journals)
* Bringing in money through grant funding
* Bringing in money through other means (such as knowledge transfer or consultancy work)
* Attracting negative feedback from students
* Giving a class lower- or higher-than-average marks
* Completing the requisite admin tasks required for my teaching
* Meeting my personal development goals for the year
* Turning up to the relevant staff, admin and committee meetings

Here are some things about my job that nobody senior to me will notice whether I am doing unless something is on fire:

* Teaching well (unless I am namechecked by students right in front of them)
* Reviewing and revising my lecture notes from one year to the next
* Keeping up to date with developments in the theory and practice of teaching and learning
* Being involved in learning and teaching projects at a university-wide level
* Innovating in my teaching (and encouraging or helping others to innovate)

Above all, as I found myself explaining to an incredulous American friend last week, it is pretty much impossible to get promoted on the basis of being a stellar university teacher. I don’t actually think I’m a stellar teacher — but what I’m saying is, there’s no real incentive even to try, because all I’m doing, in striving for teaching excellence, is making work for myself: not only do I have to try to squeeze all this teaching innovation in, I also have to find time to do and write up my ‘real’ research.

So what have I been doing since February? I can’t believe I’m about to type this, but here goes:

leaving the office on time, and going to the gym.

This would be the bit where I proudly announce that I now have a life, right? But actually? I’m exhausted. And it’s not from going to the gym. I’m exhausted because it’s nearly impossible to do my job inside contracted hours if you care about teaching quality. Or if you have many research projects on the go that might one day lead to publications; I have about five of these, and they eat up time and money with no guarantee that the results will ever be publishable, assuming I even have the time and energy to write them up.

teaching vs research time.png

(Disclaimer: the above graph is purely conceptual, being based on no data whatsoever, but I think most academics would recognise it.)

Did you know that academics are estimated to work somewhere in the region of 50 hours a week? Why? Well, as I can now attest from personal experience, it’s the only way they can get anything done.

So where have I been? Mostly, trying not to have a breakdown. Trying to balance having a life with conducting teaching and research to a high standard. Trying to find a balance between using the summer to write up my research findings and taking the vacation time I’m owed (and which I never have time to take during term, because, hello, teaching and admin). Trying to rationalise what I can do, and what I can’t. Practicing saying ‘no’.

It is hard. And the students are back in just over a month and I do not feel rested at all, and I haven’t done half the work I hoped to. And last summer was exactly the same.

So, void, that’s where I’ve been. Interesting times.

It’s not all doom and gloom. I’m learning things about myself, like for instance that I’m a ninja copy-editor — when you give me your poorly-written paper to co-author, I will turn it into something sublime, geeking out for hours while my fourth cup of coffee in a row goes cold. (Now I just need to figure out how to work this way with all my co-authors.) I’ve embarked on a big e-learning project, more about which soon. And I’m slowly getting more clarity about what I want and don’t want in my job. These are all good things.

And the gym? I’ll definitely keep going to the gym. Being fit is great, but more importantly, you should sponsor me to run a half-marathon for charity :)

Thanks for listening; it’s nice to be back.

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Ask, Don’t Tell: the power of questions

Scientists are not trained to ask questions.

No, excuse me — scientists are absolutely trained to ask questions. In the lab. In the lab we are rabid information ferrets, and we will run up every trouserleg that the great wardrobe in the sky sees fit to provide.

Scientists who become lecturers are not trained to ask questions — at least, not questions of the classroom variety (remember, we’re preoccupied with being subject matter experts). We are trained to talk. And talk. Seriously, if you like to pontificate, you could do worse than become a scientist. It’s like our national sport or something.

And so, at the end of class, because we know we’re supposed to ask this, we ask any questions? and nobody says anything — instead, the entire class launches into a frenzied scramble for their bags and coats. Because “any questions?” is about the worst thing you could possibly ask, and my students know it, even if they don’t explicitly realise it.

And yet, in defiance of the mute, are-we-done-yet hordes, a small trickle of students invariably arrives afterwards to ask questions, or to share something interesting and relevant from their lives. And sometimes, it feels like more teaching and more learning happens in those little conversations than in the whole of the lecture preceding them.

I experienced for myself, and am trying hard not to propagate, the cycle of abuse that is didactic, teacher-led education. “Sit down and shut up” is a powerful message to impose on children — and it’s clearly a sticky one, because by the time my students arrive at university, that’s their expectation of what should happen in class1. Ironically, when students don’t want to interact in class, it’s actually even harder not to ask things like “any questions?”, because we do it out of habit, and stressful situations are great for dredging up our most-ingrained routines.

“If you want to improve any element of your life, learn how to ask better questions.” (via Paul at Brain Friendly Trainer).

I’m a huge fan of asking questions: they’re the fast track to learning (a) how interesting the other person is [seriously: people are fascinating] and (b) all the stuff they know that you don’t. And pretty much everyone likes talking about themselves and their thoughts, so asking questions is good social grease, too.

Asking great questions is also a brilliant habit to build in the classroom. It’s a skill I’ve been quite slow to develop, but I’m getting into it. So here are a few ways that I’ve tried to bring more questions into my classes:

I already posted about how I turned a two-hour lecture into a two-hour problem-based learning session. This was great for two reasons: firstly, I asked the students a ton of questions, which normally isn’t something we make much time for in lectures. Second, and even more exciting, was that the students then started asking their own questions. In front of 60 other students. Seriously, if I do nothing else of value this academic year, I’d almost be okay just with that. (Well, not really. But you know.)

I added media clips to my lectures as an excuse to ask concept checking questions. I showed my students Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk about the subjective experience of having a stroke. Watch it if you haven’t already — not only does she bring great insights from her knowledge of the brain (she’s a neuroscientist), but she also gives the talk with great humour and humanity. And instead of giving students multiple-choice questions afterwards (Did the stroke attack (A) the left (B) the right or (C) both hemispheres of Jill Bolte Taylor’s brain?), I asked much harder questions: What are the physical and emotional consequences of a left-hemispheric stroke? How do you see objects that appear in your left visual field? Outline the path taken by information through your brain. And so on. (I let them talk through it with a partner first, before I threw it open to the class. Small steps.)

For reasons outlined here, I changed the format of student presentations to Pecha Kucha (which I must write about soon, because it completely deserves its own post). And we went from from “mostly the student talking” to “the student talks for a while and then everyone pitches in with questions and discussion” — which, for the record, is a way better experience. For everyone. (I collected questionnaire data that says so, too.) Nothing makes a class interactive faster than getting students interested enough in the subject to ask each other questions.

I stopped telling and started asking. This wasn’t a class-specific intervention, just something I’ve consciously started trying to do over the last couple of years every time students get stuck: I answer their questions with questions of my own. It seems especially useful when working with very reticent students, but it’s also a handy tool when guiding students who are struggling to express their thoughts on paper: how do you know that? What evidence do you have? Why is that relevant?

What have I learned? Asking questions works. I’ve had really positive feedback from students about these sessions, and I know in my heart that I’m asking better questions and getting students to think more actively about the problems I’m setting. I’ve also learned that if your concentration lapses, even for a moment, it’s really hard not to reflexively ask “any questions?”, so deeply ingrained is the concept. (I guess the only solution to that is more practice.)

Yes, these activities are all things I should have been doing to begin with — but remember that didactic, scientific background, and show me a little mercy; breaking the cycle of abuse can take a while.

And now I want to add a whole session on “asking questions” to the teaching certificate.

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Edit, one day after posting: One other thing that I learned, just today, is that sometimes it’s okay to ask if there are any [further] questions, if everyone is good and warmed up, and you have time to spare. Because they were, and we did – and students came up with some great questions. Stuff I had no idea about, but about which it was fun to speculate. But I think people really have to be in that headspace and comfortable with the idea of asking questions in class before this will work.

1 Okay, some of students’ reticence in class is also driven by not wanting to look like an idiot in front of their peers, in case the question is “a stupid one” … one day I might turn up at class wearing a t-shirt that says THERE ARE NO STUPID QUESTIONS — ONLY STUPID LECTURERS, but you just know that’s going to backfire in ways that are both immensely embarrassing and completely predictable.

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The search for context in education and journalism (wicked problems, Wikipedia, and the rise of the info-ferret)

It’s a January evening, a schoolnight, and I’m sitting on my sofa thinking Stuff it. I’m tired and it’s dark and I worked hard today, damn it. It’s pretty hard, at that moment, to engage with with the things I know are really good for me, like going to the gym, eating right, and engaging with decent journalism that actually says something worthwhile about the state of the world.

Ah, journalism. Why is it so hard to engage with good, wholesome news? You know, instead of the junk-food variety?

Well, for starters, it takes effort; something in short supply when you consider that UK academics apparently rack up an average 55-hour working week. So if I sometimes choose entertainment over learning, maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking really hard for 11 hours already.

Here’s the more interesting question, though: why should it take so much effort to engage with the news? I think the record will show that I did okay in school and that I know a few long words. I can follow an argument; on a good day, I can win one. But watching or reading the news and really, really getting it (not just at the who-shot-whom level, but understanding why), frequently eludes me.

For the longest time, whenever I read the news, I’ve often felt the depressing sensation of lacking the background I need to understand the stories that seem truly important.

I didn’t write that, but I could have. By the time I’d got old enough to be properly interested in the ongoing story that is Northern Ireland, no newspaper was interested in explaining the context to me. I knew it had to do with territory, nationality and religious differences, but who were ‘republicans’? What did they want? The newspapers all assumed that I knew a whole bunch of stuff that actually, I didn’t know. The dictionary was no real help, the Internet was still in short trousers, and Wikipedia didn’t yet exist. (Not that we had the Internet at home. We didn’t even have a computer.) And I was at that delicate age where I didn’t want to look stupid by asking what might have been a dumb question. (Actually, it wasn’t a dumb question at all, but I didn’t know that then.)

We would shy away from stories that seemed to require a years-long familiarity with the news and incline instead toward ephemeral stories that didn’t take much background to understand—crime news, sports updates, celebrity gossip. This approach gave us plenty to talk about with friends, but I sensed it left us deprived of a broader understanding of a range of important issues that affect us without our knowing.

Secret-that’s-not-really-a-secret: the guy who wrote this is a journalist. His name is Matt Newman, and he’s reporting here for Harvard’s Nieman Foundation about how modern journalism bypasses context in favour of immediate, juicy details..

News is complicated. To make sense of complicated things, we need context. And the newspapers aren’t delivering that context; even journalists say so.

In fairness, context is hard to come by when — as with Northern Ireland — your story pretty much defines the phrase wicked problem (see also its big brother, The Middle East). How much information is ‘enough’? How much background would you need to really understand the issues surrounding Obama’s healthcare reforms? Or the debate on university fees?

We need something, and traditional news media aren’t providing it.

But we have Google and Wikipedia, right? So there’s really no excuse for not being able to find out at least something about nearly everything. Apparently, when a big news story breaks, people really do converge on Wikipedia, looking for context; we are a generation empowered, as no generation before us, to find stuff out.

Except.

Except that I still get emails from my students that read What does [word from the course materials] mean? I used to write lots of replies of the biting-my-tongue variety, politely suggesting that the student take advantage of the resources at their disposal1, but eventually I got fed up with this, and wrote an FAQ in which I was somewhat more blunt, though I hope in a kind way.

My favourite was a student who emailed me after a deadline, apologising for the poor quality of the coursework he had submitted, and explaining that he hadn’t known what one of the words in the essay question meant — so he had just tried his best and hoped. This wasn’t a word that was archaic or obscure. This was a word widely employed in psychology and related subjects. It’s not in the paper dictionary on my desk (which, admittedly, is 20 years old), but it’s very, very easy to find and learn about online.

It’s not about having access to the information; all my students have Internet access at least some of the time. Too many (N > 0) of my students are just not in the habit of looking for information when they get stuck, like someone forgot to tell them that the Internet is good for more than just email and Facebook.

But students will surf Wikipedia and YouTube all day long, given half a chance, so what’s that about?

At Playful ’09, Tassos Stevens talked about the power of indeterminacy, and whether, if someone throws a ball, you can look away before you find out if the other guy catches it. Suspense is immensely engaging.

Wikipedia is like this: it’s a barely game, where the idea is to answer as many “Ooh, what does that mean?” questions as possible, using only the links from one article to the next. In suspensefulness terms, Wikipedia is an infinite succession of ball-throws, sort of Hitchcock: The Basketball Years. (Okay, so Tassos was talking about cricket, but my point stands.)

But education obviously doesn’t feel like a barely game, because students don’t behave there like they do when they’re surfing Wikipedia. So I guess we need more suspense. This might mean being less didactic, and asking more questions. Preferably messy ones, with no right answers.

I think that if we really want to turn our students into information ferrets, running up the trouserlegs of their canonical texts to see what goodness might be lurking there in the dark [This metaphor is making me uncomfortable — Ed.] then maybe we, like the news media, need to get better at providing context.

If students email me with simple queries rather than trying to figure things out on their own, maybe it’s because the education system hasn’t been feeding their inner info-ferrets. (Note to schools: teaching kids how to google is a completely different issue from teaching them to google and making it into a habit, and some days, it feels like you only deal in the former.)

We exist, currently, on the cusp: everything’s supposed to be interactive, but not everyone’s got their heads around this yet. (“Wait — you mean we’re supposed to participate? Actively??”) The old-school, didactic models of education and journalism (“sit down, shut up and listen; we know best”) are crumbling. And some of the solutions about how to fix journalism look a lot like the arguments being rehearsed in education about how to make it valuable and keep it relevant: develop rich content that your customers can help build and be part of; accept that you might need a model which permits the existence of premium and budget customers. (This is going to be highly contentious in higher education, and I still don’t know what I think about it. But I don’t think the idea is going away anytime soon.)

I ran one of the many iterations of this post past Simon Bostock and he wrote back: Newspapers have learned the wrong lesson of attentionomics. I think they’ve got it bang-on as far as briefly grabbing our attention goes,2 but I don’t think it’s doing much for our understanding of the news, and some days, I worry that education is headed the same way.

Jason Fry asks, if we were starting today, would we do this? This is a great question for journalism, but it’s also pretty pertinent to education: we still teach students in ways that make only marginal concessions to the Internet’s existence, treating it as little more than a dictionary, encyclopedia, or storage container.

Given that nearly anything can be found with a few keystrokes, if we had to redesign education from scratch, what would it look like?

More like Wikipedia. More ferret-friendly. And maybe upside-down.

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[Acknowledgements: major kudos to Simon for linking to Ed Yong’s great piece on breaking the inverted pyramid in news reporting, for reading drafts of this post while I was losing my mind, and for the juicy, lowbrow goodness of LMGTFY, below.]

1 I suppose I could slam my students with Let Me Google That For You, but I prefer to save the passive-aggressive stuff for my nearest and dearest.

2 If this post were a headline, it would read STUDENTS TOO LAZY TO GOOGLE. (Admittedly this would be closely followed by SUB-EDITOR TOO DRUNK TO CRAFT ORIGINAL HEADLINE and BLOGGER CHEERFULLY IGNORES CLICHÉ.)

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Why experts are morons: a recipe for academic success

This morning there was quite a bit of tweeting, back and forth, about this article and exactly how stupid it is.

“If our attention span constricts to the point where we can only take information in 140-character sentences, then that doesn’t bode too well for our future,” said Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, director of Stanford University’s Impulse Control Disorders Clinic at Stanford University.

Yup, you read that right. Some guy with a Ph.D. who works at one of the best universities in the world (and who’s sufficiently good at his job that they made him director of a clinic) is talking — to all appearances quite seriously — about the idea that the human attention span might shrink to the length of a tweet.

In other news, if the world were made of custard, global warming might lead to major dessertification, if we could just just bake an apple crumble big enough.

Maybe there’s a good explanation. Maybe Dr Aboujaoude’s remarks were taken out of context by the San Francisco Chronicle. Or maybe they threw him this ad absurdum scenario and he ran with it because he’s a nice guy and thinks that even if reporters pose a dumb question, it would still be rude to call them on it.

Here’s my ill-conceived, half-baked thesis for the day: experts are morons.

Why? Well, we get very excited over stuff we think is new, because we’ve been too busy down in our own little silos. I pissed Harvey off earlier by posting, in good faith, a link to Tyler Cowen’s TED talk about the dangerous appeal of stories.

Kids, don’t even try to sell Harvey old rope. Even if you didn’t know it was old rope. He’ll know.

What I ended up saying to Harvey was essentially Look, there’s a movement afoot to try to to get storytelling back into learning, to replace the content firehosing that passes for big education these days, McDonalds-style — and this talk serves as a useful reminder that stories are invariably a gross oversimplification of the evidence.

What I should have been saying was: Dude, I spent umpteen years becoming a subject matter expert, and at no point did anyone tell me that I needed to apply my critical faculties to delivering the material I researched so painstakingly. I’m new at this; cut me some slack!

(It turns out that Harvey and I were somewhat at cross-purposes; such are the limitations of 140-character ‘discussion’.)

Here’s the thing: academic success favours those who focus their critical faculties on developing their subject area expertise.

Below is a recipe for modest success in academic life and for becoming a legitimate ‘expert’. (Quantities and ingredients may vary according to your needs and experience.)

  • You need to be bright-ish. Not supernova bright, just bright enough. (If you’re too bright in school, you’ll get bored; see next point.)
  • You need to be well-behaved. (If you don’t behave, you’ll be labelled disruptive and that will do exactly what you think it will to your chances of academic success. Yes, even if you are bored because lessons are too easy.)
  • It helps to crave everyone’s approval. (If you don’t care what your teachers or parents think, why would you try hard on subjects that don’t really interest you?)
  • Questioning authority probably isn’t in your nature. (Or if it is, it’s a very specific kind of critical thinking, like “hey, maybe nukes aren’t that great an idea, mmkay?”) This will serve you well later, in your tenured career.
  • You are comfortable letting other people set goals for you (“You think I should go to university? Great!”)
  • You acquire a certain nerd-like pleasure (flow, if you like) from gnawing on very specific questions.
  • Your school years have conditioned you to understand that most people are mean, and best avoided.
  • Metaphorically or actually, you have let a thousand cups of tea go cold while you geek out on your chosen subject.
  • … okay, that much will get you through university and into a postgraduate programme (Masters or Ph.D.) At this point, it will be particular helpful if you can screen out information about the world around you, because this will just distract and confuse you about the relevance of what you are doing. (Having a crisis of meaning is one of the fundamental stages of doing a Ph.D.)

    If you survive this process and get your doctorate, you enter the world of teaching, admin, research, publication, and grant-getting — listed in increasing order of importance to your new employer. Your Ph.D., the entry requirement to academia that you have worked so hard on, also serves as your passport to teaching. Pause a moment to reflect on the weirdness of that statement: subject expertise is used as a measure of how competent you are to communicate that information meaningfully to non-experts.

    (Some universities, mine included, are trying to address this systemic shortcoming by getting new lecturers to do a teaching certificate. This is a lot better than nothing, but it’s also quite possible to do the absolute minimum required to pass, then go on your merry way, unmoved and largely unchanged. At least we do ‘peer observation’, which is a nice way of seeing what other people are up to; it’s hard not to reflect on your own teaching when watching someone else deliver a session.)

    Once you’re on the big shiny merry-go-round of teaching-admin-research-publication-grant-getting, it’s even harder to drag your ass out of the mire of just trying to keep up with your subject area and across the road into the big field of flowers that is good educational practice. And when you do manage to haul yourself over there (at the cost, by the way, of time spent on research/publication/grant application — and no-one is going to reward you for that choice), you get disproportionately excited when people show you some of the shiny things that exist in the world, because you’ve been far, far too busy becoming a subject expert to notice them. This can make educators look like big, dumb puppies — for example when we’re over-keen to co-opt neuroscience.

    The other side-effect of being an ‘expert’ is that if you’re not naturally inclined to cause trouble, question the system, or think critically about more than subject-matter problems (and remember, you have floated to the top of an educational system that rewards exactly those qualities), then sometimes you end up saying really dumb stuff, because you’re too busy thinking “ooh, that would be interesting” — like what if we really could only take in 140 characters’ worth of stuff before our attention drifted — to fully consider the validity of the question.

    None of this is an excuse for living up to the ‘woolly professor’ stereotype, but I hope it helps to explain to people like Harvey why experts sometimes sound like they’re rediscovering — or even reinventing — the wheel. And as for us ‘experts’ (and boy, am I uncomfortable with that label) we need to try harder to think about the practical applications of what we do — and to remember, once in a while, to apply those finely-honed critical thinking skills to something other than our own subject areas. We’re not really morons, but to the casual observer, it’s an easy mistake to make.

    .

    Obligatory afterword: there are a number of stellar educators who really do manage to apply their critical faculties to more than just their own subject area, and who manage to get through university and postgraduate qualifications despite asking really awkward questions and rocking the boat. If they ever isolate a gene for that, we should all go get spliced right away.

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    When giving presentations, the only rule that matters is the rule of attention

    Recently I was discussing presentations with a friend who is a student. Although being asked to make a presentation is a fairly common part of the student experience, and he has a reasonable idea of what’s involved, nobody has ever taught him or his peers how to do it.

    Because I spend more time thinking about presentations than is strictly healthy, I offered to write my friend an email, summarising my thoughts. But once I got started, it very quickly turned into a monster email, the kind that people tend to skim once and then write a quick one-line reply along the lines of “Thanks, that looks really interesting — I’ll come back to it when I have more time,” maybe because they’re intimidated by the sheer volume and content of it all. (Yeah, okay, this is really about me and how I procrastinate over reading emails that look like they will be hard work. You’re listening to WKLJ — the sound of guilty conscience.) Plus, numerous URLs turn email into hyperlink soup.

    So instead of sending my friend an email, I wrote this blog post. It’s ostensibly about the mistakes students make when they give presentations, but really it’s about how the only rules you need to know about giving a good presentation are the ones about human attention.

    Here are some common mistakes I see in student presentations:

    * Not having practiced the presentation enough.
    * Not knowing enough details of the story, including germane technical details/terminology/pronunciation.
    * Not picking a topic that they actually find interesting
    * Confusing slide preparation with presentation preparation.
    * Putting too much information on each slide.
    * Not thinking about what it will be like to be the audience for this presentation, rather than the presenter

    Notice how ‘being nervous’ is not on that list. We understand that students will be nervous about giving a presentation — being nervous about doing something fairly new in front of other people is completely understandable, and aside from one or two freakish individuals who take to presenting as though they’ve been doing it all their lives, everyone’s in the same boat. So relax :)

    None of those mistakes are really about what happens during the presentation: they are all about how students prepare for the presentation beforehand. My impression from several years of watching students give presentations is that they are quite relaxed about the preparation, then get scared when it comes to the presentation itself. But by the time you are ready to give your presentation, it’s too late to be nervous — because by then, you’ve either put in the work, or you haven’t. Preparation is worth being nervous about; standing up and talking isn’t.

    Ignore all the ‘rules’ about how to structure your slides. For every rule, there will be at least one instance in which it is not valid. Knowing which rules to follow and which to break is mostly a matter of practice and experience — which you may not have. So ignore, or at least treat with extreme suspicion, anything that sounds like a rule. Common rules include:

    * Use X lines of text/bullet-points per slide
    * Plan one slide for every N seconds of your talk
    * The 10/20/30 rule

    These all sound perfectly sensible, but the trouble with rules is that people cling to them for reassurance, and what was originally intended as a guideline quickly becomes a noose. My opposition to putting reams of text on slides is well documented, but I bet there are presentations out there where that’s exactly what’s required — at least, on one or two slides. Likewise, having more than ten slides might be exactly what you need; hell, you might need a hundred. Rules stipulating the number of slides you should have, or how fast you should transition between them, conveniently ignore that these aspects of your presentation depend on (a) what you are talking about, (b) what’s on your slide, and (c) how long that takes your audience to apprehend. Rules about slides are rubbish, because they stop you from thinking critically about what — if anything — you need to show in support of the point you want to make.

    Ready-to-fill slide layouts are just another kind of rule. When you open Powerpoint and Keynote, they instantly start making suggestions about the layout of your slides. Bullet-lists feature prominently. When was the last time you enjoyed a presentation that had page after page of bullet points? Once you’ve figured out the story you’re telling, think about how each point could best be conveyed visually, and about whether you even need slides or visual aids at all.

    Concentrate on the rules of attention. The thing you most want during a presentation is people’s attention, so everything you do and say has to be about capturing that, and then keeping it. The rules of attention are more or less universal, easier to demonstrate empirically than rules about specific slide formats, and can be neatly summarised as follows: people get bored easily.

    Some specific rules of attention are:

    People can really only retain about four bits of new, unrelated information — and sometimes not even that many. Don’t overstuff your presentation, and take care to signpost the key points — visually, verbally, however you want.

    It’s hard to process spoken and written words at the same time. Integrating your spoken words with pictorial slides makes it easier for the brain to process these two streams of information efficiently. This also helps your audience remember more of what you said.

    A story will keep people’s attention, because they will want to know what happens next. At Playful ’09 last week, Tassos Stevens talked about the compelling nature of indeterminacy, and asked the question Once a ball has been thrown, is it possible to look away before you know whether someone catches it? If you don’t know what your story is, or don’t convey that story clearly to your audience, they won’t stay focused; as Hitchcock knew very well, it’s all about suspense.

    People really like looking at screens. If you’ve ever been in a pub with the TV on and the sound off, you’ll know that screens are an attention-magnet. This is great when you’re giving your presentation and there’s something on the slide that you want people to look at, but not so great if they are still looking at the slide while you are talking about something else. There’s an easy fix — press B or W while in Slideshow mode: the screen will go black or white, respectively (this works in both Keynote and Powerpoint), and people’s attention will focus on you, because now you are the moving, shiny thing in the room. Toggle the same key when you’re ready to direct the audience’s attention to the screen again.

    Sustaining audience attention requires frequent changes. Simon Bostock once tweeted something great about how flow is when you stop noticing the joins between one parcel of attention and the next; this is the state you want to induce in your audience. Paradoxically, in order to get them to concentrate on something for a long time, you need to keep changing the thing they’re paying attention to, or they will get bored. Change stuff mindfully: I don’t mean adding clip-art or unrelated animations to your slides, I mean introduce something seriously astonishing. (Unexpectedness is a brilliant tool for wrangling people’s attention.) Less dramatically, you could use changes in your tone of voice, speaking volume, or where you are standing to draw the audience’s attention to a particular point. Evaluate your slides and consider whether they could be less formulaic; consider introducing some audience participation to get everyone out of the you-talk-while-they-listen rut.

    Your audience will tell you when their attention is wandering. Hopefully not out loud, and hopefully not by harshtagging your presentation. But you will know from looking at their faces where their attention is, and if it isn’t on you or your visual aids, you will know that you need to change something. Don’t be afraid to go a bit off-road in the service of keeping people interested; it’s a kindness and a courtesy to stay with your audience, and a presenter on auto-pilot is not a pretty sight.

    There are so many more things I could write about attention and presentations, but this is already overlong. So yeah, last rule: short is good. Like I said, rules are for breaking.

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    Edit: There are some great additional points in the comments below.

    Edit 2: Olivia Mitchell has written a great post about seven ways to keep your audience’s attention. We’re all about attention hacks here at finiteattentionspan!

    [Marginalia: (1) Aesthetic is not a rule. Having a consistent look-and-feel (good colour palettes, consistent use of fonts and text size) can really elevate a presentation. (2) Constraints are not the same as rules. Obviously, most presentations will have a time-limit, and you need to respect that. And if you are doing Ignite or Pecha Kucha, there are some very specific constraints about slide timing (and, necessarily, about what goes on the slide, since viewing time is so short). But constraints are great news for creativity.]

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