Skip to content

Recent Articles

5
Mar

How Games Drive Learning

Gamification is no longer a trend in learning – games are now a driver of learning. An article by NIIT’s Vice President of Design, Dr. Gregg Collins, published in the latest Spring 2014 edition of Training Industry Quarterly, highlights how games present a wonderful opportunity to make learning more effective and fun.

Read the complete article here – http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/trainingindustry/tiq_2014spring/index.php?startid=41.

17
Dec

Happy Holidays from NIIT!

Happy Holidays from NIIT!

Happy Holidays from NIIT!

Happy Holidays from NIIT!

13
Dec

Learning from Lessons (Part 2) – Gregg Collins.

Piano

My daughter started taking piano lesson right around her fourth birthday, which is much younger than anyone would have considered reasonable when I was a kid. Today, though, it is not uncommon, and this change is largely due to one man: Shin’ichi Suzuki, a Japanese who, rather affectingly, according to Wikipedia, “desired to bring some beauty to the lives of children in his country after the devastation of World War II.” Suzuki arrived at the notion that he could teach four-year-olds to play the violin by reasoning that if they are smart enough to learn language, they are smart enough to learn music. He was right, and he proved it when he stunned the world by producing a corps of pre-school violin virtuosos.

Today, if you take a young child for music training almost anywhere in the world, she will probably be trained through some version of the Suzuki Method. The central tenet of this approach is that kids learn to play by ear. In traditional music lessons, kids start by learning the formal machinery of musical notation along with “music theory–as embodied in learning scales and so on—which is a tedious process that seems far removed from what is attractive about music in the first place. This approach puts an enormous obstacle in front of the learner right at the beginning of her education. It’s no wonder that younger children are generally unable to learn this way—even many older kids who signed up for traditional lessons never got past the theory.

In the Suzuki approach, students learn to play songs that they can enjoy from the start, rather than waiting until they have mastered the written notation. They learn to compare what they play to the way the song sounds on a recording, or their memory of it. In other words, they are put in a position to observe the outcomes of their actions directly, and to learn from this.

There has been a little bit of backlash against the Suzuki approach due to the claim that kids who learn this way may struggle to learn musical notation later on, and so many kids, my daughter included, are now taught through a “modified” Suzuki method in which notion is introduced early even as the student is learning to play songs by ear. This approach starts learners out with an extremely simplified notation that they use as a mnemonic device while playing, and gradually adds complexity to the notation over time. The progression goes something like this:

1. Initially, the student plays with her hand in a fixed position on the piano while looking at a series of numbers telling her which fingers to use in what sequence (1 to 5 corresponding to the numbers on each hand from thumb to pinkie).
2. The numbers are then juxtaposed with whole-note symbols that move up and down on the page vertically to indicate whether the notes in the song are going up or down.
3. Rests, half notes and whole notes are introduced in turn, as the students learn pieces that have different rhythms.
4. The notes begin to appear on a traditional staff, but still with the familiar finger numbers next to them.
5. Numbers are only given for notes at the start of phrases.
6. The numbers go away.

There are two things about this approach that I think are clever. The first is that the notation is made useful. Young students need help remembering the pieces they are meant to play, and the notation provides this. As a result, the student sees the notation as an aid, rather than as something difficult that must be learned. Traditional music lessons, like a lot of old-fashioned education, push students to learn a lot of things in advance of being able to put them to use, and the lesson here is that it is better to wait until the utility is manifest.

The second, related point, which is somewhat more subtle, is that nothing is introduced in the notation that the student has not first learned by ear. For example, the student learns to hear and play half notes before they turn up in the notation, so that when the new notation is introduced, it relates to something they already understand. This seems to make all the difference in comprehension and ability to put theory into practice. It may be the case that, in effect, Self 2 can benefit from some technique, but only when that technique relates directly to something Self 2 has already learned through practice.

Gymnastics

When she was younger, my daughter took gymnastics lessons at a training center in southern California that is, strangely enough, one of the best educational institutions I’ve ever seen. (Sadly, we’ve moved away from the area, or she would probably still be taking lessons there.) Some of the reasons why are identical with what I’ve said above: students spend most of their time performing skills, instructors keep discussions of technique to a minimum, and so on, with all of the same beneficial results. But there are a couple of other things about it that I think are worth noting as well.

The first is that in gymnastics, form is a major issue, and the instructor is generally the only one with the expertise on hand to judge form. This means that the instructor has to provide the feedback as well as the coaching, and in general when that is the case there is an enormous risk of mixing the two roles up. For example, if the coach wants to build a child’s confidence, there is a real temptation to tell her she executed a skill well even if she didn’t. What I find really interesting is that the instructors at my daughter’s gymnastics center never do that. Instead, they invariably give the kids straight feedback. That takes a lot of discipline, but the net result is that the kids, who can tell real feedback from fake at a very early age–are extremely motivated by the praise they get, because they know they earned it. To be a sympathetic coach while at the same time providing objective feedback is a serious skill that the instructors in my daughter’s gymnastics program somehow seemed to have gotten exactly right.

My other point is that gymnastics is notable because it consists of complex skills that seem to have an “all or nothing” quality to them. If you attempt a back flip, for example, you’d better complete it, or you risk breaking your neck. This makes it problematic to learn how to do such maneuvers in the first place. It turns out that the instructors have a lot of tricks up their sleeves to allow kids to practice partial or simplified versions of complex skills. These include the use of trampolines, ultra-bouncy floors, foam-rubber-filled pits, reduced-size apparatus, and so on. My personal favorite is their collection of large vinyl-covered foam rubber pillows, with which the instructors are especially ingenious. For example, if you want to learn to do a back somersault, you start by putting your hands over your head and bending backwards over a large, hexagonally shaped pillow, which your instructor rolls slightly at exactly the right moment to help you over. Vygotsky called such devices scaffolding—learning aids that allow students to attempt a skill that is otherwise beyond their ability. I think that is a pretty useful term. A lot of detailed thought that has gone into providing such scaffolding for gymnastics, and that has a lot to do with why that training is so successful. The reason this is so important is that it allows the gymnastics instructors, like the tennis and piano instructors I’ve talked about, to get learners right into performing real skills.

Summing Up

Some of the principles that can be abstracted out of the lessons we looked at are:

1. Be ambitious about what can be learned. Suzuki thought four year olds could play an instrument well. Gallwey thought beginners could hit solid tennis shots in their first lesson. By rejecting conventional wisdom about the limits of what could be done through training, they both made huge advances.
2. Allow students to learn by doing. All of my daughter’s lessons are centered on having the learner practice the skills in question. Everything else that happens, including coaching and presentation of information, is designed to support the learner’s activity.
3. De-emphasize “success” and “failure”. When learners get their egos too involved, they get in their own way. Powerful natural learning mechanisms are thwarted when the learner is obsessed with instant success, or angry about apparent failure. In the old-school sports training that I got as a kid, coaches made success and failure as personal as possible, deriding those who failed and lauding those who succeeded. This approach is hugely destructive to learning.
4. Avoid overloading learners with technique. This distracts them from the fundamental mechanism of learning, which is trial and error.
5. Help learners focus on one or two key feedback areas at a time. When learners can practice with an intense focus on the results that matter, their natural learning mechanisms ensure steady improvement.
6. Deliver simple coaching inputs just when learners are ready to implement them, and not before. This approach guards against overloading learners with technique.
7. Be skeptical of the idea that people have to master “fundamental skills” before moving on. Suzuki realized that the traditional insistence on teaching musical notation before anything else had created a roadblock for learners. By eliminating this roadblock, he revolutionized the training.
8. Break down skills and provide scaffolding for learners. Many important skills are too complex to learn all at once, yet not easy to break into component parts. Overcoming this requires a lot of detailed effort, but the result it worth it.

Out of all this, a general picture of a modern, effective lesson emerges. It is hands on and fast moving, with minimal presentation of information, clever preparation of scaffolding, a deliberate de-emphasize of ego, an intense (but not emotionally loaded) emphasis on observing outcomes, and a central role for highly skilled coaching. This, I think—and hope–is what the future of education looks like.

Is there a common thread that has caused instruction in so many different fields to converge on a similar, highly effective approach? My guess is that it is mostly just the economics of the marketplace. Lessons like these are relatively expensive luxuries—no one has to take them.
Furthermore, as econpomists have observed, many modern parents have, in broad historical terms, lots of money and leisure time but few offspring, which puts them in a position to be obsessive with regard to almost everything about their children’s upbringing. In that situation, the approaches that work, whatever they might be, will rapidly win out in the free market.

So I think that is the bottom line. The approach to education that we are seeing emergent in my daughter’s lessons is what works.

12
Dec

Learning from Lessons (Part I) – Gregg Collins

Knowledge is not skill. Knowledge plus ten thousand repetitions is skill–Shin’ichi Suzuki

“Our knowing is ordinarily tacit, implicit in our patterns of action ….. It seems right to say that our knowing is in our action.”–Donald Schon

“What we pay attention to and how we pay attention determine the content and quality of life.” –Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The greatest efforts in sports come when the mind is as still as a glass lake.”–Timothy Gallwey

There’s been a lot of criticism in the media lately of parents who “over schedule” their children by enrolling them in too many structured activities. My six year old daughter takes lessons in gymnastics, piano, ballet, swimming and tennis, so as you can imagine I’m a little sensitive about this. My only excuse for my overzealous parenting is that herlessons are so good that I would hate to take her out of any of them.

I disliked virtually every organized educational experience I had before graduate school, so I’m actually pretty surprised about the seeming abundance of high-quality training for kids these days. Apparently there has been some kind of revolution in extra-scholastic education since I grew up, and no one bothered to tell me about it. In this column I try to figure out why my daughters lessons are so good, and what we as instructional designers can learn from that.

Tennis

My first tennis lesson consisted of a long lecture about “eastern” versus “western” grips—a distinction that escapes me to this day—plus a bunch of weird drills like rolling a ball around in circles on the face of the racquet for ten minutes straight. Actual tennis did not occur until several lessons later. I’m still bitter about that, in case you can’t tell.

In contrast, my daughter got to start hitting tennis balls, which were bounced to her by an instructor, ten minutes after the start of her first session of her beginning tennis camp. Throughout the camp, she and her fellow students spent most of their time with racquets in hand, hitting real tennis strokes. Instructors kept them focused on simple outcomes, while being careful to avoid ratcheting up the pressure. Results were dealt with dispassionately—data points to be considered, not indicators of individual success and failure. There was no detailed presentation of theory about stance, grip, swing, and so on–instruction was brief and to the point, and coaching inputs were confined mostly to specific, individualized suggestions that learners could put into practice immediately, and that slowly built on one another over time. By the end of the camp, which was about four hours total, most of the kids could hit a variety of surprisingly solid shots including ground strokes, serves and volleys. My daughter emerged feeling confident about the skills she’d learned. “I think I’m going to be better than you at tennis,” she confided to me in a whispered aside. I think so too, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

I think the improvement in how tennis lessons are taught is to a significant extent due to the influence of one man: Timothy Gallwey, a tennis playing Harvard graduate who in 1974 wrote a book called The Inner Game of Tennis.

Gallwey describes the travails of the tennis novice as being the result of a struggle between two inner selves: Self 1—“the teller”—and Self 2—“the doer”. Self 2 learns physical skills through trial and error, building competence reliably, gradually and unconsciously. Self 1, on the other hand, is good with theory, but not with execution. Skills like tennis are the natural province of Self 2, but Self 1 has a bad habit of losing confidence in Self 2, and trying to take over. This usually results in a significant degradation of performance. Learners in the grip of their Self 1, Gallwey observes, tend to be stiff and awkward, attempting through sheer force of will to make their bodies do the right thing. Learners being guided by their Self 2, in contrast, find that successful execution seems to come naturally, almost without their having to make any conscious effort.

Gallwey’s argument is presumably meant to be taken as a metaphor, but it may be closer to the literal truth than anyone would have thought. Daniel Willingham, a Psychologist at the University of Virginia, has done a series of experiments showing that subjects playing a simple video game can learn to improve their performance in two different ways: by being explicitly taught the underlying patterns that control the game, or by implicitly learning those patterns through practice. What is interesting is that these two modes of learning seem quite separate and distinct, as evidenced by the fact that subjects who learned implicitly often cannot describe the patterns to which they are clearly responding. What is even more interesting is that the brain activity of subjects who are playing the game using implicit knowledge is different in location and character from the brain activity of subjects playing the game using explicit knowledge. In other words, Gallwey’s Self 1 and Self 2 may turn out to describe real components of the brain. Of course, a careful scientist would feel compelled to attach a long list of caveats to a statement like that, but I prefer, for the moment, to just enjoy the crazy long-shot possibility that a pop-psych metaphor might actually turn out to be an accurate psycho-physiological theory.

Gallwey’s general prescription for success at learning tennis is all about learning how to “quiet” Self 1 and “trust” Self 2. Three key things need to be done, according to Gallwey, in order to accomplish this goal.

The first requirement is to de-emphasize technique, which is the verbal description of how to perform a skill. Technique is the province of Self 1. In a traditional tennis lesson, the learner is loaded up with technique right from the start: Keep your wrist locked! Keep your elbow straight! Turn sideways to the ball! Get your racquet back early! Keep your eye on the ball! Transfer your weight as you swing! Swing low to high! Follow through! Self 1, in possession of all of this theory, wants to put it into practice immediately. Self 2, however, will go through a gradual process of learning from experience with or without the theory. So Self 1 gets impatient and tries to take over from Self 2, and that’s where the trouble starts. Gallwey’s conclusion is that the less Self 1 knows, the less likely this is to happen.

The second requirement is to de-emphasize ego. The involvement of the ego creates pressure. We’ve all experienced this: When you become focused on the need to succeed–especially when others are watching you and you realize that failure would be embarrassing–you suddenly begin to feel as though even the simplest, most familiar actions have become very difficult to execute. In sports, this effect is called “choking”. According to Willingham, choking is what happens when people lose faith in their unconscious abilities and revert to their conscious, explicit mode of control–in other words, when Self 1 takes over from Self 2. Gallwey’s advice to the learner is to cultivate a Zen-like detachment from the ego (“letting go of the self” and so on).But not everyone is able to suppress their own ego in this way. What is of more practical import, in my opinion, is Gallwey’s prescription for the coach, which is to avoid expressing too much focus on success and failure. This is important because it is more or less the opposite of traditional coaching wisdom.

The third requirement is to pay attention to the outcomes of actions. Most people think they do this already, but for the most part they are wrong. One of Gallwey’s most interesting observations is that novices often fail to observe what happens when they hit a bad shot, apparently because it is too painful to watch. Sometimes they literally cover their eyes when they miss. The trouble with this is that the feedback from where that shot lands is critical to Self 2’s gradual, feedback-based learning process. This is where a coach can help, setting up exercises in such a way that learners are highly focused on seeing outcomes clearly regardless of whether they are “good” or not.

So that is Gallwey’s theory, or at least my slightly fractured version of it. The real question is, does it actually work? Well, it happens that Harry Reasoner did a sixty minutes piece many, many years ago that makes a pretty good case for the effectiveness of Gallwey’s approach. (If you look on youtube, you may be able to find the video—if so it’s well worth watching.) Reasoner actually recruited people who had never played sports to come and take a lesson from Gallwey, which he filmed.

In the video, a student, who is holding a racquet in her hands for the first time, stands to the side as Gallwey and a partner hit the ball back and forth. Gallwey instructs the student to say the word “bounce” whenever the ball bounces, and “hit” whenever the partner hits it. When she has done this for some time, Gallwey kicks the partner off the court and puts the student in his spot. Gallwey continues to hit balls with the same location and pace, and instructs the student to keep saying “bounce-hit, bounce-hit”, with the word “hit” now being uttered when the partner would have hit the ball. A few more balls go by, and Gallwey then suggests that, if the student feels like it, she can try swinging her racquet, but he cautions her to keep focused on maintaining an accurate “bounce-hit” cadence—what happens when she swings is not important. The student does indeed swing the racquet, and, having by now internalized the precise timing of the ball’s arrival, she is able contact it squarely on the first try. When you see this on the video, it’s utterly amazing.

When the student has begun hitting the ball reliably for a while, Gallwey starts giving her tasks to do that involve focusing attention on the ball. One is to describe the sound the ball makes when it hits her raquet. Another–not captured in the video–is to ask the learners to call out fhow far each shot lands from the base line of the court.Gallwey assures the learner that it doesn’t matter where the shots land—he just wants an accurate distance estimate. But an interesting thing happens: the shots start landing closer and closer to the baseline, without the learner making any conscious effort to get them closer.

I’ve seen this video several times and I’m always amazed by it. Even knowing what I know about learning, I’m still surprised to see that Gallwey’s technique works as well as it does.

I believe that Gallwey’s key points—to de-emphasize ego and technique, and to emphasize focus on outcomes—have been incorporated to a significant extent into modern tennis lessons, and that they are the central reasons why these lessons are much more effective than the ones I took.

10
Dec

The View is Worth the Climb – Part 8

This is my eighth and final blog in the eight-blog series that we called “The View is Worth the Climb.” I’ve talked about the problems with corporate training today, the fact that we have this broken investment value equation, and the need to fix that broken equation. I’ve discussed the mandate or imperative for transformation and the fact that we shouldn’t be waiting for someone to tell us to do it, that we should be ahead of that and making the kinds of changes and improving our situation greatly so that we are adding more value. I’ve discussed how “Running Training Like a Business” is an appropriate methodology for organizations to utilize to begin the transformation process, and I’ve laid out why outsourcing is a tool that organizations should seriously consider in their pursuit of transformation.

What I haven’t talked about, something that I believe in my heart is that at the end of the day, it’s not about training, it really is about results. We can be doing the best training in the world, developing the best classes, bringing the best instructors, and having the best content, but if it doesn’t make a difference for the business, then it really is irrelevant.

I often tell people about benchmarking, because benchmarking is a great tool that almost all training organizations use at one time or another. You may look at a benchmarking report and say, “Wow, the average company in my industry spends $800 dollars per employee per year and I’m only spending $400. So, I must be under-spending and I should be going to my management and showing them this benchmarking report and making the case for doubling the budget.” And what I would say is if you’re spending $400 and your benchmarks are spending $800 and you’re getting no value for the $400 you’re investing, you’re probably overspending; you’re overinvesting. On the other hand, if you’re getting $30 back for every dollar you invest, you probably ought to quadruple that investment, not just double it. So when we do benchmarking, we have to make certain that we do it in the context of value creation. And that’s why I say it’s not about training, it’s about results.

So let me just shut this down with one final observation. There’s something Ronald Regan use to say all the time, “This tide raises all ships.” And I think that’s the case for training and what happens when we transform ourselves from a functional orientation to a value creating machine that in fact this tide does raise all ships. For the training organization, it means that the people in that organization are doing work that makes a difference for the company they work for and that they leave at the end of the day saying they’ve made an impact and feeling like they’ve made an impact. I’m not certain that everybody can say that today.

The second thing is for the employees of those companies where we’re doing really terrific training on important business issues. The employees find that their work is more rewarding, it allows them to do things that are important to the company and the business, their skills are being built so that they perform at much higher levels, and they also leave at the end of the day feeling like they’ve made a difference.

And lastly, for the executives who fund all this stuff that we’re talking about, when they look at it, they have confidence (unlike the lack of confidence that many of them have today) that the money they’re putting into developing their people is in fact making a difference for the business and for their people. So, in that regard, “this tide really does raise all ships.”

With that, I welcome your comments. I would appreciate your feedback and maybe another day, there will be another blog.

click on the link below for the podcast version of this blog post.
http://img.en25.com/Web/NIIT/ed_trolley_blog8.mp3

Thanks
Edward Trolley