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Saturday, March 31, 2012

The communities that care the most about learning use simulations.

Unschooling Rules: 
1. Learn to be; learn to do; learn to know.
9. Sitting through a classroom lecture is not just unnatural for most people, it is painful.


Meanwhile, here is a simple observation.  The communities that really care about rigorous learning in students - typically where life and death is involved (pilots, military, doctors, nuclear power plant operators, life guards) or where large sums of money are involved (Wall Street traders) - always invent and use simulations.

The corollary, then, must be pondered.  What does it say when a culture that is in the business of educating does not invent and use simulations?


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Step Zero: Outlaw Credentialism


“Prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of academic credentials.  In short, just outlaw credentialism.”

- Lewis Perelman, School's Out, 1992


Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Fallacy of Learning in a Bubble

Unschooling Rules 22 is: Formally learn only what is reinforced during the next 14 days (you will forget everything else anyway).

Learning decays.  Learning decays faster than most of us realize.  One of my favorite charts showing this is as follows, which I am reprinting from my 2005 book, Learning By Doing.
In school, pilots learn a complex skill to perform a task.  But the skill, when not reinforced, decays quickly and measurably.   (Some skills do return more quickly next time, and some don't.)  
The model of front-loaded learning- of jam packing a head full of content to serve for the rest of one's life - is of course, madness.  Less than 5% sticks after just 6 weeks, even when perfectly taught (here: theory + practice + review).  That is why for me, any evaluation of what students learn in school is only relevant if taken significantly after the cessation of the artificial school bubble environment.  For many reasons including this one, learning has to be done in the context of real life, not the sterile classroom, in order for it to enable eventual success.

One more note:  to study effective learning practices, one ought find the places that care the most about the results of learning. Organizations I have found useful include those that support: pilots, Wall Street brokers, sports teams, nuclear reactor operators, and parts of the military.  My own interest in educational simulations in part came from their near universal organic adoption by passionate instructors.  In fact, one can almost argue that those educational programs that have not seen the need for sims in are revealing some problematic characteristics. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Are books white bread for the mind?

Unschooling Rules: 
10. Animals are better than books about animals.
21. Is it better to be “A Great Reader” than “Addicted to Computer Games”?

White bread is wonderful. Our parents and their parents swore by it as key to our diet. It is part of our culture, depicted in oil paintings and discussed in epic poetry. Preparing bread is a cultural milestone from our own Paleolithic history. Just mentioning a great baguette, brioche, or even peasant bread makes my mouth water.

And yet we are learning that it is not the perfect food. The process of preparing white flour might take out much of what was good in it. The results is something that tricks our body into thinking it is getting nourishment, while spiking and upsetting parts of our own internal chemical balance.
White bread is still a fabulous treat, and it fits nicely into a healthy diet in moderation. But to go overboard with it results in bloat rather than health.

That brings us back to books. We are very proud of books. Many have a religious zeal about them, especially those old enough to remember when they were scarce, or with strong connections to people who did. We all have books that transformed our view of the world, and influenced moral and career decisions. There is no better way of transferring someone else’s internal monologue than a good book. They teach us empathy and respect. We can also get facts, allowing us to make more informed decisions.

Books are also a great example of mature technology. They are cheap to produce, easy to store, and require no energy or other supporting infrastructure. The only access barrier is literacy. Libraries are filled with them.

And yet, as we try to take what we have read and apply it to real situations in an attempt to get a desired result, we are starting to have our own Atkins “aha’s.” We become increasingly aware of what they don’t contain, such as a focus on actions, and the impact of rigorous systems including the emergent actions of units, as much as what they do contain. We love the buzz of a good book, like a good vacation, but hate the transition back to our world.

Consider the pairing of frustration and resolution. This is at the heart of, well, probably everything to do with life and growth.

But look at frustration/resolution in passive stories and frustration/resolution in simulations; you can see why stories might be making us feel smarter by tricking us, rather than actually increasing our capacity.

In creating passive stories, it is fairly easy to set up a good frustration/resolution pairing.
  • Shark attacks swimmer.
  • Physically attractive ex-girlfriend/boyfriend re-emerges after 10 years with a dark secret.
  • The instructions for a better life/how to avoid a major problem are to follow…
In all of these, whether it be a novel, a movie, or the evening news, we just have to sit back and consume more, and we will get the resolution. We can be members of an audience. It feels so satisfying, for a few moments. But we are instantly hungry again, and the right masters of the medium will once again tantalize us with another frustration/resolution pairing (or have three or four recursive pairing going on at once, so while we are told the resolution of a more specific paring, we still have the bigger one to resolve).

Passive stories are thought to be the crowning achievements of our civilization, driving books, movies, magazine, and most of our school system. We all have intense, positive relationships with at least a few examples of each.

But like white bread and refined sugar, they may just be addicting us, actually reducing our ability to act, not increasing it. And maybe, just maybe, the manifest destiny of knowledge creators is to help people overcome this addiction, not enable it.


This is an excerpt from my fourth book The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games, published by Wiley (2009), written for Corporate and Military professional instructional designers

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Difference in Language Used between Academic vs. Military Subject Matter Experts

Impacted Unschooling Rules: 
21. Is it better to be “A Great Reader” than “Addicted to Computer Games”? 
55. The only sustainable answer to the global education challenge is a diversity of approaches.


The most competitive academic institutions teach students to use obscure, intellectual, and conceptually precise words and phrases to describe a situation (such as "Orthogonal" and "Force multiplier"), classic metaphors (such as "Manifest Destiny" and "The Sword of Damocles") based on cultural literacy, or specific research citations.  But I have found the best subject matter experts (SMEs) for the work I do, creating educational simulations and serious games (pdf), speak in highly vivid, simple, and visual metaphors.  They use basic examples or abstractions to make complex processes very clear.

For whatever reason, experts in the military cultures do this incredibly naturally.  Here are some metaphors I heard, including common and more obscure, over the last month that led me to know I had identified the right expert.

  • Put out the bait and see if he bites.
  • I don't have a dog in that fight. 
  • I started poking the bear...
  • ...Too much fog of war...
  • That was the secret sauce...
  • That dog won't hunt.
  • Take out the calipers and measure...
  • ...Looking to scratch that itch.
  • Wire brush the bolts...
  • Get a shoe box and put in a bunch of 3 X 5 cards...
  • Crash and burn.
  • That idea ricocheted around the room...
  • Just a vacuum cleaner, sucking up data...
  • If we just wanted to lay bricks, we would...
  • It went through the process like a pig in a python...
  • At that point we were just pounding sand...
  • There are three kinds of people: racehorses, clydesdales, and donkeys...
  • (And, of course, many sports analogies.)
It should be no surprise that academic experts habitually talk with a cultural value put on knowing something, while intentionally projecting a competitive status and unintentionally betraying any stove-piped thinking, while often obscuring the final message.  It is such a relief to talk to experts who instead, talk based on a value put on doing something, while actually communicating to an audience instead of trying to impress them.


See also: Should Education Reform be Led by Ph.D.'s?