Yes, It’s True! Learning Makes Your Brain Hurt


I read this research on the Internet, so it has to be true.  Learning hurts your brain. I first began to suspect this was true in 4th Grade Spanish class with Mrs. Gonzalez, where I was called “Ricardo” for reasons that remained a mystery to me all year long.  (Hey — I’m just visiting your country for an hour a day.  I’m not planning on renouncing my citizenship and living here as an ex-pat like Hemingway, lady.) But I digress.

The researchers exposed J20 and wildtype mice to new cages to increase neuron activity. Surprisingly, after 2 hours in the novel environments, the number of gH2A.X -positive neurons spiked in the brains of both healthy and diseased animals, primarily in areas critical for memory formation and learning—suggesting that the brain activity itself was triggering DNA damage.

Interestingly, the damage was resolved in wildtype mice within 24 hours back in their home cages, but the damage persisted in J20 mice. Furthermore, the damage was higher in J20 mice, which had up to three times as many gH2A.X-positive neurons—and the differences could be detected as early as 1 month, before the J20 mice began exhibiting cognitive symptoms. The results suggest that perhaps the high levels of amyloid in the brains of these mice was preventing DNA repair. SOURCE

So — Should You Be Worried?

A slightly “less scientific” version of the findings published on Ars Technica suggests, reassuringly, that this “shouldn’t keep you up at night.”  And that it may even provide some useful insights into the cure of Alzheimer’s. But if you’ve already substantially damaged your neurons by moving to a new cage, you may not even be aware of what you’ve lost.  Check around your desk for degrees that you may have earned, patents in your name, and photos of you with famous people.  You should also ask close family members if you’re a big deal in any way at least once per day.

As educators, I think most of us are already aware of this situation.  I can say that any time I’ve tried to instill learning in any meaningful amount, it makes my brain hurt in a direct relationship to how hard I’m teaching.  That’s why, as I get older, I teach less and less and listen more and more.


(First published on


How Can I Force Students To Spend More Time Learning?


A client recently relayed a comment to me from a classroom teacher.  The teacher was disappointed in our e-learning unit because some students would just quickly “click through” the content, rather than spending several minutes on each screen.  The instructor wanted to know if we could modify the product to force the students to spend a couple of minutes looking at each screen, before they were allowed to click “next” and proceed.  My client asked how I would respond to the question.

Here’s what I said — I’m curious, how would YOU respond?

Would Forcing Longer Time On A Screen Help?

I usually start this answer (if I think the teacher can take a little gentle ribbing) by asking if, before they hand out the textbooks, they glue down the corners of all the pages.  When they say “no” I let this lead into having the group list the uses of a textbook – not just a front-to-back read, but for reference, to use for review before testing, to quote in projects, to refresh memory during open-book tests, and so forth.

From there, I start talking about how e-learning content can be used in many different ways by a learner.  Some learners will start at the beginning, and go from front to back.  Some will dip their toes in at different places.  Some will scan for subjects of interest.  Some will use the “search” function to find a specific subject.  (I stop to point out that, as educators, we don’t get a vote in this.  It’s how learners build knowledge in the world today.)  So we need to understand that, and build it into our understanding of how we help them facilitate their learning.

What Has Changed In Learning, Anyway?

Back when I was in the 3rd grade, Mrs. Solem had a huge amount of control over what I learned and exactly how that happened.  Today, learners expect to be able to make a lot of decisions about what and how they’re going to learn.  (They make GOOD and BAD decisions, of course.  That’s to be expected.)  Our job as teachers and facilitators is to help guide them as they do this, to show them how to make good choices, and (ultimately) measure the outcome of their choices and achievement.  The learners own their success or failure.

Technically, it’s easy to set a minimum screen time.  Practically, we’ve found that learners just go browse the web or read email or paint their nails or do something else.  I’ve seen no solid research that there’s a corresponding increase in learning.  Much like gluing the pages down in a textbook to force students to spend more time on each one, you’re just going to frustrate the participant.

The larger question that needs to be asked here is why does the learner skip through the content, not learn, and end up with “some quiz and test scores so low”?

Given Good Content And Teaching, Why Don’t They Learn?

If we assume the content is good quality, and the teaching is good quality – why do students skip through it and fail the tests?  There are enough answers there to fill a thesis dissertation, but I’ll focus here on just one.  Motivation.

If we’re trying to teach a student how to write an MLA footnote, and the student sees no reason that they need to learn to do so – I could make them stay on that page for an hour and they probably won’t learn the content.  (Unless I tell them there’s a test they have to pass to graduate.) Google the difference between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” motivation for extra credit.

But if I tell the student the next screen will show them how to double their score at “Angry Birds” they will stay on that screen until they’ve squeezed every drop of knowledge out of it.  Because they want that information for themselves and see the value.

So as a teacher, one of the most useful things you could possibly do is to show your students that what you’re teaching is connected to their real lives, and actually means something to them.  And that’s a huge, huge job.

So — what do you think?  Do you glue your virtual pages down?


Get Your Head Out Of The Cl-ASS-room — eLearning Is Different


I spend lots of time developing learning that lives online.  e-learning, web content, videos, podcasts, support information, application forms for tractor assembly jobs — so I fancy myself as a bit of an expert in how this type of content is consumed.

(Many other people in my discipline would use less flattering terms to describe me — including references to rodents, orifices and familial relationships.  But even if true — I design a bunch of online learning.)

As part of that, I joust regularly with people who teach and train in something called “The Real World”.  I have a hazy memory of this place — it involves chalk boards, rows of desks, and children in freshly-pressed jumpers smiling up at me as I whack their knuckles with a wooden ruler.  I rarely teach there anymore — nobody wants to pay my embarrassingly high prices, and I keep trying to click on individual students and block them.

baggageAs they move into the world of online teaching, most “real world” practitioners attempt to bring all their baggage with them.  And as the airlines have found, the more baggage you allow the more difficult it is to get the damn thing off the ground.  So I’m here today to show you a few of the cherished icons of classroom instruction you’re going to have to leave at the gate if you want to succeed in the online world.

Everyone Does Not Stay Together
In your classroom, you can exert a good deal of control that all students advance at a controlled pace — by assigning readings, presentations, and in-class activities.  You’ll find that online students will lag behind and race ahead.  Some will have questions about section 14 on the third day of class.  Oopsie.

So you’d best be prepared on Day 1 to teach the whole thing, or you’ll take the wind out of the sails of the students who are really engaged.  And you’ll have to be willing to support someone who’s going back to the beginning for a refresher during the last week.

Everyone Expects Personalized Support
Blame it on Tony Hsieh of Zappos — a large number of your students will now expect to interact with you via email, chat, FaceBook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Snoozle, Schmaltz, Fizzle, Abdalo, Whackadoodle — ok, I was just making up those last few.  But you get the picture.  If you’re not careful about designing how you set up your assignments, your workload will go up exponentially.

Be sure that you set your assignments up so that students interact with each other, rather than always depending on you.  Be sure that you become an Online Facilitator, and let go of the idea that all learning comes from you.  Be sure that you spend some time learning new skills for this new role that you’ve taken on.

Everyone Will Not View Every Screen
Do you have a DVR?  If so, I bet you don’t watch commercials.  Or the boring parts.  And your e-learning students are going to do that, as well.  In your classroom, they sat their in their seats and pretended to listen during the boring parts.  Online, they’re just going to skip past the things they don’t want to pay attention to.  (I always find it amusing when teachers complain about learners ignoring boring online content.  I ask them what they, personally, do during the sermon in church.)

So you’d better make sure the e-learning you’re using is interesting, engaging, and makes your learners want to pay attention.  Or find a way to introduce it so they will.

Quit Measuring Stuff You Don’t Track
There’s no reason to add in all those little “Check Your Understanding” and “Quick Quiz” screens throughout the e-learning, unless you’re going to collect the data and use if for something.  Only three possible outcomes:

  1. Student actually knows the answer. Wow.
  2. Student doesn’t know the answer.  Unless you force them back through the content, you just make them feel dumb.  Wow.
  3. Student skips past the test — which the majority will do.  Wow.

If you feel you must do this, just have a question and the correct answer on the next screen, like a flashcard.  That way you’re reinforcing a positive.  There’s good data to support that.  And you can re-use that content for test prep at the end of the course.

Let The Inmates Build The Prison
As I’ve mentioned above, you need to start thinking more like a “facilitator” than a “teacher”.  You’re guiding this group of learners through the curriculum, and no longer the main source of knowledge.  Let them learn from each other, from resources you provide (and that they find and vet through you), bring in live humans via Skype or Webcasts, have them do original research and share — be creative in how each new class discovers information.

Each course will look different, and that’s ok.  Each group of learners will approach the problems in a different manner, and the shared knowledge that they create will be unique.  That’s one of the amazing parts of online learning — those “Poindexters” that sit in the front row will fade into the background, and you’ll meet a whole new group of people you never heard from before.


You May Be Certifiable


(Addendum added Nov 6, 2011)

I keep getting myself in trouble. Let me be the first to admit it. And this time, it’s because I’m proud of the work I did, and I hate to see other people cheapen the meaning of it. In this case, we’re talking about the word “Certified”.

When you drive your car into a garage, you see signs for an ASE Mechanic.  If you want to climb into the cockpit of a jet airplane, you’ve got to talk to a guy (or gal) who’s holding a CFI Rating. And, if you want to get into the server room at work, you’re gonna need a little something called an MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) Certificate(Full disclosure, I spent a good part of my career writing big complicated courses to teach people to get that last one — which hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people — now hold around the world.)

My point is, when you bill someone as being “Certified” in something, you’re saying to the public at large that you’re in some way reassuring them that this person can actually perform the tasks expected of them in a competent manner.

The ASE Mechanic can diagnose the problem with your car, order the parts, install them and then test your car and return it to you without giving you a dangerous vehicle.

The CFI Flight Instructor can teach your pilot how to fly an airplane in such a manner that you will be safe riding with them, and that if a problem arises they will professionally and quickly resolve it and land the airplane without you ending up a small grease spot on the pavement.

The Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer will be able to install, configure and diagnose your computer servers and systems so that your data is safe, your users are happy, and that that guy from Nigeria doesn’t get into your bank account.

Now, of course, there ARE organizations that provide “certification” of crystal ball gazers, balloon animal makers, and those who make sculptures out of dryer lint.  Anyone can “certify” someone in a skill — coaching, finger-snapping, apple carving — and that’s their right.  While I think it’s amusing, I don’t really have a big problem with them.

But a year or two ago, a Large Learning Organization (Let’s call it the “Amazing Society for Trivial Development” decided that the world needed them to “provide a way for workplace learning and performance professionals to prove their value to employers and to be confident about their knowledge of the field.”

Great!  Sounds just like my definition above — reassuring, performance, competent…

Well, hold on there, Hoss.  The bar’s not all that high.  Here’s what you need:

1.  Three years in a “related” field.

2. “Pass” a multiple choice test (which apparently has not been validated)

3.  Submit a “sample” of your work (PPT deck?  Drawing of you in a classroom?)

Oh — one other little thing.  A check for $1,000 dollars. For a machine-scored test and to have a “blue-ribbon panel” look at your course plan?

Just for comparison, a Microsoft Certification test (for a single cert) right now costs around $200.  And having it will immediately boost your income about 25% or more in most markets.  Because the people who pass this test have to pretty much take a week of classes and then study really, really hard before they can pass.

If you got all five certs, you’d double your income.  Those tests would be about $1000 out of your pocket.  Probably a good deal.

So let’s get back to the Large Learning Organization.  Do they have any documentation that their certification maps directly to more income? Well, they do claim that the Fortune 500 “prefer their candidates” but they don’t give any hard data. If there were actual stats, I bet they’d quote them.

But come on — who in their right mind would say these people are competent at what we do? E-learning?  Instructor led?  Webcasts?  Curriculum Design?  Needs analysis?  Assessment?  Social Media?  Coaching?  Psychometrics? Data Analysis?

But (from their own data) the LLO has now administered their test to 3,605 people and charged users about $1000 each.  I’m not a math whiz, but that comes out to Three Million, Six Hundred and Five Thousand Dollars! Now they did have mimeograph costs for the multiple-choice tests, and they had to print up some nice blue ribbons for the panel, but other than that — pure profit. And people say Bernie Madoff was smart!

(Full Disclosure:  They will give you a $200 discount on the test if you join the org or are a member.  But that money just goes in another pocket, so I’m not discounting it.)

This causes an itch under my saddle because they’re supposed to be a Professional Learning Organization, and they should know better.  If it was a bunch of Balloon Animal Professionals, I’d cut them some slack and say “Well, what do they know about training and certification?”  But these people CLAIM to be the best and brightest.  In fact, I bet some of them even HAVE this certification. (Interesting side note would be to see if EVERYONE paid full price, or if the insiders got it discounted or for free.  I know what I’d be betting — how about you?)

So there you have it.  Call me cranky, call me snarky, or call me somebody that’s proud of my profession.  Proud of my skills.  Proud of the people that I work with every day who really provide Training and Development at a high level of quality.

And embarrassed to be associated with a money-machine that grinds out pretty certificates.










Addendum:  Several people have written me personally, asking why I hate people who have certifications from the Large Learning Organization, or think that those people don’t have skills in learning.  PERISH THE THOUGHT!  I’d bet that a large number of people who coughed up the $10000 fee for this overpriced and poorly-designed piece of irrelevant documentation are likely highly skilled learning professionals.  I know several of them personally, and would recommend them highly, depending on what it is you wanted them to do.

The point is that this Four Letter Acronym really has nothing to do with whether they are skilled or not — it merely proves they can write a check and answer some multiple-guess questions.  It’s not a certification for a potential client that they can actually provide the services that the client needs, or that they have the skills that map to the project at hand.

Were I at the beginning of my career, with no other evidence of my skill (like advanced degrees or client referrals) I’d probably hold my nose and write the check.  But I’d have to take a shower every time I put the acronym after my name.


“Instruction Does Not Cause Learning…”


I work with lots of folks who create and deliver some kind of instruction — training, documentation, presentations and such. I’m planning to have this quote from Etienne Wenger tattooed on my forehead in large letters, just so they can think about it.

“Instruction does not cause learning; it creates a context in which learning takes place, as do other contexts. Learning and teaching are not inherently linked. Much learning takes place without teaching, and indeed much teaching takes place without learning.”


Serving Up Some Sacred Cows Of Learning

Georgia being nosey!

Yesterday I ran across an article in The Atlantic showing “The School Of The Future” that lives in a local YMCA. While they don’t seem to have a Quidditch field or a landing pad for flying cars, it sounded like a nice idea.  Working with the community, sharing the pool, innovating in education — what’s not to love?

Then I came to the author’s contention that “Eighty percent of charter schools don’t produce better results than traditional public education. And sadly, some results are much worse.” While not labeled as “op-ed”, I’m guessing Kathleen Kennedy Townsend does have a particular axe she’s trying to sharpen, here.

Since I have a nodding familiarity with education, and more exposure to self-designated experts than is healthy for most adults, I wondered where this had come from.  So I started doing some searching.  And searching.  Best I could do (‘cuz, of course, they don’t reveal SOURCES in the Atlantic) was some questionable research from a LARGE MAINSTREAM EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTION that had numbers that looked a little bit like that, if you read really quickly and ignored the details.  And the source.  And didn’t ask any questions.

(I don’t have anything against experts.  Really.  Some of my friends are experts.  I’d even let my daughter marry one, if she was the last woman on earth and had a trust fund.) But in this case, I think it might be useful to stop for a moment and talk about the process of measuring results.  Something that we do a lot in my line of business.

If a client hires me to teach punch press operators to run their machines faster, one option is for me to just show them how to turn the speed dial up to “11″ and step back.  Job Done!  The machines are now running faster, I’ve accomplished the goal, and I want my check.  Ka-Ching!

(There will, of course, be a corresponding loss of fingers, an increase in damaged materials, lots of lawsuits, and explosions when the red-hot machines finally blow up — but I achieved my goal with 100% success!)

Still confused?  Let’s make it even simpler.  Let’s imagine that you’ve got a Dairy Barn. And you want “better results”.

Our goal is to get more milk from your herd.  Each morning, we’ll measure how many gallons of milk you get from group “A” and how much from group “B” and see which is “BEST”.  (Best, in this case, meaning more milk.)

At the end of the first week, Group “A” wins.  With weak, runny milk because the foreman fed them food with lots of fluid.  We couldn’t sell it because the fat content was so low, but there was more of it.

New goal — highest fat content.

At the end of week two, group “B” is the winner.  The foreman ordered in extremely expensive food, which raised the fat content for the second group nice and high.  But the cost per cow was triple what we usually pay, so we ended up selling the milk at a loss.

Week three — we aim for highest profits.  And the foreman butchers all the cows and sells them at market, showing a huge profit.  Oopsie.

So be careful when you hear people in Education talking about measuring results, or who gets “better results”.  Without asking a lot of very specific questions, and without a lot of experience at designing and delivering actual education to actual people, you may get slaughtered.

Upgrading Your Customers

refresh greenville

On May 12th, I’m doing a wee speaking engagement in Greenville, SC — Refresh Greenville.



Upgrading Your Customers

Nobody reads the directions, anymore.  A “readme.txt” file is a great place to store secrets.  And the “Help” button is something customers just ignore.  Today’s user base expects that your apps and sites will “just work” and they don’t expect to have to spend any time getting up to speed.

There are two ways to improve your apps’ customer sat numbers – rewrite the code, or teach your customers how to use them better.  Dick Carlson spent five years at Microsoft doing the latter for some of the buggiest software on the planet, and he can help you too.  You’ll leave with:

  • Models of trouble-ticket systems that help you identify issues fast and plan future upgrades
  • Ways to use social media tools to have your customers build the help system for you
  • Actual experience identifying key support information and building the architecture to implement it in a business support model

Dick Carlson is an Instructional Designer and Content Developer who can translate “techie” to “user” – making those annoying people who give you money happy and contented, so they don’t send you long emails or post one-star reviews on the web.  You can find him at


Bug Tracking Tools

Java Bug-Tracking Tools

MS Watson Technologies

My Heart Will Go On: Social Media In The Enterprise


I just read a wonderful post by Jane Hart entitled “The Future Of Social Media In The Enterprise“.  In it, she deftly describes an issue that I’ve been encountering often lately with potential clients who want to talk about using this game-changing paradigm-shifting bar-raising (insert your own favorite stupid marketing metaphor here) thing we call Social Media.

titanic1Her argument is quite elegant.  If I may distill it, she feels that using Social Media tools only behind your firewall (not allowing employees to connect outside the company) is short-sighted.  And that their real value is the cross-pollination and connection that comes from engaging across a discipline, around the world, and to people who see things in vastly different ways.

(I bet British Petroleum has a great internal forum to discuss how much time and money to spend when drilling really deep wells, and what to do when you get 700+ safety violations.  But maybe, if they’d been more connected to reality, they wouldn’t have lost $17 BILLON DOLLARS and become the poster boy for dumb.)

I have to say, though, that I’m getting a little bit tired having this discussion with people who are extremely focused on keeping the fence up between their employees and the rest of the world.  Stopping the dangers of Farmville, YouTube, and people randomly getting information they might use to improve their skills.  It’s exhausting to keep having the same chat with the same network administrators.  The same vendors who want to sell their custom “behind the firewall” solutions.  The same tiny minds who think they have all sorts of special secrets about how they put their canned hams in the boxes and ship them out.

Would it make more sense for me to have a “pre-work” session, where there’s an assessment of some kind?  And if the client is mostly focused on how to lock all the doors and bar all the windows — just smile and move along?

On Jane’s blog, I said it this way:

We try to run from or eradicate that which we do not understand. If we can’t kill it, we try to control it and limit the access of others.

Probably true with the first cave-person who found fire. Still true in corporate America today. I have to admit that I, personally, am actually getting a little tired of having this discussion with potential clients and people who ask for advice.

I want to just say “Whatever” and move on to someone who’s open to new ideas and things that might help them. (Kind of a lifeboat drill — if I’ve only got so many years left, do I spend them arguing with people about the VALUE of parachutes or just HAND OUT parachutes to as many people as possible before the crash?)

It’s actually kind of exhausting. Like trying to convince my mom that “unlimited long-distance” actually meant she could talk to me as long and as often as she liked.

Never won that one, either.

So what do you think?  Do you want a parachute, or should we keep talking about the nuts and the in-flight movie?


Is NPR Denser Than Chengdeite?


They say the densest material on earth is something called “Chengdeite“. But this morning I was listening to a reporter on NPR, and I’m thinking we’ve got a new competitor in the race.

teacherThe story was about how a Boston school district was wondering if they could improve teacher skills by modeling a “resident” program after medical school — where a new teacher taught side-by-side with an experienced teacher rather than just jumping in to a tough school with little or no experience.

Wow! Stop the (virtual) presses, Jeremy! Better get this one on the air!

They went on to interview people in the program, a guy at the Harvard School of Education, and several “actual students” — all of whom, surprisingly, agreed that getting some practical experience would be a good thing.

Uh, huh.  Incredible.  Better get that news to Plumbers, Electricians, Surveyors, Air Traffic Controllers, Cake Bakers, Serial Killers and DMV Employees nationwide.

Sometimes it’s enough to make an education wonk weep.

Is Learning Going Down The Toilet?

Update: If you do not have children in a large, urban school district this post may not make a lot of sense. You are among the lucky.

As someone who has used toilets for many, many years — with little formal training — I feel quite qualified to redesign our nation’s plumbing system to improve the performance issues that I’ve identified.

toilet(I’m basing this on the recent action of the State Board Of Education in Texas, in their amazing redesign of a curriculum created by professional teachers and learning designers. This is an attitude that I frequently encounter, in which someone who has experienced education feels that that qualifies them to design education for others.)

Now you might think that it would make more sense for me to ask a master plumber who has years of training and experience how to handle the waste that flows out of my home. But since I’ve spent so much time on the input side of the equation, I feel perfectly capable of making decisions without consulting one of these so called “plumbing gurus” and just going with my gut.  (First of many puns intended.)

My Ten-Point C.R.A.P. Program

With much thought, I’ve developed a Comprehensive Revised Aesthetics Processing (CRAP) program that will deliver a system flush with success and we’ll all come up smelling like roses.

  1. Your toilet will be assigned a particular plumber based on where you live, regardless of the quality of the plumber.  You can petition the local Plumbing Board to allow you to drive your toilet across town to a better plumber every morning, but we won’t pay to put it on a bus.
  2. If your plumber fails to unclog your toilet over and over, we’ll just move him to another geographic location.  Much like the Catholic Church, no matter how deep of a pile of shit he’s in we won’t admit it or take steps to remove him.
  3. We believe every single toilet is unique — so Plumbing Boards in each community must spend months deciding where to put the “flush” handle, how to connect the water, and whether or not the float is hollow. It would be impossible to have national standards of any kind for toilets. Local communities know better what they need.
  4. If, over several years, the toilet doesn’t perform well, we’ll just keep asking for more money for purchase of toilets.  And complaining that people don’t respect the work that toilets do.
  5. No toilet can be removed, even if it doesn’t perform at the most basic level.  Once installed, it’s there for life.  Best we can offer is a “substitute-potty” program where we have specialists come in for huge fees to try to fix the toilet and fail.
  6. Well over 50% of the budget for Toilet Repair will have to go to “Toilet Administration” — a group of people in nice suits who have never actually installed or used a toilet.  They’ll make charts, graphs, and evaluate the plumber as he is on his knees getting his hands dirty.
  7. If you have several toilets in your house, we will require that you balance the use of each amongst all family members.  Just because one is closer, performs better or has less gunfire will not be considered a factor.
  8. If you complain that your toilet doesn’t perform well, we will fight to the death any attempt to actually measure how well waste passes through.  Even though nearly every other profession in the world (from jet pilot to fry cook) is measured on results, we’re special. Plus, it might make the toilet feel bad if we labeled it as “failing” in some way.
  9. After 25 years, we’ll remove your toilet.  But you’ll still have to pay for it every month, along with a generous service allowance and perks.  And it’s free to go be a toilet for someone else and get paid twice for taking one load.
  10. Despite all this, you do have the option of installing your toilet in a “Charter RestRoom” that is sponsored locally for those who demand better performance.  You’ll still have to pay all the fees for that traditional toilet you’re not using, and at any time we retain the right to tell you we’re pulling the plug and your successful toilet no longer meets our standards.

Legislation is already in front of Congress (“No Behind Left Behind”) to implement this simple plan, and I encourage you to call your representative to urge them until it passes.  If they have trouble passing something of this size, there are aids available.