Posts Tagged ‘Informal Learning’

Informal Learners and DIY

August 20, 2008

The Long Now Foundation Displayed a Prototype of Its 10,000-year Clock at the 2008 Maker Faire

The Long Now Foundation Displayed a Prototype of Its 10,000-year Clock at the 2008 Maker Faire

I changed out my 25-year old bathroom exhaust fan the other day and… in a moment of false pride… told my eldest brother. He asked me what I did with the old one and I told him I’d tossed it.
“Oh, too bad,” he said, “I could have rewired the motor for you.” He’s a gearhead, always fixing cars, but spent most of his career as a computer geek at Hewlett Packard.
My other brother could have built a new wooden faceplate for the fan. After a career flying in the Air Force, he now makes his living creating custom electronic Halloween displays, including motion. If you want something really cool for your house this Halloween, let me know and I’ll pass on your contact info.
Our father was an electrical engineer who always told us that he built the first crystal radio set in his home town.
And then there’s me. I can change the oil in the car, but I don’t. I could hang a new door, but it would probably be crooked. I’ve got the genes, but not much desire to be handy.
For a long time I’ve presumed my handiness shortcomings are a cultural thing. Both brothers are more than 15 years older than me. I just grew up in a different time. On my suburban block, for instance, the only guy with a woodshop…band saw, wood lathe, drill press, etc… is a professional home builder.
By contrast, my father-in-law and about 10 of his peers/neighbors have power tools in their garages.
But the winds of change of are blowing. In the last 2 years especially, empowered and enabled by the Internet, there’s been an explosion of do-it-yourself handiness, repair and invention. And thank goodness for it. Now more than ever, the world needs to be fixed!
Here are some of the best resources I know for informal learners who want to learn how to do stuff that’s handy, helpful, playful, cool, or all those.
Howtoons. Targeted at kids, it’s a 112-page comic book featuring Tucker and Celine, a brother and sister, who get off the couch and start making cool stuff like a marshmallow shooter.
Instructables.com bills itself as “The World’s Biggest Show and Tell.” It has user-generated instructions in 8 broad categories including ‘craft,’ ‘food,’ ‘green’ and this one from ‘tech’ for a “breathalyzer microphone.”
Make Magazine. Both a blog and a quarterly print magazine Make was the first to recognize a renaissance in DIY. In the current issue, No. 14, how to make an inexpensive digital microscope. On the blog, modding your scanner into a camera.
Maker Faire. Brainiacs on display in this event sponsored by Make Magazine. The first one took place in San Mateo, California and is now spreading to Austin, Texas and beyond.
Who or what am I missing? You tell me. Use the comments to suggest other DIY gems.

I changed out my 25-year old bathroom exhaust fan the other day and… in a moment of false pride… told my eldest brother. He asked me what I did with the old one and I told him I’d tossed it.

“Oh, too bad,” he said, “I could have rewired the motor for you.” He’s a gearhead, always fixing cars, but spent most of his career as a computer geek at Hewlett Packard.

My other brother could have built a new wooden faceplate for the fan. After a career flying in the Air Force, he now makes his living creating custom electronic Halloween displays, including motion. If you want something really cool for your house this Halloween, let me know and I’ll pass on your contact info.

Our father was an electrical engineer who always told us that he built the first crystal radio set in his home town.

And then there’s me. I can change the oil in the car, but I don’t. I could hang a new door, but it would probably be crooked. I’ve got the genes, but not much desire to be handy.

For a long time I’ve presumed my handiness shortcomings are a cultural thing. Both brothers are more than 15 years older than me. I just grew up in a different time. On my suburban block, for instance, the only guy with a woodshop…band saw, wood lathe, drill press, etc… is a professional home builder.

By contrast, my father-in-law and about 10 of his peers/neighbors have power tools in their garages.

But the winds of change of are blowing. In the last 2 years especially, empowered and enabled by the Internet, there’s been an explosion of do-it-yourself handiness, repair and invention. And thank goodness for it. Now more than ever, the world needs to be fixed!

Here are some of the best resources I know for informal learners who want to learn how to do stuff that’s handy, helpful, playful, cool, or all those.

Howtoons. Targeted at kids, it’s a 112-page comic book featuring Tucker and Celine, a brother and sister, who get off the couch and start making cool stuff like a marshmallow shooter.

Instructables.com bills itself as “The World’s Biggest Show and Tell.” It has user-generated instructions in 8 broad categories including ‘craft,’ ‘food,’ ‘green’ and this one from ‘tech’ for a “breathalyzer microphone.”

Make Magazine. Both a blog and a quarterly print magazine Make was the first to recognize a renaissance in DIY. In the current issue, No. 14, how to make an inexpensive digital microscope. On the blog, modding your scanner into a camera.

Maker Faire. Brainiacs on display in this event sponsored by Make Magazine. The first one took place in San Mateo, California and is now spreading to Austin, Texas and beyond.

Who or what am I missing? You tell me. Use the comments to suggest other DIY gems.

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Learner’s Journals

June 25, 2008

Vitruvian Man was just another entry in da Vinci\'s JournalSo you’re an Informal Learner. You listen to books on tape and instructional recordings, go to lectures, play brain games, read magazines and books, watch documentaries, use certain software, crack open reference works when you need to, and observe the world and its inhabitants. But how do you seal the deal? That is, how do you keep what you’ve learned in your noggin, or at least within reach?

 

If you’re like Informal Learners since time immemorial you record what you learn from life in a Learner’s Journal or notebook. I’m not talking about a diary necessarily. A diary is typically more internally directed, although Michelangelo’s journals were famously both about what he thought and felt in addition to what he was learning.

 

Instead I’m talking about a journal that serves as a kind of repository for what you’ve discovered in your learning as well as a sounding board for your ideas.

 

This post is about two celebrated Informal Learners who rigorously kept Learner’s Journals; the Renaissance men Leonardo da Vinci and Buckminster Fuller.

 

Leonardo was called da Vinci because as the illegitimate son of a Florentine Notary he wasn’t allowed to take his father’s name. da Vinci is the name of the town in northern Tuscany where he was born in 1452. He was an inquisitive child and showed great promise as an artist. At age 14 he was apprenticed to Verrocchio, a Florentine master and polymath who gave Leonardo a broad and first-rate training in all the arts and endowed the younger man with many good habits and a few bad ones. 

 

At age 20 or so Leonardo painted one of the children Verrocchio’s The Baptism of Christ, now in the Uffizi Gallery. Leonardo’s work was so stunning that according to legend after seeing the completed form Verrocchio swore he would never paint again. Apparently he never did.

 

da Vinci then went on to spend his rest of his life and career in service to a series of wealthy patrons. But if you thought you were hiring an artist what you got with Leonardo was something more like a free-ranging thinker. Oh, he’d do paintings… although less than 20 survive… and sculptures and such. But he’d also produce plays for the court. In fact he apparently built the first spotlight for just such endeavors. It was a time of war and Leonardo designed siege engines, portable bridges that were built, along with war machines that weren’t like scythe-equipped war wagons, a tank, a parachute, a bike, and a helicopter. 

 

How do we know all this about a man who died almost 500 years ago? We have a number, but not all, of da Vinci’s Journals or notebooks. For instance, the famous Vitruvian Man wasn’t a commissioned work; it’s something he undertook as a personal challenge and drew in one of his notebooks. Same with all the stuff listed above.

 

He was an acute observer of birds and bats and fascinated with the idea of human flight. His drawings on flight seemed to go through two phases; where he tried to imitate birds, and upon realizing that humans didn’t have the necessary strength to weight ratio when he turned to more glider-like apparatuses that may have actually been built.

 

All that’s in da Vinci’s journals, too. da Vinci’s nine surviving journals called codices (the plural of codex) are spread all over the world. Bill Gates owns one. The biggest chunk of them are in Britain.

 

The surprise perhaps is that the da Vinci’s Journals are in all different sizes; they’re not regular. Vitruvian Man, which was separated from a journal and is now housed in Venice, is about 13.5 by 9.6 inches. Others were closer to 8×6.

 

He certainly could have constructed the journals himself. But considering their irregularity, da Vinci may have just wandered into local binderies and bought them off the shelf when he needed a new one!

 

 

R. Buckminster Fuller was born in 1895 in Massachusetts and left it nearly 89 years later with 28 patents, the best known of which was the Geodesic Dome. Fuller, like Bill Gates, was a Harvard dropout. 

 

He married, but led a knockabout life mainly as a laborer. In 1927 at the age of 32 bankrupt and suicidal after the death of his daughter due to meningitis and polio, he decided to embark upon “an experiment, to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.”

 

Taking a page from da Vinci, Fuller had began documented his life in 15 minute segments from 1917 ‘til his death in 1983, more than 65 years. The result was 270 feet of journals he called the ‘Dymaxion Chronofile.’ (In addition to his many other gifts, Fuller had a wonderful knack for creating neologisms.)

 

What’s to be learned from these two great learners? If you’re serious as a learner you need to capture what you’ve learned or rather what you’re learning. What do you put in it? Fuller put everything in his, including household bills and the like! da Vinci used both drawings and words, all in his tight and fluid mirror-script, written such that you need a mirror to read it.

 

Do you really need to write it down in this electronic age? Well only if you want to preserve it in an accessible way.

 

A week or so ago I was talking to a book binder who is well-enough versed in the Internet Age to own an Internet company. But he’s also has enough gray hair to remember when the Library of Congress told libraries to preserve their collections on microfiche, much of which is now just goo in a can.

 

Then the preferred storage was old reel-to-reel tape drives, then audio cassette tapes, and 5 inch floppy drives, and Zip drives, and on and on. If you had an early TRS-80 from Radio Shack, and stored all your journal entries on its cassette drive you’d be hard pressed to access any of it now just 25 years later.

 

A good acid-free and lignin-free paper journal with the right ink, will be around until well after your great-great-grandchildren are born.  

Knowledge as a Goal of Informal Learning

June 18, 2008

I\'m a Serious Shakespearean Actor Dammit, Why Do I Have to Wear this Ridiculous Getup?“Far too many people—especially people with great expertise in one area—are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge.” Peter Drucker

 

One of the great fictions of modern American educulture is that it’s enough to know how to learn. That the purpose of education isn’t to ‘memorize meaningless facts’… that’s what the Internet’s for, after all… but to learn how to learn.

 

In such a paradigm who cares what Metternich said about power or what the account in the Gilgamesh Epic says about the civilizing of Enkidu? Who wants to go to a party where people are talking about that kind of nonsense anyway?

 

But to everyone silently nodding their heads right now it pains me to say that Drucker is exactly right. Here’s why:

 

With wider knowledge comes the ability to express yourself more clearly. Remember what Twain said; the difference between a good word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning. You get that power from informal learning,

 

Sometimes skills alone aren’t enough. E.D. Hirsch in his book The Knowledge Deficit recounts research among children who were good readers but with little subject knowledge versus kids were subject matter experts but with poor reading skills. The subject matter was baseball. The unsurprising result was that in tests of comprehension, kids with knowledge of baseball but poor reading skills outscored kids with good reading skills but no knowledge of baseball.

 

Knowledge helps you bridge cultural and socioeconomic gaps. Better than 53 percent of the world’s people are Christians, Muslims and Jews, or ‘Children of Abraham.’ That is, all three groups share a common affinity for the biblical patriarchs from Abraham on back. So if you’re a Christian and were in a room with a Muslim and shared nothing else in common, you could at least talk about Adam and Noah and Abraham. But only if both of you had knowledge of those subjects. And only if at least one of you knew about that common heritage.

 

It’s like that silly episode of Star Trek called Darmok (see the picture above), where Captain Piccard gets beamed down to a planet with Paul Winfield, who plays Dathon, an alien captain whose race speaks only in mythological metaphor. An actual line from the show is “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” [Imagine ordering a burger using only metaphor. How would the pimply teen behind the counter ask you if you wanted fries and a Coke with that?]

 

Ridiculous as the premise of show was, the point is potent; metaphor is a powerful bridge. But only to the degree that all parties have knowledge of the metaphor.

 

And Captain Piccard began bridging the gap with Dathon when he told the story of Enkidu and Gilgamesh.

 

Knowledge also helps you cut through the crap. If you understand the first law of thermodynamics, you’ll never be persuaded to invest in a “perpetual motion” machine. If you understand the hallmarks of Ponzi schemes, you’ll never be bamboozled by one.

 

How do you obtain knowledge beyond your current ken? Well that’s simple, you keep learning. Informal learning is the answer. And you stretch yourself by adding knowledge that might not have appealed to you at an earlier age. Remember when you were younger and you didn’t like guacamole? Nowadays what’s a Super Bowl party without it?

And when you’re at that party and the commercials grow dull, add a little spice by dropping some Gilgamesh on them. Hey, it worked for Captain Jean Luc Piccard.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Informal Learners

June 4, 2008

Tiger Woods Started Golfing at Age 3If estimates are to be believed something like 70 to 75 percent of all learning is informal. So who are the famous informal learners promised in the headline? Well there’s a 7 in 10 chance it’s almost anyone who’s famous.

 

But there’s a more interesting list of famous people who were informal learners. George Washington, for instance. Ben Franklin and the Wright Brothers are on that list. So too are Edith Wharton, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and August Wilson.

 

The common thread? All of them left school well before the 12th grade.

 

Wait a minute, you say, the other common thread is that all those people are dead and moldering. And Franklin was fortunate to live in a time when it was possible to make a few simple observations about electricity and be accounted a genius for it. That kind of stuff just can’t happen anymore.

 

OK, fair enough, my skeptical friend. Here is a list of informal learners… born since 1950… who were all college dropouts but who have advanced the frontiers of technology: Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Dean Kamen. Add to that list people like Richard Branson, James Cameron, Kevin Kelly, and Quentin Tarantino who have advanced art, business and increasingly philanthropy. Branson never attended college, Kelly and Cameron dropped out of college to work, and Tarantino left high school at age 15.

 

Let me be clear, I’m not issuing a school pass to drop out of high school or college. In almost every case it’s a bad idea. But a worse idea is if when you do leave school (at whatever level) that you also leave the discipline of informal learning.  

 

And discipline is the right word. August Wilson left school in the ninth grade and more or less walked straight to the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. Dean Kamen learned some science and physics at Worcester Polytechnic before dropping out. But not 400 patents’ worth!

 

Enfant terrible James Cameron went to Cal State Fullerton before dropping out. He was a truck driver when he got a job making miniatures for Roger Corman Studios. Meanwhile he was spending every spare moment taking cameras apart to learn how they worked or photocopying or taking notes of any graduate theses he could find at UCLA and USC on optical effects and film technology.

 

The graduate students whose papers Cameron was reading had expertise in spades, but I think it’s fair to say that none of them made any $1.8 billion movies like Cameron did with Titanic.

 

Quentin Tarantino honed his distinct non-linear storytelling style not in some fancy film school but while talking films at the Manhattan Beach Video Archives, the video rental store where he worked in the day while writing scripts at night.

 

Even in 2008 it’s possible to acquire great learning and expertise through informal methods.

 

In fact, it’s not only possible, it’s essential that you continue to learn informally if you expect to achieve a level of expertise.

 

Researchers who study expertise have found that it takes 10 years of intensive study and practice to achieve expertise as a golfer like Tiger Woods (a college dropout himself!), an investor like Warren Buffet, and chess grandmaster like Bobby Fischer. The pattern is so well established that researchers call it “the 10-year rule.” 

 

But those guys were all born with the innate talent for golf or investing or chess, right? Well, in a word, no. Such a thing doesn’t exist. So the flip side of the 10-year rule is that if there’s something you’re not good at most likely it’s because you haven’t been at it long enough.

 

So if what separates me from Tiger Woods isn’t talent, per se, but time, what separates Tiger from his colleagues who have been golfing just as long as he has?

 

It’s discipline, desire and drive.

 

Informal learners with discipline, desire and drive are the ones who stay at their learning. And they’re the ones that keep learning, gaining expertise and becoming famous!

Your Brain Lifting Weights

May 21, 2008

Increasingly science is coming to the opinion that the brain can be effectively trained, like a muscle.

 

If you’re like me, the idea that neurons, ganglia, dendrites and synapses, can get stronger-faster-better through regular mental sweating sounds like another case for Dr. Obvious. But in fact the state of the art for most of my lifetime was that the human cognition peaked at, oh, say age 35, and then began a long (hopefully slow) slide into senescence. How fast or slowly that happened depended in the main on our genetic inheritance.  

 

But remember, state of the art science until 1661(!) was that the earth and all its matter at its most elemental was comprised of earth, air, fire, and water. That’s what Aristotle posited in the fourth century BC. So great was his genius that it wasn’t until the 17th Century…nearly two millennia later… that Irish chemist Robert Boyle called this premise into question with the publication of his book The Sceptical Chymist, which presaged the modern theory of chemical elements.

 

In other words, sometimes science gets its mind around an idea and won’t let go no matter the evidence to the contrary.

 

But in the last few decades especially, it’s becoming clear that new brain cells born in mature brains “integrate into existing neuronal circuitry, providing the brain with a continual reservoir of youthful active cells. Such cells might then replace older neurons or possibly be used to reshape the brain so it may learn and adapt to new experiences.”

 

So new brain cells grow in mature brains and replace the old ones, which possibly (I say likely) allows us to continue to learn things as we age.

 

So how can we learn as we age? Current science suggests that “exposure to complex experiences boost the components that process information in the brain. Brain cell survival increases, the neural appendages that receive communication signals grow and the connections between cells multiply. Some of these changes occur not only during the brain’s early growth stage, but also in later years. A severe lack of mental exercise and even stressful experiences, however, limit the brain plan.”

 

What constitutes ‘exposure to complex experiences?’ Or, to continue the analogy, what gives your brain a workout? That’s the 100 billion brain cell question.

 

For me it’s travel to new places (preferably in Italy where I can get plenty of gelato), games, reading or listening to books and magazines, researching and writing, physical exercise, watching documentaries on TV, taking formal coursework, using brain workout software, learning new career skills, and getting friendly again with my dictionary and encyclopedia.

 

Since, by most estimates, 75 percent of all learning is informal, there’s almost certainly more.

 

One big bonus to mental workouts, after exercising my brain I don’t have to shower with a bunch of strangers!

Informal Learning and the Eternal Memory

May 6, 2008

How Quickly We Do ForgetWhat if you could remember everything you ever memorized with such precision that you could throw away all your books? What price would you pay? [And as we’ll see, the price I’m talking about is not money.]

 

That’s the question I asked of myself after reading Gary Wolf’s intriguing profile of Piotr Wozniak, the Polish inventor of the software program called SuperMemo that can help you recall things you’ve memorized at close to 90 percent. Forever!

 

The profile goes on for 6,000 words. And do read it. It’s a terrific piece of reporting on a man who has become prisoner to his nearly perfect memory. But I can spoil the how of it in just a couple of paragraphs.

 

For most of us short-term memory has a lifespan. That lifespan varies per individual, but memory’s fade is predictable. What Wozniak discovered… or really, rediscovered… is that the best way to keep a memory is to be reminded of it just as you’re about to forget it. Keep the reminders properly spaced and you can sell your library of books on eBay.

 

But here’s the kicker; memory fades in waves that are especially steeply-sloped early on. (See the diagram on the left). To keep memory sharp you have to be reminded at just the perfect crest of forgetfulness. With each properly-spaced reminder the wavelength of memory grows longer over time.

 

The phenomenon is well known and now called ‘the spacing effect.” That’s it diagrammed on the left. It was first identified in the 1880s by a German researcher named Hermann Ebbinghaus. Ebbinghaus memorized a series of nonsense syllables and rigorously measured how long it took to forget and then relearn them. His analysis led to the first description of the spacing effect.

 

But wait a minute you say, American educational theory scorns memorization as unhelpful and uncreative.

 

Or as Wolf puts it: 

“The problem of forgetting might not torment us so much if we could only convince ourselves that remembering isn’t important. Perhaps the things we learn — words, dates, formulas, historical and biographical details — don’t really matter. Facts can be looked up. That’s what the Internet is for. When it comes to learning, what really matters is how things fit together. We master the stories, the schemas, the frameworks, the paradigms; we rehearse the lingo; we swim in the episteme.”

 

“The disadvantage of this comforting notion is that it’s false. “The people who criticize memorization — how happy would they be to spell out every letter of every word they read?” asks Robert Bjork, chair of UCLA’s psychology department and one of the most eminent memory researchers. After all, Bjork notes, children learn to read whole words through intense practice, and every time we enter a new field we become children again. “You can’t escape memorization,” he says. “There is an initial process of learning the names of things. That’s a stage we all go through. It’s all the more important to go through it rapidly.” The human brain is a marvel of associative processing, but in order to make associations, data must be loaded into memory.”

 

“Once we drop the excuse that memorization is pointless, we’re left with an interesting mystery. Much of the information does remain in our memory, though we cannot recall it. “To this day,” Bjork says, “most people think about forgetting as decay, that memories are like footprints in the sand that gradually fade away. But that has been disproved by a lot of research. The memory appears to be gone because you can’t recall it, but we can prove that it’s still there. For instance, you can still recognize a ‘forgotten’ item in a group. Yes, without continued use, things become inaccessible. But they are not gone.” 

Bjork for instance, has studied the oddity of the elderly who can often remember distant events with perfect clarity, but forget what they had for lunch. It’s small proof that it is recall that fades, not memory.

 

The key to putting the spacing effect to work in enhancing recall was clearly the computer. And as Wolf puts it, turning the spacing effect into software required someone who was not so much an academic, although Wozniak has a PhD, but a kind of intellectual ‘tinkerer’ with a gift for math and certain ‘literal temperament.’

 

The result was the effective if not always easy to use SuperMemo.

 

It’s Wozniak’s literalness that makes him a prisoner to his studies and something of an eccentric. For instance, scientists have long suspected that there’s a link between sleep and mental capacity. But there’s never been a good way to find the data. Since 1999 Wozniak has been keeping detailed logs of his sleep and tracking it against his “daily performances on study repetitions.”

 

You read that right, Wozniak has been loading data into his brain for decades and… using SuperMemo… has kept up the repetitions required to never forget it. He doesn’t foresee leaving Poland because the travel would disrupt his routines. He keeps himself in fighting trim in no small measure because his body houses his mind. For the same reason he avoids travel in Poland because the local motor vehicle accident rate is so high.

 

I’ll end where I started; as an informal learner what price are you willing to pay to never forget what you’ve learned?

Informal Learning and The Learner’s Guild

April 30, 2008

More American adults will undertake some kind of informal learning this year than will attend all movies. More Americans will engage in some unofficial instructional endeavor than watched the last American Idol finale and the last Super Bowl. Americans love their entertainment but they’re almost hardwired with the desire to learn.

 

It’s a rich heritage. Benjamin Franklin was an autodidact… a self-taught student. So, too in large measure was Horace Mann, the famous educational reformer, who got his books from a small library Franklin himself had founded. As early as the 1830s the American backcountry was filled with teachers who toured the sticks teaching farmers and merchants topics both useful and arcane. Mark Twain started making his first real money not as a writer but as a lecturer in the 1860s. Later, facing bankruptcy, Twain returned to the lecture circuit to pay off his debts.

 

Nowadays according to the U.S. Department of Education 70 percent of Americans adults undertake some kind of informal learning each year… more than one and half times as many Americans who are enrolled in some kind of formal education or work training. Of those whose household income is greater than $75,000, 78 percent engage in informal learning. Among those with a graduate degree the number of informal learners is an astonishing 89 percent! Even the most educated among us realize that all education is self-education.

 

The high income and well educated understand that the power to understand ideas and express themselves clearly… which travels hand in hand with ongoing learning… correlates with almost any definition of success. Like the lab experiment that yields a reward every time the lever is pressed, the well-educated keep on pressing the education lever. And they do so consistently throughout all of life’s stages.

 

Yet informal learning almost flies under the radar. That’s because by its very nature informal learning is so broad as to defy easy categorization. Reading up on working with exotic woods is informal learning. So too is listening to language tapes or watching that documentary on penguins on the Discovery Network. Maybe there’s a goal in mind like improving your employability by learning a HTML. Or maybe you’re like Franklin and you learn just because you like to learn.

 

Into this comes, The Learner’s Guild.

 

I’ll post at least once a week on trends, products, ideas, techniques, tips, tools, and whatever else catches my eye.

 

This is my third blog. My first is now inactive, but my second blog, on the subject of ’cause-related marketing’ currently ranks either number one or two and all the major search engines.