Learning: the right challenge at the right time

It’s that time in my life where school is suddenly in the picture, via¬†a certain 4-year-old I know ūüôā One thing I’ve already noticed is how ready a child can be for a new challenge.¬†A challenge that is big, worrying, exciting, almost too much to get your head around – yet, at the same time, exactly what you needed without realizing just how ready you were to take on something completely new.

Ready for a challenge

Cat taking on the challenge | Click to view image by Waponigirl on Flickr

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The importance of feedback for your learning

Whenever you are¬†learning¬†something new,¬†there’s nothing more important than the feedback loop¬† – you need to know how you’re doing at¬†your task. This helps¬†you improve¬†your learning¬†process to bring that moment nearer when you’ll be able to say “Yes! Now I can do this.”

Feedback Loops And 'Learning'

A demonstration of what the right feedback loops and algorithms can do in machines.

I recently watched a video from Zurich.MINDS and really only got interested when Raffaello D’Angelo started talking about feedback loops in computerized machines. Continue reading

The temporary teacher – education by subject matter experts

Education matters to me. Not least because I spent about 20 years at a school of some description. And learning¬†new things¬†is my favorite passtime, especially at work ūüėČ

What will education look like in the future? What will that mean for teachers? And how will the pupils fare under the new educational practice?

Education by specialists: the temporary teacher

Temporary teacher: Education by Subject Matter Experts

Subject Matter Experts On The Loose – HikingArtist.com; Flickr image

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How to get the hang of creative writing

A while ago I wrote about my urge to start writing a book. In this post I’ll share my discoveries about writing. If you’re a seasoned writer, some of¬†what I¬†tell you¬†may not be totally surprising.

Creative writing beginnings

At first, creative writing was like having to crack my head open – Greek mythology, goddess-Athena-born-from-the-head-of-Zeus style.

Creative writing is much like climbing a steep hill

To climb steep hills … (Shakespeare) – Image by Mark Notari on Flickr

If you’re at that¬†painful stage, check my earlier post and do what I did. Or not. Odds are you’re trying to move a rusty lever from rational, business, objective to creative, psychological, inner-world.

Word count – how fast should you write?

There is no rule for word count. The rate at which I produce – or, let the words out – has accelerated since I started. On a really good weekday I do between 500 and 1000 words:

  1. Wake up et cetera.
  2. Commute by train: phone, 1 hour for writing max.
  3. Work.
  4. Commute by train: phone, 1 hour max.
  5. Cook, dinner, TV with family.
  6. Sit down and type: laptop, 90 minutes of writing max. But of course that blog post needs attention – time – as well.

700 words in 3,5 hours is about 200 words per hour. 250+ in extreme cases.

On bad days? 100-200 words. Zero if I don’t find the time.

Finding extra writing time

Now the days are getting longer I’ve¬†wondered myself if I should use some quiet time on Saturday or Sunday morning (not both – please!) to get more words out at the weekends. But I’m not sure yet. Our son has entered another “I just wanna be close to you” phase. Which is endearing but extremely impractical.

Would spending a whole day writing help?

If you’re getting started in creative writing you may find that spending an entire day at the keyboard doesn’t help at all. Why not? I’ve given this some thought.

  • If I could get a full day of writing I could, theoretically, write 8 x 200 words¬†= 1600 words. I wouldn’t call that a good day if it meant sitting at a keyboard for eight hours on a¬†day off.
  • A good day would include 3 hours outside walking or gardening. In reality I’d spend part of those 3 hours doing housework to avoid feeling guilty about the mess after a day¬†spent at home.
  • With 5 hours left, I’d be down to about 1000 words¬†– which isn’t that much better than I do now.

Based on this insight I haven’t tried to write for eight hours straight just yet. Or even five.

First results, quantity-wise

So far (April 7) I’ve produced a bit over 6000 words. Since novels tend to have at least around 100.000 words these words¬†represent 6% of a novel. That’s if I’m lucky and this stuff turns out to be good raw material for the next stage. And if I’m not on a 150K-word writing quest.

Update April 18: I’m now at 12000 words. Possibly because I really got 90 minutes’ value in the evenings in the past week? Anyway this could mean I’ve reached¬†10% of a novel ūüôā

To be quite honest: I have no idea if I’ll be able to keep getting¬†useful stuff out of my head. Hopefully I’ve hit a¬†‘steady stream’ stage.

What will the next stage of writing look like?

Easy. Rewriting.

I¬†happened to¬†read a post by a fellow blogger about how after writing, at first you’ll end up with “really crappy crap”.* That’s when the fun of rewriting begins. I can’t wait. But first, I have writing to do ūüôā

* If that fellow blogger was you, let me know in a comment. You may add a link to your post about “crappy crap” first drafts, because it was obviously interesting enough to remember.

Tip for budding writers

Keep the pressure way down until you manage to move¬†that rusty old switch in your head from ‘business’ to ‘creativity’:

  1. Don’t worry about word count, poetic phrases, or anything like that.
  2. Don’t force yourself into an eight-hour-a-day writing schedule. An hour every other day is fine – just write.
  3. Don’t invest in high-status writing software just yet –¬†the empty screen will stare you down.

Remember my little unpretentious notebook. – which I’m not using any more. I’m keeping it though, as my no-pressure ‘just jot it down somewhere’ option.

Read more:

What¬†does (creative) writing mean to you? Add your thoughts about creativity, writing and the like in a comment and expect a reply ūüėČ

How improving your learning strategy will help your career

If there’s one thing in my career I’ve regretted it’s not¬†pouring some strategy into¬†my learning processes sooner.

Here’s the thing: I was a fast learning kid. No plodding for me. Sounds great, right?

Career Hurdles and Learning Strategy

Women’s Final of 80 meter hurdles, Olympic Games, London, 1948.
Daily Herald Archive at the National Media Museum [Click to view image on Flickr]

Wrong. The one thing you need to consider – I’m now looking at it as a parent – is that if your kid¬†is (or if you are) very fast on the uptake, part of all that learning capacity should go into the strategy of learning. Don’t wait till your kid is 16 years old.

Questions for your learning strategy

Starting small, explore questions like these:

  1. What is learning?
  2. How can you learn something new?
  3. What different methods of learning are there?
  4. What works for learning different topics?
  5. How can you tell how you should go about a new task or a new subject? It’s ‘meta’ time ūüôā

Most importantly, you need to take the whole concept of learning to a level where the task in hand no longer matters. Only when knowing how to perform a specific task is no longer enough does your need to know #5 become apparent.

How can being a fast learner spoil your learning?

That’s easy. My default learning strategy was: “You read it. You read it again. You’re ready.” Sophisticated stuff, I know. It worked for me most of the time.

Oddly enough, it didn’t work¬†with maths after a certain point. Of course now I know that¬†I¬†was trying¬†to memorize everything without understanding any of it.

There’s nothing like a crisis to revise your¬†learning strategy

When did I finally revise my learning ‘strategy’? After I failed big time in my first year at university. I had four exams and failed two. How did that happen? Actually this is a bit embarrassing in retrospect. I failed because I couldn’t read and memorize everything in that foot-high pile of … well, stuff about art ūüėČ

This was an eye-opener. I had¬†skipped maths before my grades reached embarrassing levels. Getting really poor grades for the first time in your life makes it painfully clear you’re doing something fundamentally wrong. It is, as they say, a great learning opportunity. Yay!

It worked. I learned.

How does a learning strategy help you in your career?

Whenever you’re faced with a new task, new job, new career, you’ll find yourself having to figure out what will work best in that particular situation. Doing what you always did will lead to good results in some cases, or it will leave you in a smelly bog wondering what went wrong.

Bringing a strategic approach to your tasks means you will do things like:

  1. come up with a rough guide or plan for a new task,
  2. consciously¬†opt for a general direction that’s most likely to get results,
  3. finetune your actions as you go along.

Take a learning approach to your career – starting today.

More reading:

How do you approach new tasks? Add your thoughts about learning, plodding, career, and school issues in a comment. I will, as always, reply to anything non-spammy ūüėČ

Blogging impressions: tips to make guest blogging work for you

Since August last year I’ve written “Blogging impressions” posts regularly to keep track of my progress in blogging. I regularly share tips on how to overcome issues many bloggers must run into.

Today my first guest post was published. For that reason this post is about (first time) guest blogging.

Why it’s important to guest blog

Guest Blogging (summer visitor, picture from last year)

I’m not going to give you “get a bigger audience through guest blogging” talk. Plenty of blogs will tell you that,¬†and then they’ll¬†try to sell you their e-books for ‘free’ after which they spam you with 400 Dollar webinars until you unsubscribe or block them to keep them from clogging up your mailbox.

Guest blogging is important as a¬†learning method: it offers you a new writing experience. You get to write for an audience you’re not familiar with, so you only have the blog owner’s advice to go on – that and having a quick look at previous posts, and possibly comments from readers.

For that reason I view guest blogging as a thinking exercise. You’ll consider how you’ll gently tweak your blogging habits to suit the¬†audience you’re writing for. In my case, I’d started tweaking before I guest blogged.

Don’ts in guest blogging

  • Don’t even consider writing a sloppy guest post. If you’re lucky you’ll get turned down. If you’re not so lucky, you’ll¬†get published and a lot of potential readers will have a chance to enjoy poor¬†writing or a post with an unfinished feel to it.
  • Don’t write 5 times better than you would on your own blog. If you can’t put in enough time to produce good posts, anyone who finds your excellent guest post¬†and then visits your blog will turn away disappointed.

Tips to make (first-time) guest blogging work

  1. Find a blog to guest post on that is as similar in style and/or topics to your own as possible.
  2. Make sure you meet the blog owner’s criteria: word count, picture, the lot.
  3. Make sure you meet your own criteria for publishing before you submit your guest blog. If you’re not sure if your post is good enough, consider drafting and previewing it on your own blog. If you have doubts about publishing it on your own territory, don’t submit it yet.

Whatever else you do, try to match your own blog’s best posts.

Why guest blogging isn’t a must-do for everyone

If you’re happy on your own blog and¬†you have¬†enough readers to keep you blogging along, that’s fine. It may take you longer to assemble a crowd of readers – but then again, it may not, if you’re able to connect with casual visitors. Which happens a lot on ‘private’ blogs because there’s so much we recognize in each others’ lives.

Getting a personal connection by talking about businessy topics¬†is harder, and tends to happen (at first?) when¬†you blog¬†about something you feel strongly about. You’re only human – people get that.

What are your thoughts on Рor experiences and tips from Рguest blogging?

Brain innovation: why you need to change your mind

Don’t you just love brain talk? I do. Reading this interview with Janet Crawford (part 2, anyway) was both enlightening and inspiring. It answers the question why many of us – but not all of us – find it hard to deal with change. Here’s my take on ‘brain innovation’.

Stuck in a rut? You bet.

Brain change: Meandering River

[Image: The Goosenecks, San Juan river, Utah – on Flickr, by Jesse Varner, 2005]

By the time we’re 40, or 50, we’ve built an archive in our brains¬†of “things that work”. This knowledge and these actions have kept us prospering for years and we view them as good stuff for that reason. These aren’t just words – our experiences have become part of our brain patterns.

Doing something¬†contrary to ‘what¬†works’ is like walking on a path you’ve never taken because you’ve spent a lifetime believing it ends in a swamp. Starting down it takes a conscious decision – and it may take considerable effort to keep¬†walking.

Career change means brain innovation

There’s all kinds of articles you can read about the¬†‘modern career’ – if you have the time, and in some cases a handy bucket:

  • “Stop looking for job security, focus on income security”
  • “In this fast-paced, ever-changing society we must let go of old beliefs”
  • “Parents telling their kids to get a steady job-with-a-contract are¬†giving off all the wrong signals!”

Right now, our society is less likely to support steady jobs than we expected 30 years ago. But oddly enough not less likely than, say, 80 years ago.

A few career survival skills:

  1. entrepreneurship (even at its most basic)
  2. networking (investing in relationships with people you don’t need right now)
  3. looking ahead, beyond your current working environment
  4. spotting opportunities
  5. selecting relevant topics and new skills to learn about
  6. learning.

Any job where you don’t need even one of these skills is probably not going to help you in the long run.

A¬†woman ‘between’ jobs in her fifties told me: “Nothing in my previous job [at a local government] prepared me for this. I’m reinventing myself.”

Opening up your mind to new possibilities

In brain terms, changing your mind at¬†a fundamental level¬†is much like changing the course of a river. It takes engineering skill or you’ll end up with a mess and the river will return to its old bed no matter what you try.

What if you’re not a ‘mind change engineer’?

Read. Diversify. Develop new interests, or regard those you have as side branches of the river that is your career. They are not ‘just’ hobbies – they give you a chance to explore a side of you that doesn’t fit in with your current job.

How do you keep your brain fresh and open to change?

Perception, art, and the space between meanings

How much do we grow used to interpreting symbols around us? When it comes to understanding traffic rules for example, a¬†red or a green traffic light is relatively easy to understand. Red means “stop”, green means “go”. The tricky bit¬†is when your kid sees a green light but it’s for other road users.

Now arrows… arrows are tricky by default.

Perception: Meanings of an Arrow

Knowledge of specific conventions tell us what an arrow means.
[OCAL image]

  • It’s up to you to gain enough¬†general knowledge about the world and our conventions¬†to¬†recognize the shape of an arrow, and to understand that arrows point in a direction, ¬†that it’s the pointy bit that does the pointing, and¬†that there’s a reason for¬†it to¬†point.
  • Your next hurdle is understanding that you need to look around you to see what the arrow is doing in its context – to find the reason for the arrow. Why is it here, what is it supposed to show you, is it even there for you – or for the car in the lane next to you?

Just to point my own arrow at a minor detail here: you’re an expert in a lot of ways without realizing it. You just read the stuff I wrote about arrows and conventions like traffic rules, and you’re still here. Now let’s move a step further.

The effect of learning in professionals

I’ve taken a quote from an interesting post about learning and its effect on us: “…once we have learned to see design, both good and bad, we cannot un-see.”

It’s easy to point at stuff you’d like to learn – but you can’t point at things you’re trying to forget AND succeed at forgetting them. What if you told someone “Right now I’m trying not to think about those purple bears over there, hanging out on the beach drinking pink-and-green cocktails with fake strawberries on straws in them. And they’re wearing high heels, which is no joke for a purple bear on a beach.” Check out the size of that arrow ūüėČ

The author of the quote goes on to list examples of how designers, artists, and other professionals cope with the gap between their trained professional self, and their¬†untrained clients. Like I stated in an earlier post: un-learning is possible, but it takes a conscious effort. It’s a lot harder to forget or ignore¬†specific bits of knowledge that have become entrenched in the corners of your brain, than to focus on learning them. (The one example I’ve run into of people being unable to step away from what they’ve learned is not so much designers but IT professionals. We’re all guilty of being an expert at something.)

Perception, art, and the space between meanings

Some things mean everything to us, and nothing to the person standing next to us. This is particularly clear when art is concerned. A piece of art¬†is filled with meaning by the artist. Compositions as a rule don’t drop from a handy cloud. Details don’t miraculously pop up in a painting. A work of art is constructed, and its details are where the artist put them for¬†a reason.

The way we perceive any piece of art is defined by our personal experience. Our general knowledge of¬†the world. Our knowledge about other works of art and any convention we have grown used to. If our personal knowledge overlaps to a great extent with that of certain artists, we’ll perceive their art much the way they intended. On the other hand, if there is little to no overlap – say you’re admiring a 16th-century Italian painting and you’re

  1. unfamiliar with classical mythology, and
  2. not a religious person,

it’s going to take some explaining to get even a rough sense of what you’re looking at and what story the artist wanted to tell in that painting. That artist was creating a work of art with a specific audience in mind. I guess it’s¬†safe¬†to assume¬†you’re not the audience he (probably not she) was thinking of at the time.

Read more:

Do you watch (your) kids learn about the meaning or meanings of the things around them? What do you make of perception, art, and the meanings of familiar symbols?

Bridge the gaps: how knowledge management helps you learn

How are learning and innovation connected to something as outwardly dull as knowledge management? In this post I’ll explore the question¬†how managing your personal¬†knowledge allows you to¬†focus your learning efforts.

Do You Know Where You Need To Go?

Do You Know Where You Need To Go? Bridge your knowledge gaps
Photo posted on Flickr by Halil Gökdal; Vimeo video byEugenia Loli-Queru.

Learning and humor

In my previous post I compared knowledge management¬†to herding cats. Using metaphors can help explain a topic while adding a dash of fun to dry facts (or severely dehydrated opinions). It helps the learning process along. A post I read some time ago was about “comparing apples to oranges“. I enjoyed the post, which was actually about innovative ideas.

Innovative approaches are often the result of looking at familiar topics from a different angle. In that respect, innovation has a lot in common with humor: take two seemingly completely different topics, crash them into one another, and see what happens. If you want a slightly more predictable result, you try to control the process that leads to innovation (or humor).

Using proverbs, metaphors, and other ‘language tools’ in learning is not without hazards. Reading in a non-native language makes it even trickier. For example, I’ve always thought of “comparing apples to pears” (from Dutch) as measuring two completely different things by the same criteria. In that case a perfect orange would make a lousy apple (or Apple). On the other hand, in innovative thinking, borrowing criteria from one¬†context and applying them¬†in a different context may yield unexpected insights.

Connecting knowledge management to learning Рand innovation

You could view personal knowledge management as¬†a controlled way of assessing what you know. ‘Knowing what you know’ gives you a¬†basis¬†for¬†deciding what you else you need to know but don’t. You can then focus on bridging the gaps by either¬†learning about those topics yourself, or by contacting someone who has the necessary knowledge and asking them for help.¬†Both¬†actions have their pros and cons.

  1. By taking control of your learning process, you will gain new expertise which may serve you well in the future. On the other hand, you need to judge what level of knowledge you need. If it’s knowledge on a specialist level which you need urgently, learning may take too much time. If speed doesn’t matter quite so much you can focus on learning the basics and figuring out the rest as you go along. This tends to happen on blogs a lot ūüėČ
  2. By contacting an expert, you ‘risk’ two different world views crashing into each other. If you communicate what you need (and don’t need) from the exchange, and facilitate an honest and open dialogue, you may discover more in less time than if you try to master a new topic by yourself. Moreover, if you bring in a person with a different background, opinion, and expertise, you won’t be able to self-censor anything which doesn’t fit into your view of the topic. This way you open up new possibilities. It’s up to you to then select the things that might actually work for you. This kind of confrontation is useful for innovative thinking, but it’s also a great way to get unstuck if you’re stuck trying out #1.

(I’ve actually done #1 on this blog, and I’ve helped someone out¬†being their¬†‘nearest WordPress.com expert’ so that’s my #2 for now.)

Using knowledge management (KM) to learn

Harold Jarche, in a post on his¬†KM¬†blog, mentions David Williamson Shaffer’s book How computer games can help children learn. After explaining the word epistomology (the study of knowledge, page 10), Shaffer goes on to say:

“…here I argue that computers create both the means and the necessity to fundamentally rethink what it means to know something – and thus what is worth learning and how we teach it.”

I don’t think it’s specifically a computer thing, but I do think¬†computers have made it¬†painfully clear what¬†happens when technology changes and we don’t accept that change means we need to adjust – to learn.¬†Nowadays it’s¬†worth reviewing our assumptions on a regular basis. The problem for many people is that it usually doesn’t seem¬†worth the effort. You can use your time to do either of these things:

  • sit around thinking about what you know, or
  • get your job done and bring food to the table.

If you lose your job, your first inclination won’t be to sit and think carefully but to put the turbo on to get a job. If that doesn’t work you may spend some time panicking before you sit down and (hopefully) think things through. Most of us only sit and think either when we can afford to take the time, or when we have exhausted all other options – when we have to.

Check up on your assumptions (or ‘knowledge’)¬†at regular intervals

What if you take the proverbial ‘step back’ from your canvas every few weeks¬†to check where you’re going, where you want to go, what you need to do next, and what other options you see? Options which you’ll leave largely unexplored for now, but keep in a treasure chest until you want them.

Read more:

How do you view your (personal) knowledge and its management Рhow do you decide what to learn next?

Your DIY career plan: a beginners’ guide

Why would anyone who isn’t hugely ambitious¬†be tempted to make a plan for their own career?¬†Though it may sound odd, I think everyone¬†should have a ‘business plan’ for¬†their career. By that I mean a rough idea of where you want to go and why. I’m not talking 30-page plans here. Okay, you can if you want to.

Why make a career plan?

Career Plan adds Direction to your job seeking efforts

Add more talents and interests to your career [star and fish from OCAL]

This is the ‘open doors’ paragraph I expect:

  1. If¬†you have a job today, that’s no guarantee you will have one in the future.
  2. Even if you¬†expect to¬†hang onto¬†the ‘same’ job, it¬†will change over time.
  3. Another question entirely is whether you like your job,
  4. – and whether you will continue to like it.

I’ll start from scratch in case you haven’t looked¬†in your professional mirror for a while.

What aspects of your current activities do you enjoy the most?

List¬†talents and interests you can’t use in your current activities, or in the last job you had, and¬†which you would love to find a use for. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • When are you at your best: alert but not stressed out, ready to help, showing others the way to go?
  • When do people seem to listen intently to what you have to say?
  • When do you get enthousiastic – talking about what topic(s), in what kind of situation?
  • When do you feel in control of a situation?

(Jot your answers down somewhere.)

How can you use your talents and interests?

Look for options that are (next to) free to start. Just a few examples to start you off:

  1. If you enjoy reading and used to love writing letters or if you kept a diary, blogging could be a first step to giving this side of your personality some room in your life. What do you want to learn from the experience?
  2. If you love talking about, advising on, or even teaching specific topics, consider where to find people who can benefit from your expertise. Look inside your company, outside, in your neighborhood, and of course online. LinkedIn groups are an excellent place to do a bit of low-threshold advising.
  3. If you’re a people person who loves¬†to listen: find people who appreciate what you have to offer. Anything in a business context is fine for a bit of experimenting. Don’t use your skill in a private setting to give¬†people psychological advice –¬†do nothing beyond listening for clues that tell you¬†whether someone¬†needs professional help rather than a neighbor with good intentions.

Small first steps will let you discover if a specific role suits you, and if it does you’ll find that¬†you feel more¬†confident and energized.¬†Even starting with just one talent will tease out other dormant interests.¬†So there’s no need to tackle every option at the same time. Give every interest about a month’s worth of your attention.

You will undoubtedly discover that some interests will remain hobbies because once you explore¬†them,¬†they turn out to involve tasks that you don’t want to do on a daily basis. And that’s okay.

Start looking around for opportunities to use your talents

Once you give your talents room to grow and bloom you’ll want to build on those humble beginnings. Your budding plan¬†may involve a company of your own – or it may mean you look for new challenges in your current job.¬†Some talents will ease their way into your day job almost imperceptibly, because you¬†view things differently. People are more likely to give you a task that involves using¬†your specific talents if you prove you have those talents, are willing to invest (time, energy) in them, and if you feel confident enough to take on something new as a result.

A¬†‘business plan’¬†for your career helps you set priorities

A business plan allows you to determine what you will do and what you won’t. What you’ll invest a lot of time and energy in and what you need to delegate or minimize in some other way so it won’t harm the important things in your working life. In short, it helps you to prioritize your everyday tasks into the good, the bad, and the ugly ones. Delegate non-priority¬†tasks whenever possible – some tasks are a welcome challenge when you’re in your 20s, just another chore at 30, and a right¬†pain in the backside¬†well before you reach¬†40.

How does a business plan help you if you’re between jobs?

It’s vital to have a sense of purpose beyond what you do here, now, every day.

  • New options appear along the way as your life and your career shape you as an individual and as a professional. Having a plan,¬†taking the first step (at no or low cost),¬†will help you¬†find the direction for your next step.
  • Knowing where you want to go, and why, helps¬†you talk about your motivation for a specific job.¬†Employers like to know how your new¬†job will help you:¬†if you expect a job to benefit you in some way, you’re more likely to be truly motivated.

If all options seem closed to you it’s time to find a new window to let the fresh air in. What¬†would¬†a ‘business plan’ for your career look like?