Conversation spaces for deep learning

Preface: this is a post I wrote back in March-April 2015 but hadn’t published as I’d wanted to create a more readable version of the diagram (yes. It took THAT long. Mainly because, as is often the case with draft / unpublished posts, I forgot about it then lost the momentum / motivation to go back to it). I’m digging into the blog draft archives and posting them without significant editing to try to develop a ‘WorkOutLoud’ attitude and become more comfortable with publicly sharing work-in-progress.

I’ve been thinking a lot about conversation spaces lately: public and private; online and offline; formal and informal places and spaces, and how each of these might support various ways of knowing and learning.

The seed of this thinking was planted by Kandy Woodfield’s excellent and thought provoking post last year on the ethics of (open) social learning and working out loud. Kandy’s post prompted me to start considering the role, pros/cons, and differences of open, public, professional learning spaces vs closed, private, personal ones – and how our learning across these contexts interact to influence our identity, connections, conversations, mindset and behaviour.

This thinking has been kick-started again as I’ve reflected on recent ongoing private conversations with a friend. This is a person I have only known for about 6 months, who less than 3 months ago I’d have called an acquaintance. The (what feels like) accelerated status from acquaintance to friend has occurred largely through these private conversations, in which we’ve explored complex topics at a personal level, through a variety of mediums: in-person conversations, text messages, email, phone calls. These conversations have been open, honest, challenging and confusing, where I’ve learnt as much about myself as I have about my friend; that have challenged me to think about things that I otherwise wouldn’t have (or wanted to); and inspired and supported me to change the way I approach certain situations.

It’s a personal learning experience that feels something like therapy, counselling, or coaching conversations – but without the formality or power dynamics inherent in these contexts. John Stepper’s WOL circles (based on Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean in’ circles) – an informal model for peer coaching and support might be an apt comparison. But yet more emergent, organic (serendipitous?) – without the guidelines, explicitly articulated purpose, or group dynamic.

As learning practitioners and educators we often ponder how to achieve deep, personally meaningful learning that inspires and supports ongoing, long term behaviour change. The type of learning that – in an organisational context – translates not only to impacts on business measures, but broad and lasting cultural change. That in an educational context – might lead to a breakthrough transition: from uncooperative/disruptive students with low self esteem to enthusiastic students proud of their achievements with a newfound thirst for learning (This inspiring EdContexts post by Éllen Cintra is a great example). The type of learning that prompts individuals to examine within, reflect deeply, question long held beliefs, and change their behaviour or habits.

My instinct is that all of these learning experiences come about through similar underlying processes. I have been wondering about the characteristics of this type of profound learning: how it emerges, whether it could be achieved in an intentionally designed environment, and the conditions that are needed to facilitate it.

And what I’m thinking might drive this type of learning is conversation. Conversations of: openness. honesty. empathy, shared understanding. shared purpose, trust. Vulnerability. Acceptance. Mutual, ongoing support. Conversations that make you FEEL deeply as well as think deeply. That engender emotional, as well as cognitive connection. It may not be so much about finding a solution to a defined problem, as it is about uncovering, unravelling, & exploring complexity and supporting each other to figure out how and what might work.

Can environments be ‘designed’ to support this type of learning?

‘Design’ in this context is not about developing the right set of ‘learning resources’. It’s not about setting up an ESN (Enterprise Social Network) and hoping for the best – or manufacturing reasons for people to ‘interact’. It’s about creating the right type of ‘conversation space’ for these personally or professionally meaningful conversations (and learning > relationships > behaviour change) to emerge.

Here is a ‘back of the envelope’ set of conditions that I’m thinking might be important:

  • Private or semi-private (e.g. a closed group) conversation spaces. High degrees of trust and vulnerability are critical for deep learning. This may be difficult (impossible?) to achieve in an open, public space. Personal conversations, private/direct/text messages, coaching or performance conversations, journals, WOL circles are all examples of private conversation spaces.
  • In-person contact – maybe it’s possible to develop the same level of trust and vulnerability exclusively through online interactions, but I’m still not entirely sure (reflecting on this conversation on Terry Elliot’s blog re the nature of connection). At the least, it might take longer and be more difficult than if there were opportunities for face to face contact. More ‘present’ forms of online interaction like Google Hangouts, Skype or video calls might help bridge the gap.
  • Regular, ongoing contact, ‘check-ins’ – this may be essential for the ‘change’ aspect of this learning – ongoing, mutual support, talking through issues, encouragement to try (and keep trying) different courses of action, following up and reflecting on what seems to work (or not) is a form of social accountability, and helps motivate, kickstart & continue behaviour change.
  • Empathy / shared experiences and/or purpose – empathy can be so important for developing trust. Maybe because when empathy is present there is no judgement. Empathy might come from shared experiences and/or a shared purpose. Or might simply emerge from listening without judgement.

This is something I drafted a couple of months ago, to start mapping out some of this thinking. I always intended to post it as a ‘thinking out loud’ artifact, but wasn’t inspired to write the framing post and backstory for it until my personal conversations with my friend, and the conversation on Terry’s blog got me revisiting this thinking. (Thanks Terry – and thanks to my friend who has been integral to the backstory. I think you might know who you are).

conversation spaces - work in progress

These are the original scribblings and notes that the above diagram evolved from (you can see why I needed to convert it to a more legible format…):

conversationspaces-evolution

Reflections on wolweek

Well…#wolweek (“working out loud” week) didn’t quite turn out as I’d anticipated, when I optimistically wrote a post last week about intending to participate.

Day 1-2 I was mostly offline, madly finishing a work piece to support a huge organisation-wide ERP project. Not quite sure what happened the rest of the week…but I never managed the flurry of tweets and blog posts of updates on work in progress and half baked thoughts I’d imagined at the week’s beginning. I was reflecting on why this was the case, and I think it comes down to the simple fact that it takes more than just intentions to change behaviour. Although I had the intention to participate, I didn’t actually think about how I’d do it. Starting a #wol habit and participating actively in #wolweek involves actively participating in a community. This starts with consciously and habitually checking the feed, responding to other’s updates as well as sharing your own – and integrating this behaviour into your work day. This is the challenge of any new behaviour change.

As Jeff Merrell pointed out on my previous post, #wol isn’t just about sharing publicly, but sharing and being open with anyone you’re working with. Yes, I was in ongoing communication and shared work in progress with stakeholders in the project (something I am consciously working on getting more comfortable with – and have found that early sharing of incomplete work or initial ideas- can be very helpful). But – were there also moments when sharing what I was working on with the broader network outside of my immediate work group could have helped me? Definitely.

Some of these moments included:

  • trying to figure out how to link internally to a set of html files from a page in an elearning authoring tool. Googling it brought up a number of promising looking links – but they were all to the vendor’s (CLOSED) community. When I tried joining the community to access the forum posts, the activation email didn’t work. I gave up, and eventually called the vendor’s support where I eventually got the information I needed to make it work. It was a frustrating experience that could possibly have been short circuited by directly consulting my network. Did I even think of this at the time? No. (This goes back to not having thought about the sorts of things I’d share during #wolweek, and when).
  • toying with the idea of a structural change to the online comms/awareness piece I was working on. I ended up leaving it in the end but at that point when you’ve looked at something 1000 times and lost all objectivity, getting feedback from someone with no background or prior knowledge can be helpful.
  • researching how to develop & deploy an ipad app (scoping the specs so still have a chance to get help on this)

So…although #wolweek is just about over, and didn’t go quite as I’d intended, I’m hoping my reflections on why, how and what i could have done will help keep #wol front of mind for me, and trigger a response to share what I’m working on and learn from others. And at least I’m getting more comfortable with blurting out quick posts.

I’ve also got a bunch of old drafts that I will publish…likely over the next week (as it’s after midnight now and I don’t have the energy to do anything other than post this one!).

Developing a work out loud ‘attitude’

I’ve been conscious that I haven’t posted anything here for several months. Part of this has been a result of me consciously spending less time online in general, to focus on being more ‘present’ at home, to reprioritise a few things and to give genuine attention and time to important relationships in my life.

That said, not publishing anything isn’t the same as not writing – I have numerous ‘draft’ posts in various stages of ‘completeness’ which I haven’t published. I’ve often wondered why this is so…and I think part of it is fear of publishing something which seems ‘incomplete’ or not entirely thought through.

But, as Jeff Merrell so eloquently expressed in a (relatively) recent post ‘Working out loud week lesson: ignore the network’, publishing ‘work out loud’ reflections and ‘half baked thoughts’ has value in itself – for yourself (to articulate and capture your thinking). And more than likely, has value for others – even if you don’t get an immediate or explicit response from anyone telling you so. The value of making something public is that you provide the opportunity for someone, sometime to benefit from it – possibly at some point after you wrote it.

And in fact, this exact thing happened to me around the time I read Jeff’s post: Norman Jackson, who publishes an online magazine on learning, personal development & education, stumbled upon the ‘work in progress’ post I’d written 3 months earlier on the PLN model I was working on as part of my Masters research – and asked if he might publish it as part of an issue on PLNs he was doing for the magazine. It was one of those purely serendipitous moments…but one that was only possible because I’d posted those thoughts publicly, instead of just working on it privately.

Doing this consistently and regularly – and integrating it into part of ‘what you do’ is the challenge. Another post which recently changed the way I viewed ‘working out loud’ was Nigel Young’s ‘When working out loud isn’t really WOL’. The most important point, for me, in his post was the notion that ‘working out loud’ is an attitude – it’s simply about sharing, exploring ideas & seeking feedback openly and in public. This doesn’t necessarily just mean blogging or on social media, it can also be in asking questions and sharing ideas in meetings, on the whiteboard – or in any medium.

So, when I saw Helen Blunden’s post on Third Place inviting the group to join her in ‘work out loud’ week (June 15-21 2015) I thought it might be a good opportunity to start consciously practising and developing this ‘work out loud’ attitude.

And although (as Nigel says) blogging isn’t necessarily the ONLY medium for working out loud, it’s probably one of the more visible options. And there’s nothing like a bit of social accountability and collective action to kickstart a new attitude (or habit). I might even post some of those ‘unfinished’ drafts.