Final Reflection: Making Connections

When I began this class, I knew very little about instructional design and nothing about learning theory, nor did I know much about research and theory around definitions of adulthood, highly philosophical definitions of knowledge itself, or how our brains change as we age (and they myriad ways one can view the lifespan). Though it was one of the first topics we discussed, I must admit that I still struggle with the concept of adulthood. I found each reading’s interpretation and definition of it fascinating, as it’s so nebulous, even to the researchers conducting and analyzing these studies. Each time I thought I had landed on one definition, I found myself thinking another one was perhaps more accurate. That became true of many concepts we explored, which gave me a lot to process from week-to-week, and there’s still a ton of material I’d like to dive into now that the term is over; I have found myself needing to further pick apart some of the assumptions I didn’t even know I was carrying. Though my initial response to Knowles was somewhat aggressive, one of the key take-aways for me personally was how he provided great insight as to how pedagogical approaches impacted me as a learner and how that shaped my emotional response to learning, even now as an adult. Though overwhelming at times, it has been extremely helpful for me to better understand the massive range of factors that influence learning, from high-minded academic theory, to whether someone is learning because they feel obligated to or because they want to.

As you know, I had a lot of thoughts on intergenerational conflict in the workplace, and I truly enjoyed reading more about how these issues can play out (along with potential ways they could be resolved if the experiences of each generation are more fully understood). With workplaces becoming more diverse by the day, these generational differences feel particularly stark; how can a 60-something, white, straight, male CEO possibly understand the perspective of a 20-something, black, gay, female entry-level underling? It’s a heavy burden of emotional labor that many people are unwilling to take on, leading not only to a general feeling of tension at work but to reduced productivity and a shrinking of the talent pool. Yet the last few years of cultural upheaval brought on by the increasingly louder voices of marginalized communities have inspired a backlash of more traditional values, throwing into question the future of workplaces politics (which, until this point, most have assumed would continue on a progressive path). I grapple with these issues a lot in my role at HBS, which is very traditional some ways and very diverse/progressive in others, but of course I also know that I am privileged to live in a liberal area like Boston.

The nitty-gritty of learning about various sources of motivation, coupled with a thorough outline of how instructors might contribute to the crumbling of that motivation, brought up a lot of questions and concerns about adult learners that I hadn’t before considered. Many of them were obvious once I saw them in print, but being able to analyze them in such detail really rounded out my perspective on how to address the needs of adult learners. It’s a bit intimidating in many ways—how do you reach everyone?—yet the ability to not only empathize with students but capitalize on their experiences is critical to quality instruction. From my own experience, supported by the readings, I also now understand much more clearly how emotional responses to various life experiences and changes, plus our fears and insecurities, can cause us to get in our own way by resisting change; this is another nuance that must be considered in learning design. Though adult learners needs’ are complex, there is a great deal of pleasure and excitement to be found in inspiring them to take control of their learning and improve their lives on many levels (whether making career changes or moving toward self-actualization).

I’ve already said quite a bit in other blog posts and in the discussion board about what did and didn’t resonate with me in the learning theories we’ve explored, so I will end by saying that it’s appropriate that we finished the term with connectivism because—despite my many issues with some of its tenets—I make a great deal of meaning out of connecting ideas across disciplines and contexts. There were more than enough opportunities to do that within the class itself (and I think, as a group, we all did an excellent job of that!), but I also saw a lot of overlap between this class and my Harvard Extension School class (Mindfulness, Meaning, & Resilience). The class provided an interesting and useful contrast in terms of how the two courses were set up differently—online versus in person, lots of small tasks versus just a few big papers, etc.—but there were many instances of lightbulbs going off while doing readings for each, realizing how much the two had in common. Both courses had a lot to say about how we make meaning in our lives, how we learn, how we are constantly getting in our own way, how compassion leads to the betterment of humanity, how important it is to be connected to the people around us, and the importance of understanding how we can boost cognition for ourselves and for others (in particular, how advanced skills such as metacognition increase our capacity to learn and grow). Soon enough I will be taking exclusively instructional design-oriented courses, but I am grateful to have had the opportunity to take these two courses in general and concurrently. It’s been a challenging semester, as I’ve found myself quite overwhelmed on many occasions, but I have come out of it knowing that I have learned a lot. I don’t know who is still reading this, but just in case: thank you to all of my classmates and to Christin for opening my mind!

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Cognitive Overload, Understanding Learning Style

I was really intrigued by the description and discussion of cognitive load in the readings for Cognitivism. I can easily see how this impacted my learning all the way through school, including recent graduate school courses; for example, in middle and high school math classes and in my post-secondary experiences with learning anatomy & physiology, I absolutely suffered from a too-heavy cognitive load, causing me to shut down and give up very easily, while my too-light cognitive load in elementary school left me bored and restless. I was well aware that both problems frustrated me, my parents, and my teachers a great deal. I think I didn’t do a very good job of seeking support in the former situation or advocating for myself in the latter. It’s tough because I think this is a very important issue to consider when designing courses, as either scenario could easily demotivate a student, but I can also see myriad ways by which it would be difficult to satisfy all students in a given course. For myself, I’m grateful that at least most of the learning opportunities in my workplace do a fairly good job of breaking trainings down by skill level so that no one has to waste time re-learning information they already feel very comfortable with (or drowning in new information).

As an aside, I would be interested to learn more about personality/learning tests such as Strong Interest Inventory and how accurate they really are. I was surprised by some of my results, although most of them did make sense when I thought more about them. Since then I have wondered how much influence they have on people’s career decision-making (although there likely is not data available for that kind of question, but it would be interesting to see what happened if someone made a career change based primarily on those results). I’d be particularly interested in how this breaks down along gender lines, which is one of the factors SII uses to interpret the results. Certainly gender can heavily influence one’s job satisfaction—see: women in STEM careers and academia, or men in care-taking professions—but then, how do we change those trends for the better if we don’t encourage diversity in the workplace? And what about trans, genderqueer, and gay people? How do socioeconomic, cultural, and racial factors influence the outcome of these tests, and is there a way to address thos factors? In many ways it’s like the SAT, focused in on a very specific group of people to the exclusion of many. Of course, perhaps most people, whether in the target group or not, don’t give a fig about these types of tests in the first place!

Disconnecting from Connectivism

I have a lot of feelings about connectivism.

Before I get into that too much, I’ll address the Connectivism group’s prompt regarding additional resources for personal learning networks. I took a look here, here, and here, but honestly I didn’t find these to be particularly helpful. As I mentioned in my discussion board post, I find this process to be overwhelming; when browsing the internet I have a tendency to follow link after link until I’ve lost track of where I started and where I was going. There simply is a limit to how much time and energy I can devote to this kind of thing. Of course, I do see the value in keeping up with trends and prominent voices in the field, especially given how rapidly technology evolves; I’m not opposed to the concept altogether. However, I’m not sure how I personally can reconcile the need to build a PLN with stopping myself from getting totally lost in an endless sea of links and hashtags. Fortunately I am already connected to an experienced instructional designer (my best friend) who might be able to point me in the right direction.

I also have to be honest, and therefore extraordinarily snobby, for a moment and admit that much of these resources (including the Siemens articles) did not resonate with me because of an alarming number of grammatical and punctuation errors. This is something I struggle with in all corners of the internet; I have a hard time trusting a source that doesn’t meet my standards for quality writing—especially given that some PLNs will be made up of small groups who may or may not be true experts in the field. I realize that most likely the biggest issue regarding quality is that many of these writers just don’t have the time to obsessively edit and most likely do not have professional editors checking behind them. Still, I find this frustrating and off-putting, and the old-fashioned side of me strongly dislikes that writing skills have largely dropped off the table of traditional education (starting with early grade school, all the way through).

Similarly, I found Siemens’s general perspective on connectivism to be… well, somewhat alarming. The emphasis on chaos made me uncomfortable (who wants to live a life of chaos??), but more than that I am opposed to the idea that it’s a good thing for everyone to be a journalist and for the mediums by which we receive information to have a huge influence on us and our views. I also feel that the endorsement of “revolutionary ideas of today [that] at one time existed as a fringe element” has the potential to be quite dangerous in the context of “a shifting reality”—the recent election being a prime example of how much we have failed to discern accurate sources of information from the internet. What’s his solution for the overwhelming tendency of people to seek confirmation bias, conspiracy theories, and other forms of blatantly false information (fueled by paranoia that any mainstream media source is peddling lies)? Though the field of instructional design is not as politically charged as many others, I can see how this frightening trend could wriggle its way in, and I think we all have to be very careful of how we employ social media in a professional context.

All that being said, I do agree with him that decision-making and a holistic view of cognition and learning is imperative, as are the abilities to connect concepts across disciplines (and externalize that knowledge) and to quickly identify and discard irrelevant information. My hope—particularly for younger generations who are now entering the workplace—is that we can all correct for the “chaos” of the internet as it exists today and move toward a better-educated society.

I Don’t Have a Clever Headline Today :-/

First off, I was amused to see in a recent newsletter that Somerville has reduced its speed limit. In this particular instance I’m firmly in the “YES!” camp. People drive insanely fast around here, despite the large numbers of pedestrians and cyclists (and small children and dogs!). Simply trying to get around my densely-populated neighborhood can be extraordinarily stressful and dangerous; hopefully people will abide the new law. Now that that’s out of the way…

**WARNING: LIBERAL-MINDED POLITICAL RANT AHEAD**

I’ve had a hard time focusing over the last few weeks as my election anxiety has been ramping up. I had already fallen behind in both this class and my other class, and now that the election is over, I’m so stunned and defeated that I continue to find it difficult to concentrate. Intellectually I know that paralysis is counterproductive and that life must go on no matter who is president. But I also cannot stop thinking about the many people I know and love who no longer feel safe living their day-to-day lives, and my heart hurts so much that it overtakes any other thought in my mind.

It’s appropriate that we have learned about transformational learning theory at this particular moment in time. Mezirow emphasized that “helping adults learn how to move from an argumentative mindset to an empathic understanding of others’ views is a priority” (Merriam & Caffarella 134)… that discourse ideally occurs under conditions of “having complete information, being free from self-deception, being able to evaluate arguments objectively, having empathy, having an ‘equal opportunity to participate in the various roles of discourse,’ and so on” (ibid.)… and all of it just seems so far removed from what has been happening around me lately, especially given how convinced many people are that literally no mainstream media source is reliable. Rampant ignorance and a fundamental denial of reality has been cropping up on both sides of the aisle, and my frustration has rendered me nearly unable to engage in productive discourse myself. As a woman, as a survivor of sexual assault, as a survivor of stalking and assault and emotional abuse from an ex-partner… I feel as if I have been silenced. I am exhausted. And I don’t know how to muster the energy to make myself (or members of other marginalized groups) heard again.

I got into a minor conflict on Facebook earlier today with a middle-class white man (currently in medical school) who posted a rather vicious rant about how institutions of higher education need to stop coddling students and offering them safe spaces because it doesn’t help them prepare for the harsh realities of the “real world.” I kept thinking about my visit to UMB campus when I took the MAT, delighting in the immense diversity of the students on campus—about half of whom are minorities. I thought of Wednesday’s email from the Division of Student Affairs, offering support to those students, letting them know they’re not alone, that the university supports them. I thought of the many, many times—even in these allegedly progressive modern times—that people of color, Muslims, women, and other marginalized groups have been accused of exaggerating or even fabricating their stories, have been made to feel like they must keep their heads down and play nice even when they’re being harassed. If they can’t be safe on campus, the place where civil discourse is absolutely essential to learning, where millions of young people come together to gain wisdom and insight, where they begin their journeys into adulthood… then where can they feel safe?

And then I thought of Whistling Vivaldi, a book that very neatly lays out research on how minority groups of all stripes don’t feel intellectually safe on campus because stereotype threat has ground them down to the point of self-fulfilling prophecy. Steele makes it crystal clear that institutions absolutely MUST cultivate an environment of inclusivity if they want their minority students to succeed academically (and, ultimately, professionally). But yeah, sure, providing a safe space for these students is preventing them from functioning in society after graduation…

I won’t launch into a summary of Chapter 6 in Merriam & Caffarella, as you’ve all done the reading and you know what it says, but I want to put it on the record that I could go on for many more paragraphs (hah) about how much this chapter spoke to my concerns and interests around the intersection of education and social justice, and to warn you that I may have more thoughts on this in the coming weeks. (Aren’t you excited??) Toward the end of the chapter, they ask what the role of the educator is in fostering transformative learning and whether it’s ethical to tamper with a learner’s worldview at all; my gut reaction is that it’s not only ethical but a moral imperative to foster transformative learning as much as possible—not even necessarily to perpetuate my own agenda (I’m not a total psycho) but to push learners to critically examine their own biases and beliefs. Isn’t that the root of learning, anyway?

Disclaimer: I acknowledge that I may be particularly fired up at this moment and perhaps I need to undergo some transformative learning of my own. 🙂

Bad Behavior(ism)

I have mentioned in a few places already that I am not a huge fan of behaviorism—it has its place, for sure, but as an extraordinarily sensitive kid, the black-and-white RIGHT or WRONG of skill-and-drill scenarios made me self-conscious and nervous… which led me to panic and perform poorly… which made me feel stupid… which made me self-conscious and nervous… and on and on. That performance anxiety has stuck with me, and it was definitely a factor in my decision to leave behind occupational therapy as a career path.

Of course, being hyper-analytical like I am has its drawbacks—it’s not always a good thing to be able to pick apart every detail of every little thing, turning it upside down and inside out, being able to make an argument for or against every possible theory or outcome. How do you know what the “right” answer is when everything is the same shade of gray? And yet somehow I manage to be incredibly self-righteous and opinionated when the right topic comes up…

I’m quite tired as I write this, so I have no idea if I’m making any sense. I guess my point is that humans are complicated, and behaviorism reads to me as being far too black-and-white, far too limiting and limited, for so much of what we learn and experience day-to-day.

This Is Not a Test (Except When It Is)

The last two weeks have been pretty intense—lots to do for both of my classes, super busy at HBS… feeling a bit overwhelmed. It’s kind of funny to work at a university while attending a university (two, in fact!)—though my courses and interests and career goals are very different from those of a Harvard Business School student, we all share the same anxiety about doing well and the same intense desire to learn all we can. I’ve helped prepare the mid-terms and the feedback letters, and now I get to schedule appointments for them to meet with the faculty to figure out how to improve. I’ll never know what it’s like to be an HBS student, exactly, but boy do I empathize with their panic.

And now we’re moving into simulation season—a piece of the HBS curriculum that is pretty hilarious and fun to witness. The simulations are very obvious examples of the engaging learning experiences we’ve been discussing in class, and even though they’re meant to be somewhat simplistic and silly (one of them is based on a beer supply chain!), the principles are absolutely applicable to real-life scenarios. At some point I should pick the brains of some of the faculty in my unit on how they design these simulations and how the case method was developed—as learner engagement is a HUGE priority at a competitive business school and could provide some great insights into how learning theory is applied in this environment.

Moving the Margins

I think my favorite part of this past week’s readings was McClusky’s Theory of Margin (Merriam & Bierema, 153–156). I just kept thinking THIS THIS THIS!!! as I read, tempted to highlight every danged word on those pages—this is the most literal description of the mental calculus I perform every time I consider another major life change, especially with regard to learning and careers.

When I was offered my current job at Harvard Business School, one of my main motivators for taking it (even though it wasn’t what I was looking for) was the exceptional educational opportunity. If ever I were to get a master’s degree, I thought to myself, this would be the way to do it. As I started researching all the paths I could take, all the choices I had, I came down on two possible paths: instructional design or occupational therapy. The former would build on my interests and skills from my publishing career (but with far more opportunities for growth and decent pay), while the latter would build on my interests and skills from my massage career (but with greater power to help others and significantly better pay). I opted to start with OT because it was the more daunting and time-consuming path, and I figured that it would become clear to me pretty quickly whether it was the right choice for me.

Well, I was 100% right about that—it became clear quite quickly that several years of prerequisites in subjects I’m not naturally good at PLUS three more years of full-time graduate school would be a whole heck of a lot for me to handle. Sure, I could have gotten through it, but at what cost? How much would my mental health have suffered? the quality of my work at my actual current job? my partnership? my enthusiasm for the long-term goal? my social life? And so on. I wish I had known that this theory had existed, as it would have been the perfect place to which to direct my dissenters. So many people framed it as if I didn’t want it badly enough—as if, somehow, sheer enthusiasm could compensate for all the MANY sacrifices I would have had to make to get to that end goal. It was so hard to explain all those subtleties—to explain that, sometimes, your goals are really pipe dreams that just don’t line up with the reality you currently occupy. There shouldn’t be any judgment assigned to that—it’s merely truth. My truth.

I find myself redrawing those margins all the time—the scales of power and load are constantly shifting in a way that they simply didn’t when I was younger and more reckless with my time and energy. At times I feel somewhat wistful for the times when circumstances felt less dire, consequences more surmountable—but I also know that age and experience have made me more apt to accurately assess how the math balances out (or doesn’t, as the case may be). I’m grateful that, even if I don’t feel like an “adult” to the degree that I’d like, this is one flavor of math I’m getting better at. Finally(!).