How to Think: Developing a Personal Learning Infrastructure

Ed Boyden from MIT’s Media Lab had an interesting post way back in 2007 titled How to Think: Managing brain resources in an age of complexity.  He lists 9 great insights that relates to structuring a personal self-managed learning environment.  The following is my edited personal version:

  1. Synthesize new ideas constantly. Never read passively. Annotate, model, think, and synthesize while you read (or receive input).
  2. Learn how to learn and prototype ideas (rapidly). ?
  3. Work backward from your goal. Make contingency maps. Find out which things depend on other things. Identify things that are not dependent on anything but have the most dependents, and finish them first.
  4. Always have a long-term plan, even if you change it every day.  Use logarithmic time planning; events that are close at hand are scheduled with finer resolution than events that are far off.
  5. Collaborate.
  6. Make mistakes quickly, then move on. As Shakespeare put it, “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”
  7. Develop personal best-practices protocols and make them routine.
  8. Document everything obsessively and watch carefully for surprise and insight.  (Ed’s e.g. Compose conversation summaries on a notepad. At the end of the conversation, digitally photograph the paper and uploaded to a computer for keyword tagging and archiving.)
  9. Keep or make it simple, even if that is hard work.

It’s #2 where I have the most questions concerning how.  But really, everything else relates to #2.  I see 3 main thrusts in this list:

  • #1 and #5 are about expansive thinking, opening up the possibility of new ideas.
  • #3, 4 and 6 – 9 are about achieving focus.  Thought is focused by imposing constraints.
  • Also important is linking thinking and acting.  This is done through #3, 4, 5 and 6.

#7 is also a core thought. Work routines (along with a collaboration platform) are an important part of a personal learning environment infrastructure. It’s some of the ways we can create our own resources.

More on Learning, Management and Action Learning

Management is a practice, learned in context. No manager, let alone leader, has ever been created in a classroom. Programs that claim to do so promote hubris instead. And that has been carried from the business schools into corporate America on a massive scale. (Mintzberg, 3-16-09. America’s monumental failure of management)

Practice is what we do.  Context has always been important for learning about practice and transfer has always been a problem for learning as it relates to practice.  Does this make education all hubris? Two responses

The metaphoric response:  Becoming educated is like becoming a gardener.  Knowledge and ideas are the cuttings that we hope to grow into beautiful mature plants.  Practice is the field that we cultivate by matching the appropriate cuttings with conditions we find (soil, climate, etc. . .).

The institutional response: Everything I need to know I learned in Kindergarden, but that only helps me if I can carry kindergarden around with me everywhere I go because learning once never seems to be enough.  Because learning is lifelong, people need lifelong learning resources, not just a degree.

My best response: I like the idea of action learning as a response to the above challenge for the following reasons:

It orients learning towards action and problem solving.  My Vogotskian instrumentalist background leads me to the conclusion that knowledge and ideas are about doing things.  Mintzberg’s challenge is right on the mark.  What you learn in the classroom is about being a good student, not a practice leader.  Being a practice leader takes learning with an orientation to acting in the context of practice and the problems of practice.

It places learning in the contexts of diversity, peer learning and distributed cognition from the way that it places learning in groups or teams.

It fosters a questing disposition (see my 3-28 post).  Action Learning’s questioning and reflecting process seems like a scientific and research orientation, but not in a narrow sense.  It is about scanning the horizon for data to help frame the problem and then scanning the horizon for data relating to solutions.  I would place more emphasis on research methodology (all varieties).

Coaching; It does not leave the team alone, but provides them with a resource person.  This looks like potential role for the university services that extend beyond the classroom.  Hopefully the coach / resource person does not stand alone, but has institutional resources that they can bring to bear to help support specific team learning problems.

I’ve already mentioned a need for research methodology as a resource to team learning.  To this I will add measurement.  I believe the questioning and reflecting methodology can be expanded to the benifit of this process.

Innovator as Manager: The Changing Core of Business Management

My recent reading of business literature and news refers back to the need for innovation and the problems that have developed when good ideas are in short supply.  Consider the following:

Some of our biggest financial firms got away from their original purpose — to fund innovation and to finance the process of “creative destruction,” . . . too many banks got involved in exotic and incomprehensible financial innovations — to simply make money out of money — which ended up as “destructive creation.” Thomas Friedman, NY Times, 4-1-09.

The recent failings of management . . . are most directly attributed to a famine of good ideas. To take one highly visible example, Enron’s management failed to make the earnings and cash flows it had promised and resorted to creating revenues and hiding debt through complex transactions because they didn’t have sufficiently good ideas to make sales and profits in real ways. Off-balance-sheet financial manipulation was the best idea they had . . . (Boland & Collopy, 2004. Design Matters for Management)

Also, consider Action Learning, a process and disposition touted for management practice: The World Institute for Action Learning considers the following components critical for action learning: An urgent significant problem, A diverse action oriented learning team (4-8 people), a process of insightful questioning and reflection, a commitment to individual, team and organizational learning and action, and a coach to helps team members reflect on learning and problems solving.

What is unique about this process is that it focuses on a diverse team that seeks and acts on ideas.  It is a methodology to spur ideas and innovation that are beyond the capabilities of individuals.  Likewise; Case Western University’s Manage by Designing is another management program that considers a disposition toward ideas and innovation paramount for managing.  Learning for innovation seems to be becoming a core capability for managers.