Sunday, February 10, 2019

More than content consumption

Rachel Burnham writes: Learning is more than consuming content; more than consuming information.  In our information rich world, where there is an abundance of information and content wherever we turn, it is easy to focus on consumption. It is easy to give the impression that more is better.  

It is easy to feel that if only I read more books; kept on top of all my social media feeds; read those journal articles and listened to just one more podcast – then I would be up-to-date, then I would be meeting my own development needs, then I would be role-modelling effective CPD for my colleagues. A counsel of perfection!  Sometimes people share their challenging book reading targets for the year (I’ve written about this before – ‘Read and Relish’) or how they pack in listening to podcasts or audible books in every available space in their lives.  I am not going to pretend to be immune to this.  It can feel like being on a information hamster wheel at times.  Perhaps it is the equivalent for informal learning of the content-dumping sometimes found and decried in formal learning?

But learning is more than consuming yet more and more information.  How do we digest this information, critique it, contrast it with other information, put it into our many contexts, integrate with our current understanding and skills, challenge our thinking and behaviours – how do we sense-make? With all our talk about the abundance of information, ease of access and dangers of feeling overwhelmed, I wonder if we are under-valuing and under-practising sense-making?

I spent some time last year interviewing a number of  professionals, primarily from the fields of L&D and HR, about how they manage the information they need to stay up-to-date in their work.  One of the areas we discussed was this area of sense-making.  Here are some of the approaches they used, plus some of my thinking based on my reading and doing in this area:

A) Bricolage & Curation
Bricolage is a very evocative term that refers to the practice constructing or creating something from a diverse range of other things.  When applied to sense-making, it emphasises linking information from different sources together and looking at the relationships between these different pieces to identify trends, patterns or create new insights and approaches. It is something that Andrew Jacobs has written about on many occasions.  

When curating information or resources, we can use a range of different strategies to do this, such as:

·     Selecting the very best or most relevant pieces and by doing this reducing the noise and adding value for ourselves and others;
·       Grouping information or resources to show the broader picture or pattern;
·       Contrasting information – often there is more than one view on a topic, acknowledging this can deepen our understanding and enable us to be more nuanced in our thinking;
·       Identifying sequences in information eg use of timelines of thought or sequences of activities.

Each of these can help us with sense-making.

B) Mapping & drawing
Many people, even those with very effective digital skills, find it helpful to map out ideas using pen, pencil and paper.  I, of course, very often use Sketchnoting to do this. 

A number of the people I interviewed talked about using paper and pen to draw out ideas and the relationships between them when thinking things through.   Often it can be quicker to rough something out on paper and it can be easy to play with different ways of visualising, testing out approaches, adjusting, rubbing out and trying again. Diagrams can be simple – lots of arrows and basic shapes or more complex.

Whilst the use of pen and paper, doesn’t require drawing skills and pictures, these can allow for the use of metaphors, which can bring in another dimension and stimulate further thinking.  

C) Blogging & writing
Amongst my group of interviewees, probably the key tool in sense-making that they identified was writing.  One commented that ‘To know what I think, I need to write. ’ Writing can take many forms: from handwritten notes, created to capture key information and aid recall; through to writing for reflection, still for personal use; through to writing for sharing either as a blog or for publication in an article or book. 

Once you start writing to share publically, this forces you to clarify your thinking and tests your commitment to what you think.  Clive Thompson in his book ‘Smarter Than You Think’ writes:

‘Audiences clarify the mind even more. Bloggers frequently tell me that they will get an idea for a blog post and sit down at the keyboard in a state of excitement, ready to pour their words forth.  But pretty soon they think about the fact that someone is going to read this as soon as it’s posted.  And suddenly all the weak points in their argument, their clichés and lazy, auto-fill thinking, become painfully obvious.’ (Pg 52)

This is known the ‘audience effect’ and it means that when you are setting out to communicate with someone else, you are forced to think more precisely and with greater clarity.  So this has the advantage of encouraging more effective sense-making.

D) Conversation
Another effective aid to sense-making is conversation, whether that is in person or on-line.   It could be as simple as talking through your ideas one to one over a cup of tea, which can help you to clarify what it is you think, but also expose you to other perspectives.

Online conversations can also help with this.  One of the challenges though is that light and shade can be harder to hold onto in an online conversation – trust and listening are just as important as in a face to face conversation, but are often harder to achieve. Some of these online conversations happen in real time such as a Twitter Chat, but they can also take place asynchronously, which can allow for a more reflective approach.  

It is also possible to share online, particularly with Twitter, snippets of insight and practice, which can test out your thinking and gather feedback from others.  This is often referred to as the practice of ‘Working Out Loud’. 

A variant on writing and conversation is to sharing your thinking via a short video, which is also known as ‘vlogging’.  It would be interesting to know whether the ‘audience effect’ also impacts on the quality of thinking when using a video format.  

E) Testing out & Playing
For practical skills, you can’t beat actually having a go at using those skills.   Playing with, testing out, experimenting and then reflecting on this, are all vital aspects of sense-making.  Documenting your experiments is such a valuable contribution to the collective understanding and effectiveness of our profession, but like writing publicly, it can feel like a scary and exposing thing to do.  

Each of these 5 approaches involves reflection.  And underpinning all of that, time and space is essential for sense-making.  

When planning this blog, I searched for a simile or metaphor to capture the importance of this time and space for sense-making.  At first I was drawn to the idea of pools of time for reflection.  But I have settled on the idea of woodland glades. In a forest, with many, many trees close packed together, the dense canopy of leaves can mean that little sunlight reaches the ground and under the trees is a rather sterile environment.  But if a space is cleared and a woodland glade created, where the sunlight can reach through, then all sorts of seeds will germinate and plants grow up and flourish.  A much more diverse and richer environment is created.  This is what sense-making needs.

Let’s make some woodland glades and let the learning flourish. 

Rachel Burnham

10 February 2019

Burnham L & D works with individuals and organisations to help them learn and work more effectively.  As part of this I help L&D professionals to be even more effective through updating their skills and know-how.  I have a particular interest in curation and the use of digital technologies in learning.  I frequently Sketchnote at events and offer workshops in Sketchnoting.  

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