Thursday, October 1, 2015

Social Learning Ought to be Story-Sharing: "Friends You Haven't Met Yet"

"People are social beings, and our brains are wired to connect with each other," Matthew D. Lieberman writes in his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. (2013). However, when it comes to traditional practices related to training and learning programs, we tend to slam on the brakes regarding social interaction. We focus on content delivery and do not encourage learners to interact with others through online and virtual tools.

The Common Complaints

Designers and trainers who participate in my workshops, both online and in face-to-face settings, have these common complaints regarding social learning - which makes use of social media as part of the learning experience:

"What if learners don't want to interact?"
"What if they are so busy, they have no time for a discussion?"
"What if top management frowns on social conversations as undermining work and frivolous?"
"Learners are afraid to be wrong, offend or reveal themselves to others." 
What seems to be the root of these complaints? Why is there a sense that difficulties will arise using social interaction as part of our training and learning programs?

"Friends You Haven't Met Yet"

A recent experience during a visit to USC Center for Creative Technologies helped me tie a bow on this issue. The realization came after a closer review of a huge project called "Friends You Haven't Met."

First, some background: I visited with Andrew Gordon, Ph.D., a leader of the USC/ICT specializing in story and narrative research and artificial intelligence initiatives. He was one of 45 doctoral students under Roger Schank at Northwestern University. We spoke about ICT's  Story Web Blog Project. Through the algorithms his team developed with funding from the U.S. Army, they compiled 33 million web blogs that use personal stories. The trainers from the Army selected stories that were useful in their leadership programs. While we were in conversation, Dr. Gordon mentioned the work of Chris Wienberg, a doctoral student.

Chris Wienberg, with others, produced a documentary, "Friends You Haven't Met Yet." The documentary interviews some of the bloggers who were discovered in their research on the Story Blogs.

After meeting with Dr. Gordon and viewing the documentary, I concluded that social learning ought to be story sharing. 

Personal Stories Versus Knowledge Stories

Some blogs are much more popular than others because the bloggers share stories about their crises,successes, trials and discoveries. Initially, they are about sharing their daily lives with close family members. Eventually, bloggers discover even those who are just witnesses or even strangers begin to visit and interact with them.

The very nature of sharing personal stories is cathartic not only for bloggers, but for readers as well. Without even knowing each other, both establish a bond based on a shared story. This is because stories are universal and appeal to the heart. Thus, they resonate with people from all walks of life.

In training and learning, we tend to be nuts and bolts, fact-based, right-and-wrong orientated, rather than sharing authentic and genuine stories from people's experiences as a way to enrich learning.

But how can we use social interaction online to turn it into story sharing that supports social learning?

To turn conversations and sharing into usable stories, it works best to ask:
"What did you go through?"
"How did you do it?"
"What would you do again or avoid in the future?"
These questions encourage experience and story sharing. Note, they are the opposite of asking, "What do you think?", "What is your opinion?" or "What is the right answer?"

They Will Find You

"I'm surprised that someone I don't know would visit and read my blog," one blogger remarked. Bloggers wonder why so many people read their blogs even if they are not their friends. There is no expectancy that someone, aside from close family friends, would even read their postings. They are surprised that strangers start contacting them and replying to their posts.

In many social learning environments, learners tend to expect immediate and multiple group responses. Failing to get a good response sends a signal that the learner is less engaged or is not contributing a good idea. They (supposedly?) end up disinterested, feel discouraged and quit. However, this view is flawed.

We need to encourage our learners to think like someone attending a cocktail party. They get to meet a number of people, until they find a person with whom they share mutual interests. Then, conversation ensues. Unbeknown to learners, the people in a social learning situation are not total strangers. They happen to be engaged and are having a lively and interesting conversation with another person. 

With this model in mind, we offer two recommendations:

  • Longer time span. Create a social learning environment that lasts longer. If we implement the social learning aspect to accompany a class and it starts on Monday and ends on Friday, there will be no opportunities to build connections, establish rapport and nurture relationships. Learners will be less inclined to make the investment in time and emotional relationships. Develop a spaced-out interaction, maybe a few weeks.
  • Meaningful conversations. Remind learners, the goal is not to have a relationship with the whole class but to look for meaningful sharing of ideas and stories with a few people within the group - those with similar interests. Social learning is a not a scattergun approach to learning; "it is intimate and selective." 

I Do, Therefore I Learn and Gain Respect

Viewing the story sharing documentary reminded me that social interaction and sharing are indeed a social and psychological contract between the person sharing a story and the followers or recipients.

Social learning is shallow when it merely focuses on the trainer's need to frame the conversations to suit the content. This is quickly apparent to learners. To engage them, turn the tables and ask learners to talk abouttheir interest areas.

But how do you align their discussions with your content? How do ensure they don't segue into topics outside of the immediate lesson?

Consider the following ideas:

Strong positions. Ask learners to put a stake on the group and pursue a topic that they are passionate about. Encourage them to gain depth by researching and presenting dissenting views, challenging assumptions and taking a strong position or changing positions as they make discoveries. 

Many learners contribute ideas by posting "me too" and superficial "hi and hello" comments. They fail to engage others because they don't show seriousness and strong intent. They don't make it a passionate pursuit. Encourage learners to ask penetrating questions and provide insights. 

Credibility and reputation are important. Advise learners that having good conversations with others or having many strangers visit and benefit from their postings reflects on their credibility and reputation. Instead of their being like a fruit fly buzzing from one conversation to another, an in-depth conversation on one issue builds respect and gains admiration from others. 

Allow real-life pursuits. To help learners align their discussion pursuits with your content focus, allow them to relate a story, an experience or a real-life application regarding your content. Learners' postings may veer away from your core topic, but they have done so to pursue an interest. Encourage them. Use your content as a trigger to help them recall real-life situations. Avoid limiting their discoveries by stubbornly adhering only to your academic objectives.


Social learning ought to be story sharing. Learners learn by participating in small, focused and meaningful conversations. It is only through deeper pursuits of personal interests and sharing their discoveries with the group that learners develop credibility, reputation and respect. It is this degree of application that makes social learning a story-sharing medium. It is by story sharing that learners really absorb the lessons. It is by this approach they "Find Friends They Haven't Met Yet."

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic. Sound off in the comments section!

USC Center for Creative Technologies 

Matthew D. Lieberman, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (2013) 

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"

Friday, September 18, 2015

Beauty Unbounded

Life is majestic from all views. I've seen clouds from both sides now, and they remind of life devine.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Different way to look at chairs

Learners may express ideas differently,  not to our liking or not conforming to the trainer's goals. But there is a pattern, which is the key to understanding what they are saying.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Is Your Organization Losing Its Brain? Collecting Stories to Transfer Knowledge

Are you perceiving symptoms of your organization losing knowledge and expertise? Oftentimes, top executives are not aware of the wealth of knowledge that's lost as experienced employees retire and carry their expertise with them.

"In the U.S., roughly 10,000 people reach retirement age every day. And though not everyone who turns 62 or 65 retires right away, enough do that some companies are trying to head off the problem...Losing veteran workers is a challenge, even for big companies like General Mills...But the older-worker brain drain is a big concern for industries like mining and health care." says Yuki Noguchi in her article "Businesses Try To Stave Off Brain Drain As Boomers Retire."

"Not only would a huge number of employees become eligible for retirement in the next five to 10 years, the company had done little to retain the wealth of institutional knowledge they would be taking with them. From the intricacies of key client relationships to mainframe computer languages no longer being taught in school, many experienced workers possessed critical know-how that, if lost, would be costly-if not impossible-for the company to replace." says Douglas MacMillan in his article "Issue: Retiring Employees, Lost Knowledge."

For some organizations, systematically collecting stories is key to preserving knowledge and expertise. What is your organization doing to preserve its brain? What steps are being taken to retain wisdom and add more vitality to new knowledge?

Collecting Stories - The StoryCorp Story

The winner of the million-dollar TED Prize 2015, StoryCorps is a company that is in the business of collecting stories. They would bring together people who knew each other well and put them inside a recording booth for 40 minutes. For the allotted time, husband and wife, mother and son, father and daughter would have a real conversation which would dig deeper into the stories that they have inside.

"StoryCorps grew out of a very a simple idea: we wanted to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record their life stories. We built a soundproof booth in Grand Central Terminal and invited people to come in pairs and interview each other about their lives, with the help of a trained StoryCorps facilitator. Soon after starting the project, I knew we had created something pretty powerful. Many StoryCorps participants tell us that the forty minutes they spend inside our booth are among the most meaningful minutes of their lives." - Dave Isay, Founder of StoryCorps

Some of StoryCorps' Top Stories

Below are samples of some of the most compelling StoryCorps stories. These are real people who lived to tell their tales. View these videos to appreciate the power of real stories in conveying ideas and connecting to audiences.
Miss Devine
Marine Lance Cpl Travis Williams 

For trainers, designers and learning leaders, stories become a library for learning. What you have at your disposal are resource persons who really live through the stories. This carries an unquestionable authority because these are their stories and they are living witnesses to what transpired. When Marine Lance Cpl. Travis Williams talked about his experience in Iraq, nobody can question his account because he was there. 

Surefire Steps in Collecting Stories and Transferring Knowledge

Now that you know the importance of collecting stories, you must be wondering how in the world are you going to start doing it? The good news is, you already know how to collect stories! The bad news is, you're not aware you're doing it. We subconsciously collect stories all the time without us knowing that we are doing it. We talk to our colleagues about their lives, hobbies, favorite food, past relationships and we store these stories in our memories. Every conversation that we have with another person is a story in the making. Here are a few steps to make your story collecting process more systematic:

1. Talk to people 
You can't just expect people to come flocking to you with their stories, you have to talk to them. You have to show interest in their lives and make them feel that even their most boring stories are important to you. When people sense your interest in their stories, they will feel important and will open up. Stories will just come pouring out.

2. Ask open-ended questions 
Asking categorical questions is a good trial technique but it's the quickest way to kill a story. On the other hand, open-ended questions open the mind and scours the memory for stories.StoryCorps has some sample questions that would make the story flow. 

3. Listen to people 
Dave Isay added that listening is a form of generosity. Don't pull out your smartphone when interviewing somebody! This is being disrespectful and you will instantly cut off your connection with the person you are talking to. When you listen, you can make thoughtful follow-up questions and follow the thread of the story closely.

4. Training leaders and experienced workers on passing stories 
It's easy to assume many experienced workers know how to train, coach, mentor and pass stories. To transfer knowledge effectively, you can train experienced workers to be more effective with these skills areas. According to Jim Rottman, head of American Express' workforce transformation group, "One of the things that we've really focused on is paying as much attention to the person who's transferring the knowledge as to the person who's receiving [it]... That means getting phased retirees to learn new teaching tools like 'learning maps,' or visual representations of systems and processes, and interactive media like wikis, instant messaging, and audio posted on a company intranet."

5. Create a story database 
Keep the stories that you have collected in a storage where you can easily retrieve them for future use. In this day and age of audio and video recording it's a good idea to keep your interviews in an extra hard drive or a cloud storage as files grow in size. This way, you can access them anywhere.

Join a Beta Project on Small Bites Learning

At Vignettes Learning, we have different software models to help organizations build story-based lessons, create engaging content and assist your organization in collecting, storing and sharing stories and experiences.

The screen below is an example of a Small Bites Learning. Contact Ray Jimenez to be part of the Study Group.

With Small Bites Learning, learners, trainers, designers, workers and professionals can publish stories and ask their teams to share their own experiences. Small Bites Learning is easy to prepare and requires less time. Hence, it allows more time for participants to actively contribute and provide feedback.

Here are some more samples:

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic. Sound off in the comments section!

Rebecca Smith: StoryCorps Wins $1 million TED Prize: [March 11, 2015]

TED Staff: Announcing our TED Prize 2015 winner: Dave Isay of StoryCorps: [November 17, 2014]

Dave Isay: 7 StoryCorps stories that Dave Isay just can't get out of his head: [November 17, 2014]

Yuki Noguchi: Businesses Try To Stave Off Brain Drain As Boomers Retire: [January 15, 2015]

Douglas MacMillan: Issue: Retiring Employees, Lost Knowledge: [August 20, 2008]

Vanessa Chase: Story Collecting Tip - How To Collect Donor Stories

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"

Episodic Learning-Learning Like Watching Your Favorite Soap Opera!

Have you ever wished learning can be fun while at the same time in-depth? The current dilemma is that if you want to go deeper on the subject, you have to weather through the boredom created by traditional information delivery. But if you want to go the way of fun, well, you just have to scratch the surface. This shouldn't be the case! There has to be a way to learn and have fun at the same time! The good news for you-there is! Read on!

Following the Characters and their Stories

We all love to follow people's lives because we want to know what they will do next. Isn't this the normal way we learn? Isn't this the reason why we love the "Modern Family," "Jon Stewart," "Saturday Night Live," "Dancing with The Stars" or "Downtown Abbey?"

Episodic Learning AKA, Thematic learning is the natural way we learn. Since childhood, we immediately learn to follow life's episodes as it unfolds before us. What's daddy and mommy up to this time? Are they having a fight? Whose birthday is it? These are some of the episodes that we naturally follow at home and in the community around us.  In the words of John F. Kihlstrom in his article "How Students Learn -- and How We Can Help Them," "Episodic knowledge is essentially autobiographical memory, for particular events that have a unique location in space and time."

Then all of a sudden we join the classroom and we are bombarded with an avalanche of information which we can't easily digest! Wait a minute, this is not the usual way we learn! In one word-boring...

According to Bethany Bodenhamer in a blog post in Lesson Planet titled "Themes vs. Timelines" "Dates, names, numbers, and places are the facts that young historians are often required to memorize in their various history courses. Therefore, that is generally how and what teachers teach. However, what if there was a more interesting, intriguing, and captivating way to teach these same facts - a way in which students are taught the basics at the same time that they are making connections, discovering themes, and thinking at a higher level? This is all possible by teaching thematically." 

In short, what if there is a better way to go in-depth while avoiding boredom? 

Advantages of Episodic Learning

Episodic Learning enables learners to go deeper into the topic without being bugged down by the barrage of information coming in. Consider the following natural advantages: 
Heightens Curiosity 

Curiosity is the currency in learning. When you run out of it, you can't just expect to continue absorbing any kind of knowledge. The good thing with episodic learning is that it heightens our natural curiosity about what happens next. The "cliff hangers" that ends an episode in a story make us wanting for more episodes to come. Hence, learning becomes a natural process.

Allows Reflection

These cliff hangers make us mull over what's possibly going to happen next in the story. What will the main character do in this situation? Can he still pull more tricks from his sleeves? If so, will it work this time? These are some of the reflective questions that come to mind because you are left hanging by the last story episode. 

Enables Possibility Thinking

This mulling over enables you, the learner, to become a possibility thinker. "Thinking out of the box" is a learned trait in traditional learning but it comes naturally in episodic story based learning. It enables you to think in terms of "what if" instead of "what is."

Opens Up Other Scenarios 

Now that you have considered other possibilities by thinking out of the box, other scenarios open up. A world of possibilities is all of a sudden available to you instead of just copying existing ones. The well-trodden path is not always the best path. True learners try the path least traveled.

Allows Open Discussion

Opened up scenarios allow like-minded learners to discuss them openly. There are no stupid ideas, all are given equal air-time in the discussion forums. Open discussions create an escalation of the available ideas contributed from all learners. Since all feel welcome to contribute, all possibilities are exhausted and ideas are collated to form a unified solution.

More Opportunities for Designers

This openness allows designers to insert more content pertinent to the stories. The possibilities are endless and you are not bound to any specific format. The only limit to content creation is your creativity.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic. Sound off in the comments section!



Bethany Bodenhamer: Themes vs. Timelines: Lesson Planet: May 10, 2014 

John F. Kihlstrom: How Students Learn -- and How We Can Help Them: Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley: March 8, 2011   

Margaret Rhodes: A New Way to Tell Stories That Outlive the Media's Attention Span: Wired: Feb. 25, 2015  

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"