Category Archives: Learning

How we learn best

What I learned about learning – by learning to snowboard

My wonderful girlfriend and I are back from a great week of skiing and snowboarding in Alpe d’Huez (she skis, I board) and I picked up a new little trick on the trip. Here I am just starting to learn it:

I’ve been snowboarding for a few years now, and I’ve always wanted to learn to jump! This year I finally got around to it, and it is loads of fun!

Now, I’m not just showing of my rad new snowboard skills – there are some points here about learning in the workplace. Here’s how corporate learning could improve by being more like learning to snowboard.

1: Learn by doing

I learned to snowboard by snowboarding. I didn’t attend a snowboard conference, seminar or training session. I have no manual, training video or snowboard simulator. Nothing beats learning by doing.

2: Learn as you need it

I haven’t attended a three-day snowboard training session that taught me everything a snowboarder needs to know, including fakies, 360s and ollies. I learned one thing and applied it – and only then moved on to the next thing.

3: Learn when you want to learn

Nobody tells me “Alex, today you will learn to ride moguls.” I learn what I want to when I want to.

4: Focus on where you are, not where you ought to be

When I keep my mind mostly on how good a snowboarder I want to be, I’m paralyzed by the gap I perceive, and I don’t get there. If I keep my mind on how good (or bad) I really am right now, I constantly improve.

5: Make it fun

If I’m not having fun, I’m not learning. It’s that simple.

6: Learn all the time – not just in the classroom

Last year I was on a really steep, uneven, icy slope. I was standing at the top of it thinking “Man, I really want my first couple of turns to work. If I fall up here, I’ll probably slide on my butt all the way down into the valley.”

So when I did my first turn, I did something new without deciding to do it: I pulled up the tail of my board halfway through the turn. It worked and I did a completely precise, perfect turn. I have no idea where that came from, but I clearly remember thinking “Whoa – that’s a neat trick.” I pull that one out of the bag whenever I really, really want a turn to work.

7: One little thing can make a huge difference

This year, I sprang for 2 hours with an instructor. It’s pretty pricey but definitely worth it. He looked at my style, and told me that it looked great but that if I moved my body up and down during turns it would work much better.

It took me about 15 minutes to grasp that, and it was a breakthrough. Suddenly my boarding was much more fluid and effortless. I did everything that I normally did, and that one little addition just made it work much better than before.

8: Learn from people who like what they do

The instructor who taught me obviously enjoyed both snowboard and teaching. You learn much faster when things are taught with passion.

9: Enjoy your mistakes

I looooove falling on my board. The more spectacular the fall the better. You can’t really learn if you fear failure. Very little learning happens without mistakes – or when you fear making them. Here’s Patricia enjoying one of her mistakes:

Patricia wipes out

Following this advice, I’ve made enormous progress on my board. You’ve seen one of my first jumps in the video above. Here I am, later that same day:

Wheeeee! Next year I’m getting a helmet and a back shield so I can go for some serious airtime :o)

People who care, share

Knowledge Sharing

Knowledge Sharing is hot these days, and many companies are introducing processes and technologies that allow employees to learn from each other and to collect the implicit knowledge present in any company.

And very often, it doesn’t work. Companies put a knowledge management system in place… and nothing happens. Nobody uses it. It then becomes a struggle to convince employees that knowledge sharing is good for them and for the company, based on a “what’s in it for me” approach.

And that’s because the whole Knowledge Sharing approach is fundamentally flawed, and because businesses really need to focus on something else.

That something else is Passion Sharing.
Continue reading People who care, share

The Great Canadian Homework Ban

Ban HomeworkIt seems like the snowball is rolling for the anti-homework movement.

Two weeks ago I blogged about an article that says that homework is bad for school kids. My canadian friend Chris Corrigan commented how he “unschools” his kids and wrote more about it on his (excellent) blog.

Chris was then contacted by a national canadian paper and was on the front page last weekend. He wrote more about it here and here.

Chris was also contacted by the authors of the books mentioned in the original article who both have much more material on this topic at their websites, namely Alfie Kohn and Sara Bennet. Check the sites out, they’re both excellent resources!

Chris sums up the reaction to the article here:

But many people are calling and emailing about this homework ban thing, and we seem to have struck a nerve. What has been really interesting to me is that without exception, every journalist and producer that has called (and weíre talking twelve or more at this point) has started out by talking about how much they hate what homework does to their kids and families. Usually when they call they get interviewed by ME, for the first ten minutes or so, so keen am I to hear their story. It has really strengthened my confidence in our decision to unschool, although I appreciate that that isnít for everyone.

This is excellent. Schools are one area of society in need of seeeeerious improvement, and getting rid of homework would make learning easier and more fun for kids, parents and teachers.

Go Chris!!!

Let’s not settle for any less any more


Dan Hersam was inspired by the recent talk of abolishing homework and of a better kind of school to post this great quote:

If the colleges were better, if they really had it, you would need to get the police at the gates to keep order in the onrushing multitude.

See in college how we thwart the natural love of learning by leaving the natural method of teaching what each wishes to learn, and insisting that you shall learn what you have no taste or capacity for.

I would have the studies elective. Scholarship is to be created not by compulsion, but by awakening a pure interest in knowledge.

– Ralp Waldo Emerson


And this applies totally to work as well. Who says we can’t create workplaces that are so inspiring, fun and challenging that we’d have to pay people to stay away?

Who says our workplaces have to be so boring, lifeless and meaningless that we can only get people to show up there by paying them to sacrifice their time and energy at jobs that don’t make them happy?

Let’s stop doing that, OK? It’s been proven time and again that both schools and workplaces can be fun, energizing affairs that draw people in voluntarily. It’s also been proven that doing this makes them more effective.

Let’s not settle for any less any more!

Homework makes kids hate learning

Time Magazine has an article on why homework is a bad thing for school kids. They cite Alfie Kohn whose work is a constant inspiration to me both when it relates to our workplaces and schools.

Kohn’s claim is simple: There is not one single study that shows that homework helps kids learn. At the same time kids have less and less time to just be kids – time spent on homework has gone up 50% since 1981.

And if your first thought is “But how could you have a school without homework” you’ll be glad to hear that the Sudbury Valley schools have been doing just fine without homework for 35 years now. I previously wrote about these radically different schools and why I would love to have gone to one of them.

You know what this fixation on homework is? It’s The Cult of Overwork forced on children. Let’s stop it.

A big thank you to Leandro N. Camargo from Brazil for sending me the link :o)

The new-skool workplace..?

Yesterday I wrote about a new kind of school (well, new-ish, it’s been around for 35 years) where students and teachers make decisions democratically, there are no classes, students do whatever they want all day, and if they want to study something they have to find a teacher and arrange for it to happen.

In the comments to that post, Danny Mydlack, the director of the video about the Fairhaven School, reminded me that the full video is available at

The father of one of the children in the school also commented:

My son is one of those in the trailer, and in The New American Schoolhouse documentary, which I strongly recommend to anyone interested in this topic.

Because of my sonís six years at Fairhaven, or perhaps *inspired* by those six years, he is an original. He is himself, crafted by himself over 13-19, hanging out and doing what he wanted. Six years during which he took no classes, but had the opportunity to excel in the ways he found, and wanted, to excel, in an honest and functional educational community.

On the standardized SAT he took pre-college, he got a 99th percentile on the verbal, and upper-third on the math. He got a scholarship as a consequence. More importantly, he is someone who can make choices on his own, can make eminent sense in any public setting, makes evidence-based decisions, knows what he thinks, and is a pleasure to talk to.

That sounds absolutely wonderful!

Now this blog is not really about schools, it’s about happiness at work. I just got so excited about the concept that I had to share it :o)

But here’s a question for ya: What if we organized our workplaces in the same way as these schools? What if people came to work and could spend their time doing whatever they wanted? What if the company was run not by a few executives, but democratically by everybody in the company?

Conventional wisdom says that it could never work, but that wouldn’t exactly be the first time that conventional wisdom turns out to be dead wrong. It was certainly wrong about these new-skool schools.

Here’s what I believe: Not only would it work, it would blow traditionally-run competitors out of the water.

What do you think?

A new-skool school

Most schools are machines for breaking children. Most of what goes on in regular schools is completely contrary to the way kids work, and the only way to get kids to comply is to break them.

Children were never meant to:

  • Sit still
  • Focus on only one subject at a time
  • Spend most of the day not playing
  • Be quiet
  • Follow a learning plan

Keith Johnstone (the legendary master of improv theatre) said once that when he needed to come up with new, fun improv tools he just thought about what we do in schools and created exercises where people do the exact opposite.

So what does a cool school look like? A new-skool school, if you will. Here’s an excellent video from the Fairhaven School in Maryland where the students explain how it works and what it’s like (via boingboing).

Students and teachers run the school democratically. There are no classes and students choose themselves what they want to do every day. It is based on the first school to adapt this model, the Sudbury Valley school.

So how do students ever learn anything, if there are no classes? Well, when they’re ready to learn they must seek out a teacher themselves. Here’s Daniel Greenberg’s tale of one of the first times this happened.

Sitting before me were a dozen boys and girls, aged nine to twelve. A week earlier, they had asked me to teach them arithmetic. They wanted to learn to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and all the rest.
“You don’t really want to do this,” I said, when they first approached me.
“We do, we are sure we do,” was their answer.
“You don’t really,” I persisted. “Your neighborhood friends, your parents, your relatives probably want you to, but you yourselves would much rather be playing or doing something else.”
“We know what we want, and we want to learn arithmetic. Teach us, and we’ll prove it. We’ll do all the homework, and work as hard as we can.”
I had to yield then, skeptically.

According to conventional wisdom no child will ever learn arithmetic voluntarily. If we left it to the students themselves, they’d play all day and never learn anything. Apparently conventional wisdom is wrong, Who knew?

Class began — on time. That was part of the deal. “You say you are serious?” I had asked, challenging them; “then I expect to see you in the room on time — 11:00AM sharp, every Tuesday and Thursday. If you are five minutes late, no class. If you blow two classes — no more teaching.” “It’s a deal,” they had said, with a glint of pleasure in their eyes.

The result:

I knew that arithmetic took six years to teach in regular schools, and I was sure their interest would flag after a few months. But I had no choice. They had pressed hard, and I was cornered.

They were high, all of them. Sailing along, mastering all the techniques and algorithms, they could feel the material entering their bones. Hundreds and hundreds of exercises, class quizzes, oral tests, pounded the material into their heads.
Still they continued to come, all of them. They helped each other when they had to, to keep the class moving. The twelve year olds and the nine year olds, the lions and the lambs, sat peacefully together in harmonious cooperation — no teasing, no shame.
Division — long division. Fractions. Decimals. Percentages. Square roots.
They came at 11:00 sharp, stayed half an hour, and left with homework. They came back next time with all the homework done. All of them.
In twenty weeks, after twenty contact hours, they had covered it all. Six years’ worth. Every one of them knew the material cold.

How could this happen? Daniel asked a friend who was a math specialist.

“Because everyone knows,” he answered, “that the subject matter itself isn’t that hard. What’s hard, virtually impossible, is beating it into the heads of youngsters who hate every step. The only way we have a ghost of a chance is to hammer away at the stuff bit by bit every day for years. Even then it does not work. Most of the sixth graders are mathematical illiterates. Give me a kid who wants to learn the stuff — well, twenty hours or so makes sense.”
I guess it does. It’s never taken much more than that ever since.

Amazing, huh? This is the school of the future, this is the way to teach children, to allow them to grow up into happy, self-confident, democratically minded adults.

And that will teach them what, exactly?

When I first read that an employee of an alarm company has sued the company for emotional distress experienced during a company training event I just thought “here we go again, yet another American suing over nothing.” Remember that case a few years ago where a man sued his colleague for farting at work?

But check out what they did at this training:

Employees were paddled with rival companies’ yard signs as part of a contest that pitted sales teams against each other, according to court documents. The winners poked fun at the losers, throwing pies at them, feeding them baby food, making them wear diapers and swatting their buttocks.

Who on earth still believes that this will create an effective learning environment?

When I design workshops and training sessions, I always try to make it safe and fun. Everything we know about learning says that people learn better when they feel safe and enjoy themselves. In this kind of setting, participants are:

  • More open to new ideas
  • More motivated to learn
  • More prone to collaborate
  • Friendlier and more relaxed

And here’s the most important thing: In every event I do, all exercises are voluntary. Even though I’ve tried to make everything fun, simple and straight-forward, there may still be elements of the training that are not right for some participants. And who’s the best judge of that? The participants themselves, of course! Therefore everything is voluntary and if any participants would prefer to sit out an exercise, then that is always OK.