Category Archives: Learning

How we learn best

Art and fear

Chris Corrigan links to a review of the book Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, from which comes the following quote:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality,” however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Hehehe, I looooove that. And here’s another thought: I think art and work are approaching each other, or rather, I think that the way we work is coming more and more to resemble the way we produce art. Work used to be about producing something, and of course it still is, but increasingly work is also about self-expression and creating meaning for yourself and others, as in art.

This book is going in my shopping basket.


I’ve had a lot of positive experiences with meetings where participants sit in a circle without a table. This is also the seating arrangement in Open Space meetings, and on the Open Space mailing list, there’s been a discussion recently about what circles do for a meeting, sparked by a question from Chris. And here’s my thinking on it.

I’ve noticed that sitting in a circle puts you in there 100%. There is no place to hide in a circle, which can be quite disconcerting to somebody who comes to a meeting expecting to just sit back and zone out. You can read an account by a participant in an Open Space meeting I facilitated here to get an idea of how this can feel (the story also happens to be really funny).

Geometrically, circles minimize the surface to area ratio. If you want to fence in as large an area as possible and you only have a set amount of fencing materials make your fence a circle, this will give you the largest possible area inside the fence. What this means in a group process is not totally clear to me, but maybe it minimizes the “exposure” to the world outside the circle, keeping most of the attention inside. The reason that igloos are round (or spherical, rather) is that the round shape gives you the smallest possible surface, and thus the smallest heat loss.

Circles can also create a lot of resistance. A lot of people react adversely when asked to sit in a circle. Some people think kindergarten, others think 12-step meeting. Usually this resistance evaporates after about 5 minutes, though.

In my opinion, many of the benefits we see from circles are largely due to the fact that there is no table between participants. I’m pretty sure that sitting at a round table is only marginally better than sitting at a square one. I’m sure this is not news to anybody on this list, but to me, having no tables means:
* a smaller distance between participants
* you can see the whole body-language
* you can’t slump over the table and zone out

Here’s a funny thought: If you had Open Space meetings in space (in zero-g) participants could sit in a sphere, rather than a circle. That would fit even more people in :o)

Book review: All hat and no cattle

This book is the story of Chris Turner, and her work to bring change, learning and empowerment into Xerox. It’s a highly entertaining book, right from this first line: “My family never did hold much with organized religion. The fact is, we ended up in Texas because my great-grandfather roughed up a priest in Arkansas. Seems the good father didn’t want to bury a nonbaptized child the Catholic cemetery, and my great-granddaddy took offense at such malarkey… Given this background you’ll understand how I came by my habits of challenging rules and dogma. Questioning the status quo is something I have done all my life.”

And reading these “tales of a corporate outlaw” you’re left with little doubt that the status quo needs to be questioned. And here’s a tip: When you read the book, imagine it in a thick southern drawl – that makes it even better.
Continue reading Book review: All hat and no cattle

Learning through art

There’s an interesting article by Linda Naiman in the CEO Refresher called Orchestrating Collaboration at Work Using the Arts, on the benefits of using arts in the business world. An appetizer: The arts take us on adventures in creative expression that help us to safely explore unknown territory, overcome fear, and take risks. We can transfer these learning experiences to the workplace. Art-making has an alchemical effect on the imagination. It teaches us to think in symbols, metaphors, and to de-code complexity.

Book review: Bird by bird

I’ve just added Anne Lamott to my “List of People I’d Really Like To Meet”. Having just read her book Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life, I think she’s a nice person, interesting to be around and very wise.

The book contains many, many tips for the aspiring writer. Not on the technical stuff, like how to put the words together or how to sell your finished book to a publisher, but more on how to live as a writer. She makes the excellent point, that a writer’s main ambition should not be to be published but to write, since that is what a writer does most of the time.
Continue reading Book review: Bird by bird

Book review: The inner game of work

I discovered Inner Skiing about 15 years ago, and enjoyed it immensely. That book describes how the inner game principles pioneered by Timothy Gallwey can be used to create better learning conditions for skiers. Gallwey originally used it for teaching tennis, and the method basically consists of teaching not by telling people what to do, but simply by helping them direct their attention to different aspects of what they want to learn.

In this book, subtitled Overcoming mental obstacles for maximum performance, Timothy Gallwey applies the same principles to work. How can we create the best learning conditions at work and what advantages would this give us?
Continue reading Book review: The inner game of work

Breaking barriers

I have spent this weekend breaking barriers at the DSN course held by the art of living. The DSN course is for people who want to create a better society. These people need to be able to rise above their own limitations, and to willingly go into situations that are unknown, uncertain, frustrating or scary.

And after three days of non-stop activity (every day the course lasted from 6 in the morning til 11 at night) I can safely say that my comfort zone has been expanded vastly. My biggest realization at the course was, that for me the fear is not in the doing – it’s in the hesitation. As long as I’m procrastinating, wondering “Should I do it? Will it work?” I’m afraid. As soon as I start actually doing it (whatever “it” is), the fear is gone. I’m already applying this in my daily work, and this makes some things easier.

Want to understand others? Imitate them!

According to this article, there is a very concrete, neurological link between empathy (the ability to identify with other peoples emotions), and the tendency to imitate others.

A team at the University of California has conducted an experiment that used Magnetic Resonanced Imaging (MRI) to measure brain activity in subjects who were either observing other peoples facial expressions or imitating them. The areas of the brain stimulated by these two activities were found to be similar, but when the subjects were mimicking the expressions, there was an increased activity in the parts of the brain responsible for regulating emotions.

From the article: Even if someone has suppressed most of their ability to empathize, Iacoboni says, anyone can become more empathetic. “If you want to become more empathetic, you have to try to look at how people act and move their body and their face. Try to mimic it a little bit, and you will feel internally what other people feel.”

This seems to validate one central tool of NLP, which is to create a rapport between the practitioner and the subject, by mirroring the subject.