Monday, October 07, 2019

The Madness of Crowds – why training may be tilting at windmills

The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray is a good companion piece to The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by HaidtBoth put the brakes on what they call the ‘ideology’ of atomising identity, then policing oppression through language and restrictions on freedom of speech. They both believe that much of this (not all) is harmful, producing a culture of complaint, grievance and victimhood that actually damages people and institutions. They also have a go at the training industry.
The reason HR and L&D people may want to read these books is that they lay a charge against organisational learning that needs to be discussed. Could it be that we are now using invalid instruments to diagnose our 'unconscious bias', even when those who designed those instruments tell us they are unsuitable? Could we be defaulting into simply protecting the organisation against its own employees? Are concepts like ‘triggering’ and ‘safe spaces’ limiting open and free discussion and learning? Are voices being silenced in this process? Good questions.
Murray rightly questions the role of training, especially that of ‘unconscious bias’ training, which he sees as a futile attempt to diagnose and ‘rewire our attitudes’. I have already written about, what I regard as the foolishness of ‘unconscious bias’ training as being the wrong target, unreliable, the wrong target, not predictive and doesn't actually change behaviour. Since when did HR and L and D managers have the permission, or even imagine they have the skills, to probe my unconscious? They really know nothing about the scientific validity of the tools they’re using or the dangers of such training. It is overreach on an astounding scale. 
An even bolder question, put forward by both authors, is that we may, inadvertently, be doing damage to people, especially the young, by making them less resilient and less capable of coping with adversity. Like Don Quixote, we go tilting at windmills but quickly turn to tilting at anything that moves, rather than being careful on both the methods we use in such titling and the targets. Large studies suggest that this type of training is often counter-productive with no measurable effect on the hypothetical problem.
Murray points out that the slicing and dicing of identity eventually results in a hierarch of oppression, where the groups turn on each other. Feminists turn on Germaine Greer, a central thinker for decades in feminism, preventing her from speaking. Women find themselves being criticised by people who were men for being transphobic, if they even question the use of certain language. It is as important to know the limits of one’s professional reach and competence. Much of what passes for training in this area is actually incompetent and places us outside of our reasonable sphere of influence.
I’m aware of the fact that even writing this places one on the plain of La Mancha, waiting to be skewered by the lance of a delusional Don Quixote. But these issues need to be discussed and debated and I don’t apologise for that.

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Sunday, October 06, 2019

EdCrunch – cracking event in Moscow

Fascinating week in Moscow. It is so easy to get bounded in the proverbial nutshell and I’ve broken out by visiting Moscow for a week. I was there three times in the late seventies and early eighties, during Soviet times, and travelled all over the then Soviet Union, so memories came flooding back and the city reminded me of a cake, the old cake still there but with a new layer of icing – more colour, restaurants, shops and wealth…
EdCruch is in its 6thyear and is very different from other learning technology conferences I’ve attended. It had an interesting intensity and focus. Let me explain. 
The opening session was a piece of modern dance representing the union of mind and machine. Rather beautiful and whet the palette for the Bolshoi two nights later. I had been there 37 years ago and remember the inside of this stunning theatre along with the jaw-dropping performance. My son was with me this time and he had the same experience. His first ballet performance and he was thrilled to get a like from one of the Bolshoi ballerinas, when he posted a pic online. We met Tim O’Reilly outside after the performance… 
Back to the event. The first two speakers were world class – both talked about AI in learning and Tim O’Reilly (a God-like figure in IT) gave a masterclass in how learning needs both structured, linear experiences as well as opportunities to learn by exploring and doing, showing Jupyter… if you don’t know what this is check it out. Our encounter outside of the Bolshoi – thrilling for my son who has spent years reading his books, was one of then highlights of the trip. 
When I said the event was intense, I meant there were no fluffy futurists, no anti-tech sceptics, no-one babbling on about ‘creativity’… just experienced folk talking about what a lifetime of experience has taught them about learning and technology. Refreshing, as I’ve had a bellyful of keynotes who have done little in the field, often with a book to sell, giving it large through anecdote.
Let’s talk about chatbots…
We did an afternoon on chatbots, running a workshop, discussing the pedagogic advantages, looking at literally dozens of real examples of their use in learning, designing several, then talking a deep dive into the production process and technology. Pretty intense but found the audiences for all the sessions I gave, both intense and interested.
Also took part as a judge in an EdTech competition where Russian companies, some using AI, were tackling problems of delivery… found it a useful window into the Russian tech scene. The investment environment may be weak but there’s no shortage of good ideas and young entrepreneurs willing to give things a go. There’s an energy here…
Was also the UK representative on a panel comparing UK, US, Russian and and Chinese EdTech markets. I started with the old joke that ‘size isn’t everything’.. pleased to say the joke travels! Then showed that the UK has a good innovative ecosystem of investment, EdTech startups, mature companies, research, large conferences, supportive institutions, and government support. Showed Don Taylor’s research on EdTech futures.
But my main presentation was on AI for learning, a practical talk on how AI can be used to help teaching and learning. AI was a strong theme in this conference and I found that forward thinking. Russia gave us Markov, Sergei Brin (Google founder) had parents who both graduated from Moscow State University. They have depth in maths, and AI. and strong links with China.
We also managed to interleave all of this with trips into the city – Red Square on the first night where we ate at the old Soviet-style restaurant in GUM. Travelling on the Metro is a joy in itself, with its magnificent architecture. The Space Park is huge and again, the Russians are rightly proud of their achievements in this field. Pushkin Museum has Schliemann’s treasure from Troy and some fine paintings.
Also enjoyed some fine dining… a Georgian restaurant, Ruski the highest restaurant in the world, Korean and a restaurant with an entire farm on the second floor – cow, goat, pig and chickens… no idea why.
Moscow really is one of the great cities of the world, easy to get around and this conference took me out of my proverbial comfort zone. Came back having learnt a lot from other speakers, audiences and people we met at all the social events. We also enjoyed spending time with our minder – Alexandra, only 17 years old, but mature beyond her years. She was fun, informative and if she’s representative of her country’s young people, its future is in good hands. Also thanks to Diana Obukhova, who so reminded me of those other hard working women at Online Educa, Rebecca Stromeyer, Channa van der Brug and Astrid Jaeger – incredibly well organised and look after their speakers well. You guys should meet!

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