Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Reading :: The Transformation of Learning

The Transformation of Learning: Advances in Cultural-Historical Activity Theory
Edited by Bert van Oers, Wim Wardekker, Ed Elbers, and René van der Veer

Our library got this book a while back, but unfortunately it's in that awful electronic format that you can only read in a full-fledged desktop browser. So I went ahead and bought the Kindle version. It was a good purchase - even though it's a collection (and I usually don't like collections that much), even though it's focused on education (not a research subject that typically appeals to me).

So what's good about it?

For me, the standout essay was Rene van der Veer's "Multiple Readings of Vygotsky." Here, van der Veer cautions us to see the limitations of Vygotsky's work as well as ways to contextualize it with later work. In particular, van der Veer recreates Leont'ev's famous experiment known as the Forbidden Colors Task (performed as part of Leont'ev's dissertation work under Vygotsky's supervision). In this experiment, people of various ages were asked to play a game in which they answered several questions with names of colors. They could use each color name only once, and two colors were forbidden outright. In one round, Leont'ev had them play the game without help; in another, he gave them a set of colored cards. Famously, Leont'ev noted that older children and adults used the cards as mediational means: they tended to flip the cards over to remind them which colors were no longer permitted. Individuals who used cards as mediational means tended to do better at the game.

Although this study has often been cited, van der Veer points out, it apparently has never been replicated. So van der Veer replicated it - and got some surprising findings: "more card use does not correlate with higher performance." Van der Veer draws on much more recent developmental research to demonstrate that, contra Leont'ev's assumptions, children learn to use cultural instruments quite early. The double stimulation method is still valuable, van der Veer tells us, but we must be cautious in interpreting its results.

Harmut Geist's chapter "The Formation Experiment in the Age of Hypermedia and Distance Learning" was similarly valuable. Geist distinguishes between the empiric-analytical paradigm common in the sciences and the causal-genetic method used in activity theory, cautioning us that without an understanding of their differences, we might switch between the two, making a hash of theory and analysis. Why? Geist explains:
Looking at the history of science, we find two different roots and basic ideas in scientific thinking: the idea and concept of evolution sensu Darwin, and the idea and concept of activity sensu Marx. The basic difference between the two ideas concerns the relation between human being and environment: Darwin pointed to "adaptation to the environment" as a basic idea, whereas Marx referred to "the adaptation of the environment." Basic to and pioneering for modern thinking was Darwin's idea that the existing living world was not created according to some plan or organized by an idea existing beforehand but evolved as an effect of the interdependence between environment and living beings. The feature that can explain it all is the ability of living beings to bring themselves more or less actively in line with the environment. The fitting into the environment explains the developmental potential of a living being - the survival of the fittest. This idea was fascinating and explained the evolution from the variety of life up to the development of the human being by self-organization. No ideas or principles or order-organizing rules were needed that come from outside. ... it was now possible to investigate humans using the methods of science.
In contrast,
The dialectical analysis of human history, as it was done, for example, by Hegel and particularly by Marx, showed not only that humans adapt to the environment but also that they change it in accordance with their demands (from agriculture, the use of fire, the construction of houses, to the manipulation of genes). Activity is not an active adaptation ot the environment but the transformation of the environment and - in interrelation with it - of humans themselves. 
Geist locates the difference between constructivism and activity theory here:
Activity in the view of constructivism means the humans' active adaptation to the environment. Simply put:  things are such that we cannot change them; therefore we must come to terms with them and adapt to the conditions of nature and society. Activity in the context of activity theory means active adaptation (change due to activity) of the environment to the humans' needs. Or, in simple terms: the environmental conditions are not suitable, so let us change them in order to be able to lead a better life and to cope better with the demands of life.
Geist concludes that researchers working in each tradition will necessarily adapt different research programs and methods, then illustrates by comparing a classical experiment with an investigation based on the causal-genetic method.

Other chapters are similarly solid, but these two stood out to me, and I believe they're worth the price of admission. If you're interested in activity theory, and if you have a fairly solid grounding in how it's been deployed developmentally, take a look.

Reading :: Driving Results through Social Networks

Driving Results Through Social Networks: How Top Organizations Leverage Networks for Performance and Growth
By Rob Cross and Robert J. Thomas

Rob Cross is well known for his work in organizational network analysis (ONA). In this book, Cross and his coauthor Robert Thomas discuss how ONA can be applied to better understand organizations' information flow, innovation, decision-making, and performance. It's an impressive description of how a careful ONA can turn up what are typically invisible connections, hubs, and gaps in a company. As the authors state, "ONA provides leaders with the means to accomplish what is arguably their most critical function: aligning individual and collective action with strategic objectives." They illustrate this point with multiple examples from extended cases.

As an illustration of the benefits of ONA, the book is successful; executives with no ONA background can see how this approach can translate directly into greater insights, leading to better-guided adaptations. In fact, the book would work well in terms of getting organizations excited about this approach and (more to the point) about taking seminars to learn how to perform an ONA.

Unfortunately, the book is not an ONA how-to. It focuses on benefits and insights, but for information on how to perform the ONA itself, you'll need to read other books. If you've wondered what ONA could contribute to your organization, this book is the place to start; if you want to know how it's conducted, I recommend a more academically oriented book such as a collection Cross coedited earlier, Networks in the Knowledge Economy.

Come hear me speak at Austin STC next week

In Austin? Tired of going to outstanding restaurants, hearing live music, visiting vintage stores, and walking around Ladybird Lake? Try something a little different: Come hear me speak at next week's Austin STC meeting.

As the item says, I'll be talking about how knowledge work is impacting writing in organizations - particularly how "non-writers" are writing. We'll also talk about agriculture, industry, the recent Texas governor's race, and Disneyland.

Monday, April 16, 2012

In Austin? Sign up for my business proposals seminar.

On June 8, I'll be teaching a daylong seminar on writing persuasive business proposals. This seminar will involve learning a lot, but I'll also be deploying my trademark humor. You probably won't want to leave at the end of it.

Here's the description:

How do business proposals work, and how can they work better?
In this seminar, attendees will examine business proposals as persuasive arguments: they will take these proposals apart, examine their underlying components, and learn how to put them back together in ways that make them more effective. Using a proven methodology for developing these types of documents, attendees will generate basic proposal arguments to address a case study. This case study will allow students, working in small groups, to identify the problem presented in the case study; generate components of the proposal; analyze stakeholder dynamics; tie these complex elements together into a coherent, easily comprehensible argument; and outline a proposal based on this groundwork. Finally, the class will workshop applications to actual cases that attendees bring in.
After this seminar, attendees will be able to:
  • Understand basic proposal structure and logic.
  • Identify basic proposal sections and understand how they work together.
  • Clarify and identify objectives.
  • Develop a methodology for reaching the objective.
  • Perform audience analysis by identifying stakeholders, investigating their concerns, and weighting criteria accordingly.
  • Connect your team’s qualifications with the specific requirements implied in the situation and methodology.
  • Develop structured benefits that address the situation.
  • Tie these complex elements into a coherent argument.
  • Learn how to rework an ill-defined problem into an effective proposal.
  • Pour all this information into a basic proposal format.

The proposal-writing methodology used in this seminar was developed for large consulting agencies, but it can also apply to other sorts of proposals and reports in a variety of organizations.