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November 2010

The need for connection & engagement in education

Sleep_lecture Anyone who wants to make better presentations should be interested in how people learn. If you are interested in how people learn, you are obviously interested in education. And if you are interested in education, you surely have strong opinions about schools and other institutions of formal instruction and learning. As Sir Ken Robinson said in his first TED talk a few years ago, education is one of those things like religion and money that people have very strong opinions about. Few people think that the formal education systems around the world are perfect. In fact, virtually everyone realizes that changes — even massive paradigm shifts — are needed. As scientists and other specialists learn more about how our brains work, for example, many of the traditional instructional methods used for the past 100 years (or more) seem to be out of kilter with how human beings really pay attention, engage, and actually learn something. From time to time, I will continue to share presentations and talks that deal with education and learning.

"School sucks"
Large_hall Please set aside 30 minutes sometime to watch this talk by American Physicist Dr. Tae. The professor touches on many things you already know about the short comings of modern formal education, but it is provocative enough that I am sure you will find it worthy of your time. There are many points that Dr. Tae makes that deserve a lot more discussion than a 30-minute presentation allows. I agree with much of what Dr. Tae says here, but what I really am in agreement with is his utter incredulity concerning the continuation of the old one-way large lecture hall. The massive lecture rooms are not designed to produce an ideal learning situation but rather to get a great amount of people through the material on a large scale. In the presentation Dr. Tae touches on the depersonalized nature of the large lecture hall with the "tiny professor somewhere down there" in front going through the material but without engagement or connection with the students. If one of the goals of education is to "have a lively exchange of ideas," the depersonalized one-way lecture seems to be an outdated method for stimulating this exchange. Watch the presentation below or in three parts on YouTube.

Dr. Tae — Building A New Culture Of Teaching And Learning from Dr. Tae on Vimeo.

Do they just sit there?
Sit_there Dr. Tae tells an amusing story of one of his colleagues who was giving his daughter a tour of the physics department one day. As they stumbled upon a physics class the 8-year old daughter said to her father the physics professor, "Daddy, what are those people doing?" The father replied that they were studying physics. "Do thy just sit there?" she replied. Yep, they just sit there. It seems even an 8-year old girl can see that "just sitting there" seems like an odd way to learn something.

Get them doing something
In the presentation Dr. Tae mentions how he scraps the traditional lecture format and gets students to work together on problems. As much as possible, I try to do they same, however, in large lecture halls this can be challenging. Still, it is possible even given the constraints of the lecture hall to engage the audience and have them engage with each other.

Above: Although I am speaking in front of nearly 300 students in a large hall in Japan, I still have them get up and *do* something relevant from time to time. (This picture is from page 157 of the Naked Presenter book.)


Above: The typical lecture hall like this in Japan with chairs and tables which can not be moved does not lend itself to engagement (I took this photo before the seminar). I set up my computer away from the lectern on the elevated podium and came down closer to the students. While not ideal, it at least removed some of the barriers and we did our best to do some group work as well in spite of the rigid set up. I further attempted to remove barriers by often walking into the audience, especially during the short activities.


Pz_seminar Seminar_japan
In the seminars I hold around the world the set up is usually like something above (in Tokyo) and the participants are often doing and discussing, not just listening and watching.

Semi  Semi2
These photos are from yesterday's 4-hour seminar at the Kyoto Institute of Technology

The need for participation, compassion, & community in the classroom (and lecture hall)

13 communication and life tips that children teach us

IStock_000002297460Small We can learn a lot from a child. Plenty of adults engage in childish behavior, but not enough adults allow themselves to truly become childlike and exhibit an approach and display behaviors that exemplify the very best of what being a child is all about. Obviously, the point is not that we should become literally like children in every way—a group of 4-year olds is not going to build the next space shuttle or find a cure for an infectious disease this year. But as an exercise in personal growth, looking at the innocent nature of a small child offers illuminating and practical suggestions for changing our approach to life and work as "serious adults," including the work of presenting, facilitating, and teaching. You could probably come up with 100 things children do that you'd like to be able to still do today—here are just 13.

(1) Be completely present in the moment. In the words of David M. Bader: "Be here now. Be someplace else later. Is that so complicated?" We adults are often living in the past (or have our heads in the future). Many adults carry around preconceptions, prejudices, and even anger about something that happened years ago—even hundreds of years ago before anyone they even know was born. And yet, very young children do not worry and fret about the past or the future. What matters most is this moment. “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence," says Thich Nhat Hanh.

IStock_000013126538Large (2) Allow for spontaneity. We are often overly rigid and worry too much about what others may think or say, so we edit ourselves before we even try. I am not talking about anarchy, I am talking about bringing back some of that childlike behavior where you acted more on intuition and allowed your whims and momentary impulses to take you on all sorts of accidental discoveries. Our fear and our tendency to keep our minds fixed on the past and the future keeps us from being spontaneous in the moment.

(3) Move your body! To move is to live and to grow. When we were kids, no one had to tell us to get out of the house and exercise. We'd play football in the front yard until it got so dark we couldn't see the ball. Movement and exercise are how kids learn, and physical exercise improves cognition and memory for adults in both the short term and over the long term. Homo sapiens have evolved to move far more than your average person moves today. Moving is the most natural thing of all, certainly more natural than sitting on one's arse all day staring into a box or enduring lecture after lecture while remaining motionless on uncomfortable chairs. Move, and encourage others to do the same. "Our brains were built for walking—12 miles a day!" says Dr. John Medina.

Alan (4) Play and be playful. To play is to explore and discover. Play helps us learn and discover new insights. You can be a "serious person" and play. NASA astronauts are serious, wickedly smart, and physically fit men and women of science. Yet, they're doing jobs they dreamed of as kids, and they are not above playfulness as Apollo 14 Commander Alan Shepard demonstrated by using his makeshift 6-iron to hit golf balls on the moon. Playfulness is a creative attitude that brings out the best in you and in others. Confucius said, "Find a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life."

(5 ) Make mistakes. Children make lots of "mistakes"—that's how they learn. Even though we are professionals, we can learn from mistakes as well, if we're willing to risk making them. Even experts make mistakes. An old Japanese proverb says "Even monkeys fall from trees." (Saru mo ki kara ochiru — 猿も木から落ちる.) Worry not about mistakes—learn from them. "Failure is the key to success." said The Great Teacher Morihei Ueshiba. "Each mistake teaches us something."

IStock_000011351075Small (6) Do not concern yourself with impressing people. Eventually peer pressure will set in, of course, but from what I have seen, very young children are naturally able to be in the moment and unafraid about what others may think of their "silly" behavior. "Do not try to make somebody believe you are smarter than you are," says writer Brenda Ueland. "What's the use? You can never be smarter than you are." In the words of Benjamin Zander, “This is the moment — this is the most important moment right now....It’s not about impressing people. It’s not about getting the next job. It’s about contributing something." When you are in the moment and truly engaged with your work and your ideas, the idea of trying to impress others is an uncomfortable distraction.                                                    

(7) Show your enthusiasm. "Mere enthusiasm is the All in All," says Brenda Ueland. You do not have to tell little children to be enthusiastic about just about anything (save broccoli, perhaps). Many years ago when I used to visit numerous schools in Japan, I noticed the elementary schools were abuzz with activity and filled with totally engaged, enthusiastic students. This would even carry on into the first weeks of Jr. High School, but the level of enthusiasm took a big hit as they progressed through the exam-driven system of secondary education. That energetic elementary student is still inside of you — imagine what could happen if you combined that child you used to be with the skilled, knowledgeable and wise person that you are today.

IStock_000010637257Small(8) Remain open to possibilities and "crazy" ideas. This is related to the idea of beginner's mind. Shunryu Suzuki famously said "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few." You may be an expert, but in order to learn, your cup must be empty. But for many adults, their cups runneth over with excuses and negative close mindedness disguised as skepticism. Healthy, unbiased skepticism is a good thing, but too many adults can tell you a million reasons why it can't be done or that has never been done. Curmudgeons abound, but life is too short to hang out with chronic sourpusses and others with closed minds.

(9) Be insanely curious, ask loads of questions. We think of formal education only as getting the answers, but questions are often more important. Knowledge is important, obviously, but "what if?" and "I wonder why?" is the stuff of imagination and engagement with the material. First come the questions, then begins the exploration and the discoveries—that is, the learning. Children are kind of like miniature scientists in the sense that they are naturally and unstoppably curious about the world around them. An adult with an insatiable curiosity will never stop learning and growing. It is curiosity that pushes us forward. Yet, as adults, we may have become complacent. The best teachers and the best presenters stimulate our natural curiosity. "You never learn a thing when you get the right answer, but are rewarded for doing so in schools," says TED founder Richard Saul Wurman.

Ms.reynolds(10) Know that you are a creative being. Ask any first grade class who among them is an artist, and watch every hand go up. By the time they are in college, you can barely get a single hand to go up in a class when you ask "who here considers themselves creative?" Is this because they've been educated out of their creativity as Sir Ken Robinson suggests? Regardless of your profession or education — whether you are an artist, design, teacher, or engineer — you are a supremely creative individual. If you doubt this, you rob the world and yourself of your true potential and a great contribution.

(11) Smile, laugh, enjoy.
Take your work, very, very seriously, of course. But there is no reason to take yourself so seriously. The genuine enjoyment you project with your smiles and spontaneous laughter are infectious. Your dispassionate solemness is a mood that is also infectious. Which mood is more engaging? Which mood do you want to see reflected back at you? Laughter and a smile are gifts to yourself and to others.

Globe (12) Slow down. Yes, of course focus is important, but not all distractions are a bad thing. Stop and notice the world around you. This stimulates your imagination. Says Brenda Ueland: "The imagination needs moodling — long inefficient, happy idling, dawdling, and puttering. People who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas...But they have no slow, big ideas." A small child walking on a path will stop and notice the novelty all around, while we impatient adults just want to get to our destination as soon as possible. Adults feel this way about happiness as well. Happiness is always in the future, over there, if I can just get "over there" to some place or situation in the future. This constant future-orientation causes many of us to step over the remarkable things in life that abound right here and now. Slow down and allow yourself to be distracted from time to time by the wonders of life around you.

(13) Encourage others. It is an amazing thing to see even very small children helping and encouraging others. Good teachers and good leaders inspire and encourage as well. Anatole France said "nine tenths of education is encouragement.” But what should you do when you yourself feel discouraged? An old Zen proverb has a simple answer: "Encourage others."

There are many more things we can learn from children, of course. Please feel free to share some of those here for others to see.

What children teach us about freedom and naturalness

Weight_lifter_daughterSeven months ago, my first child was born here in Japan. A beautiful girl (pictured right). Anyone who has kids knows that they change your life like no other event can, and though you are in the role of parent and teacher, it is your child who actually teaches you far more than you ever expected. Children remind you that genuineness, naturalness, and the immediacy of the moment are what life is suppose to be all about. What is missing for many of us in our professional and personal lives is freedom, naturalness, and spontaneity, the three things that young children have in abundance. Whether we use multimedia or not, what is missing too often from presentations in the modern era is that human-to-human connection that exists where naturalness is allowed to breathe.

Natural like children
In Zen and Japanese Culture, Daisetz Suzuki says that in each of us there is a desire at some level to "return to a simpler form of living which includes simpler ways of expressing feelings and acquiring knowledge." In other words, there lives in each of us a desire to return to our inner nature or a natural way of life. This does not mean that we want to return to a primitive life of a prehistoric people, Suzuki insists. Going back to nature (or Nature) means a return to a life of freedom and emancipation. "When we speak of being natural, we mean first of all being free and spontaneous in the expression of our feelings, being immediate and not premeditating in our response to environment...." If we reflect on our own lives we realize we were the most free and most natural when we were children. Suzuki says in fact that "naturalness means to be like a child" — not in the sense of being "a bundle of egotistic impulses" — but rather like a child in the sense of being free, in the moment, with an open mind, and behaving with a true genuineness of motives.

"When there is no crookedness in one's heart, we say that one is natural and childlike." — Daisetz T. Suzuki

You had it once. You can have it again.
Kids_japan Pablo Picasso once said, “All children are born artists. The problem is to remain artists as we grow up.” Here in my home of Japan, we are not known for producing many remarkable orators or engaging presenters in the business world. Audiences endure more than they are engaged and inspired. Yet, when I visited elementary schools here in Japan, I found the young students there were always amazingly engaged, energetic, and happy to participate and share their ideas and stories. I suspect elementary schools in your town are filled with similarly energetic, hopeful students as well, no matter where you are in the world.

As very young children, we were naturally authentic communicators and conversationalists. But then somewhere down the line we began to be guided away from that natural, human talent as a shift occurred in our education that emphasized “the correct answer” and demanded careful, formal speech—speech that did not encourage engagement and dissuaded our true personalities from coming out, lest we run the risk of ridicule. But you are an adult now and you can change your destiny. You can find again that naturalness, creativity, and energy you had as a child and combine it with your knowledge, skills, and passion to make real human-to-human connections that lead to remarkable change. (photo source)

Tomorrow: " Communication and life tips that children teach us"

The art of connection, contribution, & change

Blackboard Presenting naked is about expressing a naturalness in delivery that brings more of your own unique personality to your presentations in a way that amplifies your message. There are many components to an effective, naked presentation, but one simple way to think about it is in terms of what I call The Three Cs : Connection, Contribution, and Change.

Connection.009-001Connection. To make an impact and to make a difference, we have to make a solid connection with others in the room. Where there is no connection, there can be no contribution. If we can make a solid and lasting connection with others, then we create the space for our contribution to be heard and take root. Connection amplifies the experience for both the audience and the speaker. Instead of 1+1=2 with a one-way didactic approach, it's now 1+1=137 (or a million, etc.).

Contribution.002-001Contribution. Some people think that a presentation or an invitation to speak is a burden, or at best and obligation that can’t be avoided. This is the wrong attitude. Instead, think of presentation as a welcomed opportunity to make a difference. Every presentation or speech is a chance to make a contribution. We all live for the opportunity to contribute, it’s what makes us human. A contribution is never about us—it’s always about them. We show respect for them by being well prepared. We show we care by sharing a bit of ourselves and a small part of our own humanity. Do not allow yourself to get bogged down in a haze of self-doubt and worry about whether or not you are good enough. To win or to lose is not the point. Boston Philharmonic Orchestra conductor and presenter extraordinaire Benjamin Zander says something similar while encouraging one of his talented students: "We are about contribution. That’s what our job is. It’s not about impressing people. It’s not about getting the next job. It’s about contributing something.” We can apply this spirit to the art of presentation as well.

Connection_slides.005-001Change. Through contribution we make a difference—we make a difference because we change things. Sometimes the change is big, and sometimes the change is virtually imperceptible, but it’s real. As a result of our contribution the audience may have gained new knowledge or a skill, or a fresh perspective—or they were inspired to learn more. Because of our talk, presentation, or lesson, there was a change. This positive change resulted from an honest, transparent contribution in the moment. These tiny contributions in the aggregate are what keeps humanity moving forward.

Create art and make change
Connection_slides.004-001 I've always said that presentation is more art than science. So what is art? In a recent interview with David Siteman Garland, Seth Godin said this about art in the context of work. "Art," says Seth Godin, "is a generous action—it's when a human connects to another human and makes a change." The work that we do could be art, but if we are just following the rules, playing it safe, and sort of working-by-the-numbers (as in paint-by-the-numbers) then the work lacks connection and difference, and therefore lacks art. The best presentations are art in a sense because the best presenters necessarily connect in the spirit of contribution and generosity and help people make a change. The worst presentations or speeches are the usual ones, the ones that are perfunctory, routine, safe, and utterly forgettable. No one ever got fired for doing the expected and the safe, at least they did not in the old world. But it's a new world now. And the professionals who are remarkable and who want to make a difference — teachers, doctors, engineers, aid workers, and business people of all types — are the ones who create art. Today, more than ever, there are opportunities to speak in front of others to make a connection and contribute to lasting change—that is, to create art.

Connections make all the difference

Everyone can make a difference and make art, no matter the profession. Teachers obviously, but it applies to the waitress at your favorite local diner as well, the waitress who remembers your name and makes you feel better about your day every time you go there.

Connection_slides.003-001    Change.001-001
These slides feature the same Seth Godin quote that I have used in presentations recently. The text stays the same as different professions come in one after another to make the point that it does not matter what job you have, the little human-to-human connections are what can make all the difference
in the world.