Taking “Other guests said” with a large pinch of salt

“Believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see”. So goes the saying. I’d like to modify it to say, “Believe whatever you like, but believe nothing that you read on a web site!”
For some years now I have been in the habit of booking hotel rooms with Booking.com. As a believer in the virtues of social media I have always supplied honest and balanced reviews for others to read. More often than not I find complimentary things to say about the hotels where I’ve stayed. I run training on the subjects of coaching and positive reinforcement. I strive to use the “sandwich method” of feedback, beginning and ending with a positive comment before expressing points for improvement. In this spirit I wrote a review of an apartment where I stayed in London last week. I had arrived late at the premises and was allocated rooms in the attic. It was too late to make a change and the check-in was done at an address that was one stop on the underground away from the place where I was staying.
There were numerous problems with my room and I listed them in detail. No-one could have misconstrued my review as a recommendation. However, in an attempt to find something positive I began with five words of praise. I wrote, “Reasonable facilities and low tariff” and then continued with a description of a damp, noisy room, a cracked window, a defective shower and a noisy rattling window. The hotel agency, Booking.com selected only the first five words and put them at the top of a list of reviews. You can see the result if you follow this link When I complained that this was misleading, Booking.com replied that my review had been published in full and had not been changed in any way. It is true that they had published my comments in full, but in a different part of their website. It was not even accessible as a hyperlink from the opening five words.
Booking.com said that it was normal practice to pick out positive comments and publish them as a summary of guests’ reviews. I’ll leave you to be the judge of the scruples of that. For my part, I am sorry TripAdvisor, Amazon, Tesco and all those others to whom I sometimes send my observations – Booking.com has dishonoured the entire spirit of peer evaluations in my opinion. What makes it worse is that they cannot even accept that what they have done is an important breach of trust and confidence. Not only will I think twice in future before allowing web-based organisations to know my views, but I’ll think twice before I trust in the integrity of peer reviews online again.

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Strictly for the birds (revisited)

birdsI was reminded of this little treasure which crossed my desk in 2012. Some of the suggestions people have emailed and tweeted make me wonder if it is yet safe to surface into a world of avian super-intelligence. I’ve updated this item to include some of the best ideas.

Captive cockatoo shows skill in making and using tools

I am still frantic with worry.

  1. Ingenious carrion crows have been shown to use traffic to crack hard nuts.
  2. Problem-solving finches extract grubs from trees.
  3. Blue tits cream off the top from milk bottles.
  4. And now a cockatoo named Figaro has been observed making and using “tools” to reach food.

Experts from the University of Oxford; the University of Vienna and the Max-Planck-Institute for Ornithology in Germany say they are surprised , but it comes as no surprise to me. I saw what happened to Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s film. Nor has it escaped my attention that Twitter is frankly, well, avian, aeriform, plumed, sometimes aigrette and always birdlike!

“No-one has ever reported [a parrot] sculpturing a tool out of shapeless wood in order to use it later with great sophistication,” said Professor Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University, an author of the study.

Figaro was playing with a pebble and dropped it out of reach on the other side of his wire mesh enclosure. He then made his own tool by biting large splinters from a wooden beam. When they were the right shape and size, he used them to rake in his pebble and later, under experimental conditions, did the same with his nuts.

The professor said, “Nobody yet understands in what sense tool-use requires a very high level of intelligence. This behaviour could display a level of intelligence for solving a new problem in the species.”

Oh dear!

Politics is certain to be the first to fall to the feather and beak brigade. Parrot Obama will be returned President of the USA.  Here in the UK we’ll still have a number of Great Bustards in parliament and waiting in the wings is a flock of Electus Parrots. On the front benches a Laughing Gull and a Brown Noddy will serve a second term under the leadership of Dame Magpie Thatcher. Some countries in the Third World will be ruled by Longtailed Tyrants. The UKIP party will be represented by True Tits and led by a Common Redstart. A Spotted Flycatcher will be in charge of Health. A Bronze Sunbird will be promoting Tourism at the Department for Culture and while she is on vacation a Summer Tanager will be deputising.

The Judiciary has a Cut Throat Finch looking after Policing and a Dark Eyed Junco continues to head Narcotics. All Barred Owls have been repatriated and appointed to run UK Borders Agency. As ever a Secretary Bird is at the seat of power in the Cabinet Office. A Swift is in charge of Transport.

The Roman Catholic Church could not survive without the endeavours of its Northern Cardinals.

In sport Spur Winged Lapwings have been transferred for fabulous fees to Manchester United, and a Greater Roadrunner has won The London Marathon.

In Business, Specsavers has elected a Spectacled Weaver and a Spectacled Eider to its board. Naturally it is a Crane and a House Martin that occupy the top jobs at Balfour Beatty, and a Coal Tit is responsible for National Power. Stringfellows of course is owned by a Shag.

In the popular culture and media an Ovenbird is to be TV’s top celebrity chef. A Royal Tern tops the bill at the Royal Variety Show. A Rock Parrot and a Rock Sparrow combine to win Britain’s Got Talons, and Placido Flamingo reigns at La Scala.  A Common Babbler reads the news at the BBC where a Lark is in charge of light entertainment.Sociable Weavers look after Twitter and Facebook. A Painted Bunting is curator of the National Gallery.

An  Oilbird, a Coal Tit and a Chimney Swift are  responsible for Power, and in Transport a Pilotbird wins the West Coast rail franchise. Travel and Tourism is managed by Welcome Swallows.

Learning and Development has been revolutionised by the Little Bustard who invented blended learning. A Silver Beaked Tanager is responsible for youth culture. A Thick Billed Euphonia has responsibility for the education of children with special needs.

Finally, I must bow to the inevitable; some day sooner than you might think, a Great Tit will be writing more nonsense like this

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Adults cannot learn to listen better; you are born with that skill or acquire it at a very early age.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Adults cannot learn to listen better; you are born with that skill or acquire it at a very early age. Under the title “What’s been did and what’s been hid,” that is the seventh of 12 truisms that have influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I hope you will feel free to support it with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or knock it down using similar sources of evidence.

I confess that I believe you can teach people to listen better. But let me play Devil’s Advocate. It is not difficult to find courses on listening skills. Maybe their popularity is due to the fact that they are easy to design and run, and it is hard to detect no difference when people go back to work and nothing changes. So my question today is can adults learn to listen better, or is listening just a skill you are born with or at a very early age? No doubt course providers believe that learners can be taught to improve their listening skills and as a result they will become better managers, parents, coaches, spouses etc.

Should we accept it as true that learners receive more through listening than from any other perceptual mode? Certainly we all get enough practice at listening. Even those who are profoundly deaf are using their other senses to supply the mutual cues that come with active listening.  So if we are practising listening hundreds of times during each day of our lives, why should we believe formal training to be necessary?

Most major organisations must think that it is wrong to assume well-practised listeners have effective listening skills, otherwise why are they investing so much in courses and programmes to develop listening skills?

Somewhere employers must be losing sleep over negative consequences that are due to poor listening habits. What hard evidence is telling them that workers are not taking advantage of the spoken stimuli that could assist them in their jobs? Is that failure due to the listener simply not noticing those stimuli, or are they failing to process it correctly or is it that they cannot remember what they have heard?

So we are left with another of those truisms – that an individual can be taught to listen and that learners will do better in life and at work if they have been formally taught to listen.

I’m not sure whether they are getting a return on their investment – all those companies, institutions, public authorities and services that regularly run courses to improve learning skills. Do we think that learning an instinctive and deeply embedded skill like listening can be easy? Is it possible to unlearn habits that we have been reinforcing since the very earliest days of our childhood?

Let’s take a look at some of the techniques which typically are taught on listening skills courses:

  • Generate interest in the speaker’s topic. Look at the speaker. Study their body language – does it support what the speaker says? Show the speaker your interest by your own body language (reflective listening).
  • Use techniques like nodding, repeating, summarising, questioning and clarifying to demonstrate interest and involvement, but never fake attention or pretend to be listening (active listening).
  • Adapt to the speaker’s appearance and delivery.
  • Be aware of distractions and filter them out; don’t let your personal prejudices prevent you from receiving the message.
  • Listen for key concepts and major ideas instead of facts.
  • Listen to difficult expository material carefully. Then, interpret, evaluate and remember the most significant major points (or facts) by writing them down or memorising them.
  • Listen to the whole message before judging or disputing it. Don’t interrupt or ask questions unless the speaker invites them or loses track. Ask questions after the whole idea has been presented.

Should I accept it as true that you can learn skills by taking part in exercises? For example, can I build my own skills by listening to a recording that portrays particular behaviours and techniques, and referring to a checklist to focus on what I did or did not perceive or misconceive?

Is this focus on technique enough or do we need to do something more fundamental – a kind of rearrangement of the cognition of a subject so that they build entirely new concepts of listening, communication and interaction, and can see a clear link between alternative techniques for listening and conspicuous improvements in results?

Can we even get people interested and committed to learning to listen in the first place, or will that which we thought was essential training be no more than an away day to invigorate the worker outside of the daily routine or a background noise to replace the sound of traffic on the journey home?

As ever I leave you with the questions. I hope some kind souls will be moved to offer some answers. If you do have something to say, please use the form below. [contact-form subject='[PG%26#039;s Tips’][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Comment’ type=’textarea’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]

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Do memory aids and systems of coding really help learners to recall information?

lockupMemory aids and systems of coding help learners to recall information when they need it. Under the title “What’s been did and what’s been hid,” that is the sixth of 12 truisms that have influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I hope you will feel free to support it with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or knock it down using similar sources of evidence. This one is about memory aids and systems of coding.

Rote learning is not a very efficient way of remembering things. If you can recall having difficulty in learning lists of facts, dates or foreign language vocabulary at school then you are bound to agree. Memory aids take various forms; some use images, some use words in sentences or rhymes, some use symbols. Their purpose is to prompt a learner with cues to direct them to information they need to remember usually in order to complete a task or pass a test of knowledge.

Trainers love them because they help learners to recall important information when they need it. They are most effective when learners need to recall unorganised names and procedural data, and the words and images they use don’t need to relate conceptually to the context. In the short-term we might recall 5, 6 or 7 unrelated items like digits or letters with relative ease when they are presented to us one at a time. However, we can dramatically improve recall by using a strategy such as associating items in clusters and through practice.

Many memory aids are fun and witty, for example “Rub Your Belly With Grease” is an easy way to remember the order of signals to show the distance between ships in port – Red (20 yards), Yellow (40 yards), Blue (60 yards), White (80 yards), Green (100 yards). Memory aids can thus add an entertainment factor to learning that might otherwise be dull.

When learners struggle to remember things, they often try to invent their own way of making that recall easier. The aid does not have to be perfect or widely understood, for example I remember as a student using SPICE as a device for remembering Piaget’s theory of child development. The initial letters of Sensorimotor, Pre-conceptual, Intuitive, Concrete operations, Formal operations actually spells SPICF and not SPICE, but the memory aid worked for me and that was all that mattered.

Some mnemonics are easier to remember than others, for example I can recall “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” and relate it to notes on the musical stave; and “Never Eat Shredded Wheat” is an easy way for me to recall the points of the compass in clockwise order. “I made a glass alligator” is easy enough to recall Pi to 5 decimal places, but if I move on to nine decimal places the mnemonic may become easy to confuse for example I might invent “I take a train Saturdays at eleven before the night” but then forget what the time of the train or the day of the week in my example.

“Divorced, beheaded, died; Divorced, beheaded, survived” reminds me of the fate of the wives of King Henry VIII, but recalling their names in the same order is a little more tricky:

“Kate an’ Anne an’ Jane an’ Anne an’ Kate (again, again!)” can work as long as your memory doesn’t play tricks and return, “Anne an’ Kate an’ Ann an’ Jane an’ Kate an’ Ann again again” which may give you too many wives and in the wrong order. So learners must first memorise the cues and prompts and their structure and sequence, and then associate each with prompts, linking it with information they have already memorised.

Finally, a truism within the truism is that a picture is worth a thousand words, and so we might assume a visual memory aid to be more effective than figures, symbols or words alone to support some thinking skills.

So the question is, “What evidence do we have to really prove the usefulness of memory aids?  Do they enlighten or do they confuse? Are they employed by trainers and teachers because of their fitness for purpose or are they simply confections that delight them and an excuse for skimping on instruction?” Please use the form below if you wish to comment. [contact-form subject='[PG%26#039;s Tips’][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Comment’ type=’textarea’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]

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Readability – myth or science?

Woman - Business, Teacher, Lawyer, Student, EtcYou can test the readability of instructional material and judge how well it will match learners’ levels of literacy. Under the title “What’s been did and what’s been hid,” here is the fifth of 12 truisms that have influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I hope you will feel free to support it with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or knock it down using similar sources of evidence.

In this instance I’m going to ask you to look critically at readability scoring. Sometimes it is done electronically, as with the readability rating that is built into Microsoft Word. Sometimes it is measured using instruments such as the FOG Index, on which the latter is based. Sometimes it is done by applying simple intuition and some insight into the characteristics of the target audience. However it is done, it is based upon the belief that there is some science behind it – that you can in fact test the readability of instructional material and judge how well it will match learners’ levels of literacy.  But is that true or is it an example of pseudo-science that is often prevalent in the industry of learning and development?

Let’s make two assertions:

Readability is calculated through a formula that predicts how well people of varying reading ability can recall text they have read or heard.

Readability can predict how much difficulty learners will have in reading or listening to training materials.

Are these two absolute facts, or are they superstitions?

We might dispute whether a readability score is any use at all in predicting understanding for these reasons:

  • It gives only a rough estimate of difficulty.
  • It does not lend itself very well to text that is not in sentences such as tables and figures, which you often find in technical training, and it cannot take account of supporting graphics.
  • It cannot take account of how a text will be used, for example, whether it has to be studied and remembered, or referred to while doing a task.
  • It does not factor into its calculation the learners’ prior knowledge and experience; a learner with a low level of ability in reading can make sense of a text if they already know much about the subject matter and can apply it to comprehend new material.

It would compromise the integrity of the message if you allowed a formula to dictate the content of instructional writing. There are too many other issues to consider, for example whether text is performance-centred (“how to…”) or conceptual and subject-centred (“all about…”).  It is better to use “How to…” text in user manuals. Subject-centred text may cover everything a learner wishes to know about the topic, but is likely to stop short of a stepwise series of actions to conduct. The learners may have to work out for themselves what to do. It is a paradox that technical manuals and user guides are often written in the style of subject-centred text.

If you wish to comment, please use the form below.

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Can students take control of their own learning?

channel surfingIt is a good idea to put students in control of their own learning, and they are capable of accepting that control.

Under the title “What’s been did and what’s been hid,” this is the third of 12 truisms that have influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I hope you will feel free to support it with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or knock it down using similar sources of evidence.

Although some teachers and trainers find it hard to surrender control, many think it is a good idea to put students in control of their own learning. They are also convinced that learners are capable of accepting that control and personal accountability for what they accomplish in learning.

Is this belief true? It seems to be based on the assumption that learners achieve significantly better results when they feel they have some control over the key events in their learning, than when they perceive control to be in the hands of others.

When they have achieved a “pass” in their learning, learners may believe it is because they are clever enough, worked hard, the task was easy for them or they were lucky when they were set questions or challenges that suited them.

If learners can significantly control their learning, then they can manipulate that combination of ability, effort and demand, and “make their own luck” so that the likelihood of success is increased.

Slow and disadvantaged learners are most likely to blame others for their failures, and they may not give themselves full credit for their own successes.

When learners are successful, they are more likely to see themselves as more accountable than when they fail.

Whether learners believe their successes and failures to be due to themselves or other people depends on various factors and circumstances. Learning designers and facilitators can alter situations to change that perception of who is responsible.

A key element to strengthen personal accountability is feedback. When feedback dwells on the quality of performance and shows learners, especially slower ones how to improve it, they begin to accept that they are responsible for their own performance and learning.

If you wish to comment, please use the form below.

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Do you believe in situated learning?

If you separate facts and concepts from the context in which they will use them, learners will simply forget them.

Under the title “What’s been did and man reads bookwhat’s been hid,” here is the second of 12 truisms that have influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I hope you will feel free to support it with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or knock it down using similar sources of evidence.

This is another simple idea; that if knowledge is set in a relevant context then a person will be motivated to learn it in order to use it in the performance of a task skilfully in the real world.

It is quite common to hear managers say, “We trained them and they passed a test; how is it possible for them to get things so badly wrong?”

Being able to demonstrate immediate recall of taught facts and concepts is not the same thing as being able to use those facts and apply those concepts when you need them in a real-world situation.

When you frame something as a learning objective instead of a performance objective, then it remains just another learning activity, divorced from the accomplishment of useful and practical tasks. To ensure its usefulness, knowledge should not be taught as an abstract thing to be activated on some vague and disconnected occasion in the future. Knowledge when learned must be focused or “situated” at the heart of some concrete action or experience.

When I think of “experience” I include the physical circumstances which a person learner will use what they learn – where they are and what they are about to do – as well as the cognitive and physical tasks they will perform when they are in that environment.

Instruction has to get as close as possible to replicating the same situations – the authentic operations, genuine tools and real equipment – as the real-world practical experience. The closer it is to a specific task-related performance in terms of the standard, quality, completeness and authenticity it demands, the greater is the effectiveness of instruction.

Situated teaching puts the trainer in the role of a master practitioner, modelling performance to a necessary standard, recognising the extent of learners’ mastery as they practise, and interactively guiding them towards competence though coaching and feedback.

Instruction should take a learner only as far as the level of competence they need in the practical situation. For example a first-aider would not need to know as much about respiration as a doctor in a hospital, so the provision of instruction has to fit the expected condition and standards of performance.

In many cases, we have to think of reaching mastery through a series of successive approximations to the genuine whole performance with all of its internal and external conditions. The way of presenting a task may vary according to the prior knowledge of the learner. In some instances it may be enough to provide text or symbolic representations, but for novices it might be necessary to immerse them in a high fidelity simulation of the practical situation.

Computer-simulations of a situated practice environment can be effective, and in some cases students who have practised hard on a computer can accelerate their learning to match the performance of technicians with years of experience on-the-job.

When their learning is “situated”, learners may assess their own and others’ performance, but there are issues attending this approach. We’ll raise those issues when we look at truisms 3 (It is a good idea to put students in control of their own learning, and they are capable of accepting that control) and 10 (Learners who work together, and support and challenge one another, learn more than those who learn in isolation.)

Finally there is the question of attrition – the belief that knowledge decays rapidly unless you use it. Is that true or is it a widespread misconception?

I’m inviting you to support any of the statements above with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or contradict them by using similar sources of evidence. Please use the form below if you wish to comment.

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Do people really learn more by doing than by watching and/or listening?

Deep thoughts                   Recently I posted an item with the title “What’s been did and what’s been hid.” Here is the first of 12 truisms that have influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I hope you will feel free to support it with a book reference, a personal experience, and example or a case study; otherwise knock it down using similar sources of evidence.

That people learn more by doing than by watching and/or listening is top of the list, because it is the belief that has most influenced the strategies and designs of tools and materials for learning that have occupied my time.

The idea is a very simple one – learners need to rehearse under a range of conditions that are typical of how they will use what they are learning.  Effective instruction must provide regular and frequent opportunities to try out and apply new behaviours. Little and often are the watchwords for practice, and there is incontestable proof that practice makes perfect.

It is best to turn the learner’s attention to a different practice or drill before they repeat identical practice or a similar task. Then their performance will be thoughtful and unlikely to become robotic or superstitious.

If you emphasise key points during practice, then learners are most likely to attend to these key points and remember them.

Specific forensic and observational feedback helps learners to identify any deficit in their performance, and so correct it. However we’ll put feedback itself under the microscope when we look at truism number 8, because not all feedback is necessarily constructive.

If a task is complex, it needs more practice to master it. You should break down a very complex task into separate steps or stages and practise them by themselves first and recombine them later.

When we come to consider truism number 6 we may acknowledge that memory aids and systems of coding help learners to recall information when they need it and so it may be counter-productive to memorise lists or facts when a better learning strategy is to group and code them so they become implicit.

Next on the list of 12 is the matter of situated learning, and I’ll ask you to support or challenge the belief that if you separate facts and concepts from the context in which they will use them, learners will simply forget them.

If you wish to comment, please use the form below.

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What’s bin did and what’s been hid

15757740526_e7ae680f9f_bI was never a great fan of the music of the folk singer Donovan, but I admired him for coming up with one of the most eye-catching titles of all time for a debut album. I’ve borrowed it as the title for this blog.

It directs me towards practices and prejudices I’ve met in my work in learning and development. In the autumn of my career I might start to believe I know all the answers. Certainly I hold some strong beliefs. I’m ready to test whether they are sound, empirical observations supported by unchallengeable evidence-based research, or a Father-knows-best vanity based upon personal preferences, prejudices and flaky false assumptions.

Please let show you 12 core beliefs upon which I base my practice as a learning, development and performance consultant. I’ll invite you to support each one or shoot it down in flames.

This is not a seasonal “Oh no it isn’t; Oh yes it is” pantomime script. I hope it will be useful to you as well as to me, although it’s based on two assumptions that may themselves be worthy of challenging:

  1. none of us is smarter than all of us
  2. you care a damn

…and what happens next may prove neither of these to be true!

Here are the beliefs:

  1. People learn more by doing than by watching and/or listening
  2. People dismiss or forget facts and concepts unless they learn them in a meaningful context that relates to their own needs and interests
  3. It is a good idea to put students in control of their own learning, and they are capable of accepting that control
  4. If you enhance simple text in books, hand-outs and manuals by adding a structure, aids to navigation, summaries, examples and diagrams, then people will find it easier to learn, will make more sense of it and remember it for longer
  5. It is entirely possible to test the readability of instructional material and judge how well it will match learners’ levels of literacy
  6. Memory aids and systems of coding help learners to recall information when they need it
  7. Adults can learn to listen and to concentrate better; these are not innate skills and it’s not too late even if they escaped you in early childhood
  8. When you give learners feedback it improves their self-belief and increases their desire to learn
  9. Assessment is a really crucial part of learning and should be a mirroring of real life performance as far as possible
  10. Learners who work together, and support and challenge one another, learn more than those who learn in isolation
  11. It is ever possible to interest people in taking up new methods and media in learning
  12. Instructional objectives have great practical use and come from a process known as “needs analysis”

There you have in summary 12 truisms on what could become a very long list. As I unpack each one, I hope you will knock it down or build it up with book references, personal experiences or case studies. I’d also like to know what beliefs drive others so I can grow my list of what’s been did and what’s been hid.

Footnote:

This is a reprint of a blog I published in the Autumn. I’ll be following it up once a week over the next few months with a sequence of items to build on the ideas in this introduction. The first will follow immediately.

If you wish to comment on this posting please use the form below.

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Sabbatical

My work has taken me around the world. I’ve written for a number of text books, contributed to some ground-breaking projects including the game-changing More Than Blended Learning – which is about to soar http://morethanblended.com/about/ – and I’ve fended off diabetes. I am not yet ready to retire, but some personal, occupational and aspirational objectives need my full attention, and so I’ve decided to take a sabbatical.
I’ll be writing a guide and some tools on Facilitating 21st Century Learning; I’ll finish the words and music for my long-neglected stage play (a kind of musical disaster-movie), I’ll take control over my health, and I’ll finalise a mobile app that will guide creators of job aids.
During this period I will be accepting short assignments such as workshops, mentoring or consultancy. I can still be reached through Onlignment where the work will continue to flourish in the ever capable hands of Barry, Clive and Eugenie.
Thank you to everyone around the world with whom I’ve been privileged to work in the past 42 years, and who have been sending me good wishes. I am looking forward to working with you again in the next phase.

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