8 reflections on learning after meeting an “artificial intelligence theorist, cognitive psychologist, learning scientist, educational reformer, and entrepreneur”.

Roger Schank has his own Wikipedia page and has lectured at the Universities of Stanford and Yale. Sitting in the room with my team at BP and such an intellectual heavy-weight, gave me a sense of pride mixed with gratitude that I have been so fortunate in my career. I attribute most of my luck to politeness and having a good British accent, well it certainly helps. If I can summarise my own development over the past 3 years, it has been a trend towards establishing my personal brand, improving my dress sense, and articulating my ideas in a more effective way. This growth has been deliberate, facilitated by the inspirational leadership of Nick Shackleton-Jones and the rest of the team who have all contributed to the experience. It’s been a great journey.


Perhaps it’s the quiet thrum of this 07:39 South West Train service that has inspired such a welling of self-reflection. But quite simply I wanted to share the highlights of the meeting with Roger Schank broken down into a list that you can read quickly. I’ve noticed that my tolerance for bloated introductions has declined to the extent where I’ll skim-read the first line of every paragraph to get to the point(s). Well, look no further, here they come.

  1. If the person in a video isn’t saying anything you couldn’t say yourself – who cares?

We (the team) make a lot of videos. They tend to share “expert” advice lasting ideally 45 secs to 1.30 mins, but it’s very rare you find anyone saying anything that you couldn’t look up on Google. I think you need to film the 1 or 2 thought-leaders who can actually add something new, and “can” the rest. There is value to be had in the marketing byproduct that interviewing stakeholders delivers to a project, but that partially commits you to using their clips, even if they suck.

  1. The biggest driver of learning is failure.

“Let’s celebrate our success”. As we reach the end of the year, this has become my least favourite corporate phrase especially when it is followed by a summary of activities with no consideration of impact. “Yay, we’ve done all this stuff and wasted all this money, let’s all pat ourselves on the back”. It has stayed with me that Google had a “failure party” for Google Glass. I’m no Googlephile, but this is one exhibition of how to instil a sense of entrepreneurship and innovation in a culture.


  1. Contrast success and failure.

It can help people learn if you show them what can go wrong if you don’t do X, and then show them the alternative if they do it right. The idea here is to use stories to support the points being made. Anything that’s just telling, is like school, and according to Roger Schank and pretty much anyone I respect in this field, the traditional school system sucks. Stories aren’t always the answer, but they can be used to help people care by adding relevance.

  1. Animations should only be used for showing things that can’t be done in real life.

I only partly agree with this comment but I take Roger’s assertion: Corporate learning and communication has an unhealthy penchant for spending money on rubbish animations to polish turd messages. If I had to suggest an alternative approach; if your message/content is about you, you’re not saying anything worthwhile.

  1. If a story isn’t interesting in 10 secs, don’t use it.

We actually tested this theory in the meeting, and it’s true in a sense. Our judgement about others and the value of information is more or less instant. This speaks to the importance of design, and attention to detail; both of which are lost on some more traditional folks that think online learning (performance support) is about slapping documents in SharePoint. When people experience your learning offer, their decision about whether to engage is more or less instant.


  1. Gamification destroys purpose but can add meaning to a meaningless activity.

I’ve made the same point a few times, in a few other blogs. If you have a mindless, monotonous task, like you’re part of a factory production line, gamification can improve performance (compliance training). If you have a more complex task that might have value and meaning of its own, then adding gamification can strip the activity of the real intrinsic meaning, reducing performance. For me this seems like a simple distinction that has real application.


  1. Children know what they want to do for a living. They just don’t know they know. A parent’s job is to reveal this.

Roger told a story about his son who used to love riding the Paris metro. When his son explained he was going to University to study something theoretical, Roger told him “do something with the subway”. His son is now a big-wig for a subway service in the U.S. Okay, so Roger told it better, but I think it’s a valid assertion that will steer children away from academia which doesn’t teach them anything practical. “We use the phrase, “it’s academic”, to say something is a waste of time”, Roger pointed out.


  1. Teaching doesn’t need to be explicit in stories.

So, Roger got tearful in our meeting telling a story about his Dad. Perhaps the fact that half the team didn’t notice shows how oblivious British people are to displays of emotion. We’re all James Bond after all. Allowing learners to ask why a story is relevant and how it can be applicable to them, is often more effective than just telling them something. The same approach has been applied to advertising where brands have started creating content that seems to make no sense, but inspires you to ask “why”.

A recent ad by mobile phone network brand ‘3’

There was an obvious disconnect between Roger and the team. We probably didn’t explain ourselves very well when showcasing our work. The explanation of performance support started with a perception that what we do, isn’t learning. And evolved into, “you do courses”. This is all mostly semantics but I was pleased that we were initially framed outside the grubby learning institution, and then resigned to the fact that perhaps, we should be building some courses. When school teaches generations that learning is something distinct from everyday life, the effectiveness of our content may be enhanced by presenting it in a curriculum. This flies in the face of the team’s philosophy of performance support, but I have wondered whether we should start working more with simulation. The bigger question is, do we pander to the institutional world view, or do we try to change it. Working in isolation, while still being pigeon-holed into “learning”, we are probably fighting an uphill battle if we choose the latter. Fortunately, I think we probably have the fortitude to make a difference, if we stick together.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s