Assessment is a really crucial part of learning – Part 2

ChecklistAssessment is a really crucial part of learning and should be as performance-based as possible. That was number 9 or 12 truisms I cited as having influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I invited you to support them with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or knock them down using similar sources of evidence. Last time I began to express some beliefs I hold about assessment. To complete the picture I want to say that I believe the two criteria of “validity” and “reliability” are guiding principles; they are much more than academic labels and are the best measure of the effectiveness of assessment.

The concept of validity is probed by a simple question, “If you say ‘watch me’ will the observer see you doing precisely what you’re required to do in the real world?” Watch me fill out this form while questioning a customer” is not quite the same as “Watch me fill out an image of the form on screen while reading a scenario and looking at a photograph of a customer.” At some point it is necessary to decide how far you can compromise where assessment is concerned. Is “Watch me land this simulation of a plane” quite as valid as “Watch me land this plane?”

“Reliability” is more to do with the structure and composition of the test and the conditions under which it is administered. For example if you test someone at the start of the day when they have no other commitments on their diary and have been given time to prepare, and then you use the same test on someone you’ve taken by surprise ten minutes after their working shift has ended and they are anxious about missing their bus, should you expect the same results?

So taking part one of this posting on assessment alongside this second part on validity and reliability, here are some statements that may be true and may be false assumptions, and I’d welcome your views and experience.

  1. Well designed, performance-oriented tests inform learners about job requirements and guide their learning.
  2. Tests must be both valid and reliable.
  3. Learners who are frequently tested do better than those who are tested less often.
  4. Learners generally take two kinds of tests: knowledge tests and performance tests.
  5. Knowledge tests tell you whether people have learned information important for safety, and acquired knowledge that regulates their performance.
  6. Skill checks and performance assessments measure the competence of learners and reveal gaps and weaknesses in the method, media and content of instruction as well as gaps in the learner’s understanding and skills.
  7. Errors can be used not only to identify learning gaps to close, but also to motivate learners to deepen their enquiries and seek information that they appear to lack. They can also be used heuristically to give the learner, in a safe no-penalty environment, a view of what happens when you do things wrong.

Please let us all know what you think.


Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll conclude.

Story-telling as an instructional strategy

This is the third and final part of a blog aboUlyssesCalypsoBoecklinut storytelling and its value as a tool for training and motivation of people in the workplace.

It is not by accident that teachers turn to story to settle excitable young children. It works for adults too; a good book or an interesting film has the ability to transport us beyond the cares of here and now and can inform, inspire, instruct – or simply soothe.

The satisfaction that comes from a story is held within its structure – it has a beginning, a middle and an end.  Everything that happens is tied together by a string of events, in which people meet and then respond to challenges with more or less positive outcomes. A good story can help us to form concepts and develop beliefs and values. It can use metaphor and narrative to make complex ideas accessible and to help us to recall intricate chains of cause and effect. Social media such as LinkedIn and Facebook have caught on to the importance of story in people’s lives and so have introduced narrative and timeline as a means of harnessing the elegant self-containment of story as a format.  We engage with story through our emotions as well as our thoughts, so we can become immersed in it. Afterwards, our insights and memories can be as strong as if we as if we had actually been present in the events that the story related. The easiest stories for us to assimilate connect with our understanding of the world, and have a logical flow so that we can make sense of them and remember what they were about.

Let’s get serious

The limbic system is the part of the brain that science has linked with motivation and emotion. It is the limbic system that signals whether we ought to laugh or cry at a stimulus.  In the first part of this blog about storytelling I mentioned John Cunliffe and his circle of attention when telling stories to children. Adults react in that way, too; promise a riveting tale and you can sense the change in the mood and body language. Whether it comes from a person or a screen, you can see people lean forward towards the storyteller. They release tension, and apply all their senses to receiving the sounds and perhaps sights too, that combine to tell the tale.

Suppose someone said to you, “I’m about to tell you a deeply moving and inspirational story. Many people who have heard this story say it changed their lives profoundly and they became better people for hearing it.”  Or alternatively, “I’m about to tell you a story in which some very good people struggling against impossible odds were defeated and lost everything.”

Do you want to hear that second story? Will you feel keen, ready to listen, disinterested, intrigued, suspicious, ready to switch off?

The textbook says that the prospect of a happy ending makes the limbic system inject its own special opium (dopamine) into your brain to give you a ‘feel good’ sensation that comes when the guy gets the gal, the whale returns to the sea, the rightful king is crowned, or the aliens are repelled.

If we can accept the truth in this science then we might draw the conclusion that ‘feel good’ would be a more productive state than ‘flight or fight’ for someone who is conceiving a bright new future for themselves or their organisation.

The monomyth

The work of Joseph Campbell focused on stories, myths, and rituals across cultures and throughout time. He detected common patterns, especially in rite of passage stories and rituals in which people progress from being dependent children to responsible adults in the community. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he showed how ancient myths from around the world all have a similar basic plot. Campbell called this ‘the monomyth’. It contains some or all of the same eight ingredients whether found in the legends of Gilgamesh, Osiris or Prometheus, in the tales of the Buddha, Moses and Christ, or (bringing things up to date) Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or your favourite Adventure Game.

The Call to Adventure

  • The hero begins in the normal world
  • The hero receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events
  • The hero accepts the call

The Road of Trials

  • The hero faces tasks and trials either alone or with assistance
  • The hero faces a life-threatening challenge, often with help earned along the journey
  • The hero survives, achieves a great gift (the “boon”), and often discovers some profound self-knowledge

The Return

  • The hero decides whether to return with the boon, often facing challenges on the way back.
  • The hero gets back safely and the boon makes the world a better place.

Some tips for using stories in training

Know your audience.  If you are writing for a predominantly young age group, use a tone, style and language they will relate to.  If you are writing globally for a multicultural audience, avoid jargon and idioms.

Use real stories wherever possible.  Senior members of staff are often happy to provide real stories of mistakes they have made in their youth that had disastrous consequences but which have clearly not affected their rise up the corporate ladder.  People lower down the pecking order may be less open to paint potentially disastrous scenarios.

Make sure your characters arouse interest.  How many times have you read a book and not given a monkey’s about what happens to any of the characters because they are all so one-dimensional?  Give them a bit of background; their likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses.  Base them on people you know or have met along the way.

Use humour with caution.  All equality and diversity training courses say, “make jokes we can all laugh at”.  This is, of course, easier said than done and it comes back to knowing your audience.

Avoid rights and wrongs.  Most decisions are not clear cut.  Don’t over simplify or make the right answers to situations that you paint painfully obvious.  People and the systems they interact with are complex.  Encourage further questioning, research or validation to uncover more nuggets of information that may have a vital impact on the scenario you are painting.

Test your dialogue out loud.  Photo or audio stories that use direct dialogue must have resonance with reality.  There are some shockingly badly written dialogues out there.  Read out loud the words you have written.  Does it sound clumsy or is it difficult to read?  Then it is.

Photo story or not photo story?  Photo stories can work well.  They add another dimension to the written word and can be particularly helpful if you cannot use audio.

By pgstips

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll continue.

Why is narrative important?

If you have read part one of this 3 part blog I hope you will agree that story is compelling but its appeal depends on what the receiver brings to it far more than the richness of the media the storyteller uses or the attractiveness of their personality (although these are important too.

If to tell them is a natural and spontaneous human activity, then why should we intervene? Do we need to make special efforts to construct stories in a laboratory and use them to engineer and track practical outcomes for people within communities and organisations? Is it not enough to allow time and opportunity for people to tell and attend to story?

famous five

Maybe it is, but analysis and evaluation and critical judgement are skills that may need nurturing if they are to develop. A story works well as a simple unfolding of events; this happened and that happened.  Children growing up in the fifties were raised on so-called ‘and then’ stories, from writers such as Enid Blyton and CS Lewis. There was not much to be read into the characterisation or the relationship between cause and effect. Moving through childhood into adolescence the ‘and thens’ for this generation came from Agatha Christie (Murder mysteries) and Ian Fleming (James Bond).  However, it could be a meeting with Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle’s Great Detective, that first turned critical faculties towards characterisation and problem solving through story. Here were narratives that had intricate patterns of behaviour and of interaction amongst humans. It inspired the feeling of wanting to know what happened next, how the protagonists were feeling, what motivated them and how you might behave under similar circumstances.

Stories, case studies or scenarios – however we choose to describe narrative – can be so useful in engineering particular behaviours in the workplace or the community. Narrative creates a fresh insight into new destinations, and reveals paths you might follow and actions you might take to reach them.

In sales training it is common to use story. A sales assistant might use a narrative with dialogue to come to understand what a customer had in mind that led to a decision to buy or not to buy. Analysis and generalisation might lead to a planned change in behaviour and improved sales results. But the story and the dialogue must be authentic. After matching with their own past experience or other reality checks, the learner will dismiss it  as just pure fiction if does not have a ring of truth.

Using unlikely sounding dialogue is a common way of losing the learner.  Writing realistic dialogue is absolutely fraught with risk and hence must be approached with caution and skill.  A useful tip is to always read out loud the dialogue you write.  If it is awkward to articulate, then it is almost certainly unrealistic.  People take shortcuts when talking – particularly in an informal situation.

A ‘What if?’ has a lower prospect of affecting behaviour than a, ‘What when?’. For example, if we say, “Let’s imagine what it will be like if our managers make a better job of Performance appraisal”, then the likely response is “That might work for XYZ, but you’d never get our managers to do it.”

By contrast we might say, “Let’s see what happened when reluctant or unconfident managers like ours changed the way they thought about and conducted performance appraisal.” Now the story is a verifiable matter of historic fact. It has already happened, and so it can happen again if the circumstances can be understood and repeated.

We need to take care not to manipulate facts and figures in a cynical way. A narrative might be factually accurate but not truthful. A commonly quoted example is the true fact that 700 passengers who travelled on the Titanic reached New York in complete safety. Once it has been revealed that the ship sank with the loss of 1500 lives then the story and the teller have irrevocably lost trust and credibility.

One company I know tried to encourage people to persevere with its “delinquent” CRM system by relating the amount of money it had invested in it, the effort it had devoted to improving and updating it, and the string of successful implementations its supplier had accomplished in other businesses. It went on to describe all the features which made it so user-friendly and reliable. None of those messages were as influential as the ‘pity parties’ that took place daily wherever users convened and spoke of the frustrations and disappointments they were suffering and the ‘work-arounds’ they had developed using spreadsheets, paper, post-it notes and other ingenious tactics.

Sharing stories can have a major impact in transforming individuals and organisations. It can intensify learning and self-awareness. When people exchange stories – whether it is something they’ve heard or something they’ve experienced for themselves – it has a profound effect on their mutual trust and respect as well as their learning. But there is a strong tendency for communication in organisations to skew the picture of how things are in reality.  Training must take care not to be complicit in this deception, because trust, once lost, is difficult to recover.

And they all lived happily ever after

You might suppose that you’d get a negative response from a story that began, “Let me tell you about a team that did everything wrong and ended up in dire straits”. Think again. Take a lead from Shakespeare. He set out to show through his tragedies what can happen to The Weak, or The Naïve; to The Vain, The Lustful or The Vengeful.  All the great classical dramatists knew about this. The Greeks had a word for it – catharsis. Story was believed to be so powerful a tool in influencing and regulating behaviour that it was compulsory for the people of ancient Athens to attend the theatre and witness crime, tragedy and retribution on an epic scale. If a citizen had no coin to pay, then the state provided it for him. The principle was simple – if the ordinary man witnessed Oedipus murdering his father and bedding his mother, then his own blood lust would be satisfied by proxy as it were, and he would be morally stronger for having seen the punishment that follows sin.

In the final part of this blog we’ll talk about the monomyth and I’ll finish with 7 tips for using stories in training.

By pgstips

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

If you are old enough and were brought up in the UK, you can shut your eyes and travel back in time and hear once again the voice of Daphne Oxenford. Imagine sitting on your mother’s knee listening to BBC Radio’s Listen with Mother, and hearing the words, “ArMillais_Boyhood_of_Raleighe you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” Later the television programme Jackanory (I’ll tell you a story) ran for 3,500 episodes over a thirty year period.

This blog in three parts is all about the power of story and its potential as a tool for learning. It comes from a white paper I wrote last year for Walkgrove. To get the point across, I’ll be telling one or two stories along the way.

The first story

The first story doesn’t have a great plot; nothing much happens but hopefully it will paint a picture for you of a particular moment in time. It takes place at a school in Manchester in the early 1970s. A man called John Cunliffe, a schoolteacher, is promoting children’s books and stories. He enters the space reserved for storytelling, and slowly settles his tall, slim frame into a position seated on the carpet. His ability to command a circle of the deepest concentration even amongst the most excitable and hyperactive of audiences is quite marvellous. It might be his voice, a rich spoken baritone with a colourful Lancastrian dialect; but probably not. It might be his prodigious height, but probably not that either. It might be his Edward Lear beard; but no; what makes the man so charismatic is the promise of a story. He’s not yet a celebrity in his own right. His best known creation, Postman Pat, features but is not yet widely recognised. And so it is not John, but the great wealth of stories he tells and the style of his telling them, that commands absolute attention.

I like watching plays on the radio; the colours are so much brighter there!

What makes stories so compelling? Lewis Carroll had something provocative to say about the mixing of perceptual modality. “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?’ (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.)

It’s not the pictures the writer paints, it’s the pictures the reader or listener draws for himself. You did not need to see Ysanne Churchman in the real flesh-and-blood world to know that Grace Archer wore royal blue (The Archers, BBC Radio 1950 – present day). Her voice and the whole ambience of Middle England Borsetshire told us that. On the other hand when Coronation Street was broadcast for the first time in colour (episode 928), it was a jolt to see that Elsie Tanner’s dress was a modest off-white colour, with a grey diamond pattern whereas the dress that Elsie wore in my mind was a vivid fiery red even though I’d only ever actually seen it on screen in black and white (Coronation Street, ITV Granada Television, 1960 – present day).

It is a very important point to keep in mind in this 21st century when rich media is the all-pervasive.

Storytelling in the workplace

Surrounded as we are by a profusion of imagery and audio-visual media, can we detect in our businesses and organisations a groundswell of interest in storytelling? Does that storytelling depend upon anything other than a narrative and a human voice? After all that’s how we’ve been communicating since we humans lived in caves and exchanged tales by firelight. Now in this Age of Information, story-telling is used to engineer practical outcomes for people, communities and organisations. Some see it as a central plank in the construction of communication, education, training, government and innovation in the 21st century.

Story is compelling but its appeal depends on what the receiver brings to it far more than the richness of the media the storyteller uses or the attractiveness of their personality (although these are important too.

What do we mean by “narrative”?

When we use the word ‘narrative’ we refer to anything that forms part of a record and an account of a human experience.  This would include sculpture, painting, dance and artefacts as well as written texts, poetry and spoken stories. With the rise of social media that is synoptic and heavily text-biased, we are at risk of diluting that distinctly human skill of narrative. Composing or reading a Tweet of 140 characters or a txt msg is not the same as building, creating and declaiming a sustained and rounded narrative; something which has a beginning, a middle and an end.

When a learner reads silently or listens to a story, writes one in poetry or prose or presents it non-verbally through art, dance or mime, they are learning to make sense of the world, of themselves and of other people around them. Perhaps the greatest gift a teacher can bestow is to inspire an interest in stories. As we develop language through infancy we meet many stories – myths and legends, fiction and fact. Not only do we learn from them the rules of language, but also we learn about our Human Condition.

As we are exposed to culture in its many rich and diverse forms, we open windows onto people, places and situations that we’ve not met before, and so we are able to analyse and synthesise, in other words from the experience of others we build for ourselves a world and a way of life and work that is uniquely our own.

In the next gripping instalment…

That brings me to the end of the beginning. In the next 2 instalments I’ll say why narrative is so important and how stories, case studies or scenarios – however we choose to describe narrative – can be so useful in engineering particular behaviours in the workplace or the community.

I’ll discuss the convention of “They all lived happily ever after” and suggest that unhappy endings may be more useful when story is used as a device to change behaviour.

Finally I’ll compare and contrast how adults and children experience story; I’ll explain the “monomyth” and how storytelling was a key control of social behaviour in ancient Greek society. I’ll finish with 7 key tips on how to use story as instructional strategy.

By pgstips

Assessment is a really crucial part of learning – part 1.

WomanAssessment is a really crucial part of learning and should be as performance-based as possible. That is the ninth 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 believe that assessment is a really crucial part of learning. I try to make it performance-based as far as is possible, and I always map testing closely to the goals of a training program.

I use assessment and testing before, during and after instruction in order to judge learners’ readiness to begin, chart their progress, reveal what they are finding difficult, and provide them with individualised learning routes to overcome those difficulties.

So testing is credible and focused on performance outcomes, and those outcomes emerge from the font-end analysis of the jobs that trained individuals are required to do.

Testing can assume many different formats including simulated exercises, oral and written quizzes and tests, work-based and field assignments, classroom questions, and comprehensive checks of skills and performance. Whatever the chosen method it is desirable, within the boundaries of what is feasible and affordable, to keep assessment as job-like as possible.

When trainers begin to add packaged learning to the mix, they often find it hard to change the way they approach the design of assessment. For face-to-face delivery they have often been encouraged to follow a 1, 2 3 stepwise approach in which Step 1 is state a clear objective, Step 2 is design some content and Step 3 is design an assessment to test for the transfer of that content.

In an effective performance-based approach to learning the sequence of steps is different. As before Step 1 is to state a clear objective, but Step 2 to design an assessment that will test for the accomplishment of that objective and Step 3 is design just enough content to enable the subject to pass the assessment.

So much of assessment looks like a multiple choice quiz because they are easier to mark by machine, and because it seems easier to test knowledge than to test skill. Skills need to be practised and observed and then measured against a standard. Knowledge is declared or demonstrated through recall. It is often separated from any context and so does not prove or depend upon any understanding. Testing this kind of discrete knowledge is easy – you just throw in the odd multiple choice quiz and the job is done.

That’s where “reliable” and “valid” enter the equation. But we’ll come back to that later.

Heuristic teaching uses assessment as a tool to help learners discover things for themselves. Then it matters not so much whether the answer is right or wrong, it is from the finding out that the value of the learning is derived.

This performance-based assessment should make the elements of the test as much like the elements of the criterion-based objectives as efficiency will permit.

A skill check has to be hands-on; if it is not then it cannot be valid. You would not expect to test one’s ability to drive through the theory test alone. You might be able to test reaction time and observational acuity through a simulation but sooner or later a novice driver has to get behind the wheel and demonstrate their skills in a natural environment.

Quizzes should be restricted to knowledge that is critical for safe and compliant job performance. If workers use manuals, reference material or job aids to find the information they need on the job, then assessment should be “open-book” and allow access to the same supports, but often it does not, and people are expected to memorise and recite facts and information that they never need to recall from memory on the job.

There is more to say. The two criteria of “validity” and “reliability” are guiding principles; they are much more than academic labels and are the best measure of the effectiveness of assessment. I’ll put those under the microscope next time, and then I’ll ask you to accept or reject some assumptions about assessment.

Feedback improves learners’ self-belief and increases their desire to learn.

feedbackWhen you give learners feedback it improves their self-belief and increases their desire to learn. Under the title “What’s been did and what’s been hid,” that is the eighth 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.

Today I’m going to talk about my passion for feedback. I earnestly believe that when you give learners quality feedback it improves their self-belief and increases their desire to learn. To deserve the adjective “quality”, it must be well-intentioned, skilfully communicated, constructive and timely. Feedback can be spoken, written or done entirely without words, but in all cases it must be properly received and valued by the recipient, and that might involve some coaching too.

Not only does precise, constructive feedback help learners to perform better but also it increases their self-esteem, raises their appetite for learning and builds their learning habit and their capacity for constructive self-criticism.

So I’m ready to continue my pursuit of quality feedback and to rail against the damage done by superficial tokens such as the “Well done” and “Oops” type you sometimes find in packaged learning and the over-use of “Excellent” and “Brilliant” that you sometimes hear in classrooms. But am I acting from a well-founded base of evidence or am I just fuelling a personal bias? Let me put the challenging questions to you:

Is it really true that constructive feedback from instructors (or through the materials they have written) about the completeness and correctness of their efforts helps learners to learn? If it is true, then how do we know for sure?

Do timely comments about their performance act as a form of important recognition of their efforts, reward and motivate learners and so help them to correct errors?

When a learner is practising, will they spot their errors more immediately and know how to correct them if they are willingly receiving feedback as they retrieve and apply specific knowledge?

Is face-to-face, or one-on-one, or any single method best for providing feedback to learners, or is there no best method?

Should you give prompt feedback even when an answer is correct? It is quite common to do so because it seems to reinforce the solution and to be especially useful for metalearning where other learners who are observing can see how the right answer was reached and why it is correct. Can we be sure that this is good practice or is it patronising and does it irritate or slow the learner down?

Should we avoid giving learners general, non-specific praise and criticism?

Is it preferable to give reasons why something is correct or incorrect, or is it enough just to give the learner a mark and provide the correct answer?

Is it always necessary to focus wrong answer feedback entirely on the reasons why a solution or answer is incorrect, and explain how to reach the correct answer?

Must critical feedback really always be given in private, whether it is written or spoken, and never in front of others, or is this just being over-sensitive? Don’t a little naming and shaming, fear and dread now again sharpen learners’ wits?

Is it really true that constructive, timely feedback can reinforce and help learners to develop positive self-esteem as well as improve their scores, or is that a myth?

Are we building from a safe foundation if we think that learners who believe they can succeed usually do better than those who doubt their own capability?

Is it also true that learners who have been bolstered by motivating feedback are more engaged, more active, more independent and more likely to cooperate with others?

Finally is it possible to give too much feedback? Does the proliferation of feedback we see in e-learning and other programmed materials actually advance or hinder learning? Can feedback actually hinder future performance? Doesn’t real feedback come as an integral part of learning in the form of the results we see when we practise? Can hearing how well you are doing at each small task or attempt be excessive? Is this type of augmented feedback during instruction exaggerated, unnatural and potentially damaging? Is it better to limit instructive feedback to every-so-often, and would the very limiting of the feedback itself lead to more rapid learning and mastery?

You can probably detect where my own beliefs lie, but it would be very interesting to have contemporary evidence to support or challenge their authenticity. I welcome you to comment using the form below.

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 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, 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, 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. 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 – 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.

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

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.