The Three-Minute Lesson that Saved My Life

David Grebow Blog 3-27The last new thing I learned was last week. I was sitting in the parking lot at the shopping center, vaguely listening to Car Talk on National Public Radio. One of the Tappet brothers said something like, “I bet you really never learned to fix those side view mirrors you use all the time.” I perked up when he said “So listen up, we’ll fix that right now.” The lesson was in real time and took all of three minutes. After 20 or so years of driving, I learned how to adjust my side view mirrors perfectly (a revelation!), and realized that I had been dancing with a collision for years, from driving with huge blind spots on BOTH sides of my car since cars now pass on the left and right.

The point is not that I learned to save myself and my precious passengers from a screeching metal crunching accident (or worse).  The point is that I learned something important in 3 minutes. I took a radio course on “Correctly Using Your Side View Mirrors 101”. No test. No classroom. No clock. No computer in sight.

What does that say about chunking courses into smaller units? What shall we call them? We don’t have a good agreed-upon name for these chunks yet. And I’ve heard them referred to as “learning nuggets,” “courselets, “ learnlets,” ”microlearning,” and more. For now let’s just determine what they are, and if they might be a useful part of learning in your future.

Some background

Chunking is a concept that was originally coined by Harvard psychologist George A. Miller in 1956[1]. Simply stated, George discovered that the human memory can most easily shuttle 5 plus or minus 2 numbers and/or letters from short-term to long-term memory. It was most famously used by AT&T which, in 1957 when phones were no longer a ‘new’ technology and were exponentially increasing, changed the alphanumeric phone dialing system from 2L-4N numbers to 2L-5N. Five numbers preceded by two letters.[2]

Until the close of the 20th century, with the growth of the neurosciences and cognitive psychology, learning was a phenomenon observed from the outside in. The ideas for pedagogy and andragogy resulted more from the needs of teachers than their students. Did you ever notice that every classroom in the world has a clock? The course length was set in the late 1800s and was called a Carnegie Unit[3]. Each unit was 55 minutes during which a single subject was taught. There have been many attempts to change it since then, and they all failed for a variety of reasons. The reason that seems to be the most important is the lack of supporting tools.

Today, we have a host of tools to make that ‘chunkier’ vision of learning a reality. And with the disappearance of the Carnegie Unit, we also can now let go of the long form course, and replace it with short chunks of learning. Chunks that take a few minutes, and teach things you need to know or know how to do.

The world used to be my oyster. Today it has become my classroom. Technology is transforming the way we find knowledge and know-how. “Google it,” for example, is now a phrase spoken around the world. The old model (actually not really even that old) was bricks and mortar solid, tradition-bound, and all too often hierarchical (Pre-K – 12 schools, 2-year colleges, 4-year universities, corporate universities). It was an impediment to learning, and often disabled the much older natural learning process. Until a few years ago, it was the best we could do.

Some Foreground

Then along came the internet and what followed was an explosion of new ways to learn that did not use the long form course. The list is already long and getting longer every day. Social learning, online cohorts, mLearning, Communities of Practice, performance support systems, expert locators, podcasts and videocasts. Now there’s augmented reality showing you how a place looked like before you were born. You can take a picture of a leaf and use those pixels to find the name of the plant. You can record a birdsong and use it to bring up a picture with information about the bird. And don’t forget Khan Academy and MOOCs with some subjects taught in 1-2 minutes, and most others in 10- to 15-minute chunks. I cannot wait for what’s next ….

The new models – including Relationship Centered Learning  studied and reported on by Brandon Hall Group – are all about peer-to-peer learning, continuous learning, and learning moments, like sitting in your car learning to properly adjust your side view mirrors.  I may not get any certificate or other rewards but I may just save my life. That’s one chunk worth learning.




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