Capacity Development Work I've done

A Case Study in Immersion: the Centre for Experiential Learning


The Centre for Experiential Learning (CEL) project was one of the most exciting projects I’ve collaborated on. The goal of the CEL was to teach business improvement skills in the South African mining context. The revolutionary aspect of the CEL was the way in which experiential, immersive learning practices were used. This was a project that was four years in the making and a brilliant team  took the project to fruition. While the idea was similar to many model factories, it was the first time that such a system had been used in the mining context in South Africa.

What were some of the principles used when we designed it?

Show not tell: The CEL is a truly experiential environment where participants are exposed to a typical mining scene with room for improvement and are then given the tools to optimize the scene. The scene is played out in real life,  with actual actors presenting the scenes. Participants work together and provide instructions for actors to optimize this process.

Use of narrative: having actors act out “scenes” lends itself to the use of stories throughout the experience. The narrative arc was made more compelling because we used stories real stories from the field. The use of real stories meant that the content is richer and mirrors participant’s real life experiences. I’m quite proud of the fact that we created true scenarios with more than one path.

Use of immersion:  We created a business improvement games using augmented reality. This was a multiplayer game with teams competing to finish the business improvement challenge in real life. This provided a solid learning experience.  In the days of social media, it’s quite easy to forget that groups of people provide a great deal of the positive aspects of real-life social experiences.

Mirror the implementation context: One of the biggest challenge with business improvement is not that practioners don’t understand the business improvement concepts, it’s that they find it very difficult to sell these concepts to their peers. Participants were not only expected to use these tools, they were expected to work in a group and instruct actors on how to use them.

Providing a low-tech option: I’ve written before that I think that low tech curricula can provide high educational value. The CEL team proved this by providing a paper-based experiential curriculum that could be used at mining operations. This curriculum used many of the principles discussed above.



Does Duolingo Work?

children-593313_1920Duolingo is a really interesting language learning system because it’s game-based, consists of micro-lessons and caters for continuous learning. I’ve been interested in the system for a while and my visit to Barcelona provided me with an opportunity to use the app consistently to learn Spanish. I found it quite useful to compare this experience to my traditional classroom based language experiences. This is what I’ve learnt after a month of using the app consistently:

  • Learner motivation still contributes hugely to the effectiveness of a language learning system: The immediacy of needing to navigate a foreign country has been a far more effective form of motivation than learning a language which could perhaps be useful to me someday. This motivation means that I practiced consistently, which is half the battle  This huge motivation differential means that it’s not really fair to compare the gamified Spanish experience to the more traditional Portuguese classroom experience.
  • If you do want learners to practice, it’s important to be really specific about what you want them to do: When I was learning other languages, I’d spend valuable practice time trying to define what I needed to learn. This wastes time and is a further barrier to practicing. What I really like about Duolingo is that the entire course of study is decided for the learner when you open the app.
  • Continuous reinforcement is powerful in learning: I probably spend as much time per week learning Spanish as I did when I was going to weekly Portuguese classes. The only difference between two were the length and the frequency of practice. The small daily doses provided by Duolingo are really powerful.
  • Gamefication elements really work: My big problem with learning a language is that you get it wrong almost 25% of the time. In a classroom setting, this can be really daunting. The gamification elements of the app (for instance, the strong positive reinforcement you receive) really helped me to embrace getting it wrong.  I also like the instant feedback that the app provides.
  • It’s really weird not having the rules of the language explained to you: I like learning things that make logical sense. I feel a bit disconcerted not having the logic of tenses explained to me. However Duolingo means that you rely on your intuitive understanding of the language rather than overthinking it.

What was the result of my consistent use of Duolingo? Overall, Duolingo was an effective tool. I managed to do everything I needed to do in Barcelona. I was pleasantly surprised that I could understand complicated directions quite easily. However my spoken Spanish lagged my understanding of written and verbal Spanish considerably. I feel like this lag would have been less significant in traditional language classes. Overall, I suspect that the best way to learn a language is to combine traditional classes with something like Duolingo.


9 Ways I Grow My Brain During My Daily Routine

I’m really excited that The Financial Diet has published my piece “9 ways I grow my brain during my daily routine”. I have huge respect for Chelsea Fagan and all that she’s managed to achieve during the last two years and so I’m really excited that she published my piece. You can find the piece here

Capacity Development Learning

Low-Tech Gamification Ideas

Gamification is a very useful tool for designing curricula for adult learners. It promotes concentration and engagement with the subject matter. Even though gamification is often associated with technological solutions, elements of gamification can be usefully applied in low tech environments.  Here are some things that I remember when I design curricula in low tech environments


Refresh your understanding of the  MDA Framework: This framework was not written for electronic games per se and so many of the principles (showing progression, promoting learner investment and using narrative) can be applied in low-tech settings

Draw inspiration from board and card games: When I’m faced with a low-tech educational context, I go back to low tech game solutions. Card games and board games have kept people stimulated for ages before we had mobile games. Drawing inspiration from card and board games can include using a literal paper and pen game such as bingo, drawing on board-game design elements in the course materials or demonstrating class progression in a board-game style fashion.

Draw on the strengths in the educational learning environment: You’ve already noted the fact that there isn’t the technology available to implement the kind of fun gamification elements you would like. But what are the strengths of your situation? IS there a strong local tradition of oral story-telling? Can you use this to get participants to add to the narrative content of the curriculum (without appropriating) Is there a safe space outside which you could incorporate into a curriculum?

Involve participants in  crafting their own learning experience: Use live role-plays. Add a timekeeper on tasks to stimulate pressure. Simple things such as sound simulation can be provided by participants themselves.

Don’t be afraid to use a simple solution: Sometimes showing progression involves the facilitator drawing a training plan on a chalk-board and checking modules off as you go. Sometimes and educational game is a piece of paper used in bingo. Game-like sounds can be provided by participants themselves.

Capacity Development

Distance Learning

computer-1185626_1280Distance learning is cheaper than contact-based learning, has the potential to reach more students and can “slot” into working adult’s lives and so it is potentially part of the answer to our growing skills crisis.  In addition, it provides students with flexibility of subject choices which are not always offered in traditional learning structures Distance and online learning is currently under-utilized for adult skills development in South Africa.   Which strategies we use to improve a distance or online learning offering for adults in South Africa?

  • Improving the offering of UNISA: UNISA is the largest university in South Africa, but the learner experience at the institution is not always ideal. UNISA should scrap courses which are not useful, take advantage of modern e-learning methodologies and offer more short-term, skills based courses. A degree obtained through a distance learning institution may never be as through as a traditional degree, but there is far less prejudice around skills-based further education.
  • Use flipped classroom methodology to decrease the amount of class-room time to teach technical skills. Some things (like plumbing) require practical experience. Nevertheless, a flipped classroom technique can decrease the amount of (expensive) classroom time required.
  • Teach some skills online: Ensure that there is broad access to online skills development opportunities. Skills such as coding and web development are easy to learn online. Quantitative skills and language skills could both be taught online.

The popularity of forums such as Code Academy or the Open University in the United Kingdom show us that there is a scope for mass, web-based learning. We need to find a way to leverage these kinds of opportunities for South Africa.




Learning Uncategorized

Dealing with Cognitive Challenge in a curriculum



As discussed in the blog on deep work, valuable things are hard to learn. This does not mean that we should shy away from including them in a curriculum. Cal Newport’s book “be so good they can’t ignore you” provides useful pointers for incorporating deep work into a professional career.  I think that these ideas can be used to incorporate cognitively challenging things into a curriculum as well:

  • Distraction-free: When you’re covering hard things, make sure that you have a distraction-free classroom
  • Finite time for challenging tasks: It’s unreasonable to expect learners to engage in deep work/ cognitively challenging activities for 8 hours a day. Ensure that you have enough down-time or repetition incorporated into your curriculum
  • Ritualize the learning of hard things: Newport argues that some kind of ritual is a good way of tackling deep learning. Possible rituals could include a putting hard concepts at the beginning the day or ensuring that you start a hard section with a leg stretch.
  • Manage collaboration carefully: A great deal of deep work is individual, but many of the most successful deep work environments include some kind of team collaboration. Ensure that you think carefully about team work and individual work when tackling hard concepts
  • Focus on the important: Everything is not deep work and most curricula can survive being pared down somewhat. Ensure that every aspect of the curriculum adds to the main learning goal and ruthlessly cut anything that doesn’t
  • Measure: Track the time spent on cognitively challenging tasks and make it public. Provide learners with a clear understanding of how they are doing and areas where they may need to spend more time.

Deep Work

 Cal Newport is a professor at MIT and, as a side hobby, studies deep work for knowledge workers as a side hobby. His philosophy is simple: the ability to do cognitively difficult things will become increasingly valuable in our economy. In fact it’s the only way to make sure that you are not replaced by a robot. He argues that many of the work that is performed in offices today, is of negligible economic value. Many of his ideas may be usefully applied to curriculum design.

Whilst his ideas about the nature of modern work are interesting, I am more interested in the concept of Deep Work itself.  In his book “deep work” he describes deep work as” professional activities performed in a state of distraction free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to the limit”.

This is interesting to me, because he’s being explicit about something we often gloss over. Sometimes (often) learning new things is hard. Learning new things often requires a cognitive stretch, which may have an emotional impact. When we are used to working for 10 hour days and so do not understand how two hours spent on learning a new language can be so taxing. . When we learn truly new things, it’s hard. We are often inadequate at the beginning and then improve slowly.

What I like about Cal Newport is that he doesn’t try and put a plaster over this by pretending that cognitively hard things can be made easier. Instead, he argues that state of cognitive strain is exactly what is required to push us to excel. He argues that this work is valuable, that it is hard and that it is rare. He argues that the ability to work in a state of cognitive stretch for a sustained period of time helps one to produce quality work for a sustained period of timePlaceholder Image


Mindset: Tackling the Challenge of Adult Learner Motivation



We all know that we learn better when we want to learn, and the evidence suggests that learner motivation promotes learning outcomes.  Most instructional designers agree that learner motivation promotes learning outcomes. When designing programmes for adult learners, learner motivation becomes particularly important. Training exercises have to compete with the complicated circumstances that adult learners bring to training such as work and family committments. Adult learners have often had bad experiences with previous training experiences which also have an impact on their willingness to go through another potentially disappointing training exercise. We only need to have a look at the retention rates for most MOOCS to see the effect that levels of motivation have on training. While some of this could be explained by learners discovering that the material is genuinely not useful, some of this could be explained by learner motivation

Carol Dweck’s theory of mindset helps to explain resilience in learners and why some learners give up and some continue. Dweck describes two mind-sets: a fixed mind-set and a growth mind-set.

  • People with a fixed mind-set generally believe that their cognitive ability and personality traits are what they are. Furthermore, failure is seen as a judgement on their worth.
  • People with growth mind-sets generally believe that their cognitive ability and personal attributes are flexible. Failure is often re-positioned as a challenge.

Clearly adults with a growth mind-set may be more able to surmount the set-backs that are associated with being an adult learner. Luckily, it is possible for an individual to shift their mindset. Because minds-set has a probable influence on learner motivation, it is useful for instructional designers to understand.  Ideas for dealing with the mind-set challenge when designing curricula for adult learners

  • Address the mindset challenge straight on: educate your learners about growth and fixed mindsets, encourage them to take online tests (like this one).
  • Be explicit about the cognitive load involved in training: explaining that a section of a course involves a cognitive stretch and why that is so, helps learners to turn on their growth mindset .
  • Ensure that the problem-solving nature of the course is clear: learning should not be positioned as a black box with an “A”  for compliance at the end. Your training should encourage learners to develop and share their own problem solving process.
  • Give feedback that enhances the learner’s problem-solving process: Ensure that learners can incorporate feedback into their problem-solving process. For example, instead of saying “this answer is not correct” you can say “consider these adjustments to your problem solving process ”