Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Disdaining an Emerging Innovation: Why That Makes Sense

It makes sense for mainstreamers to ignore or disdain emerging innovations, especially those that eventually trigger revolutions:

Odds Are Against Any One Innovation Being Any Good: First, overwhelming numbers of innovations turn out not to have been worth attention.

It is a Poor Imitation:  The most revolutionary and disruptive innovations can, in their infancy, appear like a cheap imitation of the real thing, a fraud perpetrated on the uninformed.  As Clayton Christensen has illustrated with cases from many fields, disruptive innovations often get their initial foothold as cheap, low value products or services that, initially, are only used by people who can't or won't get the real thing.  (Of course, this is one of the things the early adopters love: its ability to engage those who have previously been excluded.)  For example,
  • Personal computers began their evolution as cheap toys that were laughably called microcomputers.  
  • In its early days, the World Wide Web would never have been used by anyone could find (far better) information in a real library.
  • When Socrates tried to imagine educational uses of reading, he assumed the document would be read without conversation, writing, or any other activity.  The reader would only be able to repeat what had been read, fooling himself and others into thinking he had learned something.  Real learning, Socrates argued, could only come from rigorous dialogue.
It Seems Like a Dodge to Increase the Innovator's Status: As Elting Morison pointed out decades ago, many advocates of emerging innovations are the young or outsiders who don't have what it takes to climb the ladder in the normal way.  (Or at least that is how they are seen by the people who already have climbed that ladder.) The innovation is merely a cheap trick for gaining power.

The innovation will corrupt the young: Learning the mainstream practice requires extensive training, selfless behavior, courage, hard-won experience, and deep understanding.  Climbing the traditional ladder has been ennobling.  In contrast, the innovation lets the young achieve miracles without effort. So they will never acquire the deep understanding and moral strength that can only be developed by learning in the traditional way.  Elting Morison described how this fear motivated officers of the US Navy in the 19th century to violently oppose a new technology that made it extraordinarily easy to aim and fire guns at 100 times the traditional range.

The Innovation Poses a Real Threat:  Disruptive innovations eventually wreck and replace a whole chain of jobs and companies.  That's what 'disruptive' means. Think of Tower Records, Blockbuster Video, and Borders Books. Their former employees all lost their jobs.  Economist Joseph Schumpeter called this creative destruction because it creates opportunities and resources for better ways of doing things. But, when you're an insider, creative destruction is still destruction.

It's rational to ignore any innovation. And the greater the innovation's potential for transformation and disruption the more reasonable it is for many people to ignore or oppose it.

Christiansen, Clayton, THE INNOVATOR'S DILEMMA

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Questions: When good 'teaching' can defeat learning

What is it called when a student sits listening to lectures week after week, thinking, "Yes I understand." But suddenly, in a later lecture, homework assignment, project or test, the student realizes. "I'm completely lost!"  

Is there a name for the student's delusion of understanding? or for the sickening realization that it was indeed a delusion?  It's such a common phenomenon, but I don't know what to call it. 

Ironically, this phenomenon may be most common when the lecturer is "good" in a traditional way: crystal clear in explaining things, visibly caring about students, perhaps charismatic and riveting.  

There's another learning problem, also unnamed, that can afflict students of particularly good professors. I still have it often myself. The lecturer makes a provocative point, and I start thinking about it. A moment or two later I suddenly begin hearing the lecture again and, if I'm unlucky, am completely lost - for a few minutes and sometimes for the remainder of the talk. It happens to me all the time at conferences. I wonder how often it happens to students? Does it happen more often to good students who are really actively listening?   Is there anything a faculty member can do to give students the time needed to process what they've just heard before trying to cram more invaluable information and insight into their short term memories?  Please post a comment or send me an email.