The Radical Learning Exchange

Houston Language Partners Initiative

A learning exchange seminar at the public library.

I decided to come up for air this week long enough to write another blog.  (Yes, it’s been a while!)  I’m going to approach this topic for now from my perspective when dealing with a select few who, for whatever reason, don’t get the idea of free learning exchange.  The overwhelming majority I’ve encountered so far have been enthusiastic, but on those rare occasions when the idea has been met with disdain or indifference, I always wonder why.  What is it that bothers them?

The idea of learning exchange as it pertains to languages between adults has been around for years (if you’re reading my blog, chances are you’ve already heard the phrase “language exchange” across the internet), and the idea of a time bank barter system for services has been around at least since the early 1800’s.

Yet, most people today don’t think in terms of bartering services (or if they do, they have problems finding others who do), and almost no one thinks in terms of bartering knowledge other than languages (except on LRNGO of course!).  So why is that?

When I originally introduced the idea of a peer to peer language exchange community matchmaking program to a local library recently, the idea was met with “we already have a class for that.” “Really?”, I said, “that’s awesome.”  I soon found out she was referring to Spanish and English classes.

She couldn’t fathom, no matter how much I explained it, that 1. there could be a structure for people to match up and learn from each other 2. practicing one-to-one could bridge the disconnect between learning of the subject matter and the actual use in real world situations and 3. people would voluntarily match up to teach their native language in exchange for learning a second language from another person.

In short, I was unable to convince her of the value of learning exchange or to understand the dynamic of bio-feedback that is different when people learn from each other one-to-one.

“Of course, it doesn’t mean the classroom isn’t valuable,” I said, “in fact for many subjects, a structured curriculum is most highly recommended for a basic foundation.  However in those cases, people also almost always benefit from practice and additional feedback of one-to-one learning.  This is why tutors are so popular.” (Blank stare.)

The same week, I had another person tell me that language exchange sounds like a crazy idea because we would be trying to change people’s behavior, so he would need to see data to show that anyone would do it.  (I started to tell him about the 16 million users who at one time were doing it regularly on LiveMocha and other websites too numerous to mention, but decided to drop the subject when he said he had never heard of eBay.)

Finally, I got a very interesting response from a program coordinator at a large church when we talked to her about the idea of bringing a language exchange matching program for Spanish and English to their split congregation as a fun social and educational bridge.  “No thank you,” she said, “we like things the way they are.”  (It was the second part of that sentence that surprised me.  You can draw your own conclusions.)

So why does the idea seem so heretical to some to create a structure for people to match up and learn from each other?  At first, I thought perhaps it was because the idea that one can learn outside of a classroom (ie: the idea that learning takes place everywhere–insert annoying Alanis Morrissette song here) in some people’s minds competes with traditional learning—but as I poked and prodded the uninitiated nay-sayers, it became evident that was acceptable.  They generally got the idea of personal tutors, mentors and coaches—at least as classroom supplements, if not substitutes.

No, as I drilled down to the root of the issue in the case of the people above, it became evident that they started to feel uncomfortable when we removed both volunteerism and currency from the transaction.  They “get” the volunteering and they “get” paying, but for them, bartering knowledge was just a radical concept.

Daniel Ariely’s book “Predictably Irrational” offers some insight. Ariely argues that we live in two worlds simultaneously: The “Market World” where everything is rooted in the exchange of money, goods, competition and cost/benefit analysis; and the “Social World,” where we do favors for other people, and volunteer for charity and community organizations.

Ariely has a useful example to illustrate what happens when you mix the market world with the social world: A day care center was discontent that parents picked up their children late, so they introduced a fine to solve the problem—but instead of reducing the rate of late pickups, the rate rose higher.

Why? By introducing a fine, the day care center switched from the “Social World” to the “Market World,” and the parents felt it was ok to pick up their children late because they paid for it.  For the people I mentioned above, the concept of trading and exchanging knowledge took their social world and their market world, and turned them upside down.

This actually bugged me for a while.  Not because these people would never become LRNGO users (believe me, we don’t have room for everybody yet so I’m just fine with that), but sub-consciously I felt like I should be able to get everyone in the world to see the value in this.  I had shown them real people (both through our seminars and on LRNGO) who made lifelong friends through this process, people who had learned and achieved their goals, and people who thanked us for providing a no cost educational opportunity–all to no avail.

Then I remembered what else these people had in common.  They had never tried it.  In all of our speed-friending events and seminars we’ve ever given for learning exchange, the only complaint I’ve ever heard (other than parking) was that the event and time to meet people is too short.  After trying it, even those who don’t find the right match at first realize the value and opportunity that await when they do.  (It’s like “dating for the mind.”)

I remember one of our speakers, a multi-linguist who speaks seven languages (all learned through language exchange) passionately telling people if they try this, they won’t look at learning the same.  I heard from a member of the audience two months later who told me she found a language partner that night, and they were still meeting once a week…and I remembered his words, “Don’t talk about it, do it–it’s all around you, find someone and learn!”  The idea of social learning and learning exchange may be radical, but an idea is only valuable if you do it.

I no longer feel the need to convert those who are uninspired to the learning exchange concept, because I know they are inspired by other things.  Things they’ve done, things they know about, and things they’ve tried.  The next time I try to tell someone about something I’ve experienced that holds value to me, I’ll remember that too is an exchange, and not every exchange is the right match.  (But when it is, it’s magic.)  :-)

If you’re in the Houston area, feel free to contact me.  I would be happy to do a short 15 minute workshop to set up a learning exchange environment in any adult classroom.

Knowledge is a Commodity

So I started thinking about how to explain what brought me to the conclusion that knowledge is a commodity and how LRNGO.com was going to implement a platform for this, and I realized that it has actually been a common theme throughout my life.  Of course, the purpose of this blog is not to bore you with my life story, but…well, too bad I’m going to bore you with my life story.  :-)

It all started with music. Like a lot of kids, I gravitated towards what I was good at.  In my case, when I was growing up and heard songs I liked on the radio, I could usually play & sing them by hearing them.  It was just something I did and enjoyed without very much difficulty.  When I “learned,” it was because I was either learning through private instruction, or performing with others who were older and better than me.  Research was practicing, learning from an instructor was training, but playing for and with others actually “doing it” was social and learning at the same time.  That’s what provided the benchmarks, as well as the impetus for me to research and train harder.

This early experience eventually led me to write a thesis called “All the World is a Stage: the Dynamics of One on One Training vs Group Immersion.”  The idea is that you train more intensely one on one so you can interact at a higher level when you are in a social group, and the larger the group (or “stage” so to speak – expandable up to the whole world), the more competition, and therefore the more intensely you train.  I hypothesized that one could apply this to all forms of learning; everything from the Olympics to languages (ie: if you are in France, you will not only learn French quicker because you are there “doing it,” but also because you will try harder to learn when you are training).

Whether or not the idea that effort or assimilation is directly proportionate to competition and size of a group is flawed, what I found interesting was the extent to which these dynamics feed off of each other and how they are inter-related, and the percentages of learning that take place in social group or immersion settings vs one on one training vs research/practice.  At the time though, I didn’t acknowledge the extent to which one on one learning is also social–which brings me back to…that’s right, my boring life story.  :-)  (Stay with me here, it will all make sense.)

I earned money to go to college by gigging in professional bands the summer before and the summer after my first year of college.  Without getting into how much I learned performing vs how much I learned in school (almost equal but very different), at that time, I chose to continue to play professionally rather than complete my degree.  However, a few years later as a professional, I found myself having to compete with better players on larger stages, and felt like I would have also greatly benefited from a strong university program.  Unfortunately, the choices at that point weren’t good for a working musician.  To stop working full-time and go into debt for school was not a viable option on a musician’s salary.

Looking back now, the situation reminds me of a story I heard.  There was this guy who wanted to go to MIT (skip ahead if you’ve heard this one before) but couldn’t get in and didn’t have the money.  He borrowed a small amount to attend a nearby Art Institute and learned how to create a very realistic school ID.  He used his skills to manufacture one for MIT and attended their classes, and although he never got credentials on paper, once he started working in the real world no one cared.  He took his studies seriously, and became a good enough software engineer that he always had work.  He had no money, learned, and ultimately beat the system.  (I wouldn’t have tried this myself, because with my luck I would have just ended up in the slammer owing a lot of money to MIT!)

So I didn’t plan anything near as devious, but I did contact the professor at my target university who was the head of the department directly.  I explained the situation to see if he would teach me privately, and he did.  I learned the curriculum directly from him (a credit to both his goodwill and teaching ability), and reaped the benefits in less than one third the time at a small fraction of the cost.  What I didn’t realize at the time, was that I had also accidentally learned how to teach the curriculum that he taught me.  I found this out later, and then began teaching what I knew to others through private lessons.

From that experience, the questions eventually started pouring into my head.  How closely are learning something and learning how to teach it related?  Was it just me, or can anyone transfer one to the other? (Still an ongoing question BTW.)  If I learn “how to teach”, can I then teach anything I learn?  For me it stood to reason the answer was yes, but I wanted to find out.  I did, and eventually became a full-time instructor.

At one point I may have gone a bit far in my experiments, and I began teaching in classrooms when I had little (ok no) credentials for this.  I did know the subject, but had no classroom experience or training, so I decided to do some preliminary consulting with the best classroom teachers I could find to learn a thing or two before going in.  After a couple weeks, I quickly found a job where they had been through three teachers in the past 18 months (it turned out none of them could keep the class engaged – baptism by fire!), and I just started “doing it.”  Sure I made mistakes in the beginning, but I made sure to document everything and keep track of what was working and why.  In the end, I turned out to be the first teacher for that subject and in that school location they had ever considered successful, and I continued at the school for two years.

As another side note (can I do that?  Where is the blog handbook…): I have to say IMHO other than knowing the subject matter, a short stint in comedy turned out to be the best training possible for me as an uninitiated teacher going into a first time classroom setting.  Not to entertain or even to keep attention of the class, but because it constantly makes one hyper-sensitive to gauging audience reaction and instantly knowing if they are “with you” and “getting” what you’re saying.  In comedy, if the audience doesn’t understand or “get” something, seconds seem like hours, so you learn to redirect them and communicate very quickly in a different way that makes you understood or else you “die.”  If I had one bit of out of the box thinking advice to universities, I would encourage experimenting with limited standup comedy training in education curriculums and then measuring results.  (I’d be very interested to know if anyone is actually out there doing that!)

Anyway, all that is to say, my own private instruction experiences ultimately weren’t just social because I was interacting with another person when learning, but because there was also a paying it forward aspect from teaching others in turn.

And so it went: from martial arts to business accounting to running a record label, I always felt like given time and money limitations, I got more bang for my buck by just doing things and paying an expert of my choosing to teach me how.  This, in turn, also helped the individual instructor to supplement their income at a time and location that was convenient for them, and eventually enabled me to pass on to others what I had learned in the new role of instructor.  No, it shouldn’t be the only way—but it should be a choice everyone has—whether used to supplement their classroom experience, or to learn a new skill on the side.  It is the future, and the future of education will be about choices.