Tag Archives: Learning

When life gives you class vi rapids…

In conversation I tend to be as direct as tact will allow.  So you’d think blogging would be even easier, right?  Not for me.  I want to write about the deep and shallow things of life, but I over the last year I have stopped short several times of actually posting, for fear I’d say too much, reveal too much or offend someone I care for.  But the real reason is that I feel like I’ve been paddling through serious white water for the last year, and blogging, journaling, or even simply taking a quiet solitary walk haven’t been on the table as serious options.

On July 6th, 2010, I was sitting in an office at the Sommet Group, in Franklin, TN.  The developers had become aware that layoffs were coming, and most – if not all – of us would be let go.  One of my fellow developers had left for an interview and texted me as he left the building: “At least a dozen FBI are headed into the building!”  I knew in my gut that they were bound for Sommet, though I couldn’t tell you why.  It turns out the our CEO had been embezzling money.  Sommet handled payroll for other small businesses, and we were apparently taking their money and instead of funding payroll taxes, IRAs, medical insurance, FSAs, etc., our CEO was using it to subsidize a failing business unit along with a lavish lifestyle.  So we weren’t just in trouble for our own company’s delinquency, but for dozens of others.  Employees from across those small businesses (including Sommet) were discovering that their retirement, medical insurance and other benefits weren’t actually being funded, though the money was being withheld from their checks.

So.  FBI *and* IRS agents raided our office that Tuesday.  They were very nice, but it was a serious situation.  I literally left my post-raid interview with the FBI and headed straight to a job interview at a consulting company in Nashville – talk about context switching!  Thank God my good friend Garry Kean was in town – I was able to talk to him at Starbucks for a few minutes prior to my job interview.

The ensuing job search was rough.  Sommet didn’t pay us the last two paychecks, and despite recruiters promising “Sure, there are plenty of senior level jobs in Nashville”, none materialized.  I secured some side work that would help keep us afloat, but it wasn’t much.  At the end of July, at the recommendation of my good friend and former Sommet co-worker, Alex, I interviewed with a company in Chattanooga, TN.  They offered me right in the range I needed – and they were the only offer I’d had since Sommet collapsed, so we were Chattanooga-bound.


It’s been interesting.  Chattanooga is a good city overall – lots of interesting things to do, great restaurants and it’s small.  We love living on Signal Mountain, and I work with some very good people.  I would never have considered the job here if Alex hadn’t recommended I interview – and getting the chance to continue working with him has truly been one of the most rewarding things about the new job. 

But I’m also not going to lie – it’s been a tough year.  Our first six months was overshadowed by an awful rental house.  My second full month on the job saw my team working loads of overtime, so I was practically gone the whole month.  If we haven’t been travelling, we’ve been sick, vice versa, and sometimes both.  Making friends has been a challenge as well.  We’re still looking for a church (thought we’d found a good one, but alas no).  Steph has met more people than I have.  I’m extremely thankful for friends like Jon – though he lives in Nashville, we’ve stayed in regular contact and have managed some visits as well, and Alan.  You don’t replace the network of family and friends that was built across 15 years very easily, if at all.


I’m thankful for a good job – and one that continually challenges me to step up in my skills.  There’s still the interesting dynamic, though, of working alongside people who wanted to move to Chattanooga and plan to retire here, whereas I would’ve never considered it outside the events of last summer.  In the words of Gomez, “I’m just as lost as you are” – especially when it comes to what lies ahead.  It’s been tough having to lay aside so many things I love – writing and recording, camping, and others.  I don’t see an end to the white water just yet, but I still have the paddle in a firm grip….

The 2 Sigma Problem

thinking_man In my last post I discussed Benjamin Bloom and how Bloom’s Taxonomy can be a guide to helping us determine if we’ve truly learned something, as well as give us objectives in helping others learn concepts in such a way that they can understand, apply, analyze and improvise them.  Throughout Bloom’s career he sought to better understand what factors led to students excelling and achieving the objectives of their curriculums.   In his book “Developing Talent in Young People”, Bloom demonstrated that famous high-achieving adults were rarely considered child prodigies.  The difference “was the kind of attention and support those individuals received at home from their parents…they realized goals born of guidance rather than raw genetic capacity.  Attainment was a product of learning, and learning was influenced by opportunity and effort. It was then, and is now, a powerful and optimistic conception of the possibilities that education provides.”  In other words, Bloom argued that environment and not genetics was the biggest factor in helping a student reach their potential in learning.

The type of environment necessary for reaching full potential matters a lot.  In 1984, Bloom published an article entitled “The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring.”  In short, 3 learning environments were compared:

  1. Conventional – roughly 30 students per teacher, periodic tests given.
  2. Mastery Learning – roughly 30 students per teacher learn the material in a classroom setting (like above) .  However, the tests (like those in the Conventional class) are used to give feedback which is immediately followed by corrective procedures and ‘parallel formative tests’.
  3. Tutoring – Usually one (sometimes 2-3) student(s) learned the material from a good tutor.  Tutoring instruction was “followed periodically by formative tests, feedback corrective procedures, and parallel formative tests”.

These studies found that the average student in the tutoring group  was two standard deviations (or 2 sigma) above the average student in the conventional group – meaning that they were above 98% of the  conventional students.  (The average student in the mastery learning group was 1 sigma above the average student in the conventional group – or above 84% of the conventional group.)


In light of these findings, Bloom wrote:

“The tutoring process demonstrates that most of the students do have the potential to reach this high level of learning.  I believe an important task of research and instruction is to seek ways of accomplishing this under more practical and realistic conditions than the one-to-one tutoring, which is too costly for most societies to bear on a large scale.  This is the ‘2 sigma’ problem.”

I had three immediate reactions to Bloom’s statement.  First, I am more determined than ever to be heavily involved in tutoring my children regardless of whether we go with a home school, private school or public school approach.  Second, what does it say about our society that even the home cannot be a “safe bet” for one-to-one tutoring?  Regardless of the reasons, I am troubled that an entire value system has been built that deems it “too costly” for us to bear.  I wonder what the general attitude and level of education in our nation would be if families didn’t assume that education was something to be outsourced to an already overburdened and complicated public school system?  Third, it struck me in the context of workplace mentoring.  How often do I make myself available to be a mentor for junior software developers?  How often am I seeking out other senior developers or managers to mentor me?

What about you?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Do you seek out mentors in the workplace?  Have you been a mentor?  How did that work?  What helped it happen?  What undermined it?

The Curious Case of Benjamin Bloom

How do we learn?  What constitutes comprehension of a particular subject?  What about mastery and the ability to improvise?  These kinds of questions trail about behind me constantly like the wake of a high speed boat.  I love to learn, and I discover more every day about how I best acquire certain types of skills.  Early on in life, I developed ‘tricks’ to memorize facts, and even entire pages of words.  My tactics were nothing more than brute force memorization, and I quickly abandoned them as I matured and became convinced that the real test of my knowledge and comprehension lie in whether or not I could extrapolate and improvise based on prior knowledge, and not simply repeat facts.

In a recent discussion with my sister (a school teacher with her Masters in Education) on this very subject, I learned about Benjamin Bloom.  In 1956, Bloom – an educational psychologist – proposed a structure to help identify the process of learning and assist teachers in formulating objectives to help guide students through each phase of learning, and not inadvertently mire them in the early stages of the process.  This structure became known as “Bloom’s Taxonomy” (of the cognitive domain).  In short, he theorized that learning moves through the following processes:

  1. Knowledge – ability to recall data from memory.
  2. Comprehension – ability to construct meaning from learned data, understand & interpret the facts.
  3. Application – solving new problems by using the acquired knowledge in new ways.
  4. Analysis – ability to examine and break down information into parts, identify causes & find evidence to support new conclusions.
  5. Synthesis – compile information together in different ways to create new patterns & solutions.
  6. Evaluation – defend conclusions and make judgments on the validity of ideas or quality of work.

In the 1990’s, Lorin Anderson – a student of Blooms’, came up with a “revised” taxonomy, which can be seen on the right below:

Bloom’s Taxonomy Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy
blooms_taxonomy1 image


So – how does this apply to us in our daily lives?  Two experiences from my work as a software developer come to mind.  Several years ago, the company I worked for hired a mid-level developer for the team I ran.  This person held two degrees in IT, had a good resume and a good attitude.  However, it became apparent early on that they were simply repeating steps they had learned in school, but didn’t understand development at a conceptual level – at least not enough to improvise and create without immediate supervision.  In a different instance, the company hired a junior developer.  It’s expected in these circumstances to have a lot of close supervision, but over the first year on the job this developer didn’t progress past the basic steps of following pre-determined instructions.  In both cases, the most damaging fact was that neither truly grasped that they weren’t strong enough on concepts; they thought reproducing someone else’s steps was sufficient.

Whether I’ve been in an official leadership position or not, I’ve tried to better understand how I can help people in those positions grow past “rote-based” work ethic into what I believe is not only a higher standard of excellence and quality of work, but also a much more fulfilling career.  I admit it’s difficult for me to relate at times.  For me, the first criteria I hold myself to on whether or not I truly understand a concept is if I can create something original using that knowledge.  In one of the cases mentioned above, the developer was motivated when they moved into an even more demanding consulting job.  In the other case, the developer was motivated when their job was a stake.  Their reactions are understandable, since motivational sources are as unique as personalities.  The members of the team I am currently part of are motivated by a love for learning (as am I).  I think this pays the highest dividends both for the individual employee and the company.  Employees who love to learn are rarely ever the kind of employees who need to be closely supervised (for wasted time or productivity), and they’re very likely to truly love what they do – which results in higher morale, greater productivity and cutting edge innovation.