Kathy Sierra lives

Alan Levine walks to the platform. “Hi there,” he says, confessing to his email habit, the one that’s filled our email inboxes. Then suddenly, in true CogDog fashion, he introduces the speaker and quickly takes a seat. A truly modest man, and also one who like the rest of us is delighted to have this remarkable woman here with us to open this conference.


The Kathy Sierra story. It’s a dramatic narrative that’s had its share of tragedy–but I’m not going to rehearse that here. The real Kathy Sierra story is more a romance, in the older sense of a narrative of wonders and marvels, as well as in the newer sense of a love story. In many respects, Kathy Sierra is in love with love–that is, in love with the loyalty, delight, and sheer enlargement of being that the sense of sheer mastery generates in people. The thing we want to be really good at.

Now Kathy’s asked us to discuss what we wanted to be really, really good at but never quite got there. Chris and I say “guitar.” Leslie sighed and said “oh, men” and confessed her husband had a similar wish. Obviously she married a good man. But I digress.

Kathy’s talking now about mastery generating “high-resolution experience,” exactly what I tell my film studies students they will have after they’ve learned the language of film. They report that they actually *lose* resolution on the way to that learning, which I think is true and not just whingeing. There is a loss of deep experience on the way to certain kinds of mastery. This may explain why I’m neither an astronaut nor a guitar hero.

Ah, now Kathy’s got a slide of our “legacy brain,” the brain that focuses pretty relentlessly on food, tigers, and sex. Ergo, “brain and mind are in an epic battle.”  Our legacy brain’s spam filter is just too relentless, too narrow. (Funny, this is what I was trying to persuade my students of in the New Media Studies class last spring–trying to get them beyond the undoubtedly good study habits that have blocked creative wandering and curiosity.) Can we find a way to work with our legacy brain to get cognition and affect to work together to get us to our goals?

I can’t help pointing out the John Donne connection here. T. S. Eliot wrote this about Donne: “To Donne, a thought was an experience: it modified his sensibility.” And I think the process will work in reverse.

Kathy notes that we must choose our cognitive/affect triggers carefully so we encourage relevant practice and not irrelevant personal tangents. I agree, though there’s real artistry needed here, as that legacy brain spam filter will skew “relevance” toward very narrow channels if we’re not careful.

Great point here: adopting a more conversational voice triggers the hold-up-my-end-of-the-conversation reflex in our minds. We feel we’re in a real give-and-take, not simply a one-way broadcast. Now, dear reader, a thought experiment from Gardner: to what extent is Blackboard a “conversation”? To what extent were we in search of a conversational encounter in our schooling to begin with? If we’ve gotten the LMS we deserve, can we change course and strive to deserve something better? The problem, dear Brutus, is not in our LMSs, but in us….

If you were here, I bet you’d be in a good state of “flow” right now, with Kathy’s provocative, conversational presentation making all sorts of thoughts emerge from your stimulated mind. This is great stuff: Kathy Sierra teaches us about our legacy brains while getting past them in fine style. That’s a teacherly triumph.

And now she goes one better: she makes us stand up and stand on one foot. Then she tells us “you just got smarter,” since exercise is better than any puzzle at getting our brains to work better. Guess I’ll take that walk tomorrow morning.


Here’s the “superset game”: find the larger concern and blog/tweet about that. A corollary: find the pattern and shorten the duration to Gladwell’s “10,000 hours to mastery.” A Campbell observation: helping students find the larger concerns, find the patterns, and shorten the timeline to mastery (or at least discovery) is one of the teacher’s highest callings, and one of the teacher’s most valuable contributions. I don’t know who said it, but it’s true: “I can’t teach you anything; I can just save you some time.”

Now the plot thickens: Kathy says we should always be practicing. And here’s an opportunity for creativity: how can we shape the utility infrastructure of our environments so that it’s always giving us practice situations. Kathy bought a “personal scaffold” from Home Depot and arranged her workdesk so she’s practicing saddle time and getting better at horseback riding. Ingenious–a learning environment, cannily designed. There are obvious connections with the growing emphasis on the value and importance of informal learning. Constructing opportunities for practice–but opportunities embedded in lived environments, not just practice rooms.

Circling back now to the notion that new learning involves loss. We all fear going down to the “I’m no good” level again, which is what we confront when we upgrade software or tackle any new phase of learning. There’s a slide up there right now with a face-palm and a thought-bubble that says “I’m an idiot.” Evoking this response is what we must avoid. (I have to say it: the culture of expertise in school can sometimes seem aimed at evoking that very response–and the great ironic payback is the “imposter syndrome” that dogs all our steps as we do our best to avoid feeling we’re idiots. Could we not change this game? If we stop making students feel small and submissive in those destructive ways, will we gradually grow out of our own faculty fears and nagging imposter syndromes? These are complex pathologies without easy answers, but it’s urgent to talk about them.)

Oh, here’s an interesting thought: Kathy says there are no dumb questions *and no dumb answers*. This idea aligns beautifully with what Ken Robinson says about how kids will “have a go” even if they’re not sure what they should say. (But the big pushback here comes from the sciences, and I understand the response–what to do here?)

I must disagree with Kathy at this point. She says experts don’t remember how they suffered to acquire their knowledge. I suspect the opposite is true: the memory is so vivid that it generates some of those complex school pathologies.  The focus is then on the need for suffering instead of the need for joy, for wonder. I’m certain that that’s reductive on my part, but I’m not sure it’s entirely wrong.

The grand finale: total immersion jams. Yes! Only total immersion gets to peak experience. That was a big part of the all-night Milton readathon idea. Total immersion alters consciousness–and the alteration persists. Kathy talks about the Ad Lib Game Development Society. The idea is ABC. Always Be Closing. At the end of the total immersion, you have to have the product you came in to make. The 24-hour filmmaking festivals are great examples of challenge, constraint, and ABC.  “The surest way to guarantee nothing interesting happens is to assume you know exactly how to do it.” Kathy’s not sure who said that, but she loves it. So do I. Great and painful connections here to the pathologies of the culture of expertise. Expertise matters. It sure does. But the culture of expertise cannot be founded on the assumption that expertise means exact and final knowledge–or that school is a matter of transmitting that exact and final knowledge directly into legacy brains so they can spit it back at exam time.

Many thoughts, but even more yearnings after that keynote talk. Yearnings for real school. I’m not done with that hope. And a talk like Kathy Sierra’s keeps me pretty wound up about it.


One thought on “Kathy Sierra lives

  1. Pingback: Kathy Sierra and Thoughts on Professional Development « light in the shadows

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *