artist / designer


active learning

A timeless way to hone human skills

Peer learning conversations encourage caring, curiosity, creativity, confidence and contribution.

We see a steady stream of reports on the future of work that call for human skills development. Unlike technical skills, human skills are difficult to teach. Skills that involve social interaction and thinking evolve over a lifetime, from the playground to the workplace and beyond.

How can this natural learning process be accelerated? Some futurists see training simulations and online courses as a preferred path to developing greater empathy, imagination and resilience: “No need to wrestle with messy, real life situations—you can learn to negotiate with avatars!”

Peer learning is radically human and timeless

Before we place too much faith in simulations, let’s examine the benefits of more integrated, lifelong, human-to-human approaches. What if we learned human skills from interacting with real people? What if we learned how to extract more wisdom from our everyday work experiences?

And what if everyone had equal access to human skills development? Rather than depend primarily on costly, exclusive training models, we can draw from timeless ways of absorbing life’s deeper lessons.

Indigenous learning circles, for example, respect everyone who gathers to talk through their real life experiences. In contrast to isolated training events, these ongoing conversations enrich participants’ understanding of diverse viewpoints. They encourage caring, curiosity, creativity, confidence and contribution.

What if we build on the concept of these traditional learning circles combined with the Japanese notion of Ba, (shared space for enriching relationships and knowledge)? Should we be looking to age-old, face-to-face ways of interacting? How radically human!

Instead of relying on artificial training situations to change our lifelong habits of interaction, why not learn by reflecting on our real, messy, everyday experiences? How radically timeless!

Be a student of human nature

people at Light Fest_2

Today we can all benefit by becoming students of human nature. Each day is filled with opportunities to improve how we relate to others. But we need to know what to look for in order to extract the most valuable lessons.

Mindful learning from daily experience can become a habit. These five questions help us diagnose what’s really going on:

Learn more_questions


Most of the knowledge we need to do our work is learned informally. To thrive in an unpredictable world, we can make the most of these informal learning opportunities.


Above quote is from The Economist article: ” Lifelong learning is becoming an economic imperative

photo at top: “Run Beyond” by Angelo Bonello, Italy, taken at Light Fest 2017, Distillery District in Toronto

-Sharon VanderKaay


Design thinking at work

Learning Faster from Experience_16_1
An active learning approach to design thinking

Design thinking helps us get unstuck. It reveals hidden options so we can take action with greater confidence and impact.

Active learning (vs. passive learning) is a mindful approach to leveraging on-job experience.

When we combine active learning with design thinking, we have a powerful framework for continuous progress.

Learning Faster from Experience_vanderpalette

As the integration of AI grows in every kind of job, human-centric skills are in growing demand. But critical thinking, judgment and decision making are difficult to teach.

Design thinking offers an optimistic, strengths-based approach to learning. It works because it encourages our natural human curiosity. In essence, we can learn to design our way through messy situations at work—while staying one step ahead of the robots.

Here’s a slide summary of these concepts:

What questions should we be asking? Taking the “lug” out of luggage

luggage rejectionGame-changing ideas are often ignored, rejected or met with a shrug. How can better questions open eyes, hearts and minds to new ways of doing things?

My favorite example of rejection (followed by slow acceptance, then, “I can’t imagine the old way!”) is the introduction of wheeled luggage. Who needed this simple invention? As it turned out, everybody did. Would anyone buy a suitcase without wheels today? Well, maybe those folks who assembled the vintage collection I saw in a Chicago hotel lobby (photo above).

Each time my recipe for social learning is rejected, I remind myself of this story: 

Bernard D. Sadow had a bright idea while shuffling through U.S. customs on his way back home from a family vacation: What if…what if this suitcase had wheels?

Did weary travelers and eager retailers rise up and cheer when Bernie began pitching his liberating idea? Nope. At first he encountered only shrugs and naysayers.

For many months after receiving his patent in 1972, Bernie Sadow’s idea of a wheeled suitcase (pulled by a loose strap) was rejected. As he rolled his sample from meeting to meeting with various department stores, he was greeted with indifference. Eventually he sold his invention to Macy’s, and the market grew quickly as this story in The New York Times recounts.

But it wasn’t until 1987 that Northwest Airlines pilot Robert Plath invented the roll-aboard suitcase which was pulled in an upright position using a long handle. Plath at first sold his Rollaboard to crew members, then his invention became a hit with passengers who saw it in use by flight attendants.

The initial rejection of wheeled luggage demonstrates a pattern of clinging to the old, difficult way when a better way may be under our noses. What kinds of questions would have changed how people viewed such an opportunity for innovation? What questions would have exposed unmet needs?

As The New York Times reported in 2010:  “Mr. Sadow recalled the strong resistance he met on those early sales calls, when he was frequently told that men would not accept suitcases with wheels. “It was a very macho thing,” he said.”

Examples of design thinking questions that would have been eye-opening at the time:

  1. What are the trends in air travel and ground transport linkage (from travelers’ perspective)?
  2.  How could the experience of moving luggage be improved?
  3.  What gender (and other) assumptions about suitcases might be wrong?
  4.  Who makes suitcase buying decisions?
  5.  What compromises are travelers making WRT the use of suitcases? (dependence on porters, carts)

It’s worth noting the particular skills and attitudes Bernie needed to look beyond being burdened by the family suitcases, to seeing his wheeled luggage for sale at Macy’s: imagination, questioning norms, perseverance, sales and learning from experience.

Bernie Sadow took the “lug” out of luggage. His statue should be in every airport and train station. Homer Simpson (Season 26, Episode 12) identified “the guy who put wheels on luggage” as the greatest living inventor. It’s a stretch for us today to imagine how the concept of wheeled luggage could have been rejected. But this example helps us see how unasked questions continue to plague inventors and impede progress today.

-Sharon VanderKaay

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