Geese in the Dutch landscape

The Netherlands is a home for geese like nowhere else in Europe, according to the Dutch museum of nature Ecomare. Every year over 2 million of them arrive at the start of the winter from colder, northern areas to feed on Dutch pastures. Living on a green and lush polder, a typical Dutch bit of reclaimed land, I see the geese arrive in their impressive V formations and enjoy listening to their honking sounds. In the past, their arrival marked the season of frost (the V formation reminded people of the Dutch word for frost: vorst). As the climate changes, this is no longer the case and more geese don’t bother leaving the Netherlands: they stay here during the summer as well.

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The ecological footprint of humanitarian aid

What environmental responsibility does the humanitarian sector have? Ins and outs, the internal magazine of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Holland, recently started a debate in the run up to the new climate treaty scheduled for late 2015. The official stance of MSF is that the organization respects established environmental law and other regulations wherever it works. Some staff argue that, as a humanitarian actor, that policy does not suffice and that it’s possible to reduce the negative ecological impact of aid without compromising assistance to beneficiaries. It has even been argued that MSF Holland, in addition to its emergency support desk, should have a sustainability desk to formulate policies for processing waste, curb emissions and promote the use of eco-friendly materials.
As my working for the humanitarian sector is aided by skills accumulated in the environmental sector, I was pleasantly surprised by the initiative to discuss this complex matter, and by the huge attention it received from MSF staff all over the world. My personal opinion is that reviewing MSF Holland’s footprint is a responsible way to determine the rate with which our humanitarian NGO is depleting natural resources that we share with others. But there’s another important reason why we should care, expertly described in the 2012 report on Climate Change as a Driver of Humanitarian Crises and Response, published by the Feinstein International Center.
As a measure for the amount of greenhouse gases MSF creates, its carbon footprint has a direct link with humanitarian crises and response in the (near) future. Global warming will change the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events (major flooding events in the megadeltas of Asia and Africa, for instance). A closely related effect is the increase in societal vulnerabilities: displacement, reduced food security, impacted livelihoods and water shortages, to name just a few from the report. Harder to predict, but very probable, are shifting demographics (rapid urbanization and migration). The sustainability desk proposed by MSF staff should therefore play a role not just in curbing MSF’s footprint, but in developing humanitarian response strategies to deal with increased levels of crisis, and at a higher frequency. The 2015 climate treaty will hopefully boost awareness of the necessity of environmental action by MSF and other humanitarian actors.
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Training content that’s worth learning

The value of learning is rarely disputed. What the learning outcome should be, is a different matter. Is it enough to acquire information? Is it also important to learn how to do something? Does it matter how a learner feels about training and its content? In modern learning theories, they all matter: knowledge, skills and attitude.

When we seek a cognitive outcome for training, its main objective is to increase the knowledge base of learners. Knowledge refers to information like facts, procedures and protocols. Some learning theories distinguish between types of knowledge: descriptive knowledge (knowing something is the case) and procedural knowledge (knowing how to do something). Other learning theories underline knowledge organization and cognitive strategies. In all cases, knowledge acquisition in training can be easily assessed. A test, either in multiple-choice, true-false or free recall format, measures retention of knowledge.

When the objective of training is the application of knowledge in order to accomplish something, the learning outcome is skill-based. Theories on skill development mention different stages, like acquisition, compilation (continued practise) and automaticity (being able to perform a task quickly and individualize it). Traditionally, skill development is assessed through role plays (simulations during a training) or in observation of actual job behavior. Games and simulations have increased options for skill assessment.

Like knowledge and skills, attitude is manifested in behavior. It refers to thoughts and feelings towards the subject matter of training (the affective component) but also towards the learning process (the motivational component). Acquisition of key norms and values are examples of attitude outcomes of training, but also organizational commitment, acknowledgement of diversity, concerns for safety, and recognizing what is important to learn. Attitude of learners can be changed and “synced” with standards of the organization: to do so is a precondition for gaining knowledge and skills. Attitude-based training, therefore, precedes knowledge- and skill-based training. Assessment of attitude can be done through pre- and post- training questionnaires, or through self-reporting.

An effective training and development program contains knowledge, skills and attitudes, and the assessment of their acquisition and/or implementation. Regardless of the subject, training should result in improved knowledge, improved skills and an improved attitude toward the subject matter and training process.

Sources:

PN Blanchard, JW Thacker (2013) Effective Training: Systems, Strategies,and Practices. Harlow: Pearson

JA Cannon-Bowers, SI Tannenbaum, E Salas, et al. Defining competencies and establishing team training requirements. In: RA Guzzo, E Salas E (ed) (1995). Team effectiveness and decision-making in organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 333-80

K Kraiger, JK Ford, E Salas (1993). Application of cognitive, skill-based, and affective theories of learning outcomes to new methods of training evaluation. Journal of applied psychology 78 (2), 311

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Art and political engagement: Marlene Dumas

Amsterdam’s valhalla for modern and contemporary art, the Stedelijk Museum, currently hosts a major solo exhibition of Marlene Dumas. Paintings and drawings in her immense oeuvre are characterized by human forms by  sketched in loose, broad strokes using a muted pallette, the result of which is highly emotionally charged. Dumas is often inspired by photojournalism from newspapers and magazines, thus rendering an oeuvre that reflects our contemporary culture’s obsession with images. “This is a time of images, not of paintigs,” she sais in a documentary shown at the Stedelijk Museum.

Marlene Dumas – The Image as Burden includes portraits of the series ‘Great Men’, including film directors Pier Paolo Pasolini and Pedro Almodovar, choreographer Rudolf Nureyev, poet Federico Garcia Lorca, all persecuted because they were gay. These portraits were part of Dumas’ contribution to Manifesta 10, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art in St. Petersburg. “The project is to provoke thought, not aggression,” Dumas said about the portraits in an interview. “I hope to touch the audience with these intimate portraits and the lives of these men. I hope to share my shame, seeing the stupidity and cruelty of the human race. When you start to acknowledge the stories of these men, it breaks your heart.”

Oscar Wilde by Marlene Dumas

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Inspiration, concentration and motivation: learning about learning

A few weeks ago I saw a beautiful bird of prey up close. It was resting on a branch two metres from me, staring at me and probably wondering why I was smiling back dorkishly. The experience was amazing, I told a friend. “Why didn’t you put it on facebook?” he responded. His reply struck me because that same day I had read about a very similar situation in a novel: a girl had enjoyed watching birds without posting a message in the social media about it – and was reprimanded for it.

Obviously fiction and yet uncomfortably familiar, the passage came from Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle, chronicling a young woman who joins the most powerful internet company of the world. The book raises questions about the effect of connectedness on our focused mode, a state of concentration without any distraction, as well as memory and the limits of human knowledge in the internet age. It  does so in a very eloquent way:

“It’s not that I’m not social. I’m social enough. But the tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying. It improves nothing. It’s not nourishing. It’s like snack food. (…) Endless empty calories, but the digital-social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it’s equally addictive.” Dave Eggers, The Circle (Vintage Books 2014)

The Circle inspired me to take a break from my favorite social medium for 30 days. Facebook’s digital calories had ceased to be harmless for me, particularly at work. Whenever I was confronted with a ‘cue’, a challenging work tasks, I routinely switched to Facebook to look for distraction. This habit of procrastination gave only temporary pleasure: I felt I was wasting my time and was disappointed in myself for failing to work in a focused mode. The only solution was to break the routine and quit Facebook in order to face work challenges head-on. The reward was improved concentration, finished tasks and a great sense of accomplishment. But the experiment had another reward.

The young woman in Eggers’ novel becomes convinced that she should record all her experiences, like watching birds, online lest she would forget them. All that happens, must be known! In Eggers’ book internet, and in particular the social media, serve as I kind of long-term and publicly accessible memory. It’s a thought-provoking idea, because in this type of storage of memories doesn’t have the filter we carry around in our cortex: online, we don’t have a say in which of our experiences become consolidated by active retrieval of experiences. Reminding experiences without that kind of filter might be less than desirable:

“Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day?” Dave Eggers, The Circle (Vintage Books 2014)

Building strong neural structures to remember facts or events is empowering and crucial to enjoy our personal and professional life. Forgetting, however, is equally important: having a memory superseded by something else, discarding information that is in conflict with new learning. I might see a rare bird and by not recording it in a Facebook post, I risk forgetting that experience. Having quit Facebook, I realised that for me forgetting is an essential luxury for a healthy memory.

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