The wisdom of flowers

James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds argues that across a large and diverse group, the average response will be better and smarter than individual experts. However, researcher Andrew King commented “We are bombarded by other people’s judgments – from our friends, colleagues, and the media. Such a flood of information can result in a convergence of opinion, creating overconfidence (and inaccuracy). What our work demonstrates is that for accurate collective decisions, you either aggregate completely independent opinions, or copy successful individuals; anything in-between seems doomed to failure.”

I’ve been thinking about this, and the fact that ultimately it is individuals that teach, and for the most part want to feel that the decisions they make are in the best interests of those being taught – their family and their community. Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s more than that. There are plenty of reasons to crowd source and plenty more to argue why it’s a dumb idea. Two examples of the latter –  art isn’t made by committee; great design isn’t made by consensus. They can be influenced, but at some point something is made by someone – the individual.

I was thinking about Steve Collis’ metaphor of an airline time-lapse as ‘thoughts’ moving around the world as he asked “What is the word thinking?”.

I decided, after 4 days of pondering, aircraft are too mechanical and operate within controlled parameters and rather predictable (or at least you’d hope so). I liked the idea though, but think that all this TeachMeet, unConferencing is more organic, more like Flowers. Many of flowers are designed to attract pollinators, are the product of coevolution with insects (and other animals) resulting in an efficient means of uniting sperm and egg. Their fruits are often designed to aid in the dispersal of their seeds.

We don’t live in a utopia, and much of the ‘fruit of web2.0’ is link-bait, designed not for the individual per se, but more to attract people to some sort of commerce, or influence them toward being more loyal to a dominant group or personality. Leaders often make the worse Tweeps, RT-ing, pontificating but not really having a conversation (pollinating).

To be a successful eco-system, education needs many types of flowers (digital and non) who use many different methods to attract pollinators. These require multiple mediums and methods. Flowers, for example us colours, nectar, and fragrances; radial vs. bilateral symmetry; incomplete vs. complete flowers; perfect vs. imperfect flowers; single vs. composite flowers. If there is little variation, or variety the species eventually fails.

There are few individual decisions to be made to either follow or not to follow a set pattern or route (being busy isn’t one of them). Firstly, being part of the crowd takes advantage of new technologies and mediums helps prevent self fertilisation, reduces or minimises energy needs and potentially attracts new pollinators.

Secondly, those designing social-digital mechanisms are able to include or exclude any medium or idea that doesn’t suit their intention. This necessitates ‘user’ adaptation and in so doing so creates a multitude of variables making efforts towards external validity difficult. Ultimately there are more variable adaptations at the individual level than there are ‘crowd solutions’, so connecting that to educational methods that demand (and assume) stability is possible, is almost impossible.The crowd does not create the pathways, it just uses them in the main, yet you’d think that everyone on the planet is interested in joining massive social mission to reform education. That is clearly ridiculous, a questionable adaptation from more effective uses of social media designs. For example, reviewing a book on Amazon is an individual action which becomes collectively useful to everyone – Amazon, the reader and the author. On the other hand, attempting to write a book in the same manner would become increasingly problematic and unlikely to be as ‘good’ as someone for whom writing is their art and craft. Collective writing will teach some people some things, but it won’t make anyone Neil Stephenson.

We return to the individual, and indeed this is what I began with. Attempting to copy successful individuals is a winning strategy (if we can find them and IF they are willing to engage with us). That I think is really problematic in the crowd, as those with the largest influence often don’t bother to engage with newcomers, unless they are buying something, or useful in helping them get to where they want to be. We are pack-animals that find it hard to escape evolution with or without our iPhones.

While the crowd can be used effectively, I am unconvinced that many of the essential pollinators want to do this universally , resulting in some flower species being unaware of what is growing in the other field. “Oh look, here come’s our favourite bee!”. There are those who simply don’t want to let their people move past their authority, and those who are creating new authority online … it’s a titanic struggle.

Take games for example. These are clearly an ICT by any definition and therefore should be subject to no more or less scrutiny than blogs, wikis etc., yet they seem to have to prove something even more in order to cross-pollinate with more popular, acceptable notions of what Web2.0 is. The things that makes all this connect are the bees. We simply don’t have enough people like Stephen Heppell who genuinely get involved with individuals and make a sustained effort to move around the eco-system – and have been doing for a very long time.

What I think students appreciate is when their teacher acts as an individual, but uses technology to connect to them in ways that pollinate ideas. I doubt they care too much how many Twitter followers their teacher has, nor should they. However a savvy teacher who knows the value of being connected, and models this behavior everyday in direct and subtle ways, to me is massive plus for a generation growing up with a constellation of  technology and those involved in their education. My individual bottom line – be visible else I cannot see you – in a medium of your choice.

Every flower has knows how to attract it’s most successful pollinators and pollinators are attracted to those flowers. Not all kids want it, not all teachers want it. However that doesn’t make it an absolute rule – and clearly subject to personal experience. To say “I would not use a game” simply because it’s a video game is like saying “I don’t like black ink, only blue” in another medium.

It’s more often individual rules that become supported by popular consensus, rather than knowing though experience. Pedagogy doesn’t not come before tools as an absolute rule, as some tools have embedded cultural meaning, uniqueness of themselves which creates an interplay all of their own – well beyond the classroom or gradebook.

The planet might not be thinking, but I suspect Mother Nature is which is a lot more magical.

There is room for all kinds of technologies in learning, but let’s not fall into the honey-trap that any top 10 list of link-bait is actually useful to the species or that any field represents a viable eco-system. It takes a lot of individual time and courage to deliver something and I take my hat off to anyone who makes the choice to do that – and not always follow the crowd.