Cycle of Learning, Part IV: Groupthink? Guess Again!

As I write this, the biggest education event of the weekend – Philadelphia’s #Educon 2.4 – is concluding. The conversations that began this weekend were stimulating and provocative. Overall, I must say that it was an experience that left me hopeful for my profession and the field of education in general – a too-rare feeling these days! Now imagine how I would feel if I attended! You see, I only connected remotely from home through the Twitter feed that was running the whole weekend. I am already making plans to attend next year’s convention on January 25-27, 2013.

In my last post, I stressed the importance of collaboration in the Cycle of Learning. I am a strong advocate of 21st Century Skills and the need for them to have a prominent place in the classroom. Yet, I am also on record as favoring a balanced approach. The idea of throwing out everything good about the educational system and replacing it with “all-collaboration, all-the-time” just doesn’t strike me as a good notion.

Enter Susan Cain’s New York Times article on The Rise of the New Groupthink. It spread like wildfire through the convention this morning, which I was attending remotely from my laptop at home in Baltimore. It seemed almost perfectly timed to take the wind out of the sails for the #educon #edchat crowd and the article talks pretty tough about a few things:

SOLITUDE is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.

But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature. […]

Culturally, we’re often so dazzled by charisma that we overlook the quiet part of the creative process. Consider Apple. In the wake of Steve Jobs’s death, we’ve seen a profusion of myths about the company’s success. Most focus on Mr. Jobs’s supernatural magnetism and tend to ignore the other crucial figure in Apple’s creation: a kindly, introverted engineering wizard, Steve Wozniak, who toiled alone on a beloved invention, the personal computer.

I am still wondering about the presuppositions present in Cain’s thinking. She seems to argue, at least in the first half of the article, that the advocates for 21st Century skills, like myself, are pushing for a revolution in education that replaces the tradition from Dewey to Danielson with a whole new way of thinking. Sure, there are some who would argue for that – I saw many tweets this weekend comparing the conference rooms of SLA to Independence Hall – but I don’t feel that it’s the majority. I believe that the blogs that arrived Saturday night into Sunday afternoon individually reflecting on the convention spoke to the power of collaboration as a crucible for shaping ideas. Revolution isn’t what we are after – rather, it’s evolution! The field of education needs to adapt, not get scrapped and reinvented.

Brainstorming via Twitter and “unconferences” doesn’t breed Groupthink, nor is it an echochamber as some would contend. At least, it won’t as long as we maintain the all-important fourth part of the Cycle of Learning in mind – Integration. Integration is the phase of learning where we use the 21st Century skill of reflection to refine the collaborative process into manageable pieces. As the #educon attendees have commented, getting a whole lot of quality PD in a very small amount of time can be an overwhelming experience. You leave with a headache, but the good kind that makes you think for a long time afterwards. It is during reflection that you come to the individual conclusions that stay with you beyond the learning. You also come to decide what you want to learn more about, which leads to new Discovery, and the Cycle of Learning starts anew.

I like to summarize the Cycle of Learning as a dialectic. Beginning with Discovery, the instructor facilitates the curating of new information to develop a THESIS. After using Expression to share that thesis, the learner engages an audience in the process. As a group focused on Collaboration, the learners practice culling by exposing the thesis to alternate views. These alternate views constitute an ANTITHESIS. Afterwards, the learner needs to find a way to promote Integration. By using the tool of reflection, the learner blends the best elements of the thesis and its antithesis into a SYNTHESIS. This fully vetted and thoroughly studied idea now becomes the basis for new knowledge and further Discovery. A dialectic built on the 21st Century skills of curating, sharing, culling, and reflection – this is the Cycle of Learning as I see it, and it is the post-collaborative reflection which separates this model from all others.

This reflection is important for all learners, whether it is a teacher or administrator seeking PD, or a student processing new material after a inquiry-based group project. As an instructor or supervisor, our job is to direct that reflection – to facilitate and guide it to a place where it will do the most good. This is the proper role of a critical friend. The post-#educon blogs prove to me that we are not in danger of Groupthink. It’s collaboration writ large that demonstrates a truly organic moment in the evolution of our educational system. Now is the moment to capitalize on our learning and engage our collective will into making action plans for the future. The critics are waiting for us to prove them wrong, and the students can’t wait any longer for the important work of proving ourselves right.

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