Responding to a Murmuration

What we really need is innovation that transforms where we are, that moves what we’re doing into a new space where we can further improve.        John West-Burnhan

In talking about his new book, Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World, Don Tapscott draws upon a spectacular event within the animal kingdom:

On cool winter evenings, over the moors of England, thousands of starlings come together to create something extraordinary.  Before they settle down to rest, the starlings put on one of the most spectacular shows in the natural world: a murmuration.

Tapscott talks of how the starlings behave according to a number of the operating principles analogous to those of the collaboration age:

  • Interdependence
  • Self organization within an implicit structure (think personalized education)
  • A constant and dynamic change around leadership
  • Not a collective intelligence or collective consciousness but some kind of emergent shared brain of sort, a loosely conjoined network of relationships and impulses (think synergy)

As I watch the starlings come together out of necessity, I begin to see that collaboration, like any vision that has resonance or staying power, can never be imposed. It is a process that encompasses much more than relationships.  It is an intensive interaction that engages individuals in opening up their beliefs and practices to investigation and debate – building commitment through group understanding. Tapscott’s focus upon the starlings generates a deeper contemplation around the possibility of increasing the power of collaboration though the use of digital platforms.  He poses four questions that have as their premise the ideal of “moving into a new space where we can further improve” and in “transforming where we are” allow us greater opportunity to collaborate and acquire/synthesize/create new meaning together.

Question #1: Is it possible that as everyone connects through the global digital platform, could we begin to share not only information but also the capacity to remember, to process information and to even think?

The sharing and development of these styles (or capacities) is happening right now (let me look at TweetDeck on my other screen!)  However, in experiencing the personal and professional benefits of sharing a global digital platform though my PLN on Twitter, I’m reminded of David Truss who recently blogged that “a tool is just a tool! It’s not the tool, but how you use it that matters.” In other words, it’s not only about how technology can increase learning capacities; it’s about how the new technology can support and extend one’s learning capacities.

We, like our students should not be talking about technology in isolation; like them, we should be speaking directly to the need for social-learning as part of an education redesign that uses technology. It is this redesign, and not solely digital connections, that will build the capacity that Tapscott envisions.

Question #2: Will we come to consider networking as the neural roots that connect human beings in a way that creates something fundamentally new?

Chris Dede provides a starting point:

The nature of collaboration is shifting to a more sophisticated skillset.  In addition to collaborating face to face with colleagues across a conference table . . . workers now have to engage in mediated interactions with peers halfway across the world whom they may never meet face-to face . . . the importance of cooperative interpersonal capabilities is higher and the skills involved are more sophisticated than in the prior industrial era.

As educators, it’s clear that many of us understand that social media and networking can contribute to and influence the broader educational conversation and that in participating within this forum we can engage in a transformative process connecting to people and not simply information. The issue I have is that if our students do not know how to collaborate outside of the digital platform, can we expect anything ‘fundamentally new’ to be created?  Which leads me to . . .

Question #3: Could some kind of new consciousness and interconnectivity, the capacity to learn dynamically as organizations, be a key to rebuilding our failing institutions and using the web as a global platform for collaboration?

I believe that this new consciousness, this new interconnectivity can be facilitated through technology to a degree that far exceeds our traditional modes of collaboration.  But this capacity to learn, if it is to happen collectively, requires a new way of behaving, of being proactive and creating ways in which we can connect the dots through a landscape of multiple digital media and social media channels and in so doing create a relevant, trusted ‘new consciousness.’

Yes, learning is network formation and, yes, knowledge should be distributed but in order for us to connect the dots, in order for a ‘new consciousness and interconnectivity’ to arise, there must be a shift with regard to practice in our classrooms.  Will Richardson strongly and correctly makes this point:  

We need to focus more on developing the learning process—looking at how kids collaborate with others on a problem, how they exercise their critical thinking skills, how they handle failure, and how they create. We have to be willing to put kids—and assess kids—in situations and contexts where they’re really solving problems and we’re looking not so much at the answer but the process by which they try to solve those problems. Because those are the types of skills they’re going to need when they leave us.

The capacity to learn dynamically can only happen if we show our students how they can adapt and contribute to groups, products and processes with the communications, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills that enable them to customize their work and eventually respond dynamically to organizational expectations.

Question #4: If networking can speed up the metabolism of our collaboration and a new kind of shared thinking and learning evolve, could this be applied within and between organizations to innovate better, to create prosperity and to advance society?

The answer, I believe, is yes; however, at issue here, again, is not the technology but the process of collaboration.  Andrew Rotherham and Daniel Willingham in “21st Century Skills: The Challenges Ahead,” explain:

Another curricular challenge is that we don’t yet know how to teach self-direction, collaboration, creativity, and innovation the way we know how to teach long division.

There is evidence that social networking sites do have educational benefits with regard to thinking and learning; however, in terms of collaboration, the work of emphasizing process to get to product must continue to take place in our classrooms. Building students’ capabilities in group interpretation, negotiation of shared meaning and appreciative collaboration, needs to be embedded in all that we do (this is not a technology but a teaching issue).  As the predominant learning activities on the Net have changed from the presentation of material by website providers to the active co-construction of resources by communities of contributors, so too do the learning activities in our classroom have to change with students becoming knowledge generators and teachers the knowledge facilitators.

As the starlings continue their hypnotic movement, Don Tapscott concludes with a hopeful sentiment:

This is a time of great peril and danger but it’s a time of opportunity and the murmuration gives me hope that through collaboration perhaps this smaller world that our children inherit could be a better one.

With two children aged 10 and 13 myself, I too wish for this smaller, better world and as it is for Tapscott, it is for me: the murmuration gives me hope.  When the hawk attacks in the beginning of the video, there is an immediate purpose to the starlings’ collaboration.  A ‘real life’ problem has arisen necessitating a response: there are risks, they must communicate, each starling has a role to play – their consciousness has changed. And this in the end is the hope:  being ‘smarter’ than starlings, we will engage in our classrooms and through social networking to develop ‘real world’ collaboration that both creates and resolves in ways that bring value through the endeavour to the individual, to society and in so doing, make this world a better place.

  1. Hi Gino,

    A thoughtful post that looks at many different ideas!
    I confess that I have not (yet) followed all the links and my response will be more focused on a single idea related to the link you made to my post.
    With respect to:

    “a tool is just a tool! It’s not the tool, but how you use it that matters.” In other words, it’s not only about how technology can increase learning capacities; it’s about how one’s learning capacities can support and extend the new technology.”

    I would flip the second statement:

    “a tool is just a tool! It’s not the tool, but how you use it that
    matters.” In other words, it’s not only about how technology can
    increase learning capacities; it’s about how the new technology can support and extend one’s learning capacities.”

    Sometimes education changes the tool (like when an EDU version of the site is added), but I think the key thing is that no matter what the tool, or it’s intended use, it’s about using, tweaking, and designing the use of that tool for learning.

    Tom Barrett’s ‘Interesting Ways’ series is a perfect example… whether or not these were the intended uses of the tools, the tools are being used in great ways to learn. It’s about creating interesting and engaging ways for learning to happen that could not have happened without the tool.


    • David, this is where I ask if I can make a friendly ammendment to my post!

      Thanks for the comments

      You’re absolutely right. I look at the simple tool of social media and how, by being ‘dialed in’ myself, the technology has extended my own learning capacities (not that I had much to extend to begin with).

      The big question for me now is how can I supportively engage my staff with this technology so that they can extend their own service delivery and in so doing increase their own capacities.

      The great thing, as you say, is that the the tools intention can change and in so doing engage students in ‘interesting ways’ (thanks for the link by the way). I read this and think, great, now technology, because of it’s ability to support and extend one’s learning capacities, can serve as the stimulus in achieving the ideal of personalized education – that’s the beauty (the tool’s flexibility could/should(?) match the flexibility that will be inherent in each student’s unique educational plan and each teacher’s classroom).

      On another note, I had an audio conference after school today with Zhi Su @zzsu and 3 other staff members with Anne from Atomic Learning and will be spending the weekend playing to see if this is the software that my staff and students can use, tweak and design for learning.

      Don’t know if I’ve opened another new discussion?

  2. On the topic of flexibility of tools, you can always change a blog post (and I often do… updating mine).

    You ask a great question:
    “The big question for me now is how can I supportively engage my staff with this technology so that they can extend their own service delivery and in so doing increase their own capacities.”
    I think tool choice is huge! Too many tools or too complicated tools just frustrate those new to using tech in the classroom or those that consider themselves ‘not tech savvy’. I’m a huge fan of wikis and delicious bookmarking as good entry points, but as we have both suggested… it depends on what you want to do! 😉

    • Tool choice is the issue. What I’m finding is that it isn’t the tool but rather the delivery of the “how to” around the tool. The paradigm of “go away for pro-d and come back and try it in your classroom” doesn’t work because inevitably there is a problem (ranging from tech glitch to “I forgot how to do this”) which sets up the “non tech savvy” for failure. Looking at ways right now to embed this support within the school right now so there is ‘real time’ pro-d. One day at a time.

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