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Collective Intelligence

John Simkin

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The idea of this new section is for educators to share ideas on teaching strategies that could be used in a wide variety of different curriculum areas.

I am a supporter of what I call collective intelligence. Most learning that goes on in the classroom is based on the idea of competition. That is to say that the work being done will be graded and compared to that of others. Learning therefore becomes both an insular and competitive activity. This is justified by the claim that we are preparing young people for our competitive society. To a certain extent this is true. But we in fact spend more time as adults working in a cooperative way. This emphasis on individual work creates numerous problems. Over the years employers have complained about the inability of individuals to work successfully in groups. Most large organizations now interview candidates for posts by putting them in groups and asking them to solve problems relating to the job they have applied for. The idea is to discover if the individuals can work successfully in a cooperative way. They are also looking for leadership skills. Even some schools are using this strategy to appoint staff (strange when you consider they usually do not encourage their own staff to use this strategy).

One strategy I use is an activity that stresses the importance of cooperative learning (collective intelligence). It can be used in any subject. You give each person in the class a piece of paper with a problem that needs to be solved. This also includes a list of possible solutions to the problem. The student then has to rank these solutions in the order that they should be employed to solve the problem (the teacher has to make a decision before hand about the right order that they want the students to come up with). The students are then put into groups of 4 or 5. They then discuss their own rankings in order to get a group decision. While this is going on the teacher goes around the groups and makes notes about the behaviour of individual members within the group.

Once they have finished they are then given the information needed to obtain a score for both their individual and group rankings. If they have worked successfully in their group, their group scores should be higher than their individual scores. The teacher can then explain the dynamics of the different groups. It will also analyse the role of leaders. For example, individuals who used a dominant style of leadership, who also had a low score on their own rankings, would have pulled down the scores of the whole group. However, individuals with low scores on their own rankings, but who employed a style of leadership that encouraged quieter members of the group to contribute their knowledge, will have increased the group score. It is a good example of collective intelligence in action.

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This post has already been shown in the Cooperative Learning thread - John asked me to re-post here.

Here's the first idea: The New Products Exercise

You divide the class up into groups, which are clustered so that there are four groups in each cluster.

Each group gets a description of some new invention (taken from New Scientist, Newsweek, or a trade paper). I usually hand out one description between two, so that the students are already cooperating as they read.

Each group has a task of producing a visual aid which a presenter from that group can use when he or she goes round to the other groups to tell them about their invention. The visual aid contains three things: a name for the invention; a sketch of it; and a one-line slogan. If we were talking about a famous brand of Irish beer, the visual aid would say "Guinness" at the top, in the middle there'd be a picture of a bottle of beer, and at the bottom it would say "Guinness is good for you".

When the visual aids are ready, the group picks a presenter and lets her try out her presentation on the home group. Then it's time for the presenters to go to each of the groups in their cluster to present their products. Traffic control is important at this stage: I usually give the presenters a timed 2 minutes, and no-one is allowed to go on to the next group until I say the word.

The 'listeners' have a job to do too: when their presenter makes it back 'home' she will know about one invention, but they will know about four. So the final stage, when the presenter returns home, is for the rest of her group to tell her about the other three inventions.


You get reading, writing, listening and speaking. Everyone's involved all the time. And the teacher is in the background nearly all the time, available to help and guide.

I use this exercise with engineering students, but it could easily be adapted to any subject where there is factual input to handle.

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Here's another idea which is also a re-post from Cooperative Learning: Jigsaw Learning

Let's say you have a boring chapter in the book about London. Well, you find three other inputs about London, and then write five comprehension questions about each of the four inputs. You then jumble up the questions and make a worksheet, an OHP, or just write them on the board.

You then divide your class up into groups again, in clusters of four. Give each group in each cluster a different input and ask them to answer the questions which relate to their input. This is often trickier than it sounds, because they have to decide what *isn't* in their input as well as what is.

Then you get each group to pick a presenter (just like in the New Products exercise), and send the presenter round to the other groups. Their job can be either to tell those groups the answers her group has found (the easier option), or to ask them what their answers are (more time consuming and with greater potential for disruption).

When the presenter returns, there's another information-sharing moment, after which the teacher can check whether there are any questions (which there nearly always are, since different people interpret questions differently).


One aspect of this exercise is that you can use it, even if there are students of different abilities in the class. I remember once doing it with a demonstration class of 10-year olds for some of my teacher trainees. The four inputs were the chapter in the book, a map of the London Underground, the AA Guidebook to London, and a short text I wrote myself. One of the groups were high-flyers, who'd been spending their time making snide comments about the weaker pupils. They got the AA Guidebook. The weakest group got the map of the Underground, and the other two groups got the texts.

No-one could tell from the questions how easy or difficult the input material was (easy questions on hard texts and vice versa), the weaker students got a task they could do (for once) and the stronger ones were stretched (for once).

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This post isn't about a teaching strategy as such, but more an attempt to identify some underlying trends which I think are shaping our teaching and learning.

Alvin Toffler developed the idea of a Third Wave of development of advanced societies way back in the 1970s (The Third Wave, ISBN 0-553-24698-4, came out in 1980). His idea is that the first wave was the agricultural societies of the period from the Bronze Age until the 16th/17th centuries. The second wave was the mass societies created by the Industrial Revolution, and the third wave is the niche-based societies created by the Information Age.

I don't know whether Toffler is right, but as computers came to be used in education, I started trying to understand the developments we're going through by applying Toffler's model to education.

The first wave (agricultural society) for me is characterised by Socratic dialogue. There you are on the Agora in Athens, questioning the ideas of anyone who happens to come by, in this the centre of the intellectual universe (I'm often tempted to see the Web like this!). The fact that your existence is supported by a vast army of women and slaves doesn't even occur to you. However, within your elite group, there is a form of collective intelligence at work - problem-based learning taken to an extreme, perhaps.

During the first wave, the masses didn't need any education at all - they knew how to grow the food, and to keep in their place. However, with industrialisation, suddenly the masses needed to 'know' a bit more - such as to count, to read signs and even to turn up on time. I remember reading the diaries the first state school teachers were obliged to keep, during the 'golden days' of the Victorian era. Most of the entries were complaints about how the kids would just disappear from school if there was something else going on (harvesting, a local fair), and how the parents would come round and beat the teacher up if he complained. Second wave education is all about control, breaking down the social networks which sustained agriculture and cottage industries, and about standardisation - the 'right' answer is the same one, the one that's in the teacher's book. In other words, the characteristics of industrial production are the same as the characteristics of the education system - just as they were with agricultural production in the first wave.

So what is third wave education? I'll put my ideas in the next post, since this one has become quite long!

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Third Wave Education

In my view, just as the second wave needed to retain something from the first wave (i.e. first wave mathematics was just the same as second wave mathematics - it's just that lots more individuals needed to be able to do calculus or long division), so the third wave is retaining some of the characteristics of the second wave.

What I think is happening is that we're now able to give the individual a kind of first-wave treatment (the study of the Oxford don is a typical first-wave environment), but on a mass, second-wave basis. The means we can use to do this is with IT. So, for me, third wave education is collective and collaborative (as is the classic product of the first-wave, which we call something like western scientific thought), but no longer restricted to an elite which controls sufficient economic resources that daily life is more than a constant struggle for survival.

At the centre of this process is a very second-wave machine - the computer - which can be used for second-wave ends, such as control and standardisation, but also for third wave ends, such as collaboration. The thing I find fascinating is that the results of an enormous investment in second-wave uses of IT (such as most government- or industry-sponsored educational software development) have been extremely modest. Or, to put it another way, a nearly complete waste of money. My explanation for this is that the whole intention of holding back the development of third-wave education is doomed to failure. It would be like spending your resources designing a better sack for the sowers to keep their seeds in as they distribute them by hand, rather than embracing the seed drill.

It'll be interesting (for me, at least!) to hear what other participants think about this line of reasoning. So far as I know, it's just ideas that occurred to me (usually whilst making the long journeys through the Swedish countryside you have to make to do distance teaching here). It wouldn't surprise me, though, to hear that it was all thought out years ago, by someone else!

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  • 4 years later...

Here's an idea for a literature or a foreign languages class.

I divide the class into groups of four or five, give each group a novel to study and also give them at least two weeks to prepare.

Each member of the group has a part in the presentation. One tells the class about the setting, the others about the plot, characters, main idea, etc.

In the second part of the presentation, the group acts out a scene from the novel. When it's finished, the viewers ask questions and/or make comments about the group's performance. It's a good activity to improve speaking and listening skills.

Last week one of the groups in my class acted out a scene from Little Women (all five of the group members were males). They were all dressed as 19th century ladies. It was really fun.

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