Sunday, May 1, 2011

Lone Voice in the Chanting Mob

I haven't had a lot of success explaining Twitter's value to people who don't understand it. Part of the problem in explaining it is that the tool is fundamentally about customizing your community, so the value is so different for everyone because our communities are so different. Some people use Twitter as a virtual water-cooler where they can make comments under their virtual breath to acquaintances, attempt #Hashtag humor or live-tweet an awards show or sporting event. Other people use it to connect with customers, or to share pictures, music, videos or other types of content they create. Some people use it to broadcast their wisdom or lack thereof; others use it to engage in discussion with people about politics, economics, technology or food. Some people use it as a platform for citizen-journalism. There are also vibrant communities of educators sharing, discussing and supporting each other.

I frequently swim in these educational circles because education is one of the most interesting topics of conversation to me personally. I have met many educators who, regardless of their opinions are passionate and care deeply about kids and the future of our world. I have learned quite a bit about what tools other people are using with kids and it has made my classroom stronger. However, I have also noticed a sort of infection that spreads throughout communities like these. It is called groupthink.

If you are unfamiliar with the idea of groupthink, I highly recommend checking out some of the writings of Cass Sunstein, specifically his thoughts on "Cyberbalkanization." Basically groupthink is the reason spending too much time with like-minded people is corrosive to critical thinking. When we are surrounded by people who are all begging the same question, we make leaps of logic and we don't even realize they are leaps. Groupthink drives us deeper into our own beliefs and insulates us from challenge. Once our opinions are calcified thanks to the never-ending confirmation bias cycle of sharing posts, clips and tweets we begin to see the Devil's Advocates as a lunatic fringe, when in fact just the opposite is happening. A recent example would be the "Birthers" reactions to our President's birth certificate. Proof is assumed to be trumped-up, falsified and malicious.

Leaders of like-minded communities are especially dangerous because as with any mob, the only way to distinguish yourself is to be more extreme in your views than the others. If you look around at any balkanized mob of like-minded people in social media, you will see this phenomenon. Education circles are no different. There are many people who are outside of the classroom who get paid in both fame and money to lecture people about why lecturing is bad. Groupthink brainwashes people into abandoning critical thinking and blindly supporting feel-good philosophies like "Why hard work is bad for kids" or "The only real learning is forgetting" or "Why laziness is more productive" or some other carnival barkeresque pablum. These celeb EduBloggers follow a simple formula: When a group is already predisposed to want to believe something, keep feeding them a slightly more extreme version of that belief and you'll be asked to keynote the next "EduWebotron 3.0" conference.

"Have you read his post about why reading with your eyes open is actually stifling creativity?"

"Yes, so counter-intuitive, but if everyone retweets it it must be true! I hope he live-tweets the blackboard burning like he did in West Palm Beach last year!"

Sometimes following the conversation in an insulated community is like watching the hammers marching in lockstep during Pink Floyds' The Wall.

So what's the solution?

Well, one easy way to help is to make the choice to be the Devil's Advocate in the majority of your conversations. You're going to help the group become stronger by testing assumptions and defining terms than by validating someone's ideas about using wikis because you like that person and you like wikis. Everyone wants to be liked. I do, you do, we all do. It's hard to stand up and be the lone voice in the chanting mob, but if you are the lone voice, that is proof enough that the group needs to hear what you have to say.

Another way to fight groupthink is to make sure you don't just follow people who are in your industry. No matter what your career is, there are many voices and many perspectives that you need to understand to do your job properly. If you teach 9th grade Literature, you should not just follow other 9th grade literature teachers. You should not just follow other literature teachers, or just follow teachers for that matter.

You should follow authors. You should follow readers. You should engage them, debate them, learn from them. Follow publishing companies. Follow journalists who cover books. Follow book stores. Follow librarians. Follow Grammarians. Follow linguists. Follow people who design e-readers. Follow people who hate books.

Diversify your streams of information. Don't let like-minded groups drive you to become their median member or worse, their radical leader.


  1. This is one of the most intelligent posts I've read of late.
    I do not follow like-minded people and when asked I recommended educators to follow people from various fields. I have different lists that feed my mind with art, psychology, design, "interestingness". Education chat is intoxicating and going in circles most of the time. Aside from echoing the same topics over and over, nothing much happens. Very few people actually have a grasp of learning theories, pedagogy and basic principles of learning from the neuroscience viewpoint.
    As for interacting...I don't engage much because people are reluctant to it most of the time (or I have poor "social"skills).

  2. Thanks so much for the kind words. Glad you found some value in the post. The ironic part is that the people who need to critically think about the people they worship probably don't see the urgency in doing so.