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Posts Tagged ‘Clay Shirky’

Shiftingthinking or Lolcats?

March 25th, 2010

Spoiler: Although this posting discusses LOST and Lolcats, it is actually deep and meaningful, and you will be rewarded with an interesting 16-minute videoclip, so stick with it!

Given the rather serious intentions of this website, I think it’s amusing that some of the most commented-on-and-revisited postings have been our various “Shakespeare or LOST?” conversations. Much of this conversation has been driven by three of us at NZCER (myself, Jim, and David) and we clearly each have quite different perspectives on LOST as either a literary text, a source of cognitive engagement, and/or a social/cultural phenomenon. (If you haven’t been following this debate and want to catch up, I suggest you start by reading this comment, then this posting and associated comments, and finally this posting).

While I’ve enjoyed these debates, does such a thread really belong on this website? Aren’t we supposed to be discussing more deep and meaningful ideas about how to transform education for the 21st century? What purpose, exactly, are the blogpostings and discussion threads on this website supposed to serve, and does an ongoing discussion about the television show LOST take us any closer to achieving our desired purpose?

I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot lately due to the AERA paper that Jennifer and I are currently writing. We’ve been looking to ourselves, our colleagues, and anyone out there in the shiftingthinking community to help us pin down some answers. What I’m coming to realise – particularly through writing Shifting Thinking: The Making of (Part 1) and (Part 2) - is that in one sense, we have (and have always had) a pretty clear idea of what we’re trying to do, and our big-picture intentions around this project/website have been pretty consistent. Yet in another way, we really don’t know exactly where we’re heading, or what might it might look like when we get there, and what else unexpected might emerge along the way. On good days, I find this idea very exciting and inspiring. On bad days, it’s scary and confusing. I’m sure this is something that school leaders, staff, and communities experience when they are undergoing some kind of long-term transformational process! (See Jennifer’s recent posting entitled wondering what’s next )

For me, one of the most interesting possibilities of shiftingthinking is the invitation it extends to you (all of you out there) to participate in, and contribute to shaping, this *thing*, *idea*, this *change* that we’re trying to create. It’s not entirely directionless, and there are some well-thought out, deeply anchored theoretical arguments that underpin our intentions. Thus far our “invitation to participate” is, you might say, a bit limited, because for the most part we are seeking your engagement with us in the form of an online, written conversation through blogs and comments around ideas/threads that we think are worth discussing (don’t forget though, if you have a webcam you can also add video comments to any posting!). We extended this invitation to participate a bit further with the 2009 shiftingthinking conference – where some of you came together with us to go on a two-day journey through some of the most challenging ideas for 21st century education. We asked you to take on some responsibility for shaping the conference, by choosing the dilemmas and tensions that hooked you in the most, and collaborating with us and each other to seek new ways to think about these questions, and new ways to think about changing ourselves and our environments in order to reframe today’s challenges into tomorrow’s new possibilities.

But….are we getting anywhere yet?

With all these thoughts in mind, last week someone I follow on Twitter posted a link to the Clay Shirky video below, which helped  to put all these things into a context that makes sense to me. (I’m a fan – having mentioned Clay Shirky’s book, Here comes everybody, a number of times on this website). In this video clip, Shirky talks about something he refers to as a society’s “cognitive surplus”. Loosely, he seems to mean all the extra cognitive power in a society that isn’t being taken up by our obligations to our existing social institutions (like our work, our schooling, etc). Another way to describe it is “free time”, but measured in terms of thinking capacity. He goes on to discuss the critical technologies in the 19th, 20th, and 21st century that have either sought to absorb/mask/dissipate that cognitive surplus, or those which have actually provided an opportunity to channel that cognitive surplus into something interesting. Rather than me paraphrasing, I now invite you to watch the clip:

There’s plenty of interesting ideas to discuss here, but the point that really sticks out for me is when he says the following:

The interesting thing about a surplus is that at the beginning, you don’t know what to do with it at first. You can’t. Because if you knew what to do with a surplus, with reference to the existing social institutions, it wouldn’t be a surplus would it? It’s precisely when no-one has any idea how to deploy something, until people start experimenting with it and finding new ways of using this, that the surplus gets integrated and in the course of this, transforms society. (Clay Shirky, 2008, Web 2.0 Expo, San Francisco April 22-25)

All this helps me place my/your/our engagement with each other, and with ideas, on shiftingthinking into context. As a huge fan and participant in the social media universe, I’ll be the first to admit that I frequently take up, with glee, the “invitation to participate” that’s offered to me by various social media – Twitter, Facebook, the LOSTpedia, and yes, even Lolcats. But I’m really happy that I can use at least a little bit of my “cognitive surplus” here, with you, on shiftingthinking, where the invitation to participate offers at least some hope of generating an outcome that matters. Even if we don’t know exactly how to get there – yet – I’m inspired to stick with it. Are you?

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TED talks strand

October 28th, 2009

Facilitator: Hugh McCracken

In this Day 2 strand of the Shifting Thinking Conference we will screen a selection of inspiring TED talks, “riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world”.  A facilitator will guide the group in a discussion of the ideas explored in each TED talk, and how these relate to education in the 21st century.

Part of the inspiration for this strand comes from ChangeMakers: “fostering active citizenship and generosity in New Zealand”.  Changemaker’s learning community approach includes group dialogue catalysed by TED talks.

Session 1: Clay Shirky on institutions versus collaboration

In this prescient 2005 talk, Clay Shirky shows how closed groups and companies will give way to looser networks where small contributors have big roles and fluid cooperation replaces rigid planning.

Clay Shirky wrote Here Comes Everybody, and his consulting focuses on the rising usefulness of decentralized technologies such as peer-to-peer, wireless networks, social software and open-source development.

Session 2: Dave Eggers’ wish: Once Upon a School

Accepting his 2008 TED Prize, author Dave Eggers asks the TED community to engage with their local school. With spellbinding eagerness, he talks about how his 826 Valencia tutoring centre inspired others around the world to open their own volunteer-driven, wildly creative writing labs. But you don’t need to go that far, he reminds us – it’s as simple as asking a teacher “How can I help?”

Writing is only his day job: Dave Eggers moonlights as a publisher, philanthropist and advocate for students and teachers.  His first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize

Session 3: Charles Leadbeater on innovation

In this deceptively casual talk, Charles Leadbeater weaves a tight argument that innovation isn’t just for professionals anymore. Passionate amateurs, using new tools, are creating products and paradigms that companies can’t.

Charles Leadbeater’s theories on innovation have compelled some of the world’s largest organizations to rethink their strategies. A financial journalist turned innovation consultant…Leadbeater noticed the rise of “pro-ams” — passionate amateurs who act like professionals, making breakthrough discoveries in many fields, from software to astronomy to kite-surfing.

Session 4: Benjamin Zander on music and passion

Benjamin Zander has two infectious passions: classical music, and helping us all realize our untapped love for it – and by extension, our untapped love for all new possibilities, new experiences, new connections.

A leading interpreter of Mahler and Beethoven, Benjamin Zander is known for his charisma and unyielding energy — and for his brilliant pre-concert talks.

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Us Now (a documentary)

September 3rd, 2009

A few weeks ago Josie and I watched a documentary called Us Now. Good news – if you’ve got an hour or so to spare – you can watch it too (streaming over the Internet).

Briefly: Us Now is about how new social media technologies are enabling people to share, collaborate, help each other, and make stuff happen (in ways that significantly “scale-up” from our long human history of sharing, collaborating, helping each other, and making stuff happen). The documentary begins to go in the direction of asking if we are able to organise ourselves so efficiently and effectively, and if we are able to make things happen directly (rather than having intermediaries like organisations and institutions acting on our behalf), what does this mean for the future, particularly our ideas about governing and government? Is it about time we moved towards a more deliberative style of democracy with much more direct community engagement?

The documentary fits nicely into Josie’s and my ongoing exploration of the nature and potential of “self-generating networks for knowledge building, learning, and change”, and what these might have to teach us about learning and education for the 21st century. The documentary features a few famous faces, such as Clay Shirky (author of Here comes everybody, my favourite book of 2009) and Charles Leadbeter (author of The rise of the social entrepreneur and many other think-pieces on social innovation). If you don’t want to spend a whole hour watching Us Now you can get a taste of some of Leadbeter and Shirky’s ideas in these shorter YouTube clips

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Look, I drew a picture of you!

July 17th, 2009

(Yes, that’s right…I’m talking to you!)
Actually, I should say I drew a picture of us.

See? You, and me, and everyone else – we’re all represented in my diagram of the shiftingthinking community.

The Power Law Distribution

I drew this after reading Here Comes Everybody: The power of organizing without organizations by Clay Shirky. The book has influenced my thinking A LOT recently and I reckon I’ll probably write a few more blogpostings based on its ideas. In this posting I just want to share just one of these ideas, because I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately (No, don’t look over your shoulder, I’m still talking to Y-O-U ), and I want to show you exactly how you fit into this shiftingthinking community.

The curve in this diagram represents something called a “Power Law Distribution”, which I learned about in Here Comes Everybody. The vertical axis represents the number of comments posted on shiftingthinking, and the horizontal axis represents all of us, lined up in left to right order from the highest frequency to the lowest frequency of postings. What this curve shows is that the most frequent contributor (in this case, me) posts many times more often than the next most frequent contributors, and those people post many times more often than the next most frequent, and so on, and then we have this l-o-o-o-oong tail of people who contribute just a tiny little bit – let’s say, one comment or posting.  (Then there’s the folks who we sometimes call “lurkers”, who read shiftingthinking but haven’t posted comments – I’ll get back to them later…)

So what, I hear you ask? Is there a point to all this? Well I’m glad you asked, because there is, and here is the EXCITING bit. According to Shirky, this same distribution pattern is found in all kinds of social media. Wikipedia is a good example: Although anyone can edit wikipedia pages, it turns out that there are a tiny percentage of people who make hundreds or thousands of edits each, and thousands and millions of people who only ever make say, one or two edits (and millions more who simply read wikipedia entries without ever making a single edit). So if you graph wikipedia contributions, you’ll get an even more extreme version of this same curve.

The power law distribution is also called The Pareto principle or the “80-20 rule” which basically says that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. So this distribution shape isn’t just limited to social media – it appears in all kinds of social phenomenon.

The cool thing – and the point of this posting -  is when we start to ask ourselves what value we get out of the collective contributions of all 100 percent of the contributors. In the business world, the 80-20 principle suggests that organisations should focus on the 20 percent (of people, activities, projects etc) that contribute 80 percent of the “productivity”. The “costs” of carrying that long tail, which tends to generate proportionally less, can be hard for an organisation to carry. But if you lop off the long tail, you lose out on all those potential contributions that, when added to the collective, could add up to something really great.

Is this youThe nice thing about social media is that there is really no “cost” involved in encouraging as many people as possible to contribute. By opening up wikipedia to everyone to edit, “we” (the users of Wikipedia) benefit from everyone’s contribution. Whether someone contributes thousands of edits, or only one, each adds value to the collective whole. It’s the same thing with shiftingthinking!

I’d like to end this posting with a couple of shout-outs. First to the members of our “long tail”. Guys, thank you. We love that you’ve stopped by and taken a moment to add your contribution to the shiftingthinking community.

Or is THIS you? (CC) http://www.flickr.com/photos/madflowr/3346345770/

Or is THIS you? (CC) www.flickr.com/photos/madflowr/3346345770

Second, to the “lurkers” – you know who you are. I want you to know that you’re welcome here too. I think I’m going to call you “foragers” from now on though. (I like to picture you as adorable little hedgehogs – shyly nosing around the edges of our community, nibbling surreptitiously from the cat’s dish, drinking water from the puddles of our drain-pipes, but leaving no trace of your presence). We promise not to shine a bright spotlight on you – but maybe just think about joining our long tail every once in a while? We’ll be here waiting, with a nice cup of tea and a gingernut biscuit.

**PS. I know time is a big factor making it hard to add comments. We’re still looking into other ways you can signal your presence without having to think too long and hard or compose the “perfect” comment – watch this space!

Shirky, C. (2008) Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. Penguin: New York.

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Books that have shifted m(y)our thinking

April 5th, 2009

Years ago at NZCER we used to have lunchtime forums every now and again where we’d each talk about books we’d read, and why we liked them. It was awesome, and a great way to find out about titles you hadn’t heard of (also: knowing that they had been pre-read by a colleague meant there was a filtering-out of dross!)

Like many of my colleagues, I tend to get quite excited when I read something interesting. I go around telling people about it and recommending they read it too “so we can discuss it!”.  I’ve picked up a few really interesting non-fiction books in the last six months that I’ve been “pushing” others to read. One is Here comes everybody: the power of organizing without organizations by Clay Shirky. There’s so many ideas packed into this book that it’s hard to condense into a short summary – but in short, Shirky’s book is one of those great books that provokes us to do a whole lot of re-thinking about the nature of society in the 21st century, specifically, due to the impacts of networked technologies. (I’ve passed the book on to a team member, otherwise I’d grab it and try to put together a few notes for you here).

What I like about authors like Shirky and Malcolm Gladwell (author of some other favourite books of mine: The Tipping Point and Blink, plus Outliers which I haven’t read yet) is the way they carry you along through a page-turning blend of stories and theory. These are the kinds of books that “shift my thinking” and help me to suddenly look at familiar problems and situations in new ways. (For example, we’ve used a few ideas from Shirky’s book in our recent shiftingthinking.org development team meetings, to help us figure out what we want this site to do, and how we can engage other people  in working through and developing ideas in this space about learning and education in the 21st century).

Another book, Everything bad is good for you, by Steven Johnson, gave me a whole bunch of ideas about how our minds engage with popular culture – and these ideas are sitting subversively beneath my comment on Jim’s blog here. (Read his response here)**.

As a educational researcher I spend a lot of time reading “education” books and articles, and while this is obviously really important, I think that the most interesting ideas I’ve picked up from books tend to come from authors writing in other fields, like those I’ve mentioned above – because when I read them, I have to think really hard about “well, what does all this mean for education”? I’ve had some really interesting discussions over the years with various teachers and principals (and other researchers, of course) who also like reading and sharing good books, so I know there are others out there just waiting for the chance to share THEIR recommended reads so we can discuss them.

So – what have you read that’s provoked your thinking? What were its implications for thinking about education in the 21st century? What questions did it raise in your mind? Finally, where can we get a copy so we can also read it and discuss it with you here? Please post your comments!!

**As an aside, Steven Johnson’s book also made me feel totally legitimized for my lifetime’s dedication to watching television.

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