Friday, October 22, 2010

Flash Mobs & Education

This morning during the middle of a meeting that I should have paying closer attention to, I looked out the window onto our campus "quad" and saw a crowd of students gathering.  Over the course of about 15 seconds, the crowd grew to about 50 people, some of whom were standing on benches taking pictures of whatever was happening at the center of the crowd.  When I looked closer I could see that the crowd had formed around a young woman in a wedding dress and her tuxedo-clad "groom."  After a few moments of perplexity, I realized I was watching a "flash mob."  

Flash mobs are interesting for all sorts of reasons (e.g. What is the benefit or value for those who participate?  What sorts of efforts are required to actually pull it off?  Why do they make officials, police officers, etc. so nervous?).  But, the episode I witnessd this morning has me wondering what the dynamics of a flash mob might have to teach those of us interested in learning.  

By definition, a flash mob is pointless, so a strong argument could be made that they have nothing to contribute to our understanding of learning and education.  But, I would argue that those that participate in a flash mob, particularly those who organize one, are doing a lot of peripheral learning along the way.  This morning's wedding episode was quite elaborate and had to have required someone to pull together a variety of resources beyond the human resources involved.  I saw multiple cameras, an authentic wedding dress, a refreshment table, guest book, floral arrangment, table setting, and bridesmaids.  Someone did a fair amount of coordination and communication to pull all of this off.  It was also fairly well choreographed (or improvised) and included a brief reception line, tossing of the wedding bouquet, and a first dance (complete with a group A Capella performance of what I think was a Backstreet Boys song).  So, pointless as it might have been, someone had a pretty good experience in bringing together a group of stakeholders, garnering resources, communicating details, and directing the activities of a relatively large "mob."  

I'm always fascinated by these sorts of organic community activities and the learning that happens without any sort of external influence.  I'm not equating flash mobs with the sorts of deep and meaningful learning that we want to happen in higher education, but flash mobs might have something to teach us about bringing people together and engaging them in a common cause.

Some interesting connections/implications I see to/for learning:

1.  Giving learners/participants ownership over their experience matters.  Most of the learning we try to facilitate in schools is directed by the teacher.  He is the one who identifies the learning goals, articulates the guiding questions, decides what readings/resources to use to support the learning, etc.  In this approach, we assume (often mistakenly) that students will automatically buy into what we're trying to accomplish and jump into the experience with learning goals identical to the ones we have for them.  My hunch is that flash mobs work because there isn't an "expert" directing and coordinating them.  Of course, there are individuals who take more prominent roles in coordinating and organizing them, but each participant has a fair amount of freedom in determining how they will participate and what role they'll play (although some have commented that flash mobs are just another form of conformity, but that only look organic and creative).  That freedom seems to be part of the attraction for those who participate.

2.  Having an authentic, public audience influences behavior.  When learners know that their learning will be made public and that the audience includes more than an external authority who assigns a grade, they modify their behaviors.  I'm not sure that I'm willing to say that an audience always improves learning, but in certain circumstances it seems like it would.  Flash mobs form and take place because participants are interested in how their performance will be received by others.  If no one would ever see it, there wouldn't be any motivation to organize and pull everything off.  The same is true of learning.  If the learner doesn't see any use or value in the learning or that there is any possibility that anyone outside of the teacher will care, they aren't likely to be very engaged.

3.  Students are not inherently lazy.  This isn't earth shattering, but seems worth reminding ourselves of at times.  Quite often I hear myself or colleagues disparaging the work effort of students.  But the real story is that students are plenty motivated, they just aren't always motivated to do the things we would like them to do.  Students work hard in areas outside of their school experience.  It is occasionally useful to inquire about what those settings are and why it is that students are willing to work so hard in them.  We might learn something.  No one forces a flash mob to happen, yet students feel motivated enough to do enough work to have something come together.  Why is that?  

4.  The unpredictable & unexpected make us nervous.  About 5 minutes into the flash mob I saw today, campus police showed up and started asking for student ID's.  I've heard that the same sort of thing happens more and more every time a flash mob forms, regardless of the locale.  Most are harmless and occasionally things get violent or problematic in some other sort of way (impede traffic, etc.), but they make officials nervous because of the unpredictable nature of the group.  Learning environments where the teacher cedes control and allows unpredictable and unexpected learning to happen are a bit nerve racking as well.  And, while a lot of good things can happen when the teacher takes a step back, they carry risks as well.  The question for educators seems to be "How much risk am I willing to tolerate in my classroom, lab, etc.?"  Thinking through the sorts of risks that could lead to productive learning, while also considering the potential pitfalls, seems like a productive exercise.  But, avoiding all risks inevitably leads to sterile, unproductive learning environments.  The interesting thing is that these sterile learning settings might sometimes pass off as "successful" because things have gone "smoothly" or "according to plan."  

Again, my purpose with this post isn't to suggest that all learning (or even the best learning) should look like a flash mob, but I can't get past the fact that a group of 50 students got connected, coordinated their efforts, and performed today, without any real reason.  I also suspect that at least a few of these students would say things like "I'm too busy" if asked to organize and form a group study session, attend a campus lecture, or meet with a faculty member for additional help in a class.  What if they approached with their education (or a small part of it) with the same motivation and effort that they did today's flash mob?

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