After a few weeks of trying to catch up on everything else from the Fall Travel Palooza, I am trying to get the Crowdsourcing Wisdom book finished before the end of the month. The book has three parts — the first section, which I’ve shared previously, tries to frame up why our current public engagement methods aren’t working. This selection is from the beginning of the second section, which will be more of a how-to. The third section will have some activities and exercises for people to try on their own.
I felt that I needed to give some basis for where this method was coming from, instead of just launching straight into it, so I felt like I needed to talk a little bit about the education methodologies that underlay the approach. But I don’t want to take the time to do a whole lot of research, so I kind of cut corners. So I don’t know if this is too much background, or too little.
As before, please let me know what you think. Thanks!
Part 2: How to Crowdsource Wisdom
OK, so we’ve established that our new approach to public engagement needs:
- To tap the wisdom of our crowd, reaching far beyond the “do you like this?” kinds of feedback that we’ve been doing
- To make the act of being involved in public engagement worth it – worth it for the people who come and for the people who set up and manage and are supposed to carry out the results of the thing.
- Break down a few generations’ worth of mistrust, built up by confrontational meeting formats, uncontrolled soapbox-hoggers, meaningless fake “participation,” a pervasive sense of wasted time, and so much more.
In addition, from a practical standpoint, we need to do the following:
- Get enough information into their hands to be able to apply their experience and wisdom in an intelligent fashion (spoiler alert: a droning Power Point of the project minutiae won’t cut it).
- Give them decision points that they can actually affect (not setting them up to fall in love with recommendations that would involve a rearrangement of the solar system to be able to come to pass). This is, pragmatically, so that we can get information that makes the plan better – and avoids pissing them off.
3) Give us ways to clearly understand what they’re trying to tell us – and give us fact-based political cover when we change a policy or a zoning based on what we heard from them.
4)Build a network of people who understand where the things we end up doing came from – and have enough of a personal stake in what happened to stand up for them.
In this section, we’re going to examine a new method for doing that – it’s not really a new method, because teachers have been using it for a couple of decades. And it’s not even all that new in public engagement, because I and a few others have been using this for a couple of decades. But chances are, it’s new to you and your community.
New things are unfamiliar things. They unease people, they scare people, they sometimes make people want to push the system back to the old ways. And for those old-timers who are used to being In Charge of Everything, who expect the public to stay passive and let the experts run the show, who see nothing wrong with how our public engagement and our community decision-making has been done… they might have some strong opinions about what you’re doing. But I’ll make you a promise: if you shift your public engagement to crowdsourcing wisdom, you’re going to discover some very happy and very dedicated local people. And they will have your back in ways that you might not anticipate today.
A little background: Small Group Cooperative Learning
This book is not intended in the least to be a scholarly, well-researched thing – but I think you need a little background on the basis of this approach.
Small group cooperative education is one of a collection of related methods that were developed in the 1970s and 1980s as a means of enabling children to learn more deeply and meaningfully – to get beyond simple rote repetition of facts, and to give students the opportunity to grapple with the content more deeply and to develop interpersonal and collaborative problem-solving skills.
In many manifestations, small group cooperative learning and its sibling teaching methods were developed to enable students to gain experience and mastery in using higher level thinking skills, often drawing on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Critical thinking. Bloom’s Taxonomy framed critical thinking as a tiered system of increasingly independent and complex approaches to information; the Taxonomy starts with simple knowledge of facts and progresses through Comprehension and Application of information,culminating in the higher level skills of Analysis (taking the information apart and understanding its pieces), Synthesis (putting facts and information together in a different way to create something new), and, finally, Evaluation.
Interestingly, Bloom’s Taxonomy and other similar framings of how we think indicate that we aren’t actually ready to evaluate something until after we’ve taken it apart and thought about how to put it back together differently. Looked at from that perspective, it’s no wonder we get such crappy evaluations of community plans and proposals via our usual methods. Most of the time, we barely help them build any basic knowledge of the proposal, let along apply, analyze or synthesize it.
Small group cooperative methods were initially tested on elementary school children, since it was understood that kids at this level often need help learning not only their subject matter, but how to work together effectively as well. By the time I was learning to be a teacher in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, small group cooperative methods were being used somewhat widely in secondary school classrooms. From what I understand, mandated testing has made it harder to use these methods in school classrooms, but even in my own kids’ school work, I have seen cooperative small group strategies pop up fairly regularly.
The basic pieces of a small group collaborative teaching activity look like this:
1) The kids work together in small groups. Most of the time, the teacher assigns the groups.
2) The kids in the groups are intentionally mixed in terms of their academic ability – a weak reader is put in a group with two average readers and one strong reader, a math whiz works in a group with three kids who are doing OK and one who is struggling. This mixing is to tap the benefits of peer learning – the kid who is struggling may be more inclined to listen to a kid his own age, and that kid will probably gain a deeper command of the content through teaching it to someone else. As every teacher quickly learns, you often learn more from teaching than you did from being taught.
3) The group has some basic rules of engagement – guidance as to how they are to treat each other, how you help someone (as opposed to doing the work for them), how they should resolve disputes, etc. Typically these ground rules are laid down by the teacher, but smart teachers often crowdsource some of the rules from the students as well. That gives the classroom more ownership of the results.
4) The group has a specific activity that they need to complete together – a diorama demonstrating the impact of a historical event, a complex math word problem to solve and be able to explain to the rest of the class, peer editing each person’s essay and giving recommendations on how to make it better. They know what they need to do, what the final results need to look like.
5)The group does the work, largely independently. The teacher is around, checking in every so often, giving guidance or correction or encouragement when the groups need it. The teacher’s big work was on the front end- planning the activities, preparing the materials, using her or his expertise to set up the groups and frame the rules, and now the teacher’s work focuses on monitoring, sensing emerging issues, fine-tuning and redirecting if a group gets lost in the weeds or can’t seem to come to a conclusion.
6) The group shares its work with the rest of the class, so that everyone gets to experience some of the benefit of what they did.
Researchers have done all sorts of experiments and analysis on how small group cooperative education works in certain situations, certain subject matter and age groups, etc. But let’s cut to it. When I was a teacher, and I used small groups cooperative methods with middle school and high school students, I found that the classes that I used these methods with worked better than the ones where I did not. The kids seemed to consistently gain a bunch of advantages:
- Kids that were too shy or insecure to speak up in front of the whole class found it much easier to express their opinons in front of three or four other kids. Which meant that they talked more and participated more.
- The existence of clear rules and group expectations put everyone on a more level playing field, since no one was the boss.
- Kids that wanted to avoid participating in the class didn’t have that choice, because their classmates knew that everyone needed to participate and held them to account.
- Kids that would have found it easy to act out, to make a scene in front of the whole class, found it much harder to do so when face-to-face with their peers, who felt empowered in that context to demand that they participate.
- The tasks that they were doing as a group were more interesting that any worksheet or essay that they would have been doing otherwise.
Did my students complain sometimes? Yup. Did some of them resent being forced to work with kids they didn’t like? You betcha. But 19 times out of 20, the bellyaching gave way to doing good school work. My classrooms were noisy, messy, sometimes argumentative and usually chaotic-looking. But when you looked closer, you could see that the kids were generally focused, concentrating, working on something that they cared about. And with middle school kids, engaging them in caring about their work can be the hardest thing of all.
And as the teacher, I reaped some pretty sweet benefits, too:
- I could manage the classroom more proactively– I could separate kids who reinforced each other’s bad behavior without making it a thing about them, and I could give a kid who was trying but having a hard time a group with the kids who would be most supportive, giving him or her the best shot I could at a productive experience.
- I could shift my classroom time from crisis management to guidance. Which, as you might imagine, feels a whole lot better.
- I could get them (and me) engaged in the subject on a much more interesting level – and believe me, the 10th time you’ve taught Beowulf or split infinitives, the teacher can get every bit as bored as the students. Much more fun to hear groups give their own interpretations of how Grendel relates to modern human fears than to grade 40 worksheets.
When my teaching career demonstrated a strong urge to go nowhere and I eventually morphed into a planner and public engagement specialist, it made sense that I brought that small group cooperative learning skill set with me. You see, even when you have a degree in planning, and you’ve been taught how important it is to “engage” with the “public,” no one actually teaches you how to do that. So I used what I had.
Over the past 15 years, I have done public engagement sessions using these tools and tricks with groups of several hundred, and with groups of ten. I’ve used them in very rural and very urban, very highly educated and very disadvantaged neighborhoods, and I’ve used them on boring comprehensive plan updates and on issues that were so hot topic that participants told me that they thought it would be impossible to come to a satisfactory conclusion.
This is why I say that the ugliness, the nastiness, the ineffectiveness and the uselessness of how we do public engagement – it does not have to be that way. There’s no reason it should be that way. With a little forethought, a better toolkit, and a little determination, we can create more constructive public meetings, rebuild the relationship between the government and the community, and make our plans and public decisions better. All we have to do is to crowdsource wisdom.