For a number of years, I’ve been pondering how the Snowflake Effect1 could influence learning. For those who are new to this concept of the Snowflake Effect, in essence it’s about the transformation of society from a model of mass production to one of mass personalization. Think of it as providing just the right things for just the right people at just the right time in just the right context.
Many times everyday, we all have the need to learn about things that are just right for us, and ideally the perfect learning resources are available at just the right time. We hope for the Buddhist saying “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
Since a very young age, I’ve been fascinated by the “teachable moment”, when someone is perfectly ready, willing, and able to learn something new. How can we develop more ways to foster teachable moments every day, and how can we provide just the right resources (people, content, and environment) exactly when we need them?
A Growing Demand for Teachers
When you start to think about this on a worldwide scale, the demand for teachers and teaching forums is increasing exponentially. More than 6.6 billion people have the need to learn everyday, yet the learning assimilation gap (the gap between what we know and what we need to know) is widening.
What’s driving this need? There has always been much more to know than we ever could learn, and we always discover that the more we learn the more we understand how much we don’t know. This situation, however, is being exacerbated by the exponential growth of new “stuff”: technologies, techniques, content (text, audio, visual, etc.) and new concepts, as well as additional means of communication (anything from email to podcasts to Twitter). Add to this the need to solve problems (and challenges!) that are also growing at matching rates and you can see why the demand for learning is increasing exponentially.
Traditionally, the model for formal teaching and learning has been one where a single teacher instructs multiple students. Now this model is inverted. Today, most learners (we still have much to do in many regions where this is not true) are essentially surrounded by multiple resources, instructors, coaches, and trainers.
Initially then, we reach the point where, oddly, we need more teachers than there are learners. If we multiply this by the number of learning experiences everyday, then we find ourselves needing “n” times more the number of teachers than there are learners! And those numbers start in the billions and rapidly increase from there.
Rethinking the Relationship Between Teachers and Learners
Are we really to the point where we need many times more teachers than learners? If so, then we have to start rethinking the relationship between teachers and learners. And where would all these teachers come from? The answer is quite seriously “in the mirror". In this new world, we would start thinking and acting as both teachers and learners simultaneously. We would all become “tearners”.
Let me give you a reference point for this term “tearners”. I’ve borrowed the idea of blending existing terms to create a new one that represents a new concept from Alvin Toffler, who you might remember as the author of several books from the 1960’s and early 1970’s, including Future Shock and The Third Wave. His term “prosumer” blended producer and consumer into a single word that represented the concept of a society where the functions of producer and consumer would be combined.2
Now, I’m not suggesting that we’re all going to quit our jobs and become teachers in a formal sense. Rather, we’re going to augment our ability to learn by making all of us adopt this role of being a teacher whenever it is needed. In this context I am using the word “teacher” to describe the situation where one person is helping others learn something new. This could be anything from answering questions, suggesting a new technique, recommending a new tool, referencing some useful resource, etc. In this context, teaching is not necessarily an in-person real-time event. Today we can capture and publish our individual and collective “intelligence” through the use of blogs, podcasts, wikis, email, Twitter streams, and all of the more traditional means such as books, movies, songs, etc. We can continuously create teaching/learning resources for others to benefit from when their “teachable moments” arise.
The vast majority of our learning today is already done informally, that is, outside the bounds of a formal classroom setting. According to most estimates about 75% of the time, our sources of learning come to us this way. So this would suggest that we need to have about the same percentage of “informal teachers” as well. And as all of us become “tearners”, how can we dramatically increase the effectiveness and rate of learning?
In the past 20 years, we’ve certainly seen an increase in our focus on learning. Yet if we really look at our learning effectiveness (the speed with which we can acquire new skills, knowledge, and abilities), we don’t seem to have achieved an appreciable increase, despite the addition of new tools and new technologies throughout the entire e-learning and technology-enhanced learning era. I’m not suggesting that this era has been a complete failure. Certainly technology has augmented the number of learners who can be reached and it has increased the number of resources available, but I’m not convinced that it has increased the effectiveness of learning in any significant way. Thus, I am interested in not only the quantitative side, the idea that all of us can become teachers, but also the qualitative side, that all of us can become better teachers (and learners).
Part of the reason why I think this tearner model is possible is because we’re already redefining what “expert” and “expertise” means. Historically, experts have been recognized by their credentials. We’ve had degree programs, certification awards, and other formal means for acknowledging someone’s expertise in a tangible way. We still need this kind of verification of expertise, but since new technologies are being introduced at a more rapid rate all the time, we’re also seeing a transformation of what an expert is. In many cases, an expert is simply someone who knows more about a product or a technology than you or I do, and can therefore be an effective teacher.
We no longer have sufficient time to create the formal learning tools and environments, such as masters and doctoral programs, textbooks, and credentialing systems, to address these significant changes in technology or methodology. We need experts to teach us about new programming languages, new equipment, new approaches, and new ways of communicating no matter how quickly they appear on the scene.
I also think there is a relationship between this new definition of “expert” and this new way of teaching and training. Can we get better at attaching the responsibility for teaching to the idea of “expertise.” Many countries I have visited or lived in—Germany comes to mind—have an ingrained understanding that as you become an expert or master in a craft or profession, you inherit the responsibility, formally and informally, of becoming a teacher as well. What if everyone who mastered a competency, skill, or knowledge area also accepted the responsibility of helping others learn in these areas?
The historical model of formal education as the sole means of producing experts and providing teachers is not scalable. But maybe we can take the essence of it; that is, someone with expertise in a craft or profession not only has the potential to become an effective teacher of others who want to acquire those same skills, but also expects that teaching is simply part of what their “expertise” is all about.
So, What If We Were All “Teachers”?
What would it mean for each of us to think of ourselves as teachers? How could we become more effective in this role? First, we’d need a change of mindset. Every one of us would assume the responsibility of helping others to learn. We would also need to develop new skill sets. Some of the skills that would make us better are:
· Capturing and sharing what we know.3
· Being able to articulate our thoughts and ideas to others well through storytelling, metaphors, visual illustration, and problem-solving.
· Being more empathetic—improving our ability to see what the other person really needs to learn effectively.
These would be good skills for us to have anytime! It is intriguing to me to note that all of these skills are predominantly “right-brained” and that this scenario adds to the arguments I’ve made previously in my OCOT entry “Getting It Right” about the increasing need for right-brained skills in business.
This idea of all of us becoming teachers to help others learn is not just a one-way street. All of us as teachers gain the added benefit derived from the old adage, “The best way to learn something really well is to try teaching it to someone else.” When you have to explain it to someone else or help someone else become competent at doing something, you almost always learn more and become more competent yourself. Therefore, we can also look at being tearners from the standpoint of enlightened self-interest. If taking on the role of teacher causes us to learn something even better, then our collective learning will go up. We all stand to benefit in this role as “tearners”, since in the process of teaching others, we are addressing some of our own learning needs.
New Tools, Technologies, and Techniques for “Tearners”
As we move toward this model of tearners, let’s also look at ways to enhance teaching. What new tools, technologies, and techniques for teaching would we need? For example, search engines and recommender systems have mostly been focused on content thus far. Just as the exponential increase of content on the Web drove the need to develop these tools, so too might the exponential increase in teachers drive the need for better “expert-finding” tools. For example, we could develop tools that would help us find the experts we need in any given situation. I think a lot of the same technology that we apply to content could be applied to people. Metadata, such as characteristics, words found within, the audience it was written for, who else looked for this content, etc., could be applied to people and skills. Could we have more metadata about us individually? Could we get better at itemizing what each of us knows: our skills, knowledge, abilities, experience, expertise, to enable us to find people who are just right for us at just the right time and in just the right context?
Unlike the current mass production model of learning, which often assumes we are all somehow the same and need the same things at the same time in the same way, this new model of tearners, which supports mass personalization, draws upon our uniqueness as “snowflakes”. This model is sustainable because each of us can take on these roles of learner and teacher mutually. This model is also one that can grow exponentially because as each of us learns more, we can teach and share more, so the supply of “teachers” will naturally grow to meet the demand for learning.
And as teachers of others, we learn more ourselves so we have a built-in form of self-motivation and another multiplier to the overall effect. It all starts with you. Could it be time for you to tearn?
1If you’re interested in learning more about the Snowflake Effect, check out the The Long Slow Chat, my joint effort with friend and colleague Erik Duval, and this collection of articles from Off Course – On Target.
2 I’ve written about this prosumer concept often on Off Course - On Target including:
- Redesigning Rather Than Crying Over Spilled Milk?
- New Perspectives: The Third Wave?
- Jumbled Joomla: there is no "B" in Joomla!
3 I see the increased amount of capturing and publishing that we are witnessing via email, blogs, wikis, social media such as Facebook and MySpace, video on YouTube, and comments and opinions on Amazon, as signs that more people are sharing what they know, though in relative terms it is still only a small percentage of people who do so and only a small percentage of the expertise and knowledge that people have is actually captured and shared.