Social Sense-making


What would a health system looked like if we built it around social interaction, rather than the image of the clinician left to make decisions on his or her own? Or for that matter, what would other systems look like if you replaced health with “education”, “research”, “business” and clinician with “teacher”, “scientist” or “salesperson”?

My guess is that they would be a lot different. Business scholar Russell Ackoff liked to quote research that suggested that 20 per cent of what is taught to students is retained, while 95 per cent of what is taught is retained. That is a remarkable statistic when you consider the numbers affiliated with formal education. But it fits with what we know about learning. At the University of Toronto, where I teach, it is not uncommon for there to be 25 students in a graduate course, 200 in a senior undergraduate course and in some rare cases more than 1000 students in an entry-level undergraduate course. In each case, there is but one teacher and many students.

But what would happen if we allowed students to teach and teachers to learn? Could you imagine a room of 25 graduate-level teachers working together to learn as opposed to one professor? This kind of mass knowledge sharing is akin to the wisdom of crowds idea, but offers a little more than that. It offers the opportunity for much more learning (because there is much more teaching) by getting more people involved and engaged. It enhances diversity and enables many more ideas about how to make sense of something.

The process of making sense of complex data is something that has received greater attention as of late. Authors like Dave Snowden, Gary Klein, Brenda Dervin and Karl Weick have all worked to develop theories of how we make sense of things. All have merits. But one thing that seems to be missing, or at least not as prominent, is the role of “the social” in mediating that process. That is, how we collectively generate meaning from diverse swaths of information through social interaction.

If we learn more by teaching than being “taught” then learning in itself must be better suited to social interaction than passive absorption of information. This suggests to me that we might be better off understanding the role of social networks in fostering learning and supporting the development of leadership opportunities than how those teachers or leaders convey information in the first place. Relationships and connections seem to be as important as the content that is delivered in any given educational interaction.

So instead of thinking of attending a seminar next time, why not offer to lead one and encourage your audience to participate and teach you something. You’ll all be better off for it.

4 Comments on “Social Sense-making

  1. Dr. Norman,

    Thank you for this post. Although I love the idea, I am not sure that the system is ready to adopt this new form of radical education. Indeed, programs such as the AEI teaching model integrate Kolb’s experiential learning cycle as part of the curriculum. It makes me wonder whether this provides an opportunity to refine this model and apply it to crowdsourcing the learning environment….

    Have a lovely weekend,


    • Cisco, Thank you very much for the comments. Indeed, I think you’re right about the system’s current level of preparedness being somewhat low.

      The remarkable thing about formal education is that it is a rapidly self-renewing system that exhibits relatively stable characteristics. For example, every year, there is a new wave of four, five and six-year olds who go to kindergarten. This is pretty constant and varies little from year-to-year. In the case of graduate school, that is a little different and less stable, but still relatively consistent. What this means is that we get to live our ‘Groundhog Day’ (all coincidental references intended) every year. In a clinical context, this is even faster with new patients coming in daily. This provides remarkable opportunities to do something different every time, with a new generation. I think by simply asking people to teach you something that is relevant to their lives you enhance the opportunity for them to ‘unlearn’ ways that currently restrict creativity. My students are surprised and delighted when I tell them that they as a group are much more wise and capable on the areas I teach than I am. Yet, by simply doing this one act, it changes them. Once they get into teaching each other and me as the course moves along I can see shifts happen and, best of all, they want more. Hopefully they’ll ask for more when they take the next class and then maybe demand more and possibly do more when they become professors or leaders in other areas in the health sector.

      The system in which that education occurs is a much harder nut to crack. But it’s not impenetrable because, as the above example suggests, there are many leverage points to work with. Your specific suggestion is a super one. Kolb’s experiential learning model or Howard Gardner’s work on multiple (and social) intelligence fit nicely to this. Add to that an overlay on crowdsourcing and we have something quite interesting. It might be worth considering following up with. Hmmmm.

      Thanks for the feedback and have a great weekend yourself!


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