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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.

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