Tag Archives: TED lecture

Steven Johnson’s Lessons for Cooperative Extension

William Hogarth painting of a spirited political dinner at an 18th century restaurant tavern.

After reading Steven Johnson’sWhere Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” a third time through and taking meticulous notes, I’m more convinced than ever that it should serve as one of the manuals, if not the principal manual, for Extension’s transformation into a 21st knowledge organization.

I hope you are as equally convinced after reading this.

Johnson devotes much of the book to debunking the longstanding notion that good ideas stem from eureka moments.

Ironically, we humans have invented all sorts of metaphors to describe these eureka moments — aside, of course, from “eureka moments,” “flashes of insight,” “strokes of genius” and, my favorite, “epiphanies.”

As it turns out, though, this understanding is far off the mark, Johnson contends.

“As rhetorically florid as these [metaphors] all are, they don’t strike at the truth because they depict ideas as a single thing — something that happens at an illuminating moment,” he says.

Actually, ideas begin as networks at the most elemental level — our brains.

A new idea is essentially a network of neurons firing in sync within a human brain — “a new configuration that has never formed before.”

That’s only half the story.  As Johnson and others have discovered, good ideas emerge within similar sorts of external networks, which mimic the internal environment of the human brain.

The trick — that is to say, the optimal way to ensure the formation of ideas — is to place oneself into an environment where new external networks are likely to form.

Johnson describes these environments as liquid networks, rather boisterous places which closely resemble William Hogarth’s painting of a densely crowded tavern room where a political dinner is being held.

“This is the kind of chaotic environment where ideas are likely to come together, where people from different backgrounds were likely to have new, interesting, unpredictable collisions,” he says.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, research has supported this view.

For example, researcher Kevin Dunbar employed a “Big Brother” approach to determine whether monumental breakthroughs in scientific laboratories really were the result of eureka moments — those sparks of brilliance that allegedly occur as scientists peer through microscopes.

As it happens, most good ideas occur around the conference table — the weekly lab meetings where everybody assembles and shares their latest data and findings.

Indeed, Johnson says one of the challenges of the future will be building more of these spaces — spaces where individuals behave much like those in Hogarth’s classic painting.

For my part, I’m both inspired and disturbed by the views Johnson presents in his book and his TED lecture (posted below).

He’s right to argue that one of the preeminent concerns of organizations in the future will be creating the optimal conditions in which these sorts of liquid networks can thrive — that’s the inspiring part.

The part that disturbs me is best expressed by this question: Is Cooperative Extension up to the task of building liquid networks in the 21st century?

I’ve stressed a time or two in this forum how Extension once dominated the knowledge landscape.  Borrowing Johnson’s terminology, we once excelled in building optimal networks, not only among ourselves but on behalf of our clients.

What were the agricultural societies of the 18th and 19th century other than attempts to build these optimal learning environments?   For that matter, what were Seaman Knapp’s experimentation with cotton demonstrations, Washington’s use of farm conference’s and P.O Davis’s development of radio listening clubs other than attempts to optimize not only the spread but also the cross-fertilization of ideas?

Even so, how well equipped are we to nurture these environments in the 21st century?   Granted, we are still constructing networks but are we making adequate use of emerging Web 2.0 technologies?  Even more important, are these networks as efficient, open and responsive as they should be — efficient, open and responsive enough to merit continued support from our stakeholders?

As I see it, that remains the million-dollar question — literally.

Sugata Mitra’s Shattering Discovery and Its Implications for Extension

Virtually all of us in Cooperative Extension know that our 100-year-old outreach model is under the proverbial gun and that something must be done, some strategy or new way of thinking employed, to stave off extinction.

Believe me, after viewing Newcastle University Prof. Sugata Mitra’s 2010 TED lecture, I’m more convinced than ever that this new strategy or way of thinking had better come sooner than later.  Mitra’s remarks not only underscored the hard realities we face as an organization but also filled me with an even grimmer sense of urgency.

A few years ago, Mitra, a world-renowned educational technology expert, came up with an extraordinary idea.

He embedded Internet-accessible computers in remote villages throughout India and ultimately in locations throughout world to see how children with no previous exposure to computers or the Web would react.

The results pointed to something equally as extraordinary: The kids learned from the computers by themselves, with no adult oversight.

Video recordings Mitra shared from one village showed an 8-year-old boy demonstrating to a 6-year-old girl how to browse the Internet.  In another village, children, after only four hours of exposure to the Internet, learned how to record their own music and play it back to themselves, sparking a reaction of awed delight.

All of these experiences, Mitra says, demonstrate the awesome power of collaborative learning.

“Groups of children can learn to use the computer and the Internet on their own, irrespective of who or where they are,” he said.

Buoyed by these initial results, Mitra resolved to push the envelope, to see what other challenges children could overcome using Web 2.0 technology.

In a Hyderabad-based experiment involving children who spoke English with a thick regional accent, he turned over a computer equipped with an English-to-text interface, casually informing the children that he was leaving and that they were on their own.

Initially the computer responded to the children’s thick accents with gibberish, Mitra recalls.

However, upon his return a couple of months later, he discovered that the children had learned to speak in a manner remarkably similar to the neutral British accents the computer was designed to detect.

In what is now called his Kalikkuppam Experiment, Mitra set out to determine whether Tamil-speaking Indian children in a remote village could learn biotechnology on their own, even though all the online instruction was in English.

Two months later, he noted that the children had increased their scores from zero to 30 percent.  After enlisting a volunteer teacher who employed the “granny method” of teaching —merely looking over the children’s shoulders and providing frequent encouragement— Mitra observed that the average score increased to 50, which is “what the posh schools in New Delhi with trained teachers are getting,” he said.

Some of the most remarkable results of all were secured in Turin, Italy, in 2010, only minutes after Mitra walked into a class of Italian-speaking ten-year-old children and wrote the following phrase in English on the chalkboard: “How did dinosaurs die out?”

“The children asked, ‘What?’ I said do it,” Mitra recounted.

The youngsters secured the answer after 15 minutes by typing the English phrase into Google for the Italian translation and then Googling the translated Italian phrase.

Mitra followed this with a somewhat more challenging question in English: “Who was Pythagoras and what did he do?”

Twenty minutes later, right-angled triangles began appearing on the screens.

“It just sent shivers up my spine,” Mitra recalled.

The parallels to Arthur C. Clarke’s monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey are unmistakable.  As a matter of fact, Clarke was an eager follower of Mitra’s efforts before his death, drawing two lessons from them: first, that a teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be, and, second, that if children have interests, education happens.”

For his part, Mitra says these experiments have driven home one critical insight, which he hopes to investigate more closely in the future.

Based on his research, Mitra believes that education, thanks to the advent of Web 2.0, now bears all the hallmarks of a self-organizing system — one in which “learning is an emergent phenomenon.”

He describes a self-organizing system as a structure that appears without explicit intervention from the outside.

Ponder Mitra’s insight for a moment: Education is now a self-organizing structure that appears without explicit intervention from the outside.

Simply put, people, using online resources, are fully capable of learning on their own without human intervention.

Speaking of shivers, if this insight has not yet sent a shiver up your spine, it darn well should.