The Emergence of Collective Intelligence

This positive passage is longer than others because it is designed to be an exercise. Completing the exercise may change how you think about learning and human performance.

My colleagues and I wrote a book called The Best Teacher in You. It was based on interviews with highly effective public school teachers. In the final editing we dropped a chapter that contained what I think may be the most important message. We dropped it because we felt most readers would not understand or accept the message. It was too far outside the conventional perspective.

We asked the great teachers to describe their greatest moments, what was their teaching like when they were at their best? They seemed to struggle for words but the statements suggest that the highest kind of learning is a collective form of learning. Their statements also suggest that great teaching and great leadership are one and the same.

Our language does not have many terms for describing collective intelligence or how to bring it about.   If you read the following statements and look for themes you may make some great discoveries about positive organizing and positive leadership. I leave it to you to generate conclusions.

Exercise: Read the following statements, identify the themes, and create your own explanation of positive leadership and positive organizing.

Emergence: There is just this magical chemistry that happens, and you can’t predict when it’s going to be. The frequency, I would say, is at least four days out of five, at least one of my classes will run very smoothly and you will feel that magic. But it is not every class, every day. It is a living, breathing thing that evolves, so you can’t predict it with accuracy. Even if you set up the environment to create the magic, it doesn’t always happen. And sometimes when you think it is going to be the worst day and you wish you wouldn’t have stepped out of bed, things go wonderfully well, and that’s the type of thing that really keeps you wanting to teach.

Controlled Chaos: You get that whole feeling of excitement . . . When we have a lesson, they (students) each work at their own pace and then they hold the white board up and I’m going around the room like, ‘Yeah, you got it!’ There is just a whole energy because I’m moving and pointing and, you know, the kids are all excited. Everybody is engaged at the same time . . . Nobody is waiting their turn. And with third graders . . . it’s really nice just to be able to move. So they are really plugged in. It’s a lot less structured. There’s a lot of sort of almost controlled chaos there in terms of raising their hands.”

Inquiry: My best teaching is when the kids are engaged, and by that I mean they’re asking me questions. They’re asking each other questions . . . They are coming up with the questions and want to know more than what I planned on teaching. They want me to go further into something.

Facilitation: On my best day usually—it actually happens more often than you would think, but—it’s usually I’ve given information and the kids are coming in and asking questions. They’re engaged in the learning process, and they’re fitting the pieces together to make the whole picture. They are . . . talking with one another, learning from one another. I like when the students interact. They’re able to explain things to one another in ways that I feel proud of them. That, I think, is the best day, when I kind of act as the facilitator of learning and not so much the drill sergeant.”

Pursuit of the Common Good: Two days ago, when a girl was talking about the pattern and seeing the pattern, she got a round of applause . . . Inside I was beaming . . . The class literally was like, ‘Way to go, Elizabeth.’ It was just like, ‘Wow, they’re all in this moment with me’ . . . We are working for a common good, we are a team, we work together.”

The Inversion of Status: Take a child that struggles, they don’t really understand the content all that well . . . They might be the C or D student, and yet when they’re in the lab and I observe what they’re doing, I know they know because they’re the ones that just can do it. Here is maybe the accelerated kid and he . . . can’t figure it out . . . But the kid over here who maybe struggles in the content and was able to really visualize what was going on, was able to do it . . . and they could help the accelerated kids.”

Dynamic Feedback: But when we get feedback, it just energizes learning. And I think that it’s a huge distinction, that, often in these classrooms what I feel like I’ve seen is that kids are waiting for there to be a point in time when they finally get some feedback and that’s part of what feeds that passivity. Whereas, when you create this dynamic environment where the kids feel like they’re always . . . getting that feedback, it helps them stay connected.”

Mutual Improvisation: How can I decide beforehand exactly what I’m going to do until I know what they’re going to do? It’s an elaborate dance. If you’re leading and you take me here, then I will follow in this way. And if you give me a twirl, I have to be ready and follow along and then maybe sometimes I might take over the lead . . . If they just sit there and wait for me, you know, it’s going to be another one of those “death by boredom” kind of situations.”

Shared Leadership: People will take different roles. You know, people will step up and the other people will take a back seat, but your job together, collectively as a team is to come up with, to produce something for me. And how you work together will be different in every group you pick or you choose this year.”

Shared Facilitation: The kids are pretty good at facilitating once they realize that they can do it too. You know, they can facilitate the learning, and they can ask the good questions. They can go out and look for the answers to the questions and help other kids learn. I do like to have my kids teach each other a lot. They understand each other sometimes a little bit better or they’re not afraid maybe to ask questions when they’re in smaller groups without the teacher lurking over their shoulder. So I do like the kids to play the facilitator role, too.”

Co-creation: When I am teaching at my very best, students are engaged with each other. Students are discussing what they are learning with each other. All students are contributing. Students are respectful of their peers. They want to know what the others think. They want to figure “it” out without my help.   Students are highly productive because they are engaged.

Contagion: I love it . . . Who wouldn’t? You get something back, when you’re giving . . . The adrenalin is flowing. I mean it puts you in that same kind of state that you’re engendering in them. You’re the same way because you’re getting just as pumped up as they are.

Self-Organization and Role Exit: On good days they are very interactive and give it a solid shot, sometimes with success and sometimes without. On great days they discover the entire lesson amongst themselves and leave me with little to do but watch in amazement. I guess in the end my very best days of teaching are when I’m almost not teaching at all.”

Engagement and Timelessness: You also know that that it is working because the time just flies by. When you’re the facilitator, it just feels like all of a sudden the entire day is gone and you did no work because all you do is facilitate the learning all day and it feels great . . . Because when you’re facilitating and the learning is really moving and everybody is engaged, it flies . . . time just flies. And even the kids will say, “Oh, gosh it’s 3 o’clock?” That’s the room you want to be in. You want to be in the room when the kids say, “Gosh, its 3 o’clock.”

Higher Order Thinking: They’re asking questions. They’re answering questions. I’m learning from them, and they’re learning from me also. Higher order thinking is involved. They’re excited about learning.

The Flourishing of the Whole: There are times in the classroom where it feels like, ‘Wow, this is why I’m doing this. This is why, this moment.’ . . . It has nothing to do with what they got on this test or nothing to do with my results or anything like that. It’s — this is truly a learning place where kids feel good about what they’re doing and they feel like they belong and it’s spiritual . . .   I think it’s sacred because it’s almost like nobody can touch this. Nobody can harm this. This is real. It’s something you can feel and you just feel for that moment in time that you’ve arrived, that you’ve achieved something great.”

Exceeding of Expectations: For me the very best is when the kids are showing you, beyond your wildest expectations, that they have not just mastered but exceeded what you wanted them to do.

Student Flourishing: When I’m done and I feel like I’ve made an impact. I’ve seen their excitement, and what’s really nice is that they all realize they can get excited about learning. [They] have never seen that sort of excitement for learning. And all of a sudden they realize, “Oh, wow, this is fun.”

Teacher Flourishing: I think that when you feel good about your job and what you’re doing, I think it just makes you feel fulfilled and makes you a happier person and a more confident person.

Renewal of Passion for Purpose:   When the final chapter was read and final literature circle job was assigned, the group began to clap. They loved it, but wanted to keep reading. Their minds were engaged and full of imagination and wonder. Finally, I say, “Who knew that we would all become such amazing readers and learn to love reading so much?” A student in the group replied with, “I never thought this day would happen! I love reading.” At that moment I was reenergized to continue with my love, passion, and enthusiasm for showing students how anything is possible.”

Return to Equilibrium: Now, it can’t be 100 percent all the time because . . . they (students) can’t maintain that level at all times. You know, you have to have peaks and valleys . . . I can’t even imagine keeping somebody up here at this level for 8 hours. They’d probably collapse. So it’s like great music has great rhythm, movement . . . When I have an exciting lesson, that’s usually followed by a little, a letdown, and kind of a . . . more peaceful activity. You know, I still want them to use their brain but not necessarily at that high level of excitement. . . .   If the eyes start glazing over, then it’s time to inject the little energy.


What is the difference between a good teacher and a great teacher?

What is the difference between a good leader and a great leader?

How could we use this positive passage (exercise) to create a more positive organization?


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