||The Problem Finding & Sharing stage of the CROP model is one significant place in which the collective thinking of a larger group is important. Computer networks have made many new arrangments possible. The Internet is rapidly becoming the core information system which integrates with prior information systems to form a new 21st century knowledge system. This essay explores different approaches to digital systems for such work. Such systems will dominate the decades to come. Those who will spend the greater part of their lives in this century need the training and educational experiences that enable them to further create and invent this brave new millennium. Unlike the agricultural age and its territorial warriors and the industrial age and its capitalist business folk, this age focuses on those who specialize in the support and expansion of knowledge systems. We may still call them educators, but they will have a new responsibility. Educators, including the newest of our teachers and instructors must lead not only themselves but assist most of the practicing teachers in education today in making the transition to this new paradigm. This new paradigm not only|
|Intellectual teams also play a major role at each stage of the problem solving model. At the look stage, a team of people can search more territory more quickly than one person and can use electronic systems to quickly report that information to a team member to collect and organize what is found. At the evoke stage, group writing software can aid the brainstorming and composition process. At the assess stage, numerous forms of email conferences and chat systems aid in providing feedback on work in progress. At the publish stage, publishers have long had organized teams for reviewing, refereeing and critiquing. Electronic networks not only can accelerate the publication process, but improve the quality of its commentary and analysis.|
Learning and education has always placed an emphasis on questions and answers, but too often this process has focused on the more trivial step of recalling basic facts. In cyberspace there is much more value and power in a question and response process that tackles authentic, real questions and problems, rather than in focusing on known answers to known questions. Focusing on the unknown, in and of itself, is a significant agenda, and yet there is further opportunity. The information age also provides numerous opportunities to grow new structures and systems from new questions, including new kinds of public organizations and new businesses. That is, workforce preparedness can move easily into the nourishing of entrepreneurship and the formation of new jobs. Educators can lead the growth of the economy, not merely support it.
Educators are increasingly in a position to exercise educational leadership in leading their surrounding community forward into cyberspace. Within this new world of education, distance and time grow increasingly irrelevant. In this new world, what is similar and what is different and how should that impact our educational planning, for teachers and for our world's students? This issue of comparing the past with the present will be explored in four ways:
What percentage of the assignments of your formal education did you or other students spend on developing and finding your own questions? How often were your questions as important in your grade as your answers? We've often been assigned to find answers. How often was the focus of an assignment to find real or authentic questions? Were you ever assigned or encouraged to write a page or two of questions, let alone questions that were relevant to your world at that time? If your teacher had asked you to write the questions you met or discovered last summer instead of write what you did last summer, wouldn't you have considered that a little unusual? Far too much educational time is spent under the expectation that teachers will ask pre-ordained questions and students will expect to answer them. Is this expectation still useful in the information age?
One of our larger cultural forces is the business and corporate community. The writings in business and in other forms of institutional leadership have more recently placed a special emphasis on environmental scanning (Michman, 1983; Pritchett, 1990; Stoffels, 1994). By environmental scanning, they mean the study of the situation external to the team or organization for change, that is for innovations employed by others that may have an impact on their team or company. They conclude that even given the ability to make good decisions based on what the team can control, most of what effects us is not controlled by the group with which we work. Life simply happens too often in some random order and we must be aware of changes or the need to change in order to succeed. In other words, short term business health and and general success in the information age depends on individuals working within the context of team goals. However, long term success depends on individuals who continually compare their goals with community events and question and probe their cultural surroundings for opportunities and needs which will require a change of objectives.
But why is the need to scan the environment so important in today's culture? One feature of our cultural environment stands out distinctively. The pace of change is rapid and accelerating. Alvin Toffler saw this clearly in 1970. He observed that the experience of rapid change and significant newness created a form of shock in which the mind was impaired, reducing ones ability to respond. How ironic. At the very moment we need the greatest processing power, our wetware (the brain) starts shutting down from the stress of change (e.g., difference or newness). Perhaps this phenomena lies at the root of math and computer anxiety as well. His book, Future Shock, is one of the classic works of the information age. In Gleick's book, "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything" (2000), this theme of increasing pace has been continued. A major element further stimulating change since the publication of this book is the Internet, an interlocking network of networks of computers, a factor that will have important impact on school districts (Houghton, 1997a) and classroom curriculum (Houghton, 1997b).
Why do we ask the questions we do? What guides the directions in which we look or explore? A questioning culture, a culture emphasizing critical and creative perspectives, can ultimately be no stronger than its ethical culture. Our values channel our questions, determining what is off-limits and on-target. It is curious that United State's culture in this century has managed through legal and political processes to separate many individuals and institutions that focus on ethical concerns from their participation in public school classrooms. Recognition of this concern has led many states to require character or values education. Struggle with ethical stance adds further stress to the process of problem solving in order to adjust to change.
To thrive in a rapidly changing world requires the rapid generation of questions and activity to solve them. If the act of questioning is so important to progress in learning, should not teacher education programs place a premium on the study of questions, and on their creation? What would research show here? How frequently are preservice teachers assigned the task of creating questions? What percentage of assignment time for classroom students is given to creating questions or to an appropriate progression of higher-order questions? My observation in general is that questioning skills are too often assumed, not taught and that team systems for the generation of questions for all types of students are not practiced. To change this perspective perhaps requires further evidence from the larger culture that such skills are as important for the student of life and as for the teacher of life.
Is this "future-shock" problem with newness some basic characteristic of human beings? Clearly some handle this better than others. If this were a fundamental problem though, two and three year old children would frequently be hospitalized in some catatonic condition. The first years of life are ones of constant change and newness. At this age, after all, everything is new.
How, then, do those in the early childhood phase of life manage this constant change? One hallmark of healthy children is their incessant questioning. They ask and ask to the point of driving their parents and elders crazy with their interrogation of their world. They appear to know instinctively to direct their mind to wonder and probe and explore. A better, but unexplored question for now, is how did we lose this ability to the degree that Toffler's study of adult culture would lead to the diagnosis of future shock among the elders? One conclusion does emerge with great clarity. To thrive, not merely survive, the habit of questioning must be frequently exercised. Further, there is also a correlation between good physical health and good questioning habits.
What then is the relationship between a good question and the environment? The search for questions requires a continual reappraisal of the existing and the changing environment. To reflect is to query. The question frames the parameters of our effort. The search for an answer assumes that conditions will hold still long enough to make the answer to a question relevant. But if conditions change, the successful answer becomes wasted effort or worse. To linger in producing contributions and answers may yield a similar fate for our effort. A good question is current. Current questions require close contact with those in a rapidly changing environment.
In this information age on the edge of the twenty-first century, conditions change at an ever faster pace. The pace has produced the saying that seven Internet years equal one human year. Some say the ratio is as high as twenty to one. As the pace of change for the foreseeable future is high, it would seem that what is different in the new paradigm is that the accent must change and has changed for those who have adapted to thriving in this environment. The accent must be on questions. The reappraisal of the priority of our questions and the general role of question and reflection will need to be significant. The pace of our questioning needs to keep pace with change in our surroundings. Further, there is a curious correlation between human health and questioning and the observation that biological systems that function as chaotic (e.g., nonlinear or highly interactive) systems are a sign of health, not of disease (Houghton, 1989; Pool, 1989; Rapp, 1985, 1987; Skarda & Freeman, 1987).
When we teach under the perception that the questions are basically known and so are the answers, our culture shapes a curriculum that works well in a closed container. Our containers basically end at the edge of our classroom, building or campus. People enter these different containers to pick up the knowledge of what is found there. Education is framed around a delivery system paradigm. The current model of distance education does little to dispel this perception. Distance education is merely a way for those physically remote from the container to construct a virtual sense of being within its walls. In a static or culture that is slow to change it would make the most sense for distance education technology to be centralized in one particular classroom. Then this room would be prioritized for those topics for which there is a concentration of students with special content needs.
If however we are living in a time of rapid change in knowledge, and if we are living as part of an adult community not only frequently short of answers but equally short of on-target questions, then a different perception and application are in order. In this transformed perspective, it is not the learner that uses some media to come from a distance to become embedded in the container of the classroom, but rather there is a community or communities which should come the distance to the container of the classroom. It is from this community that current questions and problems are found. To the degree that the container (the classroom) has interaction beyond its walls, education occurs. Classroom leadership then becomes measured by the educator's ability to immerse the focus of the classroom within an interactive community. Questions that steer classroom events then come as much from outside the classroom as within. Distance education technologies should then be decentralized so that every classroom can reach into the outside world as much as possible. Good learning here requires strong interaction with the surrounding community. From this perspective, distance education should become an integral element of every classroom. In the information age it may not be the learner that comes the distance but education itself.
This emphasis on questions however should not be taken as implying that
the process of answer formation or that answers themselves have become
unimportant. My concern is to place an accent mark on one part of the whole
process of thinking to better help us evaluate our priorities. The answer
process is already well taught and heavily practiced, though the life span
of many answers continues to decrease. It would appear that the habit of
questioning and the knowledge of questioning is in greater need of attention,
often inadequately practiced and increasingly important at a time in our
culture when we are experiencing a high and accelerating rate of change.
To draw the best out of human beings and our creative best use of the Internet's
telecomputers, learners and educators must place special priority on the
concepts and techniques of questioning.
The search for useful questions requires a significant amount of intellectual winnowing, sifting and pruning of options and alternatives. The creation and the targeting of selected questions requires the highest forms of intelligence (Abbs, 1994), a process in which our tools, including computer processing power have little or no relevance to the actual creative act of forming the question and judging its value. But tools, whether electronic or not, can be applied to the communication and the editing of our creations and selections. These tools can be applied to both the process of personal reflection and to social interaction. Group work depends on the quality of the skills of each individual.
Note-taking provides another opportunity. One procedure is to divide note-paper into a wide left margin and an even wider right margin. The right margin is used to record the facts and observations of the day's events or class. The left margin is used to highlight questions and facts drawn from the notes in the right column. Legal notepads are one current example of this. Curiously, there are very few software programs that support two or more column work where the items in the left column stay correlated with the data in the right. Though spreadsheets can do this for a few characters of type, the cells of a spreadsheet do not automatically expand to hold phrases and sentences making this work cumbersome with this software application. The only area that has developed this seriously has been the professional work of script writing, with columns for time, audio and video descriptions and more. Fortunately, the table creation tool of many common word processors and web editors allows you to easily duplicate this idea on a computer screen.
Adding the number of questions generated on perhaps a daily or weekly basis creates a simple measure of reflectivity or measure of personal interaction with what is being studied. Sorting or classifying a person's questions into different question levels, e.g., Bloom's taxonomy of cognitive skills, would provide a still deeper level of evaluation of intellectual progress.
The better an individual develops personal question development skills and techniques, the stronger the team member they can be in working with others if they have the social skills and techniques to share these questions.
Educators have long recommended an emphasis on a range of higher order questions (Bloom, 1956; Sanders, 1966) and long examined the relationship between the teacher's use of questions and the success of their students. Winnie conducted an extensive analysis of these teacher questioning strategies in 1979 and shortly after so did Redfield and Rousseau (1981). In general, teacher use of higher order thinking skills remains low. Even the time allowed for answers remains insufficient to allow better thinking. More recently Carlsen (1991) articulated the concept of wait time in response to teachers' classroom questions and urges teachers to explore the use of wait times of from 6 or more seconds, to at least three to five minutes.
As your average three year old demonstrates, to further support a high and an effective rate of question and answer, you put people in close touch with each other. Interaction is critical to both effective environmental scanning and personal reflection. One form of interaction occurs between the teacher and the students. Advice on the value of the teacher's role in encouraging classroom questioning is extensive and wide-ranging (Bateman, 1990; Crawford, 1996; Freire, 1989; Harlen, 1985; Hayes, 1984; Tracey, 1970). A teacher-response approach to learner questioning however faces fundamental limitations. Teaching time is limited and one teacher can only answer so many questions. The authority figure nature of teachers also can dampen the appearance of certain questions. Learners are faced with exposing what they don't know to the person responsible for evaluating them on the basis of how much they do know. There are many interesting solutions to this problem.
Classroom Learner Questioning
One of the primary roles for teams, inside or outside of classrooms or in other organizations, is to note questions and solve problems. The social aspect of teaming also acts as a further buffer against the shock of the future. Classrooms certainly represent one more place for teamwork and problem solving to be practiced. One of the most exciting new areas of curriculum development in recent years has been cooperative and collaborative designs for learning and teaching (Adams, 1996; Bosworth, Hamilton, 1994; Haring-Smith, 1992; Johnson, and Johnson, 1994; Johnson, Johnson and Holubec, 1994). Their bias is to be highly interactive and learner centered. In short, educators are increasingly leading learners through the development of problem solving teams.
In parallel with this development, though not necessarily in conjunction with it, has been the explosive development of computer networks, e.g., local area networks and the Internet. Communication activity, not calculation activity, dominates these networks. Within networks this thinking has developed into a genre of software sometimes referred in the social and organizational behavior literature as "computer supported cooperative work" (Galegher, Kraut & Egido, 1990; Harrison & Stephen, 1996) and "groupware" by the computer industry. The merging of people networks, telecomputer networks and teamwork arrangements provides numerous opportunities for educators developing questioning skills (Waugh, 1996) and developing more generic problem solving skills (Houghton, 1994a, 1994b). However, "...the difficulties of coordination and communication tend to counteract the benefits that come from collaborative work and decision making" (Galegher, Kraut and Egido, 1990). These problems are further compounded in classrooms by the long nourishment of a culture of individual responsibility and student competitiveness that work against team values and effectiveness.
Technology can address efficiency and methodological issues. People must address attitudes towards the value of intellectual teamwork. As for efficiency, fortunately for computer poor classrooms many of these techniques can be implemented without electronic support. In fact, in most cases they were first conceived and implemented without computer technology. Electronic tools were later employed to address ensuing problems with coordination and communication as the number and distance of team participants increased.
Some groups have developed significant educational movements around specific forms of thinking skills in problem solving contexts. The Odyssey of the Mind groups have built an international organization that supports local, state, national and international competitive events based on creative thinking. They stress collaboration, divergent thinking and problem solving skills (Krupps, 1996; Micklus, 1989). These teams are organized within a school program at different grade levels from kindergarten through college. Their activities may be integrated into regular classroom instruction or occur outside of class as with other competitive school teams. Their curriculum comes from a small set of questions that the international organization develops for each year's competitive season. A few specific problems are developed for different areas such as engineering, science, technology or the performing arts. In the practice phase they have months to brainstorm, design, build and revise their solutions. Teams must work within cost, space and technical limitations and then present their solutions in competitive events. Other questions are "spontaneous" in that these questions are given to participants to ponder with no advanced preparation during the competitive phase.
Systems are also available that address a more comprehensive range of thinking skills and integrate more tightly with required classroom curriculum. Using cellulose technology, wonder webs of poster and paper designs (Houghton, 1995a), it is easy to make a bulletin board that holds student questions and the responses and answers to those questions from others on the classroom wall, a wonder wall. From this display, they pursue a research process based on these authentic and personal high interest questions. Learners can use already available library systems and resources or computer network resources. Student initiated questions might fall into a wide variety of thinking skill categories, but they could be focused on certain types of questions such as comparison or inference. Further the questions could be focused on a specific unit plan under study in the classroom, on a range of topics, or on any topic.
Email remains one of the major applications for the use of the Internet. We can extend the reach and power of a paper bulletin board process by increasing the availability of computers on the Internet which in turn can use email to send specific question and response messages directly to an individual. Further, email messages can include attachments of a wide range of computer files. Using silicon (computer) technology, it is easy for students to use their email system to create email mailing lists where one email message can be composed and sent to one mailing list, which in turn sends the the questions and answers to all team members on the list. Different mail systems will handle this in different ways using different vocabulary. There are many different ways this can be done.
A very simple approach is to use the TO: field of electronic mail to hold the email addresses of several people at the same time, generally separating the addresses by commas. Communicators can keep a list of these addresses in their word processor and then paste them into their email address field all in at once. However, there are generally strict limits to the number of addresses that can be placed in an email message's single address field.
More automated procedures have been developed to better manage group email. Most current email systems have a procedure by which a group name can be created and a very long list of email addresses assigned to that group name. An individual is "owner" of this list and only the owner can add or delete names from the list. That is, an electronic mailing list is created so that one message is written, but by being sent to the group name, the message is copied automatically to all team members by the email system software. Such group design goes back to early in the development of centralized mainframe and mini-computer users such as those for Vax computer users, distribution list procedures were developed and more commonly used in post-secondary institutions. For personal computer users, similar formats emerged. More modern systems such as Groupwise (by Novell) and Outlook (by Microsoft) systems are in widespread use around the world. They use the concept of email groups, which can be personal or public. Private distribution lists or mailing lists however mean that only those who create them can use them. If this list is made public then anyone can send a message to the public group using this public list of names. Whether public or private, it is easy to abuse the system of email lists, creating email glut or spam. Deleting unwanted or irrelevant email has become a serious drag on personal efficiency and organizational effectiveness.
LISTSERVs and newsgroups represent more advanced versions of this email process. For LISTSERVs, instead of one individual determining or controlling who is on or off the group list, users can choose to add or remove their name from the email list. Then when anyone sends a message to the list, anyone on the list will receive it. In the case of LISTSERVs, the message is sent to each person's private email box. Unfortunately, such designs can easily contribute further to email glut. Newsgroups are one response or solution to email glut. In newsgroups, the collection of messages is stored for some time period in a central location (an online library of email by topic) and users can see and read the collection of newsgroup email whenever it is convenient or necessary for them to look. Hundreds of thousands of LISTSERVs and newsgroups are currently active across the Internet.
Free systems for creating your own email discussion groups using LISTSERV or newsgroup models are readily available. Google provides Google Groups 2 (http://groups-beta.google.com/). Yahoo provides Yahoo Groups (http://groups.yahoo.com/). Numerous other companies provide other systems for creating text based virtual communities: Yahoo's index ; Google's index.
Text messaging or "texting" or chat systems were developed to address another shortcoming of the basic email concept. The problem with each of the different email communication designs that has been discussed is that they share a common feature that slows down communication. Once the message is sent, the user must find and open it or in some cases start up the email program so that it can be read. When a text messaging system is in place, participants see the message as soon as it appears. This of course requires the participants to be sitting at their computer or have their cell phone or messaging device powered on at the same time. Such computer-based systems are called chat systems but are better known commercially as instant messenger services. Instant Messenger from AOL or Instant Messenger from Microsoft are two leading contenders for computer chat. Many devices besides networked personal computers provide text messaging services. All phone companies have text messaging systems for mobile phones, but only some 12% of of cell phone users in the United States have chosen to use what has been a relatively expensive service in the U.S. Elsewhere in the world, text messaging or "texting" is more common and much cheaper (Taylor, 2003). Because cell phone screens are so limited in the number of characters that they can display and the entry of letters using the dial pad is so much more difficult that a computer keyboard, a new vocabulary of abbreviations and acronyms has emerged to speed such communication. Because of the lack of access to electronic devices among students in K-12 school settings, the value of such systems is generally ignored by public school educators at this time. However, teachers, business people and those in higher education institutions do have such resources and are increasingly learning how best to use them. Educators will need to look harder at this concept for future educational integration.
FAQ files were created in response to an additional problem created by email systems. For example, newcomers joining the group discussion often have the same questions, which are sent to everyone in the group, over and over again, as each new person joins. To reduce the stress of this repetitive email, newcomers are generally directed to a FAQ file or Frequently Asked Questions file. An FAQ file generally begins a list of frequent questions, then a second section in which the question is repeated and an answer provided. There are sometimes penalties for failing to read the FAQ. Newcomers who fail to find and read the FAQ file and then send in a question already answered there may find their email box stuffed with dozens or hundreds of email messages from other participants who remind them to read the FAQ file. There have been cases of so many messages being received that no new email could be received in the person's email account, making it necessary to delete those old messages to make the email account useful again. The Internet has long supported the collection and communication of these question and answer files. A quick search in a web search engine can provide tens of millions of FAQ files. One interesting way to begin research using the web is to do a search for FAQ and some topic. Such searches will yield thousands of FAQ files for such topics as FAQ beagles or FAQ swimming or FAQ fractions. The FAQ model helped identify common questions and known answers, but generally failed by design to highlight questions the group should be working on or was working on but had not satisfactorily answered. A system for focusing on the unanswered or difficult questions was also needed.
The SUP model responded to the shortcoming of the FAQ design and did so without contributing to email glut. It creates threaded lists that track the question and the responses, taking digital advantage of the wonder wall concept. That is, the SUP system uses online databases to create a wonder web. The concept of SUP, Still Unsolved Problems (Houghton, 1994b), is an electronic database designed to make it easy to create a thread of question and responses and easier to organize teams and build problem solving organizations around the SUP system. SUP represents an online database collection of unanswered questions or questions whose answer is in process. Once a question has been selected by whatever process, a wide range of procedures and resources are available for solving the problem, for seeking an answer. The more team members that are available, the more the task of solving a problem can be broken down into smaller pieces and tackled by different members of the team. The list of individual problem solving tasks can be quite large, yet an overarching set of terms allow the problem solving process to be introduced in four basic steps, LEAP (Houghton, 1993): look, evoke, assess and publish. Working online models have been developed through which different team members can pursue different branches of a question, such as the Problem Solver's Home Page model (Houghton, 1995b). Through the LEAP model, each LEAP segment branches to information age tools available to address that stage of the problem.
Distributed or grid computing provides a solution to unanswered problems that require very significant computer calculation. It is another model for the use of computer technology in the question-answer process, though currently this is useful for only a small percentage of unanswered questions. So, far in this discussion, the emphasis has been on electronic systems which enable someone to ask questions as well as to answer them. Electronic systems can also be used to help with answering a known question, but whose solution takes a great deal of computer processing. In this model, an individual installs a program that runs in the background on their computer. When their computer is idle, it works on parts of a problem distributed to this background program by a central computer. Sometimes these programs have a screen saver display that reports on the contribution of the individual's computer as well as the progress of the overall project. Current projects include a search for a cure to smallpox, the identification of intelligent life in the universe, and problems in cryptography. See http://www.gridforum.org/ or www.grid.org for more. Some grid projects have hundreds of thousands of participating personal computers in the grid. This enables scientists to tackle problems that they would otherwise been unable to afford to address.
Using a combination of all these electronic and other systems, large groups of people scattered widely, even across multiple continents, can act in unison as if they were in the same space. Instant cell phone and computer messaging, and web pages, for example, has been used to organize the mobbing or celebrities, or simultaneous street protests on multiple continents on issues related to war and the environment. Rheingold (2003) has labeled such movements as "smart mobs" but the use of the term mobs implies a largely thoughtless group, acting in negative ways. Though communication systems can be used in negative ways, the potential for positive uses is just as great if not greater. Making effective positive use requires educational systems that find creative ways to incorporate such new concepts into the curriculum and into learning organizations. Relatively quick response to numerous community problems and questions could be managed with knowledgeable users of such electronic resources.
The thought that knowledge is community based deserves further consideration. With the advancement of the industrial age in the nineteen and twentieth century, the distance between the agenda of work outside of school (work and home) and the agenda of public education increased to the point of separation. Children spent less and less time working with their parents. Today there is some overlap between the working agendas of parents and school systems but they develop and advance in a form of parallel play in which there is no joint control and insignificant joint discussion until students are graduating from high school. It is relevant to note that parallel play in the educational literature refers typically to immature and very young children whose social development has not advanced to recognizing the interests and needs of others. That is, several two and three year old children might be in the same sandbox, playing with the same collection of toys, but with minimal interaction with each other. In fact, that is how parent and teacher teamwork can appear. This separation of these cultural agendas was not so great in the agricultural age. However, a return to a much closer alignment between community and school including forms of joint control and direct participation is highly possible in the information age.
We can say with much confidence that strong relationships between the school and community are extremely important to healthy schools and effective learning. With thousands of citizens in every community now using email accounts at home and at work and schools rapidly completing computer networks throughout their buildings, the opportunity is at hand for a new level of dialog. But what form should it take? Though initially appealing, the concept of pen pals from classrooms has not demonstrated long term viability, whether with adults or other children. Children run out of things to say without some involvement with a larger project. Some deeper connection other than just social interaction must serve as the basis for dialog. Many designs are likely to emerge to address both the need and opportunity. The concept of Question Ambassador is one possibility for long term relationships and growth.
Through the Question Ambassador (Houghton, 1997c) process, students seek community members' problems and serve as ambassadors (advocates) for their questions. The Question Ambassador design is part of a larger design for information age problem solving that is an active web site on the Internet now as CROP, Communities Resolving Our Problems.
The term community can mean just one team among several within the teacher's classroom or ever larger groups, such as the entire class, a grade level or school building. School problem solving teams can also select from community initiated questions presented by the student ambassadors. The student ambassadors serve on the teams and assist the team in returning a response within a timeline. Email correspondence could greatly accelerate the time it takes to find, clarify the question and respond. Question ambassador teams greatly extend their problem solving power as schools increase the number of computers linked to the Internet, but no connections are necessary to start such a program.
Different designs are possible for both small and large scale participation. Given even your average sized school district and each child in the district serving as ambassador for only one "beyond the school" community question per year, the potential "payoffs" include a new form of "distance education" with significant tangible return benefits to the community: the possible resolution of thousands of basic community questions; community information technology training; improved public relations; a large collection of authentic, realistic questions for teachers to integrate into their coursework; and increased learner motivation as a result of the authenticity of the work.
This issue takes on particular importance as children become teenagers and young adults. As a consequence of the age levels, this concern has become a major topic for middle level curriculum and development (Carnegie Council, 1989). At an age in which parents feel they should begin to disengage from controlling many aspects of a child's life and the teenagers are actively lobbying for greater freedom and less home-school dialog without necessarily any greater responsibility, these young teenagers need engagement with significant others outside of their family. It is a few years before they reach 16 and can apply for work permits. Valuable community activities in which they can participate are not part of the working school day and week. These include: mentorships and career study in places of work, day care and nursing home centers, and recreational sport leagues. The question ambassador concept noted above not only builds bridges across these cultural gaps during the school day, but can address specific topics in school curriculum. Such work may be more easily done with middle grade and up students simply because the more mature topics that they study are closer to the concerns of adults at home and in places of work. But all learners of any age can participate in some levels of such community questioning activities.
Google.com is currently the most popular and most powerful system for searching the web and in 2003 the company added a branch that deals exclusively with answering questions for a fee. It is just one of many Internet based systems for free or for a fee. State-wide university systems are seeking greater connection with their regions and communities, especially those that contribute to capital formation and job growth. For example, in a recent meeting of the Administrative Council and the Board of Governors of the North Carolina University System, it was reported that "there is increasing awareness of the important changes that have taken place in relationships between the system and the needs of the people of the state. There were extensive discussions regarding UNC system positioning and recognition that we must be more directly involved in economic development activities. There also was substantial discussion of the degree to which our own system policies make it difficult for us to respond to changing societal conditions." (email to Houghton from Chancellor Bardo, Western Carolina University, March 28, 2003). Questions must be seen for the innate and practical cultural value. Thought of another way, every business in existence today, no matter how basic, is a response to one or more persistent ongoing questions. A good question-response system should be a seed-bed for entrepreneurship and organizational renewal, whether educational or corporate, non-profit or profit.
The importance of strong relationships between public institutions of
education and their communities has long been noted in the literature.
High technology extends the possibilities of range and frequency. There
is a natural and readily organizable connection here. What remains to be
organized and managed is a large scale operation connecting regional and
community questions and with the curriculum needs and the problem solving
capacity of educational institutions. The aforementioned SUP system is
one example of a readily scalable problem processing system that can be
started with a very small support staff, yet expanded to be as extensive
as a community, region or larger entity might desire.
Why do teams fail? Is it because of lack of information technology or information technology skill? Is it because of personality conflicts, or the complexities of merging the schedules of busy people or of some team members knowing far more than other or of lack of leadership within the team or insufficient social and oral skills or insufficient information resources or the speed at which decision must be made or the complexity of the decisions? How often do teams fail to solve problems compared with individuals who fail to solve problems? Is there a difference between the failure of adult teams and teams of younger people? The simple answer is that there are many reasons for team failure, and organizing a team is often not any more a success in problem solving than trying to solve a problem individually. Many factors must be considered. As an example of the difficulty and the importance of team organization, just two factors will be considered here, the control of information and the complexity of the problem being tackled.
"Control of information" refers to the manner or structure in the way that information is distributed among a team of people. Is there a system in place that allows someone to know something that someone else does not know and is that knowledge used to gain power over others or put others at a disadvantage? That is, is information distributed democratically, or is there a power hierarchy in place?
Experiments by Alex Bavelos (1952) showed the dramatic differences that
information control can make. Bavelos studied the strategies and feelings
of people with different skills and knowledge while they worked on tasks
of various difficulty from simple to complex. In one experiment, a group
of five members were to find the only common symbol in a deck of cards.
Each member is isolated in soundproof rooms with slots for messages. The
slots allow information to flow to team members only in the pattern set
by the experimenter. The configuration of the channels for the slots can
be changed. In this experiment, two systems of communication were compared.
The circle and the star configuration are respectively, a and b. The degree
of task difficulty is varied for each configuration. (See the figure below.)
As soon as members of the group believe they know the common symbol, a
key is pressed. After all press the same key, the session ends.
When symbol description was easy, the members of the circle configuration believed they were fast and efficient, felt fine and spread identification of leadership evenly over all members. The members of the star configuration produced very different results. Though these groups were twice as fast, they felt themselves slow and inefficient, for which some idiot in the team was to blame. For this group, 94% identified the center of the configuration to be the leader.
When symbol description is difficult, the democratic circle group works just as well, however, somewhat slower than before. They still feel fine and think they are doing well. The dramatic change is with the star groups: depending on the "strangeness" of the symbols, these hierarchical groups disintegrate sooner or later. As complexity increases, participants walk out in anger, the "idiots" multiply, and blame is passed from one to others. Indeed, when the communication records are studied later, the star performers soon stopped talking about symbols. They started calling each other names.
Though computer technology was not employed by these groups, one can see that the quality or quantity of computer technology would have made no differences. There were structural problems in the way information was being managed, not with the means of making or distributing the information. There were no "idiots" on the teams. The idiocy comes from applying the wrong information structure to task of problem solving. An information and social system that might work fine in a police department in enforcing known laws is likely be a complete failure in open-ended and complex problem solving. Teachers, students and administrators working in our school systems dealing with its complex problems and teams of learners addressing real world problems must be aware of and take advantage of the knowledge that Bavelos reported long ago. Effective use of information technology requires effective management of team organization and the latter must be taken care of first.
Are there communities where the social accent is on questions? If such communities exist, how do these communities compare with those that emphasize other aspects of cooperation and teamwork? How should the control or selection of questions be pursued and be dealt with in the classroom?
Control of the Selection of Questions that will be Pursued for Their Answers
Professional research communities would claim that communities that emphasize the questioning process exist, and are these professional societies themselves. The editorial boards of their journals through their selection of papers to be published thereby select the questions and answers that will be shared widely within their field. This refereeing process serves as a gatekeeping system to keep scientific quality at its highest. The process of board and refereeing selection however is of course political, e.g., unscientific. Is the process effective in selecting the best work? Few question whether the best work is selected with the given range of questions that the editorial board and its referees prefer to address. But there is another question that this process does not address. Is the process effective in selecting the right work, the right questions? Journals are constantly forming and expiring to meet the perceived needs of these communities of problem solvers.
Many practitioners are not happy with the types of questions or the answers that emerge in research journals. In education the gap between the researchers' priorities and practitioners' interests and needs in this research has been a long standing topic of tension and contention in the educational literature. The control of which questions are explored is a topic that has even developed its own keyword in the ERIC thesaurus to more readily retrieve this body of literature, research-practice. For those at the classroom and clinical level, research is too often perceived as too theoretical to be of practical use in daily and hourly activities. Consequently if it is not practical, the questions and answers are often not widely circulated among those for whom such activity is in theory intended. Each community of learners must work to clarify their own questions and their own systems for communicating the work that is done on them. For classroom teachers, never has there been greater opportunity to develop intellectual teamwork with like-minded colleagues and challenge the research journals and provide alternative control for the questions at hand.
To determine which questions need attention without the influence of the status, authority and power of certain individuals, another system of question management has emerged in recent years. This includes the teams that operate more tightly than professional fields, our daily work groups. The software is called group decision support software. This new process emerged out of a sense that the perceived status of those brought together to raise questions and select priorities was getting in the way of full disclosure of the problems at hand. The problem of social hierarchy and access to information identified by Bavelos and discussed earlier can also be addressed creatively through special computer network designs.
From the business perspective, the boss's presence in the room led to others supporting the questions that they perceived the boss wanted to tackle, not necessarily the problems that believed should be addressed. To counter this problem, "group decision support system" (O'Donnel, S.,1994) software running over computer networks is used to gather the questions and issues anonymously from those circled in the room at their computers. The contributions are then given back to the participants without discussion. Each attendee must rank the collected items in order of priority. The computer then tallies the results, returning a prioritized list based on the collective judgment of the assembled team. Only then does open discussion proceed. Educational researchers might benefit from such sessions with classroom teachers to better determine useful research projects. Even classroom teachers might benefit from such designs in determining which questions their students and their professional teaching teams really have. But one research study of this approach did indicate that the system studied did more for the perception of consensus than provide actual superiority over non-electronic approaches (Nopachai and Casali, 1994). A variety of other contributions to the group decision making process have also been implemented, as in the Penn State Team Decision Support Center facility (Pomponio,1997).
The question formation process noted earlier, SUP, if open to and widely used by classroom teachers K-adult, would also let researchers direct their research in a way more relevant to classroom needs. By studying the classroom teachers' SUP files or communication, they would better know current learner needs. Classroom teachers in turn would be in a better position to plan if they understood what problems and questions still remain unsolved in their communities.
With similar designs, electronic publishing of journals could allow ongoing feedback. That is, upon reading an article, the reader writes their comments in a comments box at the close of an article and upon pressing a submit button on the screen, the comment could now be appended to the article and/or sent to the author. The next time a request for this article is made, the comment, along with other appended comments, could appear at the bottom of the article. Further, along with a comments box, a survey could appear. It could tally how many times it was read, and display running vote totals on whatever criteria readers wished the electronic publisher would to consider. Variations on this theme are already under development in the electronic journal, business community and general web development. For example, Amazon.com uses such a system to provide ratings and feedback on books that it sells.
Though electronic systems have been used to increase the power of centralized control, they can also play a role in balancing the equation. It is possible for "hyper-democracy" to come to both the communication process in a professional field of study and to the classroom.
The answer as to control of the question to be pursued in the classroom has always been very similar to the argument of whom should control the publication of articles in professional journals, that is the control of the communication process in a field. That is, there is a meritocracy in which a governing body controls the work of its participants.
In the case of the classroom, the teacher controls, chooses what students will do, and the teachers actions are controlled by the state curriculum and evaluated by end of the year tests and professional accreditation. The argument against participant control, and in this case, student control, is that the participants/students do not know enough to make the "right" choice. Secondarily, it would be impossible to evaluate participant/student work adequately because uniform tests allowing comparison of effectiveness would be impossible to administer when everyone chooses different topics. In fact, even professional researchers must make their best guess as to which questions need attention. Through their work they learn whether their results are relevant or not. At an age appropriate level, it is possible for students to make part of their school day a time for working on questions of their choice. Developing mature judgment depends on a great deal of experience in making decisions about all levels of study, not just on finding answers.
At its root is an age-old tension in a culture. What are the rights and needs of an individual versus the rights and needs of a larger community and how should the balance be determined?
As applied to those not yet adults, our children, we must ask if some greater balance can be achieved in providing for the pursuit of their interests and questions, relative to their capacity and maturity. If we can accept some questioning of the relevance of the exams, can we not also accept greater student selection of their own curriculum? States and institutions continue to increase their capacity to control through the growth of computerized information systems. Can these same systems provide students with a greater sense of control over their own lives?
We must further ask if the model of seldom having control, of never or seldom pursuing their own questions in the context of the governing body, in this case the teacher and our state curriculum, plays a role in a decreasing ability or interest in asking questions as they mature, in not meeting the potential of their intellectual development. As applied to young and older adults, even those most able intellectually in our post-secondary institutions, the situation is curious. These individuals choose institutions and programs, and sometimes courses, but once enrolled in the courses, choice plays a very minor role in the instructional process. Once enrolled, the communication process is decidedly uni-directional and instructor and instructor or professor controlled. Perhaps this issue of control is also reflected in the increasing lack of social participation in the activity of the youngest adults in general, and in particular of those who gain the right of vote and increasingly have chosen not to exercise it. Is not healthy democracy dependent on citizens who initiate questioning and problem solving?
Teams now have on hand the resources to raise the value, visibility and viability of the role of questioning in the problem solving process. Those collaborators who serve as ambassadors for their community's questions can transform the meaning of distance education and community development. These skills and the tools that support them need to be a part of the intellectual toolbox of every team member, whether teacher, community volunteer, business person, or government employee. A new age and a new century will increasingly prove them to be of critical value.
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contribute your comments and/or reactions to this essay on intellectual teamwork.
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Dr. Robert S. Houghton
Director of Technology, Rm. 246 Killian Bldg.
College of Education and Allied Professions
Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC 28723
v1.0 1997. Version 4.3 Updated October 23, 2004