Suggestions for Educationally Advancing “Peer Networking,” Inspired by Johnson’s Future Perfect

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Sometimes we feel we are living on a pre-apocalyptic brink, and post-apocalyptic themes and memes are abundant in the media, such as the new TV show Revolution, the Hunger Games, and the fear-mongering that happens around individual incidents in the Middle East presaging a coming Clash of Civilizations. Clearly the continuing economic woes aren’t helping. I fear our students sometimes absorb this: they are saturated in much of this media, and they have their own angst to reckon with regarding college/university admissions and, even more stress-fully, financing post-secondary education.

But there is reason for optimism, and Steven Johnson’s latest book, Future Perfect, is a very fine tonic for our fears and road map toward a far more promising future. The future may not be perfect, but there is, as his subtitle explains, a “Strong Case for Progress in a Networked Age,” and we owe it to our own mentality and attitude, and for that of our students, to share this vision and to work toward it.

We have Wikipedia because the Internet and the Web have made it easy and cheap to share information, and because they allowed people to experiment with new models of collaboration while minimizing the risks of failure.

To be a peer progressive, then, is to live with the conviction that Wikipedia is just the beginning, that we can learn from its success to build new systems that solve problems in education, governance, health, local communities, and countless other regions of human experience.

That is why we are optimistic: because we know it can be done. We know a whole world of pressing social problems can be improved by peer networks, digital or analog, local or global, animated by those core values of participation, equality and diversity. That is a future worth looking forward to. Now is the time to invent it.

I should make clear I am a Steven Johnson fan, and have been for a long time. Reading his 2005 book Everything Bad is Good For You greatly influenced me, sharply revising my view about the potential positive effects of video and computer games (a revision for which my sons are very grateful, and I tell them they owe a great debt of gratitude to Johnson.) I enjoyed his Ghost Map, and those who know me know that his Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation has been hugely influential and inspirational to me. Click here to read my suggested “take-aways” from that book for educators.

This new book sets out to establish the principles of a what Johnson believes is a political and world-view, “peer progressivism,” which is built upon the power and opportunity of “peer networks.” One important clarification he regularly reiterates here is that peer progressivism can occur without technology, and did do so brilliantly, but it is greatly amplified by the effects of networking technology.

To be a peer progressive is to believe that the key to continued progress lies in building peer networks in as many regions of modern life as possible: in education, health care, city neighborhoods, private corporations, and government agencies. When a need arises in society that goes unmet, our first impulse should be to build a peer network to solve the problem.

The peer network is not some rarefied theory, dreamed up on a commune somewhere, or in a grad school seminar on radical thought. It is a practical, living, evolving reality. It underlies the dominant communications system of our time, along with some of the most significant social movements.

This is why it is such an interesting and encouraging time to build on these values. We have a theory of peer networks. We have the practice of building them. And we have results. We know that the peer networks can work in the real world. The task now is to discover how far they can take us.

As his books always are, this one is chockful of examples and richly told anecdotes of such networks and their accomplishments, from both before the internet and after– a few already very familiar (such as public health work done in Vietnam by the Sternins, chronicled recently in the Heath brothers’ Shift) and some far more obscure. Kickstarter, the crowdsource funding platform is his most elaborated example of the power of online networking.

If you are not ready to buy the book, it is possible to get a very good sense of what Johnson is describing by reading his terrific recent piece for the New York Times magazine, The Internet: We Built That.

Like many of the bedrock technologies that have come to define the digital age, the Internet was created by — and continues to be shaped by — decentralized groups of scientists and programmers and hobbyists (and more than a few entrepreneurs) freely sharing the fruits of their intellectual labor with the entire world.

Yes, government financing supported much of the early research, and private corporations enhanced and commercialized the platforms. But the institutions responsible for the technology itself were neither governments nor private start-ups. They were much closer to the loose, collaborative organizations of academic research. They were networks of peers.

Johnson is both describing a reality taking hold and urging us, his readers, to advance the cause. “We know that the peer networks can work in the real world. The task now is to discover how far they can take us.” “That is a future worth looking forward to. Now is the time to invent it. “

For those educators who are taken, as I am, with the prospect and promise of peer progressivism and the power of peer networks, let me share five suggested steps for how we might take it further and contribute to “inventing this future.”

1. First, educators must be the change we seek. Superintendents and principals should visibly model for their communities– teacher, parents, and students– the ways in they are networked, the ways in which they are participating in, drawing from, and contributing to peer networks. Use your communications to share stories of problems you have solved via peer networking, and pose problems to your communities: how should we improve the drop-off lanes, how can we change the school uniforms?

Teachers can model, in a parallel fashion, for their students, explaining how they used networks for lesson planning or curriculum innovation.

2. The concepts of peer networks and the difference they make can also be taught in the content of the curriculum. History teachers are familiar with teaching students to recognize the competing theories of historical change: the Great Man theory in contrast to the underlying social and economic factors, such as is exemplified in Marxist history. Similarly, science teaching often valorizes individual genius in the work of scientific discovery.

Both these modes can be enhanced by adding peer networking as a source of change and discovery. Rather than limiting our explanations to great men vs. underlying anonymous forces, we can ensure the addition of networking: for the American Revolution we ensure highlighting Thomas Paine’s widely distributed pamphlet Common Sense, and the many conversations and connections formed as a result of that wide circulation, as being as significant or more in advancing the separation and war as the Continental Congress meetings or the changing economic circumstances of the colonies vis a vis the Empire. Johnson’s books provide many useful examples for Science teachers to better understand and explain the way in which discovery is rarely the result of solitary genius, and far more often the result of sharing, connecting, collaborating.

I’ve highlighted History and Science, but there is plenty of opportunity to develop these same themes and showcase examples in literature, mathematics, and across the curriculum.

3. More directly, educators can and should teach students the skills of peer networking. In part this is a matter of showcasing examples, regularly and passionately– including examples of peer progressivism enacted by young people themselves. Share with students the story of nine year old Martha Payne and the way she used networks to change her school districts lunch program. From Ewan McIntosh:

She has also created the beginnings of, hopefully, lasting change: she will head up a council summit on school meals and work with them longer term on improving the quality of food for every child in the district. Happily, she’s back to blogging it all once more with the support of her school and, reluctantly or not, her Local Authority. She has now had her first kitchen in Malawi named in her honour.

Martha shows every facet of great learning: real world change, making the environment around her better, sharing her thinking with the world, having a conscious for the world beyond her immediate horizons, and robustness in the face of incredible media and social media pressure. She is another ‘Caine‘, with a supportive parent and facilitating adults around her. She’ll go far.

Beyond studying examples, let’s be sure that every day, or nearly so, every student has the opportunity to develop their power of social networking, on and off technology. Use guides and resources like Rheingold’s Net Smart, John Seely Brown’s New Culture of Learning, and edmodo’s and Common Sense Media’s Digital Citizenship curriculum to shape and implement enhanced digital network learning programs.

Whether this be in collaborative group projects, interviewing friends and neighbors and relatives on the phone about their views of solutions to thorny problems, student advisory councils for educational policy development, or wikis, blogs, and social media, students will be better prepared to better discover how far peer networks can take us and “invent the future” if they have the practice and develop their skills in our schools.

Surely there are abundant opportunities. The Flat Classroom projects, NAIS Challenge 20/20, the iearn network, and quadblogging all are examples we all should be pursuing, and are well aligned with Johnson’s vision.

4. One additional note: diversity is essential to the strength of peer networks, and quality peer network development demands we strengthen the ways we enrich the diversity of our environment for educators and students alike. Johnson draws upon the hugely fascinating work of Michigan professor Scott Page, who has demonstrated that “”diverse groups are ultimately smarter than smart groups- the individuals in the high IQ group might have scored better individually on intelligence tests, but when it comes to solving problems as a group, diversity matters more than individual brainpower.” For Johnson, then, this is an essential quality to healthy peer networking:

The problem-solving capacity that comes from diverse networks is one of the cornerstones of the peer-progressive worldview. In this sense, it deviates somewhat from older progressive traditions, in which diversity is championed in the name of social equality and tolerance. Peer progressives don’t simply want diversity in governments and corporations and educational institutions because certain groups have historically been disenfranchised and thus deserve proper representations.

We want diversity for another reason as well: because we are smarter as a society- more innovative and flexible in our thinking- when diverse perspectives collaborate.

Hence, in our schools we must continue to make diversity as among our highest priorities, and what’s more, we have to support and advance networking across our school and districts professional, racial/ethnic, academic ability, socio-economic, social or academic silos.

The world is a scary place, and there is much to worry about, but we greatly improve the odds of an improved future if we adopt an optimistic and resilient mindset and attitude, and create and implement an action plan for how to realize such a future. Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect is a valuable road-map for this, and as educators we have among the best of all opportunities to realize progress in a networked age. Share in the comments your own suggestions for how better we might advance peer networking and its promise of a better society.