GroupThink, Collaboration, and the Value of Solitude

Reflecting on my previous post, "The Social Brain and its Superpowers," I was reminded of a few articles I read last year that had a profound impact on the way I think about the way I think. That might sound a little overly "meta" but I believe taking time to analyze how your own mind works (and specifically trying to identify the situations in which it works best) are a critical part of your personal growth and development as a thinker. 

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The first article was one written by Jonah Lehrer for the New Yorker early last year called GROUPTHINK: The Brainstorming Myth. In it Lehrer describes the history of brainstorming, reviews a number of experiments that study brainstorming and collaborative thinking and talks about why and how certain legendary buildings and spaces became breeding grounds for wildly innovative ideas. The article is quite lengthy but well worth the read. 


The second article was written by Susan Cain for the New York Times, published just two weeks before Lehrer's, titled The Rise of The New Groupthink. In it Cain presents a different perspective on 'groupthink,' one that calls to question the de-valuing of solitude in our current collaboration-addicted business culture. Cain cites research and real world examples that demonstrate that, counter to current trends, it's solitude, not groupthink, that allows people to produce great work.

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While each of these articles takes a slightly different approach to examining and analyzing Groupthink, what's interesting is that they essentially reach the same two conclusions:


First: While collaboration is key to sparking new ideas and mental connections, it can not be forced, it needs to happen naturally, through casual encounters, like around the water cooler or at a cafe. Thankfully, we are getting better at designing spaces that help foster and cultivate those type of interactions. We can not force collaborative thinking, but we CAN create the conditions that allow for it. 

Second: Dedicated time and space for solitary thinking are the crucial ingredients for individuals to reach their Eurika! moment. In a review of both articles on FastCo, editor Cliff Kuang explained it well, "You're more creative working alone... numerous studies have verified that finding... we know that breakthrough insight requires intense individual reflection." 


Both Cain and Lehrer seem to uncover similar findings that while collaboration is key, it needs to happen at the right time, in the right place, under the right conditions.

Maybe more importantly, we must resist the urge to make all our schools and workplaces open-plan collaborative environments because people will always need dedicated quiet space to do their best work. 

So what does this mean for the future of learning? How can we build upon the research that both Lehrer and Cain have laid out to better understand the design of classrooms and schools? Maybe more importantly, how can we design learning experiences for students that foster the casual interactions that spark creative collaboration, while also allowing for quiet reflection and individual work? How can we translate the need for this balance into both physical design and pedagogy?

The Social Brain and its Superpowers

"In the classroom, being social is treated as the enemy of learning, but it turns out that if you learn in order to teach someone else, you learn better than if you learn in order to take a test."

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Dr. Matthew Lieberman is one of the foremost authorities on the study of Social Neuroscience. He was trained at Harvard University and is a professor in the Departments of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research focuses on social cognitive neuroscience and uses neuroimaging (fMRI) to examine how we make sense of others, ourselves, and the relation between the two. His most recent book,  Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connectexplores groundbreaking research in social neuroscience that reveals the essential and fundamental need for social interaction in every aspect of our lives.

Click here to read a review of this book by Maria Popova from Brain Pickings 

Here's a brief excerpt from Dr. Matthew Lieberman's TED talk, just to give a little preview of the types of ideas Lieberman discusses and how they relate to learning:

"If I asked you what you needed to survive, most of you might say food, water and shelter. Psychologist Abraham Maslow, in his hierarchy of needs, suggests that these physical needs are the most basic and that other needs only become relevant when these needs have been met. But Maslow had it wrong... as a mammal (and especially as a human) what you need more than anything to survive is social connection, because mammals are born incapable of taking care of themselves. You only survived infancy because someone had such an urge to connect with you that every time they were separated from you or heard you cry, it caused them a social pain that motivated them to come find you and help you, over and over again. And as infants, you cry when you are hungry, thirsty or cold... but you also cry when you are simply separated from your caregiver, because social separation causes pain.

You might think that our tendency to feel social pain is a kind of kryptonite, but our urge to connect and the pain we feel when this need is thwarted, is one of the seminal achievements of our brain that motivates us to live, work and play together. You might have the greatest idea in the world, but if you can't connect with other people, nothing will come of it. You can't build a rocketship by yourself. Rather than being a kryptonite, our capacity for social pain, is one of our greatest superpowers. So if social pain keeps us close to important others, what is our kryptonite? Not appreciating the value of of social superpowers IS our kryptonite. 

In the classroom, being social is treated as the enemy of learning, but it turns out that if you learn in order to teach someone else, you learn better than if you learn in order to take a test. Research in my lab and in another shows that when you're socially motivated to learn, your social brain can do the learning, and it can do it better than the analytic network that you typically activate when you try to memorize."

People of Wonder- Noam Chomsky + Michel Gondry

If you're not willing to be puzzled, you just become a replica of someone else's mind.

"Learning comes from asking, 'Why does it work like that instead of some other way?'"

As humans, we take simple physical stimuli, create unique interpretations, organize them into concepts, add emotion to form values, inject judgment to develop the basis of decision-making, and reflect on our general state of consciousness. What does this process of collecting and linking experiences mean in the light of learning to learn? How does a mass of molecules develop intuition? Curiosity? 

We're excited to unpack this epic illustration of thinking with you.

From Michel Gondry, the innovative director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, comes this unique animated documentary on the life of controversial MIT professor, philosopher, linguist, anti-war activist and political firebrand Noam Chomsky. Through complex, lively conversations with Chomsky and brilliant illustrations by Gondry himself, the film reveals the life and work of the father of modern linguistics while also exploring his theories on the emergence of language. The result is not only a dazzling, vital portrait of one of the foremost thinkers of modern times, but also a beautifully animated work of art.

Student Salon

Last week we hosted a salon with students from Brown and RISD and friends from Stanford's d.School and Design for America in Providence, Rhode Island.

We were blown away by the deep level of insight and it was inspiring to hear everyone share their passions openly.We want help to share those sentiments with the rest of the world, and we need examples of what we see is possible when wonder is a part of learning.

We are turning to current students as 'wonderstruck' experts with the utmost respect. We want to gain from your wisdom and input over the coming days, weeks and months with regards to how we can share the sense of possibility, hope and potential for the future of learning. We're hoping to create a short video that can spread this message far and wide and we hope you will share with us any thoughts, ideas or concept that come to mind. 

Help us edit/refine/remix a call to diverse and curious learners all over the world! Take a peek at what our TTT+ Fellow, Gilad Meron and I mashed up in a few hours- some of our favorite inspirational clips and the project's driving questions:

Password: wonderbydesign

Place of Wonder- Origins

My grandpa, now legally blind, carefully uses spline weights to lay out the curve of the hull of a sea sled that his friend and co-conspirator, a naval architect, continues to refine.

My grandpa, now legally blind, carefully uses spline weights to lay out the curve of the hull of a sea sled that his friend and co-conspirator, a naval architect, continues to refine.

I returned this week to a place of original inspiration: my grandparents' basement. Both in their late eighties now, my grandfather is still building wooden boats in the garage while my grandmother sculpts small figures in clay a few feet away in her pottery studio.Their adjacent makerspaces are unique to each artist, and often intersect on projects for local galleries, libraries, friends, and family.

Their large array of tools, arranged so long ago that they are accessible by muscle memory, hang above different workstations: some well-lit for small tasks like sanding or painting, and others are movable platforms and rigs for molding sculptures, steaming wooden planks, and assembling skeletons of window displays and watercrafts alike.

As the foundational workshop in my life, their basement is the wellspring of possibility in my mind. I still walk slowly down the stairs with a sense that anything can be made here. There is mystery to the ongoing projects laying about in the wood shop and studio: what was the inspiration for this piece? What new medium are they experimenting with? Who is coming over to collaborate or apprentice?

The combination of the access to expert knowledge, seemingly endless variety of tools, and a leisurely mindset allowed this young mind to wrestle out creative expression with purposeful energy.

What are your first memories of feeling wonder? Tell us your origin story with pictures and annotations and anecdotes!

The original Bob the Builder. 

Rosemary in her pottery studio. 


We're curious to know if you've watched the popular "For More Wonder, Rewild the World" 2013 TED Talk where speaker George Monbiot "imagines a wilder world in which humans work to restore the complex, lost natural food chains that once surrounded us"? 

Certainly a provocative and amazing invitation, esp. in terms of challenging some quintessential assumptions about the relationship between wildlife and nature (i.e. can bears actually alter the meandering of rivers?). Watching the video also offers us the chance to revisit poet T.S. Elliot's quote about exploring and knowing (which our teammate, Emi Day, found in the TED Talk's  rich comments thread which you can find below the video itself):

"We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."