Book Review: The Wisdom of Crowds (via Clickers?)

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In the spirit of continuing to clean my desk, my next book to review is The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. I think a lot of people at ETS are familiar with the book, but I think it's worth explaining exactly how the wisdom is generated.

The term "Wisdom of Crowds" seems to suggest a scenario where people make decisions as committees, but that's not what it really is. Rather the "wisdom" comes from being able to tap into the results of multiple individual decisions rather than relying on a single committee or expert.

A classic example is a contest to guess the weight of an ox. Individually, the guesses varied widely, but the average of the guesses was within one pound of the actual weight. It wasn't the case that the group decided the weight of the ox, but rather that the individual guesses added up to the correct answer.

I admit that I've always been a little skeptical of "collaboration" because I often equate with group think, but this kind of collective wisdom still values individual diversity. In fact, Surowiecki argues that you get the best results specifically when you can factor in individual input.

There are a lot of interesting applications to this concept in the book, but I think one of the most important is ensuring that you really ARE getting a diversity of opinion. One reason that anonymous voting is so important is that it does insure you are getting an accurate opinion from individuals and not votes partially based on social pressure.

Another situation this applies to is getting feedback from your students. I think a lot of us have experienced the eerie silence that follows the instructor's request for an answer, not to mention the awkward nods of agreement with slightly puzzled faces. Are the students agreeing with you or just trying to mirror your opinion?

One reason I like the concept of clickers is that it does enable the kind of high volume individual input needed to assess your students' actual thinking. We talk about how it can assess misconceptions (true), but sometimes it can access a wisdom you didn't know was there.

Earlier this week, I was talking about gender stereotypes in language and asking students if they could identify some stereotypes. In more than one case though, I saw some puzzled looks. I began to realize that some of my research may be getting out of date, at least in their circles.

I'm also reminded my personal guideline of multiple tabloid sources. If one tabloid claims a movie star is an alien spy, it's probably a lie. But if two more or tabloids independently have the same story...it is probably true.

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