Are Group Thinking and Group Learning Oxymorons?

Here's a fine think-piece by Susan Cain that praises some introversion as indispensable for creativity.  To some great extent, Socrates and Jesus were solitary men.  And the wisdom they shared with us couldn't have been captured in group reports or multi-authored articles.

Not only that, we live in a society that discourages, in so many ways, thinking for ourselves.  We defer so readily to public opinion, fashion, and what the experts say and the studies show.  Most studies that show stuff have a lot more than one author.  Most books that change our lives have only one, and we don't live in a time when many are being written. 

Just about every good play or novel or painting, of course, has its source in the vision of a single artist.

We also see, of course, that in the disciplines that require deep thought and personal interpretation (such as philosophyespecially political philosophyand history), articles almost only have one author.  Technical and scientific reports usually have more authors than they do pages.

If we want learning to be personal, personal thought has to be encouraged and rewarded.  And persons, of course, have to be held personally responsible for both what they've learned and the ways in which they have expressed their thoughts.

In a class dealing with "real books" (such as ones written by Plato or Kant or Jane Austen or Pascal or Simone Weil), I find that the best students get less than ten percent of what's really going on, and "what's gotten" differs dramatically from student to student.  If they had to produce a multi-authored paper, the result would be flattened out to what they can explain to each other.  It goes without saying the good students would be particularly shy about expressing their most unconventional thoughts to each other, especially ones that have to do with God, love, death, and such to the other group members.  They would also be shy about being too enthusiastic or "erotic" about what they've read to others who just didn't work as hard or care as much as they did.  (All this is why I can't stand "peer review" as even a stage in evaluating student papers.)

It also goes without saying that the natural result is for good students to have quite different views on the truth and significance of what they've readin part, due to what else they've read and their personal experiences.  How could they possibly write a conclusion based on some consensus that's more than a bunch of feel-good banalities?

Good students do, of course, learn from each other through conversation.  Part of a great class is something like a Socratic dialoguekeeping in mind that the participant closest to Socrates (me) dominates the discussion in various ways.  The community of learners doesn't mean that all the learners are equal in the ways relevant to actual learning.

In the end:  The student paper should be a rather solitary, introverted effort, although not one so introverted that the author is not excited about the possibility that the truth can be shared in common.  "Shared in common" in the Socratic sense is a long distance from groupthink or what's usually meant by collaborative learning.

Another problem with "group projects" as a learning tool is that our society already rewards being witty and fashionable and pleasing to others far too much.  It also already rewards too much shirkers whose main talent is taking credit for the real work of others. Let sucking up be saved for the actual world of business. It's not a skill that should be rewarded by college credit.

Here's another problem:  Collaborative learning is also often an excuse for professorial laziness.  Why read twenty papers when you can read five (written by groups of four)?  The group dynamic also means that the papers will only be so good or so bad, and that means that the professor won't be taxed by a product that is too "outside the box" of what's expected.

If you ever sign up for a class that's a mixture of PowerPoint presentations based on some textbook followed up by group projects and presentations, immediately drop it and ask for your money back.

The philosopher Rousseau was against taking the idea of dispersing wisdom to everyone characteristic of the Enlightenment too seriously because the real goal of that approach is the production of a vain and pseudo-sophisticated herd of seemingly meritocratic techno-elitists.  The philosopheror the genuinely Enlightened personis always a law unto himself.  He's almost always not characterized by the ambiguous virtue of working well with others.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.

Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)

In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.

Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

Keep reading Show less