Swarm Learning: How Student Feedback Changes a Class In Progress

Dr. Jamie Schwandt
Oct 8, 2018 · 16 min read

“To the vast majority of mankind nothing is more agreeable than to escape the need for mental exertion… To most people nothing is more troublesome than the effort of thinking.” — James Bryce, Studies in History and Jurisprudence

Warning — the following article is from my (Jamie Schwandt) unfiltered brain! Here is what you can expect to find in this discussion (the first part describes what Swarm Learning is — while the second part is the theory behind it. Enjoy!)

Part 1: Swarm Learning Defined (I attempted!) and VMCL

Part 2: Desired Path, Ambiguity, Complexity, Metaphorical Examples, Keys to Success, and Swarm Learning Feedback Loop

Swarm Learning Defined

I will begin with two key questions (likely never asked):

  1. As students, have you ever been asked to provide graded feedback so that an instructor could change the class (in progress) to improve how you learn?
  2. As educators, why do we not ask for and then use feedback from students at the beginning — in the middle — towards the end — and at the end of a class to customize/evolve the course?

Essentially, Swarm Learning is a concept I am developing and testing that uses constant and immediate feedback from students to change a class (while still in progress). It allows students to customize the curriculum, the syllabus, and even the textbook. Swarm Learning embraces ambiguity and evolves so that a class is never conducted the same way twice.

Just as an inoculation is used to develop adaptive immunity to a pathogen, our education system is in need of something similar allowing it to adapt to the needs of the learner.

Swarm Learning is a method allowing students to inject feedback to determine their desired path. It is similar to the concept of “wayfinding” where a teacher orients the class and selects the course direction. Students then monitor the routes by providing feedback so the class can collectively recognize and find the desired destination.

I do this by having my students complete graded feedback maps using a concept mapping system called Plectica. My students complete four graded feedback maps. I then use their feedback to change the class while the class is still in progress. I call these maps feedback injections.

I am using the VMCL framework developed by Cornell professors Derek and Laura Cabrera to assist me in developing and framing this idea of Swarm Learning. The Cabrera’s describe VMCL in their book Flock Not Clock.

*This furthers my initial discussion — Swarming the Classroom

VMCL

“The surest kind of knowledge is what you construct yourself.” — Judea Pearl, The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect

Vision — V

Our desired future state, goal, or purpose. For Swarm Learning, my vision is as follows: Students change and customize a class while in progress based on constant and immediate feedback.

Mission — M

Our repeatable actions or simple rules that bring about the vision. For Swarm Learning, my mission or simple rules were identified by asking what I call Swarm Questions: What Have? What Should? What If?

What Have? What have we been doing? Here, teachers provide students initial learning opportunities. The Swarm Principle for this rule is providing a customizable and adaptable curriculum, syllabus, and textbook.

What Should? What should we be doing? Here, teachers should allow for students to provide constant and immediate feedback while the course is in progress. The Swarm Principle for this rule is students completing graded feedback injections throughout the course.

What If? What if we were doing what we should be doing? Here, teachers should then customize the curriculum, the syllabus, and the textbook so that we allow students desired path to form. The Swarm Principle for this rule is students customizing the curriculum, syllabus, and even the textbook.

“I Think, Therefore, What If…?” — Marilyn vos Savant

Asking Swarming Questions allows both teachers and students to understand the “Why?” or as Marilyn vos Savant remarked in Brain Building: Exercising Yourself Smarter,

“Intelligence is what makes us ask WHY?”

Capacity — C

“It is our intellect — our intelligence — that gives us the capacity to reason, to ask questions…” — Marilyn vos Savant

Our systems that provide readiness to execute the mission. For Swarm Learning, my capacity or mission-critical systems are:

DSRP: Created and discussed by/in the Cabrera’s book Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems, Distinctions — Systems — Relationships — Perspectives (DSRP) is a powerful way for students to analyze and synthesize a concept. DSRP allows us to make those crucial connections between ideas or objects and words. It helps us connect information to create knowledge.

I have my students use two free programs to do this:

Thinkquiry.us: A program encouraging students to penetrate deeper into a topic by asking deeper questions.

Plectica.com: A program that mimics the human brain allowing students to visually organize, analyze, and synthesize ideas.

Graded Feedback Maps (Feedback Injections): This is the most important element of Swarm Learning. Students complete multiple graded feedback injections via Plectica.com allowing the class to uncover their desired path.

Customizable Curriculum, Syllabus, and Textbook: Instructors must then change the class to meet the needs of the learner. Here, an instructor is not changing the concepts to be learned, just the method to learn the concepts. He or she is also allowing students to help in creating the course — which allows the student to understand “Why?” they are learning about the concept.

Transfer of Learning: The Cabrera’s write in Thinking at Every Desk,

“If a student has high transfer skills, she can learn one thing and then teach herself 10, 50, or 100 additional things.”

Using DSRP to analyze and synthesize concepts helps students do this. It helps students to understand and connect difficult ideas easily. Swarm Learning helps students in using previous knowledge to connect to new ideas.

Learning — L

Our continuous improvement of systems of capacity based on feedback from the external environment. Feedback from students is fundamental to success with this idea. Moreover, Swarm Learning embraces ambiguity allowing learning to emerge and novel ideas to connect with one another. It is based on the idea that a course should never be taught the same way twice as it should continue to evolve and change. The end of one class should bleed into the next, but its ending should look completely different than the last.

Desired Path — A Path to a Free (Evolving) e-Textbook

“Instead of asking… what did you learn today? Ask… did you ask any good questions today?”

I recommend watching the following video for a deeper understanding on Desired Paths:

Why are we not asking students how they want to learn and then paving the path for them?

I have mentioned the term “Desired Path” a few times. But what exactly is it? It’s actually pretty simple, just flip the words — path desired (or a path was desired). It is something that no authority can plan for. You let the desire of the people design it first.

Think of a college campus trying to identify where to plan sidewalks or paths in between buildings. The traditional route is to place the sidewalk and then place signs everywhere telling people to “stay off the grass”! Yet, what if we waited for a path to develop then paved the path?

I have my students complete four separate feedback injections throughout a class. After each map, I use feedback provided and change the course curriculum, syllabus, and the textbook. I am working on a free e-textbook, where students feedback helps me write and revise it.

Ambiguity

“What we really want to see may not be visible.” — Dietrich Dorner’s description of Intransparence in The Logic of Failure

By definition — ambiguity — is ambiguous! One word commonly associated with it is uncertainty. It can be defined as something in which several interpretations are plausible.

Even if you are not aware of it as an employer, one of the most important skills required to succeed in an endeavor is the ability to be comfortable with ambiguity or uncertainty.

Dietrich Dorner — author of The Logic of Failure — found that we rarely question or reflect on our decisions. He found that failure can be traced to failing to redefine problems. Essentially, we must learn to question as: Reflection drives Questions — Questions drive Decisions.

Dorner found that those who are successful learn how to formulate and test hypotheses — while others simply formulate them,

“For them to propose a hypothesis was to understand reality; testing that hypothesis was unnecessary. Instead of generating hypotheses, they generated truths.”

Dorner found that those who succeed asked more WHY questions as opposed to WHAT questions.

Moreover, Dorner uncovered a unique connection to “thinking out loud” that I found interesting. To me, this is like asking for and discussing feedback. In fact, “thinking out loud” helps successful people structure their behavior.

The most profound points Dorner identified were as follows:

  1. Tolerating Uncertainty: “When someone simply walks away from difficult problems or solves them by delegating them to others, when someone is all too ready to let new information distract him from the problem he is working on at the moment, when someone solves the problem she can solve rather than the ones she ought to solve, when someone is reluctant to reflect on his action, it is hard not to see in such behavior a refusal to recognize one’s impotence and helplessness and a tendency to seek refuge in certainty and security.”
  2. Overdose of the Status-Quo: “We find a tendency, under time pressure, to apply overdoses of established measures.” This must be why we still use discussion boards!

Those who are comfortable with ambiguity find that they are prepared to accept the fact that a solution or action is not working. They do this by asking one simple question posed by Dorner in The Logic of Failure:

Key Question: Is what I expected to happen actually happening?

If your answer is No… then why are you still attempting to do the same thing?

Weaponizing Ambiguity

“Chaos wasn’t just something that happened on the battlefield — it could and should be deliberately deployed as a weapon.” — Tim Harford

Swarm Learning not only teaches students to be comfortable with ambiguity… it weaponizes it!

In Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, Tim Harford describes how we can weaponize ambiguity (I am not using “weaponizing” in a negative way). Let’s examine a couple military examples.

Harford describes how Erwin Rommel would use rapid movement and bold independent action creating feedback loops in WWI,

“The enemy would be confused; that would produce unpredictable openings; Rommel would seize those openings, creating more chaos and further opportunities.”

Harford points out that Rommel’s messy approach was successful because of the rapid, relentless, and unpredictable movements that so baffled the enemy.

Harford remarked on Rommel's philosophy in the following statements:

“He developed a distinctive philosophy, founded on the observation that fleeting opportunities often emerge in the confusion of war.”

“Rommel believed that opportunities were often fleeting, and that the chaos created in the scramble to seize them was a price worth playing — especially since chaos could give an edge to the side best able to cope.”

To me, this is like a boxer jabbing an opponent consistently until he finds the opponents weakness, where the boxer then goes in for a rapid and quick knock out.

The counter-punch to Rommel in WWII was the Phantom Major (Major David Stirling). For more information on Stirling, I recommend reading The Phantom Major: The Story of David Stirling and the SAS Regiment. According to Harford, Stirling’s principles of messy tactics were as follows:

First, get yourself into a position of opportunity.

Second, improvise your way around obstacles.

Third, speed counts for a great deal. Move faster than people who try to stop you.

Stirling and his men would constantly adapt an evolve their tactics, even when they nearly perfected them. Harford discusses how speed and shock were extremely important to them. In fact, speed and shock were more important than careful preparation.

“On future missions they resolved to move in quickly and silently, even without full knowledge of the target because that would achieve total surprise.”

So, where does this fit in with Swarm Learning…

Swarm Learning is successful when we place students in positions of opportunity, allow them to seize opportunities, then figure out the details later. Speed and improvisation are more important than careful planning in education. If our current plan is not working or if students are not learning… why continue with the plan? Well planned/researched tactics look good on paper, but they are useless if the opportunity has been missed.

Complexity

“Questions challenge authority and disrupt established structures, processes, and systems, forcing people to have to at least think about doing something differently.” — Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question

Swarm Learning is about making quick decisions based on student feedback and prefers speed over perfection. We must change as fast as the situation demands.

Think of it like a complex adaptive system (CAS). Complexity is the behavior of a system interacting in a multitude of ways following simple rules with a lack of centralized control.

Swarm Learning creates a classroom environment where the class is organized more like a superorganism — where the goal is for the class to adapt quickly to the changing environment (or the needs of the learner). The classroom is a living experiment where we test our mental models of how things work against feedback from the real world.

An example of a superorganism can be found in a flock of birds or an ant colony. The Cabrera’s discuss how seemingly dumb ants act intelligently by following simple rules in Flock Not Clock,

Simple Rules of an Ant Colony:

Rule #1: Look for food.

Rule #2: If you find food, leave a pheromone trail.

Rule #3: Never cross a pheromone trail.

Compare these rules to those found in Swarm Learning:

Rule #1: Provide students initial learning opportunities.

Rule #2: Students provide feedback.

Rule #3: Change the class based on student feedback.

These simple rules lead to new patterns of behavior. Similar to how ants use stigmergy to construct complex structures by communicating via pheromones, student feedback can produce small changes causing other students to behavior differently; thus, leading to improved patterns of behavior.

Metaphorical Examples for Swarm Learning

“It can be a relief to know that, in coming up with fresh ideas, we don’t have to invent from scratch; we can draw upon what already exists and use that as raw material. The key may lie in connecting those bits and pieces in a clever, unusual, and useful way, resulting in (to use a term that seems to have originated with British designer John Thackara) smart recombinations.” — Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question

Snowy Hill — Brain

“Swarm Learning opens up more space for learning to emerge.” — Dr. Jamie Schwandt

Mendel Kaelen, an advocate for psychedelics, uses the following metaphor,

“Think of the brain as a hill covered in snow, and thoughts as sleds gliding down that hill. As one sled after another goes down, it will be drawn into preexisting trails, almost like a magnet. In time it becomes more and more difficulty to glide down the hill on any other path or in a different direction. Think of psychedelics as temporarily flattening the snow. The deeply worn trails disappear and suddenly the sled can go in other directions, exploring new landscapes and, literally, creating new pathways.”

I think this metaphor is perfect for Swarm Learning. Just substitute “Swarm Learning” for “psychedelics” and you have,

“Think of the brain as a hill covered in snow, and thoughts as sleds gliding down that hill. As one sled after another goes down, it will be drawn into preexisting trails, almost like a magnet. In time it becomes more and more difficulty to glide down the hill on any other path or in a different direction. Think of Swarm Learning as temporarily flattening the snow. The deeply worn trails disappear and suddenly the sled can go in other directions, exploring new landscapes and, literally, creating new pathways.”

The Pass — Best Chef

The Cabrera’s provide a fantastic metaphor in both Systems Thinking Made Simple and Flock Not Clock. In both books they discuss what they call The Pass.

“The best chef (the executive or CEO) in a Michelin-starred restaurant often doesn’t do any of the cooking. Seems like a paradox, right? If she’s not cooking, what is she doing? She’s standing at “the pass,” expediting, prioritizing, and communicating orders as they come in; exercising quality control by ensuring that the fish isn’t overcooked, the side dish is ample, and the final plating of the dish is aesthetically pleasing. She monitors the plates as they are being bused and returned — are they clean or barely touched? Are they returned with a complaint? Finally, the executive chefs most important job is to ensure the sous, meat, sides, and pastry chefs learn. She knows that the safety of her Michelin stars rests not on her own ability to cook, but on her team’s ability to meet her exacting standards. When leaders focus on learning, they communicate that it’s an organizational priority and build and incentivize a culture of learning.”

Using this example, we can visualize Swarm Learning if we substitute “best chef” with the “professor/teacher/instructor”.

Muscle Confusion

Similar to how we change things up in an exercise training program, we must also change things up in education to create new learning opportunities. Essentially, we must find ways to shock our body as it becomes comfortable with the exercises we repeatedly do.

Starfish

Using a technique I call the Metaphorical Eye, let’s examine another metaphor for Swarm Learning using Starfish. As Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom write in The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations,

“If you cut off a starfish’s leg it grows a new one, and that leg can grow into an entirely new starfish.”

Blockchain Learning

The last metaphor we will examine is comparing Swarm Learning to the Blockchain.

Keys to Success

“All of life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

The following are the keys to success for Swarm Learning:

  1. Curriculum, Syllabus, and Textbook MUST Evolve. The fundamental key to Swarm Learning is the adoption of a complex adaptive syllabus. The curriculum should be adapted to match student feedback.
  2. Always Evolving. A class should never be instructed the same way twice.
  3. Students Write the Textbook. Students should have a hand in writing the textbook.
  4. Don’t Wait. As educators, we should NOT simply wait until the end of the course to see if students complete an end of course evaluation; instead, we should receive a course evaluation throughout the entire course. Think of it like breaking apart the course evaluation and injecting it throughout the entire course.
  5. Feedback Injections. This is the most important element. Think of this like building in constant feedback loops into each class you teach allowing students to show you how they learn and how they want to learn.
  6. Change Methods Not Concepts. Swarm Learning is about changing how students learn concepts, not changing the concepts to be learned.
  7. Allow Students to Create Their Desired Path — Then Pave the Path.
  8. Treat Education (and Life) Like a Living Experiment. As Adam Sicinski asked in the beginning of his blog Life Is An Experiment: Improving Life Through Experimentation, “What if life was an experiment?” Well, it is. Just as Adam discusses, it’s all about thinking like a scientist. We have the ability to treat life and education this way. We have the ability to make necessary changes to run the experiment over and over again. This last sentence summarizes my personal philosophy. It is also the reason why I write so much (and I pay very little attention to the minor details… this is also why you will find errors — please send feedback my way if you do).

Swarm Learning Feedback Loop

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” — Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question

I will conclude this discussion examining Swarm Learning through a causal diagram (reference the image above).

We first find a reinforcing loop called “decentralization” which shows us that the more students interact, the more learning occurs, which in turns means a higher transfer of learning.

The other feedback loops are balancing loops because the teacher is using a customizable e-textbook to ensure the right concepts are learned and feedback injections (4 total) are completed to ensure students drive how the course is instructed.

Students submit feedback to the teacher during the course. The teacher then changes the course (while still in progress) based on student feedback. Additionally, students help write the evolving e-textbook based on concept maps and feedback. The goal is to never teach a class the same way twice.

Finally, if we view education as a living experiment, then we should strive to continuously experiment and improve our students learning experience. As I look towards the future, here is how I view Swarm Learning:

My plan is to write a free e-textbook using simple rules. I will build in feedback injections allowing the textbook to be an evolving and living document. I plan to write it and freely share it as an electronic document. Therefore…

IF I am able to write a free e-textbook.

AND it evolves with the course.

THEN I can truly bring about emergent Swarm Learning.

Dr. Jamie Schwandt

Written by

Dr. Schwandt (Ed.D.) is an American author, L6S master black belt, and red teamer.

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