Collaboration and Learning

I’m now in Amsterdam where I just gave a talk about collaborative creativity at the big European educational research association, known as EARLI.  The organizers of the panel were Neil Mercer (University of Cambridge) and Karen Littleton (University of Jyvaskyla, Finland).  Four people spoke about this topic:

Eva Vass (University of Bath) described her research on children’s creative dialogues, conducted with Dorothy Miell (Open University).  She studied 7 to 9 year olds in a New Zealand school; she showed how these children almost instinctively coordinate their conversations by managing the “floor” (a technical term for who is speaking and when) through “jointly constructed utterances, simultaneous, and overlapping speech” in a way that resulted in “mutual inspiration.”

I then presented a research study I did with Stacy DeZutter (now at Millsaps College) of a youth theater group.  We studied the collaborative improvisation of an improvised performance, over 12 rehearsals and five live performances.  The most interesting findings were: (1) the performance never did become completely scripted; the group kept improvising and embellishing; (2) no single performer played a central role, all of the dramatic elements emerged from the dialogue on stage.

Anneli Etelapelto, of the University of Jyvaskyla, Finland, then described her study over two years of a group of teacher education students.  She closely analyzed five meetings of this group, and compared the least creative and the most creative sessions.  Uncreative sessions had “disputational talk” where each person attempted to invalid the others’ opinions.  The creative sessions displayed “complementarity in participants’ talk and by inclusive utilisation of each other’s views”.

The final presentation was by Neil Mercer of the University of Cambridge.  He and Karen Littleton (University of Jyvaskyla, Finland) videotaped rehearsals of a rock band, and showed how often they disagree, often arguing heatedly and with swear words, and yet their dialogue still contributes to a successful performance–because they are all committed to a shared vision (of how their band should sound) and a shared goal of a successful live performance.

I am excited that the study of collaborative creativity is beginning to have an impact on how we think about learning.  So many of our most important learning experiences happen when we are in groups with others, and this is why understanding collaboration is central to the study of learning.

The Netflix Prize

Netflix announced its $1 million challenge in October 2006.  And the contest has now been won.  The big news is that collaboration was the key.

The Netflix web site has an automatic program that recommends movies that it thinks you will like, based on the number of stars you give to movies you’ve already rented.  They call this automatic program Cinematch.  Netflix can measure how well Cinematch works, by comparing the predictions it makes about how much you’ll like a movie, with the number of stars you actually give it after you watch it.  They have a bunch of very smart computer scientists who developed Cinematch, and in 2006 it was already very good.  So the Netflix challenge was going to be hard to beat: If you can develop your own prediction program and you can make it 10 percent better than Cinematch, you get one million dollars.

On Sunday July 26, two different teams both announced they had crossed the 10 percent better threshold.  Netflix is now comparing the two and will announce the winner in September.

The biggest lesson learned, according to members of the two top teams, was the power of collaboration. It was not a single insight, algorithm, or concept that allowed both teams to surpass the goal…Instead, they say, the formula for success was to bring together people with complementary skills and combine different methods of problem solving.*

The first team to win, BellKor, was a seven-member group.  None of the runners-up were solitary individuals; every solid contender, it turns out, was a team working collaboratively.  Contest rules then kicked in a 30-day period for any other entrants to give it their last best shot. What happened was that all of the leading teams merged together to combine their best ideas; a global team of about 30 members raced to beat the 30-day clock.  They called themselves The Ensemble.  As of July 26, The Ensemble seemed to be marginally better at predicting than BellKor: one-hundredth of a percentage point.  But those measures are submitted by the teams, and Netflix itself is going to take a couple of months making the official calculations…so, no winner will be announced until September.

David Weiss, a doctoral student in computer science at the University of Pennsylvania, and a member of The Ensemble, concluded:

The contest was almost a race to agglomerate as many teams as possible. The surprise was that the collaborative approach works so well.*

*Steve Lohr, “Learning the Power of Teamwork In a Netflix Race for $1 Million,” New York Times, Tuesday, July 28, 2009, pp. B1, B7.

The Myth of the Mentally Ill Creative

You may believe in some variant of this myth: Creative people are more likely to be mentally ill than non-creative people; artists and writers are more likely to be alcoholics, clinically depressed, or commit suicide.  Anyone can think of at least one famous artist or writer who committed suicide (Hemingway, Plath) or did some other crazy thing (Van Gogh cutting off his ear).

I call this a “myth” because there’s no solid scientific evidence for it.  And there’s a pretty large amount of scientific evidence that creativity is associated with positive moods, happiness, and healthy lives.  There’s also a large amount of evidence that creativity is based in ordinary cognitive processes, not in a distinct brain region; that means that there could be no brain mechanism through which mental illness could affect creativity distinctly.  In other words, creativity is intimately tied with normal brain functioning, so if creativity is impacted then so is everything else our brain does.

The myth originated in the Romantic era, as I describe in detail in my 2006 book Explaining Creativity.  It has received an aura of scientific respectability in recent years, with a few rather small studies gaining a lot of media attention.  (And some being expanded into book-length treatments.)  I’ve just read a journal article by Judith Schlesinger* questioning the methodologies and the media interpretations of the most-cited publications reporting links between creativity and mental illness: those by Andreasen, Ludwig, and Jamison.  The article is a little bit strident for an academic journal article; between the lines of academic prose I can sense a bit of frustration on Schlesinger’s part: “I can’t believe anyone takes this stuff seriously!” she seems to be thinking.  I was surprised not to see any citations to the creativity experts who have gone on record claiming there is no link between creativity and madness: Weisberg, the creative cognition scholars, myself, a special issue of the Creativity Research Journal (2000-2001 volume 13 issue 1) although Simonton gets a mention for his  work.

The good news is that there’s no evidence that mild levels of mood disorder interfere with creativity.  (Although there haven’t been very good studies done of this possibility.)  However, severe mental illnesses generally result in reduced creativity.

I hope you will comment on this post, but keep in mind that one example of a creative and mentally ill person does not constitute scientific proof of a causal link.  That’s because a statistical connection also has to consider all of the mentally ill people who are not creative, and all of the creative people who are not mentally ill.  The only way to evaluate the myth is with large datasets and rigorously gathered data and diagnosis of the participants in the study.  And no such study has demonstrated a firm correlation; much less, a causal link.

Kudos to Schlesinger for publishing an article that I’m sure will get her some challenging and maybe even angry emails from various people who are deeply committed to this myth.

*Schlesinger, Judith. 2009. Creative misconceptions: A closer look at the evidence for the “mad genius” hypothesis. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Vol. 3, No. 2, 62-72.

Collaboration at Cisco

I enjoyed the interview with John T. Chambers, CEO of Cisco, in Sunday’s New York Times (Business section page 2, by Adam Bryant).

When Bryant asked “How has your leadership style evolved over time?” Chambers said this:

I’m a command-and-control person. I like being able to say turn right, and we truly have 67,000 people turn right. But that’s the style of the past. Today’s world requires a different leadership style–more collaboration and teamwork, including using Web 2.0 technologies.

And the final answer echoed this theme too: When asked “What’s changed in the last few years?” Chambers responded:

Big time, the importance of collaboration. Big time, people who have teamwork skills, and their use of technology. If they’re not collaborative, if they aren’t naturally inclined toward collaboration and teamwork…they’re probably not going to fit in here.