Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Wisdom of Crowds

I heard a piece on the radio a few weeks ago about the philosophy behind Wikipedia and its public editing policies. It seems that the concept is based on a tenet of crowd psychology discovered over a hundred years ago. When asked to guess the weight of an ox at the county fair, whether or not any single person was correct in his or her estimate, the mean of all the entries was within a pound or two of the animal's actual weight.

In other words, even if individuals are off the mark, collaboration and/or combined effort will yield accurate results.

As interesting as it was, I totally forgot the notion until the other day. At the end of reading a series of memoir excerpts by Ralph Fletcher, I asked the students to create a time line of the key events. They could work individually or in small groups, at their preference. At the end of the assignment, there was quite a variety among the 12 products. We hung them up and did a little "gallery walk" where students  walked around silently and studied the work of their classmates.

Afterwards, when we talked about their observations, we started by listing the events that were on everybody's time line. It turned out that there were nine, and while any given kid or group could explain the extraneous entries on their chronology, the amazing thing was that those nine were definitely the main points of the story.

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