NMC “Black Swan Ball” 2015: Teaching-Training-Learning-Birding

There’s an interesting, temporary migration taking place this week in Lost Pines, Texas—a spectacular rural setting on a slow-flowing segment of the Colorado River roughly 20 miles southeast of Austin. Many of the “birds” involved in this migration have flown in, from a variety of spots around the world, to nest for less than 48 hours. They/we can be observed eating and interacting together for brief, concentrated periods of time in ever-changing groupings that are far from predicable at any given time. And, if we are successful once we return to our regular habitats (schools, colleges, universities, classrooms, museums, libraries, and other educational organizations around the world), the eggs we lay and hatch here in Lost Pines could help change the way teaching-training-learning takes place.

NMC_Black_Swan_LogoOur gathering—“The Black Swan Ball”—is a by-invitation-only educational-technology symposium unlike any I have ever seen before. Organized and produced by the New Media Consortium (NMC), it has attracted approximately 50 of us who have varying levels of involvement in NMC’s Horizon Project—that ongoing global endeavor to document and examine “key trends, significant challenges, and emerging technologies for their potential impact” in a variety of educational settings.

What makes this particular gathering unusual and tremendously intriguing is that it has been framed around a specific book—Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable—and appears to be structured to produce what Taleb promotes in his book: a greater awareness of the incorrect assumptions we make in formulating predictions, and, with that enhanced awareness, a better ability to react to events and situations we previously considered “improbable”—particularly at that lovely intersection of the teaching-training-learning process and the educational technology that supports that process.

The “improbable” element that originally gave Taleb’s book (and our NMC symposium) its title was the long-held belief in Europe that all swans were white—a belief maintained until a Dutch explorer, in 1697, encountered black swans in Australia, a Wikipedia article reminds us. From this, Taleb draws (on the first page of the prologue to his book) the conclusion that a “single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans.”

NMC CEO Larry Johnson at the Black Swan Ball

NMC CEO Larry Johnson at the Black Swan Ball

Taleb, in his book, is extremely specific about what a Black Swan is in the world he inhabits: “First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable” (pp. xvii-xviii).

This makes the idea of a “Black Swan Ball” intriguing—not just for those of us in Lost Pines, but for anyone who wants to move from the familiar nest of ed-tech trends as we perceive them into the Black Swan world of teaching-training-learning where we look to what we see as the improbable to imagine how we might effectively react to it to the benefit of those we serve.

Where the “central idea of this book concerns our blindness with respect to randomness particularly the large deviations” (p. xix), a central element of this NMC gathering seems to be an exploration of how we can move beyond documenting and examining ed-tech trends, challenges, and emerging technologies so we set aside our existing assumptions about what is or is not improbable in the settings in which we work and live and play—a process that began unfolding yesterday as we arrived onsite in Lost Pines and gathered for an opening-night reception.

It didn’t take me very long to start seeing parallels between what Taleb has written and what at least a few of us are already experiencing at the Black Swan Ball. He begins, for example, with that story of the “discovery” of a black swan by a European visiting Australia; my own evening began with an unexpected face-to-face conversation with an Australian colleague I had previously only encountered via Twitter. Taleb, furthermore, consistently encourages us to set aside the pervasive, inaccurate assumptions that blind us to the existence of what we previously saw as improbable—just as my wonderful Australian colleague spoke eloquently of the need for many of us to look beyond the assumptions me make within our own countries so we can learn from what our worldwide colleagues—in places including Australia, for example—are doing.

And in what may be a completely inaccurate reading of where the Black Swan Ball is going, I left the opening-night reception wondering whether our playful and innovative colleagues at the NMC were recreating at least a bit of what Taleb describes to inspire significant Black-Swan thinking: an exercise designed to draw groups of us together so we could discover what we had in common led to inconclusive results among the members of the group to which I had been assigned—which makes me wonder, in the early-morning hours before the symposium reconvenes, whether we had been “purposely assigned” to groups with strong, shared connections simply to see whether we would “concoct explanations” for those assignments even though the assignments were actually random.

Detail from graphic facilitator Giselle Chow's work at the Ball

Detail from graphic facilitator Giselle Chow’s work at the Ball

I’m not sure whether I’ll encounter any Black Swans here in Lost Pines. But I do know that, in the spirit of that European who found his swans in Australia more than 300 years ago, I’ve already had the pleasure of literally seeing unexpected birds I had not previously seen—Carolina chickadees, Black vultures, Common nighthawks, and Eastern bluebirds—during an hour-long walk I took along the Colorado River before joining colleagues at the opening-night reception. If attending and documenting even a little of what comes out of this gathering helps all of us better identify and work with the Black swans and other lovely, infrequently-encountered birds in the world of training-teaching-learning, we will have been engaged in yet another rewarding intellectual migration thanks to our NMC colleagues and those who did all that was necessary to pull themselves away from the routine in search of wonderfully rewarding improbables.

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