“Adopting quantum random walks in our classes means, then, that we shift from transferring knowledge—about history or math, say—to creating knowledge about history or math.”


I recently wrote a rather long, scholarly article (forthcoming) about the different kinds of learning structures that I see emerging in Connectivist-style MOOCs (cMOOCs). I argued that these learning structures resulted from complexity thinking, both in the sense of Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework and complex systems theory. Complexity thought has been gaining steam, especially in the sciences, but it was the development of quantum physics in the early 20th century that made complexity unavoidable. Except in the classroom. As Sir Ken Robinson notes in his famous RSA video Changing Education Paradigms, too many modern classrooms are still structured on a 19th century factory model (If by chance you have not watched Robinson’s video, stop reading now and watch it. We’ll wait for you).

I won’t repeat my formal argument about complexity in education here, but I do want to explore how complex patterns of human behavior might be expressed in the classroom. Most of us, including myself, do not teach in cMOOCs, and perhaps have not even taken one; rather, we teach in those traditional, industrial style classrooms that Sir Ken rails against. What does complexity have to do with us and our collection of 25 or 30 students?

It may be most instructive here to apply a complex pattern to a class and see what happens. For instance, let’s consider the complex pattern called a quantum random walk. I learned about quantum random walks from a Big Ideas talk by MIT professor Seth Lloyd, and basically, a quantum random walk is how a photon, for instance, uses quantum multi-tasking, or superposition, to explore at one and the same time all the possible paths from the surface of a leaf to the critical photosynthesis processing unit. Almost all life on Earth, including ours, depends on photosynthesis, so this is a critical capability, though scientists do not yet know how the photon can travel every path at once.

Like much complexity though, this is counterintuitive, but the main point Lloyd makes for me is that these strange patterns of behavior are not limited to the spooky quantum world. This same pattern is analogous to how bees behave when they are looking for a new hive. The bees wing out in every direction, looking for a new place to build a hive, and then they come back to report what they found. Most of them report failure, but a few have promising leads. The hive then focuses on the good leads, looks again, and again triages the poorer leads. The hive reiterates this process until the best possible site emerges. As it turns out, this quantum random walk is a very efficient way to generate new knowledge, and if bees can do it, so can classrooms.


How can a classroom lesson utilize a quantum random walk?

First, by tackling an issue with an open answer. The answer should be unknown to the students and, even better, unknown to the teacher, just as the best site for a new hive is unknown to the bees. This is contrary to most instructional lesson plans in which the correct answer is known by the instructor, and the job of the students is to trace the correct path to the correct answer. Imagine if the queen bee knew the best location of the new hive, and she taught her scout bees to fly just that one route to that one location. That’s how we teach. Unfortunately, that isn’t how life works. Most of the governments, schools, organizations, businesses, and churches that we are preparing students to work for do not know the best answer. And if they do know the best answers today, they won’t know next week because the questions will change.

Adopting quantum random walks in our classes means, then, that we shift from transferring knowledge—about history or math, say—to creating knowledge about history or math. This necessitates a shift from a teacher-centric class focused on transferring the teacher’s knowledge to a student-centric class focused on students creating their own knowledge. It also means that we rethink failure, and this is most uncomfortable for most of us.

Note that when the bees first begin looking for a new location for their hive, most of the bees fail. They don’t find the right answer; instead, they find the wrong way to the new hive. In a culture that values only individual success, this is an extremely uncomfortable prospect. A 90% failure rate on an initial exercise in a lesson will send up red flags for students, teachers, administrators, families, and anyone else who might notice, but it doesn’t seem to trouble the bees. Why not? Because the bees bring back all their data to the hive (the classroom) to share, and they value the wrong answers as much as they value the promising answers. The wrong answers are just as valuable to the hive (the classroom) as the right answers. It tells them where not to look. Failure for an individual bee scout, then, is not a failure for the hive, or class; rather, it’s a valuable contribution to the knowledge that the hive/class is generating. Knowing where to look for the right answer means knowing where not to look. A hive/class must know both.


The wrong answers are just as valuable to the classroom as the right answers.


Obviously then, knowledge in a quantum random walk is a part of the commons of the hive/class. Knowledge is shared to the benefit of the hive/class. This, too, is contrary to the traditional, industrial education model, which considers student-to-student sharing as cheating. Not sharing knowledge makes sense only if we are measuring the transfer of the right answer rather than the creation of useful answers. Quantum random walks focus on creating useful knowledge for the hive/class; whereas, traditional education focuses on transferring nuggets of knowledge to individual students. Whoever collects the most nuggets, wins. This is the old, industrial economy, not the new complex, quantum, networked economy. We live in an age where information is abundant rather than scarce, and we need an economy that reflects that reality. Quantum random walks favor sharing knowledge rather than hoarding, and the entire hive/class benefits. This is a most important lesson.


So what would a quantum random walk lesson look like?

Well, I teach writing, so I can speak specifically about that. I am required by my institution to teach students in one of my courses how to build an annotated bibliography. Most teachers at my school have the students create their own, unshared bibliographies. I have the students create a shared document to support a common assignment. For instance, I might ask my students to write a persuasive document about using blogging in the college classroom. The students share a common annotated bibliography to which they contribute a number of references that they have reviewed and assessed. They can list articles that are useful to the conversation about blogging as well those articles that are not useful. This tells the other students what not to use as well as suggesting what to use. All contributions are valuable. Each student contributes only two or three well-vetted sources, and in return, they get 40 or 50 well-vetted sources. This is an amazing return on investment by anybody’s calculation, and it’s the sort of lesson that I can use in even the most traditional of instructional settings.

That’s a win-win-win in my book and a success for complexity thinking.


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, JefferyTurner.

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