Our nation and our schools and universities should invest in distributed and collaborative learning experiences—curricula emphasizing the interconnectedness of life and geochemical processes in the biosphere, empathy courses that promote social behavior, cyberspace classes connecting students around the globe, service-learning programs in communities, sharing knowledge in peer groups, and interdisciplinary and multicultural studies—with the objective of nurturing students’ empathic nature.
Excerpted from Jeremy Rifkin:
“Distributed and collaborative education begins with the premise that the combined wisdom of the group, more often than not, is greater than the expertise of any given member, and that by learning together, the group advances its collective knowledge as well as that of each member. The value of distributed and collaborative education first came to light in the 1950s, in research conducted by M.L.J. Abercrombie at the University College London Hospitals. Dr. Abercrombie observed that when medical students worked together in small groups to diagnose patients, they were able to more quickly and accurately assess a patient’s medical condition than when they diagnosed alone. The collaborative context allowed students the opportunity to challenge one another’s assumptions, build on one another’s ideas and insights, and come to a negotiated consensus regarding the patient’s situation.
In distributed and collaborative learning environments, the process becomes as important as the product. The old hierarchical model of learning is replaced by network ways of organizing knowledge. Learning becomes less about pounding facts into individual students’ brains and more about how to think collaboratively and critically. To be effective, collaborative learning requires mutual respect among all the players involved, a willingness to listen to others’ perspectives, being open to criticism and a desire to share knowledge, and being responsible for and accountable to the group as a whole.
Distributed and collaborative learning favors interdisciplinary teaching and multicultural studies. The traditional reductionist approach to the study of phenomena is beginning to give way to the pursuit of “big picture” questions about the nature of reality and the meaning of existence—which require a more interdisciplinary perspective. Cross-disciplinary academic associations, journals, and curricula have proliferated in recent years, reflecting the burgeoning interest in the interconnectedness of knowledge. A younger generation of scholars is crossing traditional academic boundaries to create more-integrated fields of research. Several hundred interdisciplinary fields, like behavioral economics, eco-psychology, social history, eco-philosophy, biomedical ethics, and social entrepreneurship, are shaking up the academy and portending a paradigm shift in the educational process.
Meanwhile, the globalization of education has brought together people from diverse cultures, each with an anthropological point of reference. The result is a plethora of fresh ways of studying phenomena, each conditioned by a different cultural history and narrative. By approaching a study area from the perspectives of a number of academic disciplines and cultural perspectives, students learn to become open-minded and able to view phenomenon from more than one view.
Distributed and collaborative learning, with its emphasis on mindfulness, attunement to others, nonjudgmental interactions, acknowledgment of each person’s unique contributions, and recognition of the importance of deep participation, can’t help but foster critical thinking skills and greater empathic engagement. In that sense, collaborative learning transforms the classroom into a laboratory for empathic expression, which, in turn, enriches the educational process.
If our primary nature is Homo empathicus, and the biosphere is the larger indivisible community where we and our fellow creatures dwell, then the mission of education ought to be dedicated, at least in part, to the task of bringing out our core being, so that we can optimize our full potential not only as productive workers in the marketplace but, more important, as empathic human beings in the biosphere. Our nation and our schools and universities should invest in distributed and collaborative learning experiences—curricula emphasizing the interconnectedness of life and geochemical processes in the biosphere, empathy courses that promote social behavior, cyberspace classes connecting students around the globe, service-learning programs in communities, sharing knowledge in peer groups, and interdisciplinary and multicultural studies—with the objective of nurturing students’ empathic nature. “