The Benefits of Communal Interactions
Comments from the Editor
By NAfME Member Debbie Rohwer
Adapted from the June 2019 Update: Applications of Research in Music Education
In this issue of Update, I am going to address the benefits of communal interactions on an individual’s ability to make informed decisions. As humans, we have the possibility to communicate with others who can fill in our knowledge gaps, and indeed we all do have significant gaps in our self-contained storehouse of information. While it is true that we can’t know everything, we can be more completely informed through our access to people who add to our comprehensive understanding of even the most basic issues. For instance, there are very commonplace topics that each individual does not necessarily need to understand in-depth, like the intricacies of how bicycles and zippers really function. It is why we have a community of individuals in society who can help solve problems within our incomplete sets of knowledge and why I as an individual in society understand that I will need to hire experts such as an electrician or plumber, as needed, to round out my experience.
Sloman and Fernbach (2017) published a book called the Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone that describes how little we know about so many things and how we would be wise to use the hive mind to inform our choices. They describe that we have to:
… learn how to make use of others’ knowledge and skills. In fact, that’s the key to success, because the vast majority of the knowledge and skills that we have access to resides in other people. In a community of knowledge, an individual is like a single piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Understanding where you fit requires understanding not only what you know but also what others know that you don’t. (p. 221)
The benefit of embracing our lack of knowing-it-all and only accessing basic information about many things is that it allows us to reduce complexity and make quicker decisions. For the few topics we understand in depth, we have the freedom to specialize in these important areas of interest to us. We can be the experts, the ones who can help others when they need access to expertise. The tradeoff, however, is that we have to be willing not to be an expert in everything. There just isn’t the time or bandwidth. For our novice areas, it may be beneficial for us to ask questions and engage the hive mind.
I think there are a few lessons for us as a field to learn from this concept of humans as experts of few topics and novices of many. At times, an appreciation of complexity means we may need to understand limitations. In our studies, it may mean that we try not to generalize the results of a school-music study in a suburban environment to all students in all genres and settings. Also, by acknowledging our knowledge constraints, it may mean that we should give each other permission and encouragement to co-author, joint-author, or group-author. The possible benefits of the expertise of many are endless. While the sciences have embraced this practice fully, we have not used the many-authored publication model in music education to as great of an extent, and possibly this is to our detriment.
In our teacher preparation environments, believing that we can’t know it all may have important ramifications for curriculum development. What should students be expert in, and on what topics can they be encouraged to enlist their colleagues for context and depth of understanding? Can our college faculty meetings practice a sharing of ideas related to complex issues, thereby having teams embrace curiosity, courage, and flexibility, all of which Edmondson (2013) stated may inspire innovation?
Perhaps in our K–12 school settings, we could benefit from a greater extent of hive-mind experiences to expand student musical exposure in classes. While the artist-in-residence model exists, our students may benefit from a more expansive set of experiences with community musicians of all ages, skills, and genres as part of their gestalt appreciation for the many ways that music exists in society. This basic exposure to many ideas may help provide the context for complexity that allows individuals to embrace the idea of accessing a vast array of people as resources of knowledge and skills.
As a field in general, having collective input on the variety of people’s lifelong engagement with music may help us see the complexity of the music experience across the lifespan that can guide our profession forward in important ways. It may help us all row the boat in the same direction if we can listen to all involved with empathy and a desire to understand and appreciate instead of fighting for silo stability. So if intelligence resides in collective experience instead of individual brains, what are the best ways to make music education wiser? Perhaps we can engage and consider for our mutual benefit as a profession.
Edmondson, A. C. (2013). Teaming to Innovate. San Francisco,
Sloman, S., & Fernbach, P. (2017). The Knowledge Illusion: Why
We Never Think Alone. New York: Riverhead.
About the author:
NAfME member Debbie Rohwer is in her sixth year as the Academic Editor of Update. She works at the University of North Texas, Denton, as a Regents Professor of Music Education, Vice President for Planning, and Chief of Staff for the President of UNT.
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.