Schwandt, J., 2020. Swarm Learning: Teaching Students How To Think, Not What To Think In Health And Human Performance. 1st ed. Dubuque: Kendall Hunt Publishing.
Click here to buy or visit Kendall Hunt Publishing at https://he.kendallhunt.com/product/swarm-learning-teaching-how-think-not-what-think-health-and-human-performance
Swarm Learning (SL) is a teaching methodology where students provide continuous feedback to change a class while in progress — where the feedback changes how students learn concepts but does not change the concepts they must learn — in order to teach students how to think, not what to think — where the overarching intent is to facilitate a faster transfer of knowledge.
Who Am I?
“What Dr. Schwandt has done is push the envelope of SL. And he is perfectly designed for the task. What makes him so good at it in practice is that he is okay with trying new things, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and adjusting his mental model and then trying again.” — Derek Cabrera, Cornell University
“Major Schwandt absolutely believes in moving individuals out of their comfort zone and placing them in a situation they are unfamiliar with. His methods and enthusiasm for teaching provide a unique chance to make a significant impact on education within academia and the professional world.” — MSG Anthony Livernois, United States Army Reserve
Archaeologist Trench Metaphor
“I would simply say: Think of everything you never heard of and everything you never did in a class. Now do them. That would be this course.” — Anthony Washington, FHSU student Fall 2019
Just as an archaeologist can dig a trench providing them a quick snapshot of what’s in a hill, we will dig a trench and take a shortcut through the concept known as Swarm Learning (SL).
“Simplicity underlies complexity.” — Derek Cabrera
SL uses simple rules to explain what appears to most as a complex idea. SL looks for the minimum number of points you have to touch in order to impact the whole system.
It uses the principle of meta-learning to break down a concept into three questions — from Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career by Scott H. Young:
Why? — the reason you are learning a concept.
What? — provides a description of the facts and concepts you are learning.
How? — explains the prescriptive path to learning about the idea.
It’s like looking down on the world and zeroing in on the information you need to accurately understand the situation.
For example, the following image represents a Feedback Trail (FT), where multiple students provided feedback on one map. Looks complex, right?
Yet, if we zoom in we can see students are provided simple rules to leave feedback.
And they provide fantastic feedback that changes a class while in progress.
Why Swarm Learning?
The Swarm Transfer Triangle is an example of one of the tools we use in SL. This tool helps when students write an essay or blog.
“Everything about Swarm Learning is different. It shakes conventional education upside down. Scratch that. Swarm Learning does not even play by the same rules as other styles of teaching.” — Tomi Schwandt, Adjunct Professor, FHSU
My students are challenged to write and publish blogs, where they transfer knowledge from one concept to apply to another. I have had 51 students publish blogs, which can be found here: Swarm Learning Student Writing. I used one such blog in the Preface of my textbook.
In Swarming the Education System, Daniel Capul wrote about returning to college after failing initially, “Great, a class about health and what I thought was fitness. Piece of cake.” Daniel was referring to my class HHP340 Tests and Measurements in Health and Human Performance.
Daniel then wrote:
“Little did I know this cake was a treat out of Willy Wonka’s Factory. The concept of learning presented was called Swarm Learning. It was different and unfamiliar. It was open to suggestions and essentially, whatever the learner wanted it to be.”
“Did I learn the concepts the class intended to teach me? Yes, I learned them. I understood them, and I never took an exam to prove it. I engaged with my classmates and instructor. I asked questions and I gave my opinions. When a process didn’t work for me, I learned it was okay to speak up.”
Daniel concluded with the following:
“Swarm Learning taught me that a constant state of change was normal. I just had never realized it. I learned to adapt, and I learned a course could adapt. Black and white isn’t a thing in Swarm Learning. There are colors. Change is a good thing.”
SL is a Desire Path
Imagine you are given the task of constructing a blueprint for new buildings at FHSU. You begin with the assumption you have no control as to where the buildings will be constructed, but you have full control as to where the sidewalks and roads will be placed in between and around each building. In addition, you are provided a team to assist you with this project.
One of your team members provides you with an image and points out that there are two specific paths that are not paved yet seem to be paths students typically take. One path takes students from an apartment complex to the university, while the other takes students from a parking lot to the university.
You notice students ignore the paved paths and create their own. A desire path is a path created by animal or human foot traffic, typically a shortcut or the shortest route between two places.
After a review of possible desire paths at FHSU, you and your team decide not to pave any paths. Instead, you decide to simply plant grass, let students walk on the grass, then wait to see which paths emerge.
Can you spot the desire paths below?
SL uses the concept of desire paths. Where the traditional route is to place the sidewalk and then place signs everywhere telling people to “stay off the grass!” SL is like waiting for a path to emerge and then paving the path. Yet, SL takes it a step further by never paving a path and allows new paths to continuously emerge. This is the essence of SL. It asks students to create the paths they desire. SL does this by asking the student how they learn a concept and then empowers them to pave their own path toward understanding.
SL is a Chameleon — it Changes, Adapts, and Evolves (CAE)
“Structure is not the word I would use to describe this class. It seems to defy structure. This class is more of a destruction of everything I assumed I knew about learning.” — Jessica Malone, FHSU student Spring 2019
Education is a complex adaptive system (CAS). A complex system is one that is difficult to understand or predict. A system is a group of interacting parts forming a whole. A CAS is a collection of simple agents interacting in a system where the large-scale behavior of the system is difficult to predict and may change, adapt, and evolve.
A system that changes seeks to make things within the system different. A system that adapts is one that makes things fit by change. A system that evolves is one that seeks incremental change over time.
If the goal is to increase the speed of the transfer of learning and to teach students how to think, not what to think, then we must view learning as a CAS. If a CAS is one that changes, adapts, and evolves, then we need to create an environment that facilitates this.
If change means making something different, then we should seek to make a system different. To do this, we need feedback from those within the system. If the system we are attempting to change is an education system, then we need feedback from students. If we want to change the system, then we must adapt to the needs of the students. If adapting to the needs of students means making something fit by change, then we should seek continuous feedback from students — we should then use their feedback to change a class. If we seek to change a class, then we should strive to continuously modify the class and adapt to the needs of the students. To modify the class, the class must evolve. To evolve means incremental change over time.
SL seeks to use continuous student feedback to incrementally change a class over time that fits the needs of the students. Thus, SL must Change, Adapt, and Evolve (CAE).
To spontaneously change, adapt, and evolve we must create an environment where learning is engendered by self-assembly. To do this, we must step back and simply set the conditions for a class to self-assemble.
Think of how we put together LEGOs. Typically, we purchase a specific LEGO box with specific instructions for how to put the LEGOs together. This is like writing a syllabus that has no room for adaptation. You simply provide your students a set of instructions and put the LEGO pieces together in the exact order prescribed. But what if you threw away the instructions? What if, instead of structuring a class and never deviating from it, you used simple rules and allowed a class to self-assemble or emerge on its own?
SL aims to mimic the self-assembly example. SL provides students a complex adaptive syllabus (CAS) and seeks to change while a class is still in progress based on student feedback. SL provides the LEGO blocks, yet instead of detailed instructions, SL provides simple rules or boundaries to build within allowing and empowering students to be the creators.
What is Swarm Learning?
The diagram below shows how we connect information to try and make sense of it — how we think about the information to turn it into knowledge — then how we transfer knowledge to develop a deeper understanding.
“In the corporate world, there are no “tests” — there is no requirement to “memorize” a particular passage in a right/wrong singular instance. Swarm Learning reflects the reality of the world and operating models outside the classroom.”
“It is Swarm Learning in action. It is an invitation to engage. It is a willingness to put imperfect thoughts and ideas into reality.” — Casey King, Adjunct Professor, FHSU
Imagine SL as a human body and each element or part of SL is a body part. You must understand the function of each individual part, but you also have to understand the body as a whole system. You cannot cut the parts off, study them, then expect to put the part back on and expect the body to function (or still be alive!). You must understand each element or part in relation to the entire body.
Feedback — the key to success in SL
“I love it and it helps shape learning, so it fits the class best. Instead of giving feedback at the end, which may or may not benefit the next class, this allows us to be dynamic in how we learn to learn. The idea is making more sense the further we go.” — Chris Payne, FHSU student Fall 2019
Feedback is the essence of SL. If SL was an automobile, feedback would be the engine. The way SL approaches feedback is the reason SL is effective. Without feedback, this class would not change, adapt, nor evolve.
In a feedback loop, the system feeds back into itself. SL uses a systems thinking approach to feedback, where systems are described by their inputs, processes, and outputs. The system is a collection of processes that have been used to achieve a goal or result.
SL uses Systems Thinking v2.0
“What appeals to me the most about the goals of Swarm Learning is that it addresses complexity through many different models. True thinkers do not look at phenomena through a single lens. To be transformative or innovative, the practitioner must be able to recognize the significant pattern which can reveal a greater level of understanding. By combining subjects with models such as the OODA Loop, Cynefin Framework, DSRP, and many, many others, Dr. Schwandt’s methodology challenges students to apply thinking to their study. This is what prepares the next generation of graduates to start life actively asking questions and learning on their own rather than simply waiting to be told what to do.” — Robert Ruder, Adjunct Faculty, School of Business Administration, Gonzaga University
Systems thinking is a way of thinking that sheds light on the entire picture. It is a way of looking at problems from different perspectives and ways of thinking. It is about making sense of the world through our own eyes and using that information to make more informed decisions.
In Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems, Derek and Laura Cabrera write, “Complexity theory tells us to look for simple rules that underlie the complex and adaptive human behavior that we know as thinking.”
The Cabrera’s recommend looking at the flocking or swarming behavior of a superorganism (a bunch of individual organisms that act like a single organism).
An example of a superorganism is an ant colony and how ants forage for food by laying pheromone trails. As a superorganism, ants follow simple rules.
Rule #1: Disperse and search for food.
Rule #2: Find food — lay pheromone trail (stronger pheromone trails attract more ants).
Rule #3: Exhaust food supply.
Rule #4: Disperse again.
SL mimics the simple rules outlined above for a complex adaptive system (CAS). For example, students are provided assignment rules, where each assignment has them follow 4–5 simple rules.
SL was developed using VMCL
“I thought it made this class very different from the rest not having to take tests because it gave me the option to digest the information I was learning instead of having to memorize it for an exam.” — Emmery Ristvedt FHSU student Fall 2019
In Flock Not Clock: Align People, Processes, and Systems to Achieve Your Vision, Derek and Laura Cabrera provide a way forward for organizations to move from a clock and machine mindset to that of a flock mindset. They provide a simple, yet powerful framework for this called Vision — Mission — Capacity — Learning . I used VMCL to guide and develop SL.
Vision — V. Desired future state or goal.
Mission — M. Rules or repeatable actions that bring about the vision.
Capacity — C. Systems that provide readiness to execute the mission.
Learning — L. Continuous improvement of systems of capacity based on feedback from the external environment.
SL Vision: Students change and customize a class while in progress based on constant and immediate feedback.
SL Mission: Teach students how to think, not what to think.
The Cabrera’s inform us about capacity, “We build capacity to do our mission.” And “The things you do everyday build capacity.”
SL Capacity: SL strives to adapt to the needs of the learner by injecting feedback mechanisms into the curriculum and syllabus to adapt the class as it progresses.
SL Learning: Learning from feedback requires adaptation. The more you learn, the better your ability to adapt and grow. It is a simple concept: If you don’t know what to expect, then how can you expect to improve? Adaptation is a necessity and the Cabrera’s inform us that, “the need to adapt creates the need for learning.”
Structure of Knowledge in SL
“Learning from our responses to current challenges is an example of team learning. We are evolving and improving our capacity to be flexible. Things are moving so fast in our world that this growth is not occurring with intentionality, and certainly without data collection to verify improvement in productivity. When we look back on this experience, we will hopefully gain insight into how to be more effective as we have been able to achieve remarkable things very rapidly out of necessity.” — Katie Bieker, FHSU student Spring 2020, from The Function of Teams in Healthcare During a Pandemic
SL uses H. Lynn Erickson’s structure of knowledge framework. Erickson’s framework moves from an abstract and theoretical view to concrete facts. Erickson writes about the elements of the framework in Transitioning to Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction: How to Bring Content and Process Together. SL uses a similar framework to begin structuring the key components of a class.
Example #1: Tests & Measurements in Health and Human Performance (HHP) at Fort Hays State University (FHSU)
Theory: A systems thinking approach to Tests and Measurement in Health Promotion.
Principle Generalization: The process of testing and measuring performance and attributes in health promotion using a system thinking approach.
Note. Principle Generalizations are the conceptual relationships that form when two or more concepts are linked together.
Concepts: Systems Thinking, Complexity and Ambiguity, Lean Six Sigma (LSS), Statistics, Testing, Measurement, Evaluation, Assessment, and Logic.
Note. Concepts are abstract ideas.
Topics: see image above.
Note. Topics are an accumulation of similar facts.
Facts: see image above.
How is SL Applied?
SL is drastically different than anything students have typically encountered throughout their time in school. It’s like taking a map and orienting it with the south as up — a 180-degree change from what they are used to seeing. This 180-degree shift forces us to think about the world differently and to think of new questions to ask.
It’s like viewing the world from underwater. This new view changes your entire perspective on how you view something. How we receive information and data through our senses completely changes. Images are viewed differently, shapes take a slightly different form, sound is received differently, we feel differently, and we instinctively interact completely different with other people while underwater.
SL will force you to see differently, receive information and data differently, hear things from a new perspective, communicate and collaborate differently, ask new and challenging questions, and force you to think on your own. The alternative is drowning. Essentially, it will force you into a completely different world.
What’s with the NES Controller?
The NES controller on the cover of my textbook does serve a purpose.
Imagine you are a student and you possess a Swarm Learning Controller. The controller is used to help guide you through the complex adaptive syllabus (CAS). Your brain is receiving signals as you read the CAS, making distinctions and observations of what you are reading as you form a snapshot of what to expect (your mental model).
As you progress, you start to orient yourself to the class and activate the stable datum. Your mental model is revised as you start to place things into context. You begin to look at the class as a system and break it apart (analysis) to understand it. You then start putting the pieces back together (synthesis) as you complete your first assignment.
Upon the completion of your first assignment, you will have to make a decision to remain in the class or drop the class due to its ambiguous nature. The first SurveyMonkey you complete provides the instructor with a feedback injection. As you make your decision, your brain will start to move through trained responses leading you to ask the question: “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”
You think through the cause-and-effect of each choice. You start to identify the different relationships between each possible decision. Thankfully, you have chosen to join the SL Facebook Group. You receive feedback from students who have previously completed a course in SL. You receive multiple perspectives from students who have been in your shoes. You also receive feedback from experts in various fields and form new connections. Your mental model is updated yet again. You decide to act and watch the how-to video for the second assignment and choose to complete it and stay in the course.
Think of SL and the structure of the class as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The system ensures you learn the concepts, but it also allows you to enjoy learning those concepts and provides you control of how you learn them.
Next, think of a game cartridge. Imagine you are playing Ender’s Game (not a real game, but it should be!). The game (the class) is one that can be changed and will upgrade every time you play it.
The controller is you thinking and deciding. You are in control of the game. You are presented with decisions on a television screen or smartphone (class WordPress site and SL Facebook Group). You use the controller to create Knowledge Trails (KT) and Feedback Trails (FT) that allow the professor to constantly upgrade the game.
Every time you play the game you are cycling through your Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) Loop. Your goal is to quickly make observations, use context to orient to the situation, and make quicker decisions and actions with each new play. The goal of the professor is to make sure the NES works by creating an environment where you move through the loops faster each time.
Form — Fit — Function
The image below represents key questions (meta-questions) used in SL.
SL uses T.E. Lawrence’s philosophy in that it seeks to make quick decisions and adopt alternatives (or reorient) after comparing relevant information to irrelevant information.
Where contemporary education is similar to trench warfare and bayonet charges, SL is more in line with irregular warfare as it relies on intelligence over obedience. Whereas contemporary education favors testing and rote-memorization, SL favors the indirect approach to education. SL does not use typical true-false or multiple-choice exams, in fact, there are no exams in SL. In contemporary education, the goal is to teach to the test — to teach what to think, not how to think. However, in SL, the goal is to throw away the test and do the opposite — teach how to think, not what to think.
SL uses Lawrence’s three elements of war: Hecastics, Bionomics, and Diathetics. To quickly understand the three elements, think of them as Form, Fit, and Function. Here, Form is Bionomics, Fit is Diathetics, and Function is Hecastics. When speaking of Form and Function, think of the shape of an object and how it is related to the object's purpose or intended effect. For example, think of the shape of a door (Form) and how the door opens and closes (Function). The door is made using a specific form and its function is to open and close so that people can move in and out of the door into different rooms (Fit). To identify Form, Fit, and Function, we can ask specific questions. Let us examine those questions:
Form: Does it look good? Is it aesthetically pleasing?
Fit: Does it make sense? Does it bring about clarity?
Function: Does it have the intended effect? Does it have the intended impact?
A good example to use in understanding Form, Fit, and Function is to think of a camera. The Function of the camera is to take pictures, the Form (think parts) are the lens, the sensor, and the overall camera itself. How it all “Fits” together in a way that allows the camera to work. Moreover, SL modifies Form, Fit, and Function by combining it with Lawrence’s elements: Hecastics, Bionomics, and Diathetics.
Hecastics (Function): What’s the intended effect?
In SL, think of Hecastics as a Function (y = f(x))(pronounced y equals eff of ex). Hecastics consists of the concepts and ideas that a student must learn. For example, if a student must learn how to calculate standard deviation, then a student must first understand that there are fixed rules to follow to learn this.
In SL, Hecastics consists of students learning to read, write, and lay the following trails:
Knowledge Trails (KT). KTs are essentially concept maps where the goal is to use DSRP to both construct and lay a trail for another student to read and continue the trail.
Feedback Trails (FT). FTs are constructed like a KT. They provide the instructor direct and continuous feedback during the progression of a course. FTs allow students to answer questions the instructor has and provides each student an opportunity to: 1) Dive deeper into a question; and/or 2) Add additional questions the instructor has not thought of.
Essay / Blog Maps (EM). EMs are similar to concept maps and essay outlines. However, students construct these maps using specific techniques, such as: Argument Deconstruction and the Toulmin Method. The goal of each EM is to deconstruct and build an essay or blog throughout the semester. Students do not write multiple essays; instead, they build one that keeps their interest throughout the semester (they choose their essay or blog).
The strength of the KT (scent of a sharpie) will ensure students retain knowledge, just as ants are contained via a sharpie.
Bionomics (Form): What’s the structure?
In SL, Bionomics is the Form or structure of the class. This includes parts such as:
WordPress Learning Environment. This is where students receive assignment instructions, post homework, and interact with other students.
Complex Adaptive Syllabus (CAS). This is the ever-changing, always-adapting, and forever-evolving syllabus in SL.
Swarm Learning (SL) Facebook Group. This group was the idea of a student. The idea was presented in a FT and was immediately adapted. The purpose of the group is to connect current and former students, as well as connecting students with different experts to network with.
Diathetics (Logic and Ideas — Fit): Does it make sense? Does it all “fit” together.
Speaking of which, I would like for all of you to take the following survey to provide me feedback for this presentation:
The logic behind SL, and how it fits with Bionomics and Hecastics, is through Diathetics. Diathetics allows SL to make sense. The key idea behind Diathetics allowing it all to fit together is the Mission of SL: Teach students how to think, not what to think. In addition, SL seeks the following: transfer of learning between innovative ideas and the concepts being taught; learning through publishing; forming and deconstructing arguments; learning how to spot logical fallacies; getting comfortable with ambiguity; and learning how to be autonomous learners.
Along with VMCL, I created a Logic Model to help me develop SL. In addition, I use a Decision Support Matrix to determine how to adapt assignments once student feedback is received.
SL Progresses via the SEE Model
The SEE model is a process for seeing your options, creating new options, and shifting rapidly among those options as the situation changes. The objective is to never do the same thing twice.
The SEE model helps us learn to SEE. It moves through the following:
S = Sense Opportunities.
E = Estimate and Improvise.
E = Establish (Tempo).
SL uses the SEE model as modules for teaching a course. Within the SEE model is the Swarm Problem-Solving Methodology (SPSM). The methodology takes the form of a spiral beginning with Problem-Sensing moving towards Forecasting. Each step possesses a key question, tools to use, and innovative programs to assist in solving a problem. The problem itself is provided to each student at the beginning of a semester. The class will use this one problem, linking it with the concepts they are learning in each specific class, using SPSM to solve it.
SL is presented using four system modules: Introduction — Sense — Estimate — Establish.
An Abbreviated Version: Swarm Thinking
A simple version of the SEE model was developed after a discussion with Brian “Ponch” Rivera. Brian is the co-creator of The Flow System and an agile thinker. Brian discussed how the key to understanding the OODA Loop is to view it from Observe (Sense) and Orient (Estimate). He remarked that we should look at this as a true flow system.
Here the most important pieces are the Student Feedback (which is fed forward) and what the teacher does with the feedback (Teacher Instructs). This is true bottom-up education. The students provide the feedback and the teacher uses it. The key is for students to provide continuous feedback and for the teacher to use the feedback. If either one of those fail, then the entire system will fail.
Process of Abstraction — What’s Happening Behind the Scenes
Alfred Korzybiski developed a theory known as time-binding, which later evolved into what’s now known as General Semantics.
General Semantics deals with the process of how we perceive, construct, evaluate, and respond to our life experiences. Our language-behaviors represent one aspect of these responses.
General Semantics was developed to answer questions such as: When an event happens, what portions of reality do we select to attend to and what portions do we leave out? Is it possible that we might miss certain things by simply attempting to label and explain them?
To understand General Semantics at a deeper level, we need to possess an understanding of the map-territory analogy and the abstraction process. Mary P. Lahman provides the following premises for General Semantics in Awareness and Action: A General Semantics Approach to Effective Language Behavior: The map is not the “territory,” so there is no not territory; A map covers not all the territory, so any map is only part of the territory; Maps refer to parts of the territory becoming reflexive to other parts at different levels of abstraction.
To understand this map-territory analogy, let’s first examine how the words “map” and “territory” are being used.
Map = Language
Territory = Reality
Korzybski proposed a map-territory analogy to encourage exploration of verbal maps (language or words), noting that they (maps) do not accurately describe what is happening in the territory (reality). Korzybski found that when the territory (reality) changes, we must update our maps (language). Stockdale argues that,
Just as a well-drawn map depicts, represents, illustrates, symbolizes, etc., an actual geographic area, so should our language properly reflect that which it refers to — that which is NOT language. However, we often confuse the words we use with those ‘things’ the words refer to. We confuse the word with the thing; we mistake the map as the territory.
In a self-published children’s book by my daughter, she brings her vivid imagination into reality by using the abstraction process. In her book Charlotte Emmy & The Rainbow Dimension: A book by a four-year-old girl!, Ella Katherine Schwandt uses Korzybski’s Structural Differential (see Figure 83), the closer to the top (event level — shape of a parabola) the more abstract, where the closer to the bottom, ideas and concepts become more concrete.
Ella held abstract ideas in her head about rainbows and different characters. By drawing the images, she took those ideas (not all) and abstracted them. She then described the images and applied meaning to them. This was her own personal map, or her view of reality. It is a mental model (a continuously evolving mental model) overlaid over the territory (reality). Whereas, as a child, my mental model would have overlaid the same territory, but my map would have been completely different.
Let’s quickly examine how she moved through the process of abstraction to create her story:
Finally, the main idea of SL is to get students to learn how to think. My goal is to get them to understand that they must Look then See. Think of reminding your kids to “Look” both ways when they cross the street. Do they actually “See” anything? They might “Look” but do they actually “See”? Your goal is to get them to “See” instead of simply turning their head left and right. My goal is to get students to understand that Information does not equal Knowledge. As Derek and Laura Cabrera state: Information + Thinking = Knowledge.
Digital Nervous System: Look then See (Pay Attention), Remember What Happened, Retain and Create a Pattern in Your Mind (Look — Remember — Pattern-Match)
In a fantastic discussion — The incredible inventions of intuitive AI — Maurice Conti provides a discussion on Generative Design AI. In the discussion, Conti provided a key discussion that fits perfectly with SL:
He points out that there are three specific things we must do to learn:
Image from The Back of The Napkin by Dan Roam
- Pay Attention. I call this Look then See. The perfect example of this is explained by Dan Roam in The Back of The Napkin.
- Remember What Happened.
- Retain and Create a Pattern in Your Mind (Pattern-Matching).
Students who understand this have grasped the importance of learning how to think.
Don’t forget to complete the survey!