05/03/2013 03:39 pm ET Updated Jul 03, 2013

The Wisdom of Crowds, Untapped

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The decision by D.C. Council Education Committee Chairman David Catania to hire an outside law firm to craft school reform legislation is an awful one, worthy of serious public rebuke -- and for two interrelated reasons.

The first is that hiring a small team of lawyers is the least likely path towards achieving imaginative and effective policy. Despite public stereotypes of the profession, K-12 education is a complex web of cognitive, social, emotional, language, ethical and physical challenges and opportunities. Its systemic barriers to change are as myriad as our complicated shared memories of what schooling is (and is not). And it's a field in the midst of a major paradigmatic shift -- away from the traditional notion that a student's job is to adjust to the school, and towards the radical notion that a school's job is to adjust to the student.

So while it's true that the final stages of policymaking involve a certain amount of legalese, Mr. Catania's belief that this process should start with a team of lawyers -- and not end with one -- speaks to a fundamental missed opportunity, and the second reason it's a bad idea: We are ignoring the wisdom of our own community, and the chance to imagine D.C.'s future education policy as a city-wide, regenerative civic event.

Of course, surfacing and applying the insights of our own community is not something we do often -- perhaps because so many of us secretly agree with Thomas Carlyle, who famously said: "I do not believe in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance."

The thing is, Carlyle was wrong. As New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki writes in his 2004 bestseller The Wisdom of Crowds, "If you put together a big enough and diverse enough group of people and ask them to make decisions affecting matters of general interest, that group's decision will, over time, be intellectually superior to the isolated individual."

In other words, when our imperfect individual judgments are aggregated in the right way, our collective intelligence is often extremely helpful. That's why Surowiecki suggests, "we should stop hunting and ask the crowd. Chances are, it knows."

In fact, that's exactly what Mr. Catania is doing -- hunting. It's an impulse so common sociologists have given it its own name: "Chasing the Expert," which references our tendency when facing difficult decisions to search for that one person (or small group of people) who will have the answer.

What Surowiecki discovered was that the opposite was true, but only if the core conditions of making a good large-group decision were present: diversity, independence, and a particular form of decentralization. "Paradoxically," he writes, "the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible."

Imagine if instead of seeking outside funds to hire a small team of lawyers, Catania had announced a citywide initiative in which the best wisdom around crowdsourcing would be utilized in order to help the entire community arrive at a thoughtful, informed collective decision around the future of education policy? After all, politics is about the impact of government on the everyday lives of citizens. Why do we think the way to do it well is by distancing ourselves from the voices of the citizens themselves?

Indeed, the most damning implication of Mr. Catania's decision is his inattention to the mechanisms of democracy, to the wisdom of the community, and to the regenerative power of combining both in an effort to improve public education. As Surowiecki writes, democracy "is not a way of solving cognition problems or a mechanism for revealing the public interest. But it is a way of dealing with (if not solving once and for all) the most fundamental questions of cooperation and coordination: How do we live together? How can living together work to our mutual benefit?"

"The decisions that democracies make may not always demonstrate the wisdom of the crowd," Surowiecki concedes. "But the decision to make them democratically does."