My prior spurt of education geekiness was on "learning by teaching" as a formally studied concept/methodology. Now it's on the application of peer effects (here's a nice slideshow that explains it) to understanding what goes on in open source apprenticeships.

Short version:

  1. The performance of the people around you tends to influence your own performance. (If you're surrounded by athletic people, you'll probably be more athletic yourself than you would be if you were surrounded by a group of nonathletic ones; if you're surrounded by good writers, you'll probably be a better writer than if you're surrounded by not-so-good ones.) I am slightly fuzzy on whether it's the performance of your peer group or your perception of the performance of your peer group that has the effect - it sounds like the latter, but it's not clear.
  2. Therefore, when you want to learn a field, put yourself in an environment where you'll be surrounded by the best people in that field.

This should all be extremely obvious. The thing I like about studies, though, is that they confirm and quantify the phenomena they study. This is important. We can actually find out (well, more accurately, "get what is in all probability a clearer idea of") how much the peer effect influences how people perform, what they do, the choices they make, and so on.

One of the things I've come to believe more strongly in over time is that the concept of a meritocracy - a cultural cornerstone of open source communities - is fundamentally incompatible with the concept of inborn genius - that's an awkward phrasing of it, and an apparent large logical jump that's also disconnected to the idea of peer effects. I haven't quite gotten this down yet, but here's an awkward phrasing of my current train of thought on the matter.

  1. Genius isn't born; it's made. I'm not saying that the "nature" component doesn't exist; I'm saying that the "nurture" one does.
  2. The "nurture" component of growing talent is in large part about one's environment, which includes peer effects.
  3. The current "meritocracy" is therefore not truly ranked by merit (and this is where my thinking gets all awkward and not well-considered, since this depends a lot on your definition of "merit.")
  4. We Can Do Better - and one thing we can do is to look at the early experiences of supposedly "innate" geniuses in a field to see where the thing that looks like natural ability comes from.

It makes little sense from an education point of view to study Mozart if his genius was "innate." It makes a lot of sense to study Mozart if genius is made rather than born, because then perhaps we have a chance of figuring out how to get other people to learn to navigate the world of music as explosively well as he did.

I don't want heroes to worship. I want role models to learn from.