jonathan lovell's blog

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Boothbay Harbor Literacy Retreat

I’ve just completed a three day literacy retreat led by the incomparable Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, assisted by Linda Rief, Penny Kittle, Donalyn Miller, Chris Crutcher, and Lester Laminack.  Here’s my contribution, and tribute, to these wonderful educators:



The Smartest Person in the Room is . . . the Room


There is an essay in Lewis Thomas’s Lives of a Cell entitled “Living Language.” Thomas begins this essay, somewhat surprisingly, by describing an experiment that a colleague of his had conducted on the nest building habits of South American termites.

The question his colleague had posed was this: given that termites’ brains are roughly the size of the heads of common pins – the true “pinheads” of the detritivoreal world – how were they able to build the most elaborate and extensive dwelling structures known outside of mankind’s own? Structures, that is, whose vastness of width and depth bears approximately the same relationship to an individual termite as NYC does to an individual inhabitant.

So Lewis’s colleague had devised an ingenious experiment. He placed 3 to 5 termites on a large petri dish and watched their behavior. They would secrete and deposit their blocks of semi-digested wood and saliva-like stickum randomly around the dish. Occasionally one block would land atop another, but this random event caused no difference in the behavior of the termites.

Same with 10 termites. Same with 15. Same with 20.

Then somewhere between 20-25 termites, a completely new behavior emerged. As soon as two stacks of a few wood blocks were deposited a short distance apart from one another, all the termites would cluster around the stacks, building them each up with further wood blocks until they had joined them together to form an arch. This arch, of course, was the basic structural element of these termites’ vast and impressive underground dwellings.

For termites, that is, and most likely for monarch butterflies as well, one cannot separate the ability to function effectively from the ability to do so only in aggregate numbers of a certain size. What might be termed their “intelligence,” therefore, can only be understood as a “collective intelligence.” When you gather a smaller-than-essential number of the species together to observe their behavior, they are unable to exhibit the highly developed “intelligent” behavior that they consistently demonstrate when operating collectively. The notion of an “intelligence” residing in the one single brain, that is, simply does not exist for such species.

I’ve been thinking about this notion of individual vs collective intelligence as I’ve observed the behaviors we’ve all exhibited as we’ve gathered here together for the 7th Annual Boothbay Harbor Literacy Retreat.

We came from many different parts of the country, from different states and different regions within these states. We came, as I did myself, with our own concerns, our own agendas, our own notions of what it was that we most wanted to accomplish during our two and a half  to three and a half days together.

What was remarkable about our learning was how effectively our Boothbay Harbor leaders persuaded us to put those individual concerns aside. We put them aside because in activity after activity, culminating in Penny Kittle’s exhilarating and challenging “playing with a purpose” video presentations, we learned that we really were brighter, more capable, more fundamentally inspirited and energized when we learned and performed collectively rather than individually.

This is the spirit and the experience that we must now make available to our students, as frequently as we are able. This is the spirit and experience that we must now make tangible and compelling to our colleagues. And this is the spirit and experience we must now work hard to persuade our administrators to embrace.

Perhaps most importantly, this is the spirit and the experience that we must learn to adapt and exhibit as a teaching profession at large. Without the collective force and confidence that comes from the experience of kindred minds and bodies working and moving forward together, we will all face what is certain to be a future of evisceration, demoralization, and, ultimately, annihilation as a profession. This is, then, a moment in the history of public education in the United States  when the old adage holds true: we will stand together, or we will fall apart.

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2 replies

  1. Thanks, Jonathan, for such a compelling essay. You’ve tapped into one of the fundamental goals of the Boothbay Retreat. More thanks, though, for being a part of the collective thinking in the room. You are right–I do believe that the smartest person in the room is the room!

  2. The pleasure was all mine, Kylene. Ellen and I are already planning to return next year.

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