Graduation 2011: A Jar of Paper Clips

June 20, 2011

Upper Group teacher Jon Patmore delivered the following speech at the 2011 Walden graduation ceremony on June 15, 2011. It nicely captures key aspects of Walden’s philosophy. -Vicki Edge

This is a jar of paper clips. I’ve got two questions for you about the contents of the jar, and I want to use each of the questions to talk just a little bit about this year’s graduating class and about what we are doing here at Walden.

The first question is a simple one. Please try to think of your answer without saying your guess out loud. How many paper clips are in the jar? Now, on the count of three, I’m going to ask that you all say your answer at the same time. Here we go. One, two, three.

I’ll get to the answer in a couple of minutes. Here’s the amazing thing, though: Studies have shown that, if we were to tally up the guesses of everyone in this room and take the average of those guesses, we would probably get a better guess than any one individual guess. This may sound hard to believe, but consider this: In the beginning of a book he wrote a few years ago, James Surowiecki tells the story of people trying to guess the weight of an ox at a country fair in England in 1906. While none of the 787 guesses named the weight correctly, the average of all of the guesses was 1,097 pounds. The ox, in fact, weighed 1,098 pounds. The guess of the group was more accurate than any single person’s guess.

Surowiecki says that the group can and does outshine the individuals within it over time, provided that three things are in place: independence, diversity of thought, and a system to put the thinking together. In other words, together, as a group, we can be smarter than any single one of us.

You might be thinking, “But Jon, ‘How many paper clips are in a jar?’ is a pretty simple question. Real life is a lot more complicated than that.” However, it turns out that this model can work for problems that are far less straightforward. For example, last August, in the Atacama desert of northern Chile, a cave-in at the San Jose copper and gold mine trapped thirty-three men almost a half mile below ground and three miles from the mine entrance. When the mining company’s rescue efforts seemed to be failing, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera put out an international call for help. The group which came together to work on the problem included three large drilling-rig teams plus representatives from nearly every government ministry in Chile, people from NASA, and people from more than a dozen corporations from around the world. In the end, in October, sixty-nine days after the initial collapse, all thirty-three miners returned to the surface, alive and relatively healthy. The wisdom of a group of independent parties with different ways of looking at things helped generate the solution to a complex, life-and-death problem.

Is the group always smart or right? Obviously not. However, disasters have occurred precisely because people ignored the wisdom of the group or because one or more of the factors I mentioned earlier—independence, diversity of thought, or a way to put the information together—was not in place.

It is worth noting, as Surowiecki and Scott Page both point out, that independence and diversity of thought mean that there will be a certain amount of disagreement. In fact, disagreement is one of the main sources of different solutions. The group’s intelligence drops as soon as everyone starts falling in line and agreeing mindlessly.

Collective intelligence is something the Walden teachers strive for when running the school, and it is something we try to foster in the students. This year’s sixth graders are an amazing group. They are bristling with imagination, enthusiasm, and humor. It has been an honor to have worked with them over time and to have watched them grow as individuals and as a team.

This brings me back to the jar and on to my second question. This one is a little bit more difficult, or at least more complicated, but it’s one you may have heard before. Again, as you think of your response, try to hold on to it quietly for a moment. Now, if you have one of these paper clips, how many uses can you think of for it? I will put my hand in the air to signal that time is up, but, if you would, please think about the question and then turn to a neighbor and share some of your ideas.

Along with holding pieces of paper together, people have come up with a lot of uses. You could use a paper clip as a zipper pull, a hair barrette, to clean your fingernails, as an ornament holder, to unclog an Elmer’s glue bottle, as an emergency cotter pin, an ear ring, a reset tool for certain electronic devices, a nose weight for paper airplanes, a lock picking tool. That’s just the start of the list, of course, and I think I’ve actually put most of those functions to work.

Recently, I read a surprising story about what a Canadian blogger named Kyle MacDonald did with a paper clip. In 2005, he set out to trade one red paper clip for “something bigger, something better.” Using Craigslist to get the word out, he traded the red paper clip for a fish pen. He traded the fish pen for a handmade ceramic drawer pull and the drawer pull for a used camp stove. He continued trading up until, in 2006, on just his 14th trade, he reached his goal. In that final trade, he gave a paid speaking role in a Hollywood movie for a two-story farmhouse on Main Street in Kipling, Saskatchewan. He turned a paper clip into a house.

In any case, guessing the number of paper clips in a jar is a convergent thinking task. You are converging on a single right answer. This is important work, but it is limiting. Generating uses for a paper clip is an example of a divergent thinking task. Sir Ken Robinson, among others, talks about this. Divergent thinking is about seeing lots of possible answers to a question. Says one psychology textbook, “divergent thinking is found among people with personalities which have traits such as nonconformity, curiosity, willingness to take risks, and persistence.” That sounds like a Walden kid to me. Divergent thinking is a vital component of creativity, and creativity, Sir Ken argues, is an absolutely essential skill set for approaching the challenges of the 21st century as well as for nurturing our souls.

The kids in this group are full of creativity and full of energy. Each of them can bounce ideas around or come up with many answers to a single question. As Russell said the other day, “They are all artists.” Their stories for the class book come to mind as a demonstration of this. They didn’t just write interesting things, either. As anyone who stayed to the end of the Upper Group writing night knows, they wrote a lot. However, this is where the intelligence of the group and the importance of divergent thinking come together. Keeping in mind that these sixth graders are independent and have their own ways of thinking about things, given the platform of a project or a performance, they’re really amazing when they are working as a group. I’m thinking about their sixth grade newspaper, for example, which they named The Fifi Six. The title alone suggests a sort of purposeful randomness, but, behind that goofy invention, they spent hours crafting the articles, features, and layout of the piece. The camping trip skits, the Spanish skits, the Upper Group music night, the animation projects, and, of course, the Upper Group play all demonstrated elements of their creative strengths as individuals and as a group. Of course, the success of the students reflects the effort and love of the parents and grandparents and the greater Walden community.

In closing, I’d like you to think about your answer to the first question. How many paper clips are in the jar? The answer is 2,061. I chose the number to represent the calendar year 50 years from now: Twenty sixty-one. To me, it suggests a future not so far off and yet, in some ways, a time distinctly difficult to imagine. I believe that nurturing collaboration, fostering wise groups, and encouraging creative thought and endeavors, including thinking differently, will help us prepare for and even shape a future full of possibilities.

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