What Athenian Democracy and Human Evolution Can Teach Us About Learning

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What made humans the most successful species on the planet is not our intelligence or aggression, but a cognitive social phenomenon called – collaboration.

“Collaboration” helped us grow from a tribe of primeval beings to a spacefaring species capable of producing outcomes that are magnitudes of order greater than other species alive. All of this – from an inherent ability to create, contribute to and draw from our collective intelligence.

A democracy of perspectives

“a feast to which many contribute is better than a dinner provided out of a single purse.” – Aristotle

Athenians pioneered democracy after the revolution in 508 B.C. The reforms brought on by Cleisthenes after the revolution shaped how the collective opinion was used to make decisions and bring consensus. Athenian boules were a council of 500 citizens who would contest ideas and run the daily affairs of their city.

The idea behind these boules was to prevent handing power over to a single individual. It also accepted the advantages of multiple perspectives in reaching a favorable outcome than the intelligence of one.

Several years after Cleisthenes, direct democracy has evolved into representative democracy. Boules have changed into parliaments. But the essence of the practice remains. Parliaments bring reasoning and perspectives from different walks of life to inform a leader in power.

In Corporates, boardrooms play a similar role where they empower and inform executives of different perspectives so they can make the right decisions. Often, these executives have personal mentors and coaches who guide them, inform them, and enrich their perspectives.

Bringing the wisdom of crowds to a lone learner

For centuries, humans have learned through each other’s experiences. Around a fire pit, in a boardroom, in a classroom, or elections. Collective wisdom has shaped businesses, economies, nations, and our society. 

Successful individuals often tap into this collective wisdom through a private cohort of mentors and peers who’ve been there and done that. They learn as a collaborative process and grow themselves through shared experiences.

A lone learner could have smart ideas or a decent one with bad parts. However, a mediocre learner who passes their ideas through feedback, multiple perspectives and marinates them in collective thought can eliminate cognitive blindspots much more effectively.

The sum of all parts is greater than the whole

While digital media and modern technologies have made learning more accessible and on-demand, they have also brought in decentralization. Learners no longer have to necessarily rely on inputs from an expert or a group to inform themselves. They can form interpretations and takeaways of their curriculum on their own, in an isolated setup. 

A feature, but also a flaw that takes away the human component of collaboration that has helped us succeed as a species. Learners who can engage in discourse and are brave enough to test the strength of their takeaways build deeper understanding.

Corporate investment in 1:1 mentorship for their managers and executives is signaling a change in this belief. More and more employees are being encouraged to seek out mentors within and outside their organization. 

L&D leaders are creating avenues for their organizations to create and exercise collective intelligence. Their job is no longer to provide the best learning resources to their employees but to create a platform where employees can engage in social discourse and enrich their learnings. 

Organizations that invest in their collective intelligence will have a strategic differentiation over those that don’t.

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