Collaborative reasoning with a social strategy

In my previous posts on the value of mental and physical models, I suggested that it is the dialog that we create between these two types of reasoning that helps us tackle the discovery of what is novel and complex:

What Hubble 3D teaches us about model-based reasoning

A mental model of the customer, user, and learner experience

In the field of physical science, an excellent example of this process is illustrated in the Watson and Crick discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. They achieved this daunting task (in part) by building the right kind of physical model from which to test their thinking (mental model) and use this model-based reasoning to validate their hypotheses and make a breakthrough discovery about the nature of life.

However, as we examine the fuller historical record of this event, another vital dynamic in the process of discovery emerges: the value of collaborative reasoning.

It is the underlying social mechanism behind all great discoveries. It derives its benefits from the cooperation and sharing of ideas between people studying the same problem to find a solution.

However, in science as in most of human endeavors, people do not always cooperate, but rather compete and obtain valuable insights from the work of others – sometimes without their permission.

Although this is clearly an ethical and legal issue, much of the end result of collaboration derives from some blend of cooperation and competition.

Looking deeper into the context of Watson and Crick’s “discovery,” there were at least two other people searching for this answer who contributed to their breakthrough in understanding the true chemical and physical structure of DNA in ways that cannot be solely reduced to their brilliant use of mental and physical model-based reasoning.

Linus Pauling was the first to publish a paper on the structure of DNA, but he attributed the structure to a triple helix structure radiating around a sugar phosphate backbone. However, Crick recognized his error in chemistry in which all of these parts of the structure were negatively-charged and would repel each other.

Rosalind Franklin, another scientist working on this problem using the technology of x-ray crystallography produced photographic evidence of this helical structure, but only in the x-shaped image of a two-dimensional view.

One of these images was shown by one of her colleagues (without her permission) to Watson who then showed it to Crick. Crick, with his background in crystallography, recognized it as representing a double-helical structure and that is what propelled them to test this data using mental and physical models.

Here is an excellent video produced by Virginia Commonwealth University that tells this fuller story:

Rather than refuse to acknowledge it (with all of its ethical and legal ramifications), we need to acknowledge and incorporate this social factor into our own work in the “discovery” process – whether we are discovering a solution to a problem in science, solving a business problem, or the design of an informational or instructional system that meets the needs of its users.

Here’s where the technologies we call social networking and social media can support this collaborative discovery process. Perhaps we will see corresponding development of vertical software solutions that address this objective using these technologies, but in the meantime, there are plenty of opportunities to “re-purpose” existing social networking and social media to achieve a similar function.

As comments in reply, I welcome your thoughts about the value of collaborative reasoning in discovery and design and the use of these technologies to support our reasoning process.


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8 Responses to Collaborative reasoning with a social strategy

  1. Connie says:

    Doc, are you aware of the book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot? Lacks’ DNA and cells provided the first human cells that continued to live and divide in a laboratory. Her cells, taken without her knowledge or consent, led to the polio vaccine and innumerable medical breakthroughs. A very interesting read. Thank you for your insightful post.

  2. Doc says:

    Hi Connie, I have not heard of this story, but I will certainly look into it via the link you have provided as it seems to further illustrate a broader view of the social construction of knowledge in ways that we can emulate in our efforts to support teaching and learning. Thanks for sharing! Doc

  3. Allison says:

    We see this over and over again, one player is the inventor of a technology and years down the line we find that there is another story. Alessandro Volta developed the first practical method of generating electricity. Not long after Volta presented his discovery of a continuous source of electricity another inventor in 1802 Humphry Davy produced the first lamp using this new technology. This went on for a long time, from empirical research found to the next invention. Thomas Edison was able to enlist his team of researchers in his laboratory to test 3,000 designs before he found one and quickly patented it. Did he invent it or improve upon what was already made and patent it? Now another famous story we all know about is in regards to the first PC, was it Gates or Jobs? Who invented it first or who filed the first patent? Empirical research is precept upon precept and this is how we grow in technology and in society.

  4. Doc says:

    Thanks Allison for taking us on an historical tour of how inventors leap-frog over previous inventions (and sometimes inventors) in a hook or crook approach to claiming ideas as their own – sometimes with important elaboration that is needed and sometimes simply to stake a claim of ownership – all for better or worse through social transmission of ideas.

  5. In considering the focus of your post, collaborative reasoning, I was reminded of the site that MakerBot funds: Thingiverse. At the iterative design process depends upon collaborative reasoning. I have been following the site for quite some time now, and I have observed progressively improved prosthetic hands produced by community members ( By listening to the feedback of community members and using their critiques and suggestions to make edits to the design, the prosthetic hands produced gain in form and function.

    Watching the eyes and faces of the amputees who receive their first prosthetic hand (many times donated to them, as the cost of a 3-d printed prosthetic hand is exponentially less than the cost of a custom-fit prosthetic) is sure to bring tears to anyone who witnesses it. The first prosthetic hand I encountered on the Internet was one that was the result of some excellent collaborative reasoning between a man in South Africa who had accidentally cut off one of his hands with a saw, and a father in the U.S who’s son was in need of a prosthetic hand. They worked together, despite residing thousands of miles apart, to refine the design and then 3-d print a hand the son could use.

  6. Doc says:

    Thanks Eric, for providing a relevant and moving case for the power of collaborative reasoning as can be achieved through like minds seeking solutions through online communities such as MakerBot’s Thingverse site. As described on their site, it is the “world’s largest 3D design community for discovering, printing, and sharing 3D models.” At the time of this post, there are over 130,000 community members who are downloading, sharing, and remixing over 100,000 3D designs: one of which is the example you provide of collaboratively designing a prosthetic hand.

  7. Lisa Catino says:

    Collaborative reasoning that is socially minded seems to be a shift in the right direction. The maker movement is an excellent example and evidenced by student outcomes that meet the learning objectives outlined in the curriculum guides. Collaborative reasoning is a genesis of social progression which accounts for changes of the human cognition over time.

    In the era of social media and technology take-overs, instruction has adapted to meet standards for learning efficacy, and technical skill. Taking advantage of virtual space and open market, today’s students are developing mastery of subject areas through collaborative exercises. It is important to recognize that this type of learning is actually guided instruction; that is, students are provided instructions and demonstration from a teacher/instructor. The collaborative function is explained by the use of feedback which has been shown to yield positive effects on learning.

    I recognize this as, an important educational shift towards a socially rewarding environment where learning outcomes are achieved through instruction.

  8. Doc says:

    Hi Lisa, Thanks for sharing your insights into the importance of learning as something of our own making, but doing so in a collaborative and social manner as do scholars, scientists, and most professionals in their research and development activities.

    In another blog post on the topic of “learner experience” I put forward this concept as it is applied in other disciplines as customer experience in business, and user experience in computing and technology use. I welcome review and comments there as an extension of making our learning more relevant:

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