In the summer of 2020, I taught my first virtual classes at Wharton. It felt like I was talking into a black hole. The first day violated the first law of thermodynamics: no matter how much energy I put in, less came back through the screen.
But by the second day, I found myself feeling fired up. There were more rich conversations and deep connections than I’d ever seen in my two decades of teaching.
Psychologists have long found that when people come together in groups, they generate fewer and worse ideas than if they work alone. In brainstorming, for example, groups struggle with production blocking (we can’t all talk at once), ego threat (we don’t want to look stupid, so we bite our tongues on our most original ideas), and conformity pressure (we want to jump on the bandwagon of the most popular ideas). These barriers are often amplified for people who lack power and status. If you’re the only woman of color in a team dominated by white men, the most junior person in the room, or the introvert in a group of extraverts, it’s that much harder to get heard.
Despite the challenges of group discussions, people still expect them to make magic. Psychologist Ike Silver calls it the illusion of conversational enlightenment. If you want people to learn from each other, you have to create mechanisms to overcome production blocking, ego threat, and conformity pressure.
One of the most effective solutions is brainwriting. You let people develop their ideas independently, and then you bring the group together to figure out which ones are worth developing. Individuals have more brilliant ideas than groups, but they also have more terrible ideas, which is why you want the wisdom of the crowd to evaluate and refine.
When I was teaching virtually, I couldn’t see all 80 MBA students at once, let alone call on them all. The chat window became my saving grace. My colleagues Sigal Barsade, Samir Nurmohamed, Nancy Rothbard, and I invited students to type their thoughts using hashtags: #question if they wanted to ask something, #debate if they wanted to disagree with me or a peer, #onfire if they had a burning comment.
For the first time in my career, instead of calling on random hands, I was able to choreograph a learning experience. Once I had a preview of what students wanted to contribute, it was possible to bring in real diversity of thought and comments that built on, challenged, and synthesized the discussion. Before, extraverts had often dominated the conversation. Now, introverts were participating more actively.
Along the way, we added another hashtag: #aha if they learned something. It allowed me to gauge whether students were learning what I thought I was teaching. And it helped them cumulate the key insights: the chat window was a class-wide note-taking system.
The biggest highlight, though, was the personal vulnerability and humor it opened up. In a live room, raising your hand to tell a story or make a joke could be a distraction. In the chat window, there was always an opening, and students bonded in new ways.
One of my favorite moments happened on the second day of my undergrad class, when I asked the students for examples of times when they’d escalated their commitment to a losing course of action. Here were some of the highlights from the chat:
taking a class i shouldve dropped…took a GPA hit
The 5000-piece puzzle I started in quarantine
I was a Postmates driver this summer and I would keep completing small orders to try to get a quantity bonus and it never worked
Waiting for free samples at Costco while it was being cooked (took way too long and got too little)
spent two years trying to get an internship into the UN only to fulfill my parents' dream to work in the public sector - hated the internship in the end
Kept dating a guy in high school because I wanted to go to his prom
I’m glad to be back teaching in person, but I don’t want to lose the chat window. I feel the same way in meetings. When you have a decision to make or a problem to solve, before you discuss as a group, give people the first 5-10 minutes to type their ideas. The chat might be a path to actual conversational enlightenment.