Who is the smartest person in the Room? How to design a Room for learning.

Who is the smartest person in the Room with you right now? What if you were in a Room with Einstein and Marie Curie…. who is the smartest person in the Room?


When you do a course or class, who is the smartest person in that Room? **Is it the teacher? The person at the front?


David Weinberger writes,


As knowledge becomes networked, the smartest person in the room isn’t the person standing at the front lecturing us, and isn’t the collective wisdom of those in the room. The smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins the people and ideas in the room, and connects to those outside of it. It’s not that the network is becoming a conscious super-brain. Rather, knowledge is becoming inextricable from — literally unthinkable without — the network that enables it. Our task is to learn how to build smart rooms — that is, how to build networks that make us smarter, especially since, when done badly, networks can make us distressingly stupider.


Unpacking the third mind


Do you find it easier to brainstorm in a group, rather than on your own? I have — certain people bring great ideas out of me, and I always think better when I’m walking or writing.


This is an idea I deconstructed in a post about third mind. It’s an idea from the book Think and Grow Rich — we are much more when we are together, so much so that when two people come together, there is a third mind that is produced between them — one that neither thinker has access to on their own.


It begs the question… when two people come together, are two brains coming together, or three? Returning to this idea of Weinberger’s Room, “the smartest person in the room isn’t the person standing at the front lecturing us, and isn’t the collective wisdom of those in the room“. That second part is super important.


‘Collective wisdom’ is like two people, two minds. But the Room itself is a network effect of knowledge, it is a squaring of possibilities, not a simple addition.




Consider the below diagram.


The scenario on the left is the style of learning you’re used to. In this classroom or course setting, you’re sitting down and passively being taught — and when you’re being introduced to something or learning something simple, this is still a decent learning experience.


The problem is, you’re only unpacking one person’s wisdom or intelligence. This is incredibly limited when you have other great minds in the Room who can ask questions, raise ideas and offer examples that help unpack meaning on a deeper level.


In the scenario on the right, one person can be the facilitator, but the wisdom of eight people is unpacked, and this multiplies. This is how we typically run workshops in the Constant Student.


On one call for the launch of a water bottle business, Marvin Glass (my co-author of 18 & Lost?) **showed up and shared the insights he had about the water industry. This was helpful to identify customer segments and knowing who to target.


Auri Schibli also showed up to the call and shared his wisdom about web design, SEO and paid marketing channels.


Bi-directional learning experience


For each member, there was a bi-directional learning experience. Auri didn’t know anything about the water industry, but he learnt from Marvin. Marvin learnt something about web design, I learnt something about facilitating Rooms of learning, but also shared some messaging angles that benefited other participants on the call.


In this sort of experience, ‘we learn from each other’, which challenges the traditional idea of the ‘expert’. I understand that people want knowledgeable and experienced people to learn from, but the emphasis in the Constant Student is a little different… we also learn from each other.


Things you need to know, now that the smartest person in the Room is the Room itself


  1. The emphasis is on guides rather than experts. Experts are typically proficient at replicating results in their specialty with precision — sometimes they struggle to deconstruct their lessons for people who are beginners in a digestible way. This is a different skill set to having proficiency.
  2. You can learn something from everyone, but everything from no one.
  3. Holding space to allow people to express and form their own opinions trains more active, creative and critical thinking. It also helps them develop confidence to contribute, share and hold an opinion independently. It forces their brain to exercise, and not just consume.
  4. This is also more engaging.
  5. Networks can make us smarter or dumber. Youtube comments, angry Facebook and Twitter comments can make us dumber. Being able to access insights from people all over the world can make us smarter.
  6. The ‘class’, session, or workshop you run will depend entirely on who shows up, much more than the traditional ‘instructor’. You should learning something new each time you do it.
  7. New communities and ecosystems will see this magnified to a superior level — the technology for this will improve over the coming years.


Tips for setting up the ‘Room’ of learning (imagine an hour-long workshop)


  1. Set a clear intention for the workshop, session or class — ‘today we will be doing X, and everyone should walk away with Y actionable steps or takeaways’. This helps to limit deviation from the topic.
  2. Use the Socratic Method — identify their existing assumptions and false beliefs, but look to overturn them through their own logic, rather than yours. Have them agree first to what is really important to focus on, then ask them what their usual focus is. For example, with time management, we always think about long-term time management as the priority, whereas most people normally concern themselves with running their week.
  3. Spend no more than 10 minutes introducing the topic and first prompt to think about
  4. Invite discussions and use breakout room formats. If run virtually, inviting people to comment in a chat can be far less intimidating than coming off mute in front of everyone.
  5. Breakout room formats work best with one simple question and a time limit to unpack the idea in depth. For example in a group of 24, break people down into groups no larger than three or four members.
  6. You then re-assemble the large group again. Now the introverts and shy people have had a chance to share their insights in small groups, but you can get their contribution in the overall group that they otherwise would have been too shy to express. Ask someone, ‘what was discussed in your breakout room? What was the main takeaway you got from someone else?’ — this is less intimidating and disarming, and gives someone the chance to commend the insights of another member.
  7. Focus on having around three breakout rooms, if using an hour. This gives you enough time to go into depth on three key questions.
  8. Write notes on key takeaways, and remember to leave time to unpack what everyone’s biggest insights were at the end.
  9. Most importantly, LISTEN. A muscle to be trained… it’s far more valuable to allow others in the Room time to share, and to be open to learning from them the nuances. The guide must display humility, and lead by example by being most ready and willing to learn.

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