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Tagged Unknown, Caterpillar in Qatar, and Amplifying Effects

It was by sheer accident a few years ago that I found if I tagged/ captioned my photos of flowers in flickr with “unknown” or “unidentified” that I was indirectly asking for help… and people I did not know would respond. I’ve relayed in presentations quite a few time the improbable but true-I-have-witnesses story of how one such flower united me with the person who had identified it… in Tasmania.


I never meant to suggest it is guaranteed a result, but I was excited to read this week of someone who gave it a try. I got to meet Jabiz (aka IntrepidTeacher) this past September at the Learning 2.008 Conference in Shanghai– he teaches elementary school ESL at an international school inn Qatar.

He asked (via twitter) how he might try it with a photo he took of a caterpillar on his roof, him wanting to try it as a learning lesson with his daughter


to which the tweet back was basically “tag it unidentified and be sure to write a short caption explaining what you want to know, and maybe use “unknown” and/or “unidentified” in the title/caption. See his mystery caterpillar…

I was somewhat worried, as I thought the odds that someone might respond are near random. If you look across twitter, you see people posting a lot of photos seeking identification like: moths, flowers, people in old photos, crabs, Barbie outfits, tools, ducks, jet planes, old buildings

So I decided to try and add some amplification via twitter by pushing out a call to people who may follow me:


I am thinking more and more how echoing or retweeting is an effective way to amplify your requests for help, and reminds me of the “twilight barking” communication from The Hundred and One Dalmatians:

Shortly after the dinner party the puppies disappear. The humans fail to trace them but through the “Twilight Barking”, a form of communication by which dogs can relay messages to each other across the country, the dogs manage to track them down to Hell Hall, in Suffolk.

Now I would not want to see twitter overtaken by rampant re-tweeting (especially since I want to know what coffee shop you are at or what your cat did to the baby’s diaper or ….), but it is a very small way to help out by passing requests to different twitter circles.

Jabiz provided a wonderful write-up of his effort and what came of it, see Collective Learning and a Caterpillar:

I ran upstairs took a photo of the caterpillar and added it to Flickr. I did some other research on my own, as any good academic should, and found there are also groups on Flickr that help you identify insects. I sent out a few Tweets hoping that with the combined power of my network and Flickr I would have some answers.

This is really a remarkable thing. We are now able to just post a picture of almost anythinf on the Internet and have someone tell us what it is! Think of the power that gives your students. Think of the way they must learn to interact with others in order to use this power most effectively. I think it is truly amazing.

Within twelve hours I had my first comment on Flickr. At this point in the story I would love to say that someone had correctly identified my caterpillar end of story, but that is not the case. I think often times our students are just looking for the “right” answers as well. Whether they find it on Google, Wikipedia, or someone tells them the “right” answer, the end, and an easy one at that is their objective. While I admit I was a little disappointed when I cut and pasted the answer the guy from Flickr gave me into google and the caterpillar that came up for: Prominents (Notodontidae) looked nothing like the bug in my jar, I realized that learning and research are like many things in life- processes not products.

And here is what I really am pleased to read- Jabiz did not just toss the tag out there; he did his upfront research, and then questioned the results he got:

The point is that I am not satisfied merely punching random terms into google expecting answers and giving up when I don’t find them.

I can think of perhaps many ways activities could be written both about the seeking of answers but also what would be a great project is to look for things which are tagged in hopes of identification and have not been answered.

And here, here, is what teachers ought to be preparing for, students who have grown up like Jabiz’s daughter:

I am interacting with people and hoping they will help me on my journey toward the answer. This process is powerful. This collective, communal learning is what learning looks like. My daughter is only two-and-a-half, and most of what I have said is way over her head, but already she is asking me to watch caterpillars on daddy’s computer. She knows that Youtube is a powerful tool to help visualize and make real so many concepts that are new to her. We watched a Monarch butterfly hatch from its cocoon, hopefully soon we will be able to post our caterpillar hatching on youtube as well in hopes of helping others on their journey. I hope to be able to add the name of the species.

And there is one happy ending, a comment came to Jabiz’s flickr photo with a tentative id of Gastropacha (Stenophylloides) populifolia.

Another other happy ending is when the caterpillar changes into a moth in front of his daughter’s eyes. And maybe another happy beginning when she enters the school system and such learning strategies are the norm.

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


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