Saturday, October 6, 2012

Where Good Ideas Come From

In his 2010 book, "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural Story of Innovation", author Steven Johnson debunks the myth of the "eureka moment", too often given credit for revolutionary thinking, he says. According to Johnson's research, good ideas more typically develop over time in what he calls a "slow hunch", where a thought percolates away for years and years to emerge when ready, often after some new interaction or stimulation. Johnson thus postulates that the most consistant source of good ideas is in fact collaboration. Environments that encourage people to share ideas and have their different thoughts collide and interact are the places where the most substantial intellectual progress is typically made. In the video below Johnson discusses this concept and how the growth of coffee houses during the enlightenment increased the number of interactions, triggering a myriad of new ideas impacting culture, politics, science, and art.

In a recent blog post, Johnny Bevacqua (click here) noted the welcoming atmosphere of the coffee houses he visited on a recent trip, and how duplicating some of the key features found in them could be condusive to the type of collaboration, sharing, and learning we would like to see in our schools. Johnson would support this notion, and in his book he cites countless successful organizations that have made these changes and experienced great success as a result. We are starting see more and more classrooms and schools move in this direction, and the potential is really exciting.

A recent visit to the BC Ministry of Education also revealed a somewhat surprising overhaul to the interior design of the main office floor. Walls have been taken down, offices are now few and rarely used, and most meetings take place in common areas where participants can come and add to the conversation as needed. Assistant Deputy Minister Rod Allen explicitly named Johnson's work as an inspiration for these changes, and he expressed that moving from isolation to collaboration has made meetings more fluid and inclusive and there has been more effective use of the broad range of skills and knowledge in the building. This is good modeling for where we would like to go, I would think, and I also like the messaging that now is the time to "try new things". (You can all save your cheeky comments regarding the previous 100 years. :-)

As someone who is charged with encouraging innovation (it's even in the job title - no pressure there) I would be wise to remember the lessons around collaboration. It is simply not enough to sit in a room alone with a pen or an iPad and brainstorm until some bright idea happens to show up. My role needs to be about interactions, conversations, meetings, and putting people together so they can collaborate and intellectually feed off each other to grow and develop their own ideas, essentially removing walls and helping to create a kind of coffee house district.

We would hopefully then support and encourage our educators, not just with enthusiasm, though that often helps, but also with resources to give their ideas some longevity and traction. This will also require the copious support of my ever expanding PLN, specifically via Twitter, which has taken on the role in my life of a giant electronic coffee house. Johnson states at the end of the video, "Chance favours the connected mind." As I take my coffee out of the microwave, I say "Cheers" to the slow hunch, the collision of thoughts, to all of you, and the hopeful spark of innovation. Stay connected, everyone.

[This blog and the ideas in it were only possible due to the generosity and foresight of my excellent former vice-principal, Dani Garner, who purchased this book and gave it to me as a gift last summer. And to Steven Johnson for writing it. That probably helped too.]

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