Pursuing Intentional Serendipity

I think the phrase I'm looking for is intentional serendipity. I think it's Peter Skillen's term but there may be others using a similar concept.  In a world where play and wonder should really be considered essential dispositions, our education rarely values learning that isn't somehow tied to a chosen standard or outcome.

Unlike a classroom where a teacher controls the lecture, the organic communities that emerge through collectives produce meaningful learning because the inquiry that arises comes from the collective itself.


Integral to this idea is giving yourself opportunities to experience and facilitate serendipitous learning. Currently there really isn't a better way to make this happen than twitter.

Here's the story.

Yesterday I'm attending a full day workshop (workshop is a loose term, it was really a 5 hour lecture) with Dr. Larry Bendtro, researcher and founder of the Circle of Courage Institute which focuses on reclaiming at risk students. Dr. Bendtro is a good speaker and while a 5 hour lecture isn't an ideal way to learn, there were lots of nuggets of learning I took away.

Sitting in the auditorium made up of educators and community people, I did see several ipads out but the majority of course were sticking with pen and paper to capture their learning. Lots of people were talking notes but of course, few, if any were sharing those notes. That's a bit of waste. So when I pull out my phone, I'm sure most people who see that think I'm checking email, texting, playing a game, or generally just off task. I used to be concerned about that but not anymore. I've learned that for me, engaging in a backchannel or simply using hashtags is the best way for me to stay focused and engaged. It may not be for everyone but it's for me. The person I sat with also uses twitter and we simply agreed to use the #circleofcourage as our hashtag.


Last week one of my students was tweeting about being bored in class. I tweeted back that she should tweet what she was hearing and try and see if she could get others in her class to use a common hashtag to take collected notes. It worked for her.

Back to the story.

Part of the purpose of using twitter to take these notes is both for me, for the others participating but also because you never know. Early on in the lecture, Dr. Bendtro talked about the importance of a good theory but that if you can't explain your theory to a 4 year old, maybe you really don't understand your theory. As I was about to tweet that out, I see my buddy Dave Cormier in my twitter stream. I had the pleasure of having breakfast with Dave and his family last month and enjoy bantering and teasing with him so I decided I had enough social capital to present him a little challenge:


I really didn't know what I expected him to do with that. The nature of twitter is such that it could have easily fallen into the pile of useless tweets, which I'll admit I likely hold the world record. But Dave took my dare and did something, something quite awesome as a matter of fact. (I forgive you if you leave here now and spend time on Dave's blog. Go ahead, it's okay) He obviously had no obligation to do anything with my question. He could have ignored it or told me to mind my own business. Instead he created a useful artifact that is beneficial for me, others and for him as well.

I don't know if that's an amazing story because it's one that likely happens to many people every day because they place themselves in a space that fosters intentional serendipity. It's actually quite wonderful, joyful and meaningful. You can't quantify it, place it in a lesson plan but you also can't ignore it. I'm sure the vast majority of you reading this are twitter users and have your own story to tell. Maybe not. The point here is that intentional serendipity should be held in much higher regard. If you say you're too busy for serendipity, you might want to loosen up your schedule.  I've often felt that every classroom should have a space, be it a wiki or a bulletin board that highlights unintended learning. It's often the best kind.

Don’t Ask People What They Want

Cross posted at the Huffington Post.

Steve Jobs never believed in focus groups. Guy Kawasaki, who worked for Apple and Steve Jobs said, "Apple Market research is an oxymoron. If you ask people what they want they'll tell you "Better, faster and cheaper"- that is better sameness, not revolutionary change. Many other innovators have echoed similar sentiments. This flies in the face of the idea that the customer is always right. Jobs also said "people don't know what they want until you show it to them" No doubt he was a brash visionary that designed some very innovative products that many people adore. 

In education I hear this sentiment a lot lately: "Involve and engage all stakeholders". That sounds lovely. Why wouldn't we want input for parents and the community? All stakeholders in this case probably means every parent and taxpayer. That's a lot of people with a lot of ideas about what school should look like.  There's a desire to be transparent and be collaborative. These are words I use with great frequency to describe learning. But I'm beginning to question these ideas when it comes to making bold moves in education. 

I think of Zac Chase's tongue in cheek post a few months back about turning off his phone on the plane. He writes about whether turning off your phone will or won't impact the flight:


But I don’t know.

And that’s the key.

I don’t understand the system. Aviation, engineering, electronics – all these are outside the areas of my expertise.

In this system, I have an amazing amount at stake. I am thoroughly invested and committed to its success.

Entire sub-systems and interactions are beyond my understanding. Thus, I keep my mouth shut. If I decided to study aeronautics, become familiar with everything involved in the process of moving a plane from one side of the country to another, then would I have a space to speak up.

When my life and the lives of others are on the line, it’s probably best not to disrupt a system I do not understand.

I see all the ways in which flying planes and running a for profit business is NOT like a public school. They don't have a public directly paying for all kids. And yet, like Zac I try and show some humility when it comes to many government decisions. I vote people I think we represent me well and wait 4 or 5 years to assess and determine if I think they should continue their work or not. We have many persons and public people very invested in education and very knowledgeable. However when it comes to envisioning something new and different it's more than just fear that holds them back, it's ignorance. I don't say that in a demeaning way. I say that in the same way I don't understand many systems and don't spend anytime envisioning and experimenting with new ideas. Add to that those that don't care.


So as the conversation and dreams of a new place of learning happens in staff rooms and even district offices, who should really be involved in that process? I'm well aware that in many cases, these conversations are not happening but I have been part of these in schools, in our district and even at the provincial level. In these discussions, the topic of stakeholders always comes up. Even suggesting students be part of the conversation. My caution is that depending on the students, they too aren't seeing and picturing many new ideas. I realize that it's our job to engage students and parents in conversations like this but at some point, someone needs to do something. Maybe without full consensus. 

Will we really be able to create something awesome by asking people what they want? I think the average parent, taxpayer, student and even the average teacher just wants a system that's better. Higher "student achievement" (i.e. test scores) and lower dropouts. If schools did this, most people would be happy. But I know I wouldn't necessarily want those things. We can do better, we have to do better. I'm looking to be part of creating something different and I don't think it can involve all stakeholders. 

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nimboo/105368831