Engineering Serendipity

textbook
This was a textbook from elementary school. From an early age, I was fascinated with the idea of serendipity.

I get bored easily. I’ve known this about myself since college. I crave new experiences, new insights. I like to be somewhat surprised. I’ve found many ways to inspire myself. I’ve engineered experiences so they feel fresh, so that I might find something new in everything I do. For example, I do like to cook, but I don’t like deciding what to cook, so I picked a cookbook, generated a few random numbers and cooked whatever was on the page associated with the numbers.  Surprise meal!

Back before the web, when I was in a creative writing program, I was often looking for things to write about that took me out of my usual realm–my head, generally. I would go to the library and look up a book of interest, but then I would peruse the shelves around me and pull random books and use those as source material. Or I would thumb through a science magazine and write about an article there. Or go to the art museum and pick a painting or sculpture for inspiration. I used these techniques on my students as well. And there are, of course, many a book out there that gives you scenarios or first lines to inspire your thinking.

I may not write poetry anymore, but I find I still need inspiration. I need to hear and see things that make me think differently, that help me connect dots together in my head that have been floating around by themselves for a while.  It is somewhat about keeping up with information and research in my field (whether computer science or general education), but it’s more about pushing my own thinking in new directions. I’m lucky to be surrounded by colleagues that make me think, and so some inspiration for me is often to walk down the hall and talk to whomever I bump into. I also visit classes and those, too, inspire me to teach differently.

I still keep an RSS feed reader and I try to keep the feeds varied. When I feel like I’m hearing the same ideas from all my sources, I go looking for new ones. I try to follow people on Twitter and Facebook from different fields in different locations.  It’s the diversity of those places that I find most inspiring.

Conferences are key places where ideas flow freely, not just from the presentations, but also from conversations in the hallway.  At EduCon last weekend, one of my most inspiring conversations happened over lunch, where many an idea got tossed around and we meandered from talking about Education to business to politics.

I honestly don’t know exactly what to do with people who don’t seek this kind of inspiration out, who go into reading just to glean information, not inspire new thinking. Who go to a conference to check off that yes, they’ve been to a conference on X topic.

I try to inspire this kind of serendipitous experience in my students. Our reading and our conversations are not about taking in information so that they can spit it out. It’s meant to make them think differently, to go out and act differently. And that’s what I look for in other classrooms I’m in, whether it’s math or science or English. Students coming out of those rooms should have had their thinking pushed. They should be thinking differently about at least one thing, however small.  That, to me, is real learning.

 

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