Where do good ideas come from?

In a recent TED talk, it’s the question that Steven Johnson is asking. (Johnson is the author of Everything Bad is Good for You, The Ghost Map, Mind Wide Open and Emergence.) And it’s one we should be asking as well.

Schools often claim that they want to create “life long learners” and “problem solvers.” We want kids to develop idea creation skills but we often don’t create an environment where this can happen.

Many of us are pushing for and using the idea of Problem-Based Learning in our classrooms, asking good essential questions and providing authentic problems. But . . . Steven Johnson suggests that perhaps we need to do more. How do we set up the actual physical learning environment where we want kids to learn? Is that environment conducive for creating new ideas? I don’t think we do enough.

During his TED presentation, Johnson says that

good ideas do not happen when you’re alone in the lab or by yourself poring over data. Good ideas happen when people work together.

He asks his audience to think about what that looks like and mentions Google’s 20% rule (the rule that encourages Google employees tospend 20% of their developing new ideas). But Johnson spends a lot of time discussing the coffeehouse environment that sprung in North America and Europe during the 1700s & 1800s. This, he suggests, is where new ideas develop – in a place where people gather and discuss, argue and share information. Johnson calls this the “liquid network.” A book called The Invention of Air suggests the same thing.

Have we altered our physical classroom environments enough so that kids are encouraged to create new ideas? I don’t think so.

So . . . what does it look like? Some suggestions from Johnson and others:

  • Get people with hunches to talk to other people with hunches, i.e. have kids work in groups, both formal and informal, as much as possible
  • Encourage mistakes
  • Arrange the physical environment differently – use tables not desks, arrange your room so that kids can quickly get together for brainstorming sessions, have other forms of comfortable seating available
  • Spaces and tools for brainstorming, collecting and storing data – this could be whiteboards, blank bulletin boards, iPods or computers with Google Docs loaded
  • Put your desk in a corner out of the way – you won’t be there much during the day anyway
  • And in a perfect world (with perfect kids!), the K-12 equivalent of Johnson’s coffeehouse – snacks & drinks to encourage conversation

The last one may be difficult! But the idea remains the same . . . we need to rethink the physical spaces where our kids spend their time if we want to them to be creative.


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