Very excited about Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation: it offers great stimulation about the nature of contemporary innovation, and inspires us to think further about how our schools can be sites for innovation in our teaching and in our student learning.  (The book is released next week; I am quoting the reviewer’s advance copy)

Johnson’s book, I think, belongs right next to another recent favorite, Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, in its enthusiastic embrace of the value and power of the internet to unleash and unite creative and productive energies from around the world as forces for good, for reform, and for innovation.   Johnson argues persuasively that the web, (and Twitter particularly) is our new coral reef where diversity of life is phenomenally abundant, and is our large metropolitan cultural crossroads, where good ideas meet, merge, and reinvent themselves.

Johnson has been a great inspiration to me since his fine, (though underappreciated) Everything Bad is Good for You.   That book, alongside the work of Marc Prensky and some other reading I did in 2006,greatly influenced me, causing me to rethink and reverse course many of my thoughts about digital environments, computing and gaming, and learning.   (And also about TV, of which I am, perhaps surprisingly to some, a pretty big fan, partly due to Johnson’s influence).

Like all Johnson’s books, this one provides a compelling and richly anecdotal narrative, which brings you from story to story, and person to person, to a new appreciation of the nature and significance of the innovative experience.   Among all other things, it is just plain a fun and stimulating read– nothing sleepy about it.  I read it on a plane last week in a delightful three hours.

Johnson’s philosophy of the world, almost his ideology, is also inspiring and deeply resonant for me and my worldview: ideas want to be free, and, perhaps surprisingly to some, a huge proportion of the most important innovation is rooted in collaborative networks, not individual initiatives, and in non-market, non profit-seeking approaches, rather than capitalist motivations.

We are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them….Environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments.  Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine.  They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual boundaries.  They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete…. The natural state of ideas is flow and spillover and connection.  It is [only] society that keeps them in chains.

How does it inform education and innovative schooling?

I believe my largest learning project underway is to grow in my thinking and understanding of what makes for innovation in schools– both for our teaching, but even more, in how our students learn to be innovative.  This may well be a lifetime learning project.  From among Johnson’s list of seven “key patterns for genuine innovation” there are several from which we can draw good inferences and applications for more innovative schooling.

The Adjacent Possible: This is a lovely and charming chapter: innovation happens when it is ready, and neither before or after.   Often the same major idea or invention has happened nearly simultaneously in different parts of the world, which seems miraculous until you read this chapter and recognize the way in which invention occurs in a context that makes it timely.  “Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts.”   Things can’t happen before the world is ready for them, but when it is, things zoom.   That we as students couldn’t blog, or create and share video stories, or compete in robotics before a decade (or so) ago doesn’t mean these are newfangled ideas that are less worthy than the tradition; they weren’t done earlier because they weren’t possible.

At the same time, we can’t degrade ourselves for not already being a School of the Future– we aren’t ready to be yet– there are still too many limitations– it is not yet adjacent. But, the good news is, “each new innovation opens up new paths to explore.”   To get there, to get to the adjacent future, we need to put today’s best bit and pieces in place, and fiddle with them, and the next step will emerge, far more surely than if we are not experimenting with the current tools and techniques.

The trick is to figure out ways to explore the edges of possibility that surround you… Innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts– mechanical or conceptual– and they encourage novel ways of recombining those parts.   Environments that block or limit those new combinations– by punishing experimentation, or by obscuring certain branches of possibility, will, on average, generate and circulate fewer innovations than environments that encourage exploration.

I love this: by being experimental, and putting many different bits and pieces of new techniques and interesting concepts in play, we are making far more possible the important breakthroughs that will produce genuine innovation.  In schools, then, which seek to be genuine sites of innovation, there need to be new things in the mix each year, new experiments in teaching and learning, new tools for trial, and a willingness to keep pressing toward the adjacent possible.

Liquid Networks: Collaborative environments are more innovative. “A good idea is a network… to make your mind more innovative, you have to place it inside environments that share that same network signature– networks of ideas or people that mimic the neural networks of a mind… the most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans sitting around a table, talking shop.”   Our schools can be, sometimes, so atomizing and isolating: students can be discouraged from cooperating, teachers can idealize their autonomy to entirely unreasonable levels.   We have to break down the walls, insist of students they work together to solve problems, and provide and motivate teachers to talk to each other about practice every day.   I heard this about MIT the other night, from its Dean of Admissions: you rarely see an MIT student working on a problem set alone, because the problems they are assigned are too hard to solve alone– they can only be answered by working together.

Serendipity: Innovation occurs sometimes seemingly serendipitously: we go for a walk and pop– eureka.  Now this only happens when the all the pieces are in place, all the powder poured, but there is still a need for  a spark.   How do we induce this?  “We can cultivate serendipity in the way we absorb ideas from the outside world.  Reading remains an unsurpassed vehicle for the transmission of interesting new ideas and perspectives.”   Johnson offers the example of some, like Gates, who take “reading vacations,” where they bring a dozen or more widely and wildly varying titles and do a deep dive into this cross of ideas.  Our schools should never be places without a lot of reading!  We should ask kids not only to read deeply and lengthily, we should ask them to read from as wide a gamut as possible.

Here though, as much as Johnson endorses and promotes good old fashioned book reading (an endorsement I endorse!),  he also embraces the power of the web as a serendipity tool beyond all others.  “No medium in history has ever offered such unlikely trails of connections and chance in such an intuitive and accessible form.”  Johnson’s discussion of the power of the web is lengthy, and I have to fight to resist quoting it in its entirety.

An online newspaper, compared to a dead-tree one, for instance, “is more than ten times as serendipitous.”  “The information diversity of the web ensures that there is an endless supply of surprising information to stumble across.”  Best of all, when there is a topic you (or your students) are interested in, there is no (or nearly no) limit to how far they can go on the web to explore it.

Our schools can promote this serendipity by fostering a love of reading, and also by being on-line.   Every class can and should offer moments for students to go on-line and dig deeper, pursue an interest, find out more about the topic at hand.   Schools must exist simultaneously on ground, with interpersonal conversation and collaboration, and in the cloud, connecting to the wide world of knowledge.

Error.   Educators know that students learn far more from mistakes than they do from correct answers; strange as it may seem, our schools must be error-prone places where our teachers and students can make mistakes every single day.  “Error is not simply a phase you have to suffer through on the way to genius.  Error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions… Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.”

“Leaving some room for generative error is important.  Innovative environments thrive on useful mistakes, and suffer when the demands of quality control overwhelm them.”

What mistakes did you make today?  How many?  These should be, (can they be?) questions we ask ourselves, our students, our teachers every day.   Administrators and teachers who are too persnickety about “quality control,” who make waves about typos or who need to manage environments tightly will dampen innovative culture.   Messiness is mindfulness.   Materials should be out and about, available to be picked up and messed with at any moment.  Teachers and students should get far more praise for experimentation than conformity; a major fear in thinking about merit pay and pay for performance is that in education these approaches may promote the safer strategy.  If I am a teacher who is being rewarded for my students selecting the one right answer on a multiple choice test, again and again, am I going to teach them to question every question, to think about it in different ways, and to delight in their mistakes, or am I going to teach them to memorize the right answer?

Exaptation Things developed for one thing often then become innovations for something else.    The section here most pertinent for educators, I think, is one advocating “multi-tasking.”  We all will be more innovative if we diversify our interests and activities, and take them on in close succession (though not literally simultaneously.)

Legendary innovators like Franklin, Snow, and Darwin all possess some common intellectual qualities– a certain quickness of mind, unbounded curiosity– but they also share one other defining attribute.  They have lots of hobbies.

It is not so much a question of thinking outside the box, as it is allowing the mind to move through multiple boxes.   That movement from box to box forces the mind to approach intellectual road blocks from new angles, or to borrow tools from one discipline to solve problems in another.

This must be part of what we promote in our schools.   Do teachers teach the same class, same subject, same units, same books, year after year?   This will dampen their innovation; it deserves attention and if possible reform.   Students never do– indeed I worry that some of them have far too fragmented an intellectual experience, moving through 7 or 8 periods a day in short and swift succession.  But even as I urge a block schedule of 4 or fewer a day, I do think we can best facilitate student innovation mindsets by encouraging, fostering, and providing many opportunities.   Students can and should do sports and drama and maybe music and a club and go hiking or bicycling and do robotics or chess and community service in Kenya.   Our students at St. Gregory often do.

There is much more in this wonderful book: I am especially delighted by Johnson’s enthusiasm for Twitter as an innovative network and platform.  I too think that Twitter is one of the finest new networks we have for sharing, inspiring, collaborating, and learning.

Johnson is not writing directly to or for educators; I am making extrapolations and inferences, and I realize some of the remain a bit too generic.   But nonetheless, I think there are lessons here for us– especially those of us committed to advancing schooling which is innovative for our student learning and facilitating of student innovation.   We should put out the materials and usher in the new for moving to the next; we should cultivate classrooms of trial and error, of messing about, of collaboration, or passion pursuit;  our students should read deeply and widely in books and they should be online regularly in further exploration of their interests and in discovery of what they never new interested them; they should have and we should honor that they have many hobbies and activities as part of a rich panoply of experiences.