Idea Sex

Illustration by Mat Moore, Muskegon MI, 2010

I’ve just re-read the first few chapters of Steven Johnson’s “Where good ideas come from: The Natural History of Innovation” (you can watch the TED Talk or watch the RSA Animates video, but I highly recommend the slow read through the actual book) on the plane ride to Doha, and all week it’s been fascinating to watch the liquid network of minds at this event.  Johnson defines this concept of a liquid network as “bringing together a diversely-focused group of creative people.” Normally, I have quite a few ideas on any given week, but in this network, the idea generation has been fast & furious (even for me!).

Johnson also says that “good ideas come from the collision of smaller hunches” and here at the TEDxSummit, with 650 participants from 90+ countries, my smaller hunches are colliding with a whole new set of smaller hunches, and in particular, a whole new set of problem spaces.

The conversations and critical thinking at this event is much like playing video game in my brain (imagine the Angry Birds of idea formation).  With every conversation with a participant, a new “level” (problem space) presents itself.  I throw a collection of well-designed missiles (ideas) at it.  Sometimes it’s a direct and perfect hit.  Sometimes it’s not quite right, the problem space shows me the flaws, and I go for another throw.  Finding the solutions to problems is a lot like playing a video game.  The constraints of a new system actually birth more creative solutions.

One of the TEDx organizers, Eiso Vaandrager, used the phrase “idea sex” to answer the question, “What is TEDx?” and I think that’s about right.  And while the brainchildren of idea sex are brilliant and exciting, it’s important to remember and give credit to the parents of these ideas as well, and remember the stories of where and how those fires were sparked.

An idea is something powerful, and while an idea cannot be copyrighted or patented (only the form of an idea can be patented), it should be credited.  Without this, the TEDx community (and the other liquid networks you are a part of) will grow wary of sharing openly, and that would be a shame.  As we all go home and share the wonderful things we’ve learned, try to remember to give credit where credit is due.  The intoxicating new ideas we now carry were not generated in situ.

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TEDxMuskegon: A Recipe for Free Range Learning

I just realized I never posted the Recipe for Free Range Learning video from TEDxMuskegon.  You can watch the video or you can read a rough transcript of the talk, posted below.

Here’s the text this talk was based on …

“Free range learning” describes the learning that takes place outside of the formal boundaries of education. I’ve been asked if the existence of “free range learning” implies that there is also some sort of “caged learning” as well. Well, the current U.S. education system was developed in the industrial era using the principles of a “factory model.” So, in a sense, you could call formal education a sort of “caged” system of learning, but [Read more...]

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Failure is a NORMAL Part of Learning

“Dr. Tae is a skateboarder, videographer, scientist, and teacher. Contrasting his observations of his own learning while skateboarding with the reality that is the current education system, Dr. Tae provides some insight as to how we might better educate in the future.” (from the YouTube description of this great TEDxEastsidePrep video called “Can Skateboarding Save Our Schools?“)

Some observations.  As Dr. Tae says, “Failure is Normal.” Period. You might try to solve a proof or a mathematics problems many times before you succeed at doing it correctly.  You will only learn the correct process by making mistakes.  I’d venture that more is learned from making the mistakes than by doing the problem correctly.  Every mistake branch tells you valuable information – this is something that didn’t work.  Huh.

This week I told my Calculus students that “division by zero” no longer means the problem can’t be done.  It just means “try another way.”  This is an incredibly hard lesson to learn.  Many learners are too quick to just give up when they encounter something that doesn’t work.

“Nobody knows ahead of time how long it takes anyone to learn anything.” – Dr. Tae

I agree. And yet, here we have the so-called modern education system, where 1 credit hour equals 15 weeks of one hour in class time and 2 hours of out-of-class time.  We predict, several times a year, that it will take 3 credits or 4 credits for every student to learn the topics that are covered in a course.  On top of that, we are starting to be held accountable if students aren’t successful enough.  If we don’t know ahead of time how long it takes any student to learn a body of knowledge, then why do we keep pretending we do?

Some time last year, I wrote down this quote in my Moleskein notebook, and I’ve been running back across it ever since:

“Grades are simply a measure of the speed at which a student learns.”  - Unknown source

If a learner manages to become competent at an average level during the period of learning (semester or quarter), they get a C.  If they manage to become expert, then they get an A.   I think there’s an argument to be made that learning math should be more about mastery, like skateboarding.  Either you “land the trick” (problem, concept, proof) or you don’t.  Any assigned grade in between just leads to problems down the road.  For example, “average” understanding of algebra and trigonometry leads to a pretty poor understanding of Calculus.

Another point from the video, “Learning is not fun.”  I would revise that slightly. The process of learning is not fun.  The process of learning is work.  The moment when you finally master a technique or synthesize an idea is fun, and it continues to be fun up until the point where it just becomes boring.

[Thanks to David Wiggins for pointing me to this great video.]

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Where does learning happen?

There’s a great new TED Talk out today by Jason Fried (TEDxMidwest) called Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work.  It’s a very insightful talk and it certainly applies to Academe, so watch it first and then read my thoughts below.

Here are a few questions that this stirred up in my mind, please share your thoughts …

1. If work doesn’t happen at work, does learning happen at school (in classrooms)?

2. If interruptions are the problem, does learning happen at home? (between family, friends, TV, video games, and the Internet, home is full of distractions)

3. What is the ideal time and space for learning?  Does your answer depend on your age?  On your generation?

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How do WE learn?

As adults, we learn in many different ways.  If you’re a teacher or an instructor, how many of these ways do you use with your students?
  • Practicing / Repeating
  • Reading
  • Internet
  • Discussing
  • Experiencing
  • Thinking / Reflecting
  • Experimenting / Playing
  • Academic
  • Creating
  • Hearing or seeing

This was one small piece of a keynote that I did in Scottsdale, AZ called Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age

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