Thinking Things Through

At some point during the past year or so, I read a suggestion that really stuck with me.  Was it in something by Seth Godin?  Or in one of the Venture Lab MOOCs I participated in?  I’m not sure exactly where or when I saw it, but it’s been powerful and helpful for me.

If you want to come up with good ideas, Someone said, start by coming up with bad ones.  As you revel in the badness and implausibility and impossibility of the bad ideas, your mind will quietly start recombining and regenerating them, and before you know it, a good idea will appear.

It’s so different from the one right answer, right there in the back of the book approach that factory-model thinking embraces!  But over and over again, ever since I learned the method, I’ve seen its power.  Not just with myself, but with friends who need advice.

The one important thing I’ve had to learn is that you have to tell them what you’re doing!

I had a call from a friend on Saturday who had a time-sensitive, last-minute Thing come up – and this is a friend who hates time-sensitive, last-minute Things.  “Before I make any suggestions,” I told her, “let me explain what I’m going to do.  I’m going to start out with some really terrible ideas, and I know they’re terrible, but I don’t care.  After we generate enough terrible ideas, there will probably be a good idea or two.”  And in fact, we ended up solving two separate problems that way – and thankfully without the arguments that sometimes ensue when I help this particular friend with Things.

What made the difference?  I realize I’ve been following the terrible ideas process for a while, but I’d never actually explained it.  So my friend, faced with stress and deadlines and annoyances, heard my ridiculously terrible suggestions and, understandably, got mad.  Now that everyone understands the process, there’s no space for anger or miscommunication, and we can devote our limited time and energy to solving problems (and to generating bad ideas) instead.

There are some obvious lessons for all kinds of teachers and learners in that story!  For those of us who work in factory-model schools, the importance of clear communication might be most obvious. “Do this,” we say to our students, “and now do this, and this, and this.”  But if the student doesn’t understand the purpose or the goals of the activity, just following the process might not yield the desired results.  “Get the right answer,” Ms. X tells her classes, so her students find it on the Internet or on each other’s papers – and then the yelling and labeling starts, because they “obviously should have known” that she meant for them to find it “on your own.”  A participant in the current session of the online professional development course described two students who would “take forever” because they want to “do everything, and do it perfectly” – and they don’t realize that, on this particular assignment, the goal was to see how many you could do in a given period of time, or to see if you could achieve a particular percentage of accuracy in practice.

For builders and sustainers of joyful learning communities, clear communication is important, but there are other vital lessons from the story of the bad ideas.  Freed from the tyranny of covering it Just Because, we can embrace the important understanding that false starts and unsuccessful attempts are a vital part of learning.  My Latin I students will be practicing making plural noun forms today, using their new Noun Forms Consolidation Sheets and an old favorite Latin Family game called āleā iactā.  The procedures are complex – B and U and their classmates dislike the game for obvious reasons, so I’ve been avoiding it with the upper-level class – and a key to success is to understand that making just a few is perfectly fine, and that an error or two should be expected.  The game has always worked well when I was clear about quantity and quality, and it’s always been a disaster when I was unclear.  Faced with a list of 20 or 25 items, students just assume – especially if they’ve survived classes with a Ms. X or Mr. Y or two – that you’re “supposed to” do all of them, and do all of them perfectly, or yelling and labeling will surely follow.  Knowing that you can’t do all, and that it won’t be perfect, why bother?  Why not just skip straight to the yelling and labeling and get it over with?

That may seem like a terrible idea, but the more I think about it, the more I see how effective it’s been.  It really does save time, stress, and effort in the long run … as long as you’re pretty sure there will be yelling and labeling eventually in any case.  And sadly, in a factory-school world, that’s usually a pretty safe assumption.

Building a joyful learning community is hard work, not least because it’s so different from the work that factory-structures assume.  A good little teacher is “supposed to” spend hours and hours on school work, just as a good little student is “supposed to” wade through page after page, worksheet after worksheet, problem after problem of low-level recall and algorithm practice.  When you start to move away from that approach, you can expect to have some terrible ideas … and you can expect to have some fairly good ideas criticized and labeled as terrible by colleagues, students, or Powers That Be who don’t quite understand what you’re doing or why.  Clarity is important then, and so is patience, and sometimes you have to realize that your seemingly excellent idea really was pretty terrible.  But false starts and unsuccessful attempts are important!  Embrace them, be clear about them, learn from them, and then move on to the next right thing.

I wonder what new insights await us all today!

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Published in: on October 21, 2013 at 10:36 am  Leave a Comment  

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