Lehrer’s Imagine: Three Takeaways for Teaching & Learning

Imagine Book CoverAfter hearing about Jonah Lehrer’s latest, Imagine: How Creativity Works, on one of the upteen gazillion NPR/PRI/PRX/STP/PDQ podcasts I crank through my iPod weekly, I hounded my local library — the magnificent Jay-Niles Memorial Library — until they had it on the shelf.  (To be honest, this hounding only took about a day and half.  It was already being processed.  Like I said, magnificent.)

I brought it home, read twelve pages, and then 4th Quarter happened.  I’ll spare you, dear reader, the unsundry details, but 4th Quarter, always a challenge in any school, amplifies in direct proportion to the number of seniors on your class load and the degree to which your school is undergoing a massive renovation project.  Thus, it wasn’t until the week of July 4th that I was able to return to Imagine, having racked up a good two-and-a-half months in late fees and grown accustomed to its rainbow-fonted spine looking back at me from the dining room book closet.

Mr. Lehrer, thank you, sir, for giving me something to do with the next one to three years of my professional life.   Imagine isn’t a manual or a pedagogical text.  It doesn’t lay out a blueprint or propose a definite course of action.  But wow, does it ever possess the capacity to inspire.

Here are just three takeaways that will be fueling the work in my classroom this year as well the suggestions I make to our school leadership as our high school and vocational tech centers continue the process of merging into an uber-learning mega-opolis.

One: Maximize the Q Potential in Your Classroom and Beyond

Lehrer devotes a significant portion of the book digging into what social scientists Brian Uzzi and Jarrett Spiro call ‘Q.’ At the risk of oversimplification — great blog and/or album title, “Risk of Oversimplification” — Q is about achieving the optimal blend of talent and familiarity in a creative workspace for the highest possible quality.  The two used Broadway as the backdrop for their work.  I think we should be looking at our schools and thinking the same thing.

What would happen if schools featured Q-rated teaching teams, defined not by content quotas (“Larry, we need a science teacher for this one.”  “Waddaya ya want me to do about that? I still gots to find two English teachers for those eh, whaddyacall em.. sophomore teams.”) but by chemistry and experience.  How might students benefit if one ninth grade team was made up of English, computer science, art and Spanish teachers, while another was made up of Earth science, physical education, English, and math teachers?

What if those teachers weren’t responsible for teaching their “team” students particular content but rather study and life skills, critical thinking and problem solving?

And what if those classes were made up of a Q-rated collection of students, representing a designed blend of students from diverse yet familiar backgrounds, experience, and knowledge?  (Is that coming close to bringing back homogenous groupings in a more heterogenous-biased world or is it creating effective design for learning?)

Yes. A lot of questions.  And important ones to consider, I think.

Two: Enable “Urban Friction”

Lehrer also digs into why cities seem to breed so many more innovations than rural areas.  Conventional wisdom might say, “Because there are more people and more money in the cities, duh.”  (I’d then criticize Conventional Wisdom for responding with a fragment, but that’s a matter for another day.)  And that may be true and related and isn’t the complete story.  It’s the same principle that Steven Johnson explored in depth with Where Good Ideas Come From: get a lot of people with a lot of ideas in close proximity to one another and interesting, powerful, important things will happen.

Schools have so much to learn from this.  Less compartmentalizing.  More space and opportunity for student ideas to collide.  Right now, secondary school students have lunch.  Elementary school students get the benefit of lunch and maybe two recesses.  How can we shift our schedules around to create more opportunities for students to interact in meaningful ways?  It’s a challenge, particularly for older students, as we tend to equate unstructured time with wasted time, or worse yet, unsupervised time. (Shudder.)  Yet, we know that’s when amazing things happen.

How do we maintain the accountability for productivity so valued by the status quo while opening up the school structure to optimal thinking environments? One potential answer: open talk, free ranging study halls where students use available technology to record their conversations and simply turn in a copy of those conversations along with a summary report at the end of the session.  Perhaps?

Three: Concept Blend Like Mad

Lehrer emphasizes the influence of cross-pollination on creativity throughout Imagine.  Business leaders learning from scientists, scientists learning from artists, artists learning from mathematicians.  It’s not too dissimilar from urban friction and slow hunches.

This doesn’t mean our science courses need to be taught by our social studies teachers.  However, it does suggesting learning in cross-curricular environments could yield huge benefits.  It also suggests that developing more effective schools requires everyone providing input and offering their talents and knowledge bases toward other impact areas.  What could the custodians tell administrators about behavior policies and how could cafeteria workers inform the math curriculum?  More than we might think — if only our schools had such opportunities for those sorts of discussions in place.  Odd that schools intend to create highly successful, adaptable individuals, yet we compartmentalize like it’s our job. (Wait . . it IS our job.)

Hybrid thinking, my friends.

About Dan Ryder

Dan Ryder & Jeff Bailey, co-founders of Wicked Decent Learning, a blog, podcast, Twitter feed and who-knows-what-all-else devoted to teaching and learning in Vacationland and beyond. Teachers, dads, actors, writers, geeks, buds.

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