Monday, October 22, 2012

New Reading Plan--Courting Serendipity

Last February I posted “On Reading,” in which I reflected on my love of reading and how it fuels me. I was prompted to write it because I took a respite from my usual reading regime and read a book strictly because I wanted to. Currently, almost everything I read is somehow tied to work. In some ways that is okay. I am fortunate to be a person whose natural interests and passions align almost perfectly with my career. There is, however, a problem: my mind thus seldom takes a break.  While the reading re-energizes, it also can deplete me over time.  I also feel the need to keep up with many, many different sources of information to help move my school forward. The question becomes, as my former board president used to encourage me, “How do I meter myself?”
To do that I’m going to try a new reading regimen. I call it “One and One.” I am going to alternate my reading choices, at least when it comes to books. (Blogs and articles will remain as they are now.) First I will read one that I feel is a must-dofor school. Then I will read a title that I simply want to read. For example, two days ago I completed Steven Johnson’s incredible Future Perfect, which I believe has enormous implications for the increasingly connected lives that our students will be leading. Last week I began Dave Eggers’ stirring Zeitoun about a Syrian immigrant in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. My daughter and wife both urged me to read it because of all my Louisiana connections, but I had left it far down the list. “Someday, when I have time,” I figured. I’m loving it.
I’ve been pondering this new plan for a while, and I feel good about it. Still, the tension exists between professional obligation and personal maintenance/fulfillment. A degree of guilt also lingers, I suppose.  I became convinced to implement it upon reading a post on the Fast Company blog titled  “How to Hack an ‘A-Ha!’ Moment.”  Consider the following long excerpt:
Because we can't beat the brain's hardwiring, we've got to train it by routinely introducing new information, people, settings, sensations, and experiences in order to expand our databank of memories. In this way, we create more flexible and varied mental models that our brains can use to fill in the blanks of the future. With a richer store of memories, we are able to imagine a vast range of possibilities, appreciate the web of factors affecting a given issue, and make more of the associative links that prompt consideration of different scenarios. This is your best defense against--and preparation for--unforeseen events and opportunities that will likely impact your business.
Whether you're looking for the next big idea or a fresh perspective, solving an innovation challenge, or hunting for an emerging technology, market, or business model to invest in, it is absolutely essential that you begin by immersing yourself in new material. New research, new disciplines, new sources, new experiences, new inputs, new approaches. It's this simple: To have an authentically new idea, you must begin with new inputs. If you don't, you can--truly--do no better than produce another version of what you already know.
The big payoff is what happens when new information collides with established memories. As your brain tries to make sense of the incoming data, it looks around for what's familiar, linking the new to the old. And suddenly your perspective changes: That's the moment of "Aha! I've never seen it that way before!" Indeed you haven't. Without the new input and the new synaptic connections it stimulates, there's no physical way that you could have seen it that way before.
Suddenly I had not only permission to enact my new plan, but a legitimate rationale. While so much of the reading I was doing certainly extended my thinking, it was not necessarily providing the sort of collision described above. Theoretically, as I cast a wider net, that new input will increase the chances of really unique and thus more powerful moments of serendipity occurring. For example, reading Zeitoun, I am having some new insights regarding leadership, or at least a new way of helping to explain it. This notion has me thinking even more about how the Baran Web referenced in Future Perfect works not just as a social network but as a form of enlarged understanding. Aha moment, indeed!           
             All this, of course, led me to think about curriculum and learning and objectives. In the above passage, think of how the memories work: they function like a complex framework into which we fit new learning of any sort. In a sense, then, our objective should be to create a Baran Web as tightly woven with as many nodes as possible. This increases the chance of connectivity and relevance in the learning process. Thus, the goals of a program should focus on larger understandings and the abilities necessary to both extend and deepen them. It's highly personal.
           This cannot happen willy-nilly, based strictly on student interests. Were that the case, some of our current eighth graders might study nothing other than baseball. Consider a recent example in which a father argued his high school son should not have to study chemistry because he has no interest in the subject. I won't argue that everyone needs to take chemistry; in fact, I've advocated for an integrated science approach as best for some students. However, I contend very strongly that all students should develop a strong grasp of basic scientific principles, some of them right from chemistry.
            If we accept that premise, then we need to rethink the traditional practice of organizing curricula by content and even the departmental structure. Compared to how learning really works for all but academic specialists, both these are artifices, based more on convenience than any actuality. They are, however, so firmly entrenched culturally that we have difficulty conceiving of it working any other way. So, to apply the notion from the long excerpt, we must continue to introduce and consider loads of new input. Perhaps then we will have the crucial "Aha!" moment.
            Certainly I hope my new “One and One” reading plan leads to several such epiphanies. So I would appreciate any and all suggestions drawn from the hither and yon of your learning.

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