Nerd talk: Where ideas collide and connect

Caricature of Charles Darwin from Vanity Fair ...

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Steven Johnson gave a fascinating TED Talk called “Where good ideas come from.” The talk, just over fifteen minutes, analyzes the best ideas from people like Charles Darwin and asks the question, “What are the spaces that have historically led to unusual rates of creativity and innovation?” His answer: Liquid environments.

Liquid environments are spaces where people can congregate and waste time over idle chat. The example he gives is the London coffee shop that, he proposes, helped make possible the Enlightenment. Leaders who want innovations should, based on his theory, create these places where ideas can collide and connect. He concludes his talk with a great line:  “Chance favors the connected mind.”

Some of us in school have a term for this.  Nerd talks:  discussions of “What’s going on?” and “What if…?” outside of official meetings–e..g, in the canteen, along the corridor, over drinks.

Johnson also talks about a second hypothesis, which bolsters the first:  the “slow hunch.” That is, good ideas need an extended incubation period. You have to mull over ideas–again and again.  Think Darwin’s big idea of the evolution, and forget that “Eureka” moment or the “A-ha” experience. The best ideas require some percolation–like a great cup of coffee.  You’ve got to smell the coffee and share a cup!

Innovations, experimentation, make-overs–these have been important words recently in our work in education.  With all the rapid changes in technology, we simply have to change how we teach and how we run schools.  For the former, curriculum and pedagogy are frequently used terms that easily come to mind, but it took me a while to find the right term for the latter:  “School-keeping.”  The past ten years we’ve not only wracked our brains to cough up ideas for innovations in curriculum/pedagogy and school-keeping, but, I realize now, we’ve also discussed these ideas to death.

And I must concede:  Johnson is right.  The best and the most innovative ideas that have emerged the past years took years of repeated conversations, where wild ideas cropped up initially as what if’s and usually too radical and controversial, are shelved away, only to be recalled months or even years later–in official meetings as well as conversations over drinks–until they evolved and were  shaped into feasible innovations.

Moral lesson:  Innovation does come out of the slow hunch and requires patience.  So, don’t be trigger-happy about shooting down new ideas (other people’s and your own), and grant people permission to talk even before they think they have figured out a great idea.

Let’s have more nerd talks!

Here’s Steven Johnson’s talk–illustrated:


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