Unshared Ideas

I’ve really been enjoying reading Walter Isaacson’s recent book, The Innovators. It’s a history of the computer and the Internet that also explores what made the groups and individuals such visionary leaders and entrepreneurs when their respective innovations took off.

Reading through an early section recently, I felt like the story of John Vincent Atanasoff’s experience with innovation really connected to where I’m at right now. Here’s part of it.

In 1937, Atanasoff was driving along a country road when the idea came to him for an electronic computing device. He quickly began to work toward construction of his version of an early computer and made considerable progress. Impressively, while working largely in isolation at Iowa State University, he managed to develop a computing machine that was, at least in some respects, on par with the work that teams of engineers and mathematicians were developing collaboratively at Bell Labs. As you might expect, in the long run, collaboration won the day and the computing device being crafted at Bell Labs worked better, faster.

But that’s not what caught my eye.

Isaacson says that progress on Atanasoff’s project came to a near stand still when a programming issue came up and “there were no teams of machinists and engineers at Iowa State he could turn to for help” (60). That was astonishnig to me. He was on the verge of finishing up one of the first computing devices ever created and his work came to a stand still because he didn’t have a team with whom he could solve the problem.

As a result, “the almost working machine,” an idea that was just as viable as the one being researched at Bell Labs, ended up being “put into storage in the basement of the physics building at Iowa State, and a few years later no one seemed to remember what it did” (61).

Maybe you’re saying to yourself, “How much would anyone (much less academics) forget such an important invention?”

Here’s how much: In 1948, not even 10 years after it was in working order, a grad student disassembled Atanasoff’s nearly complete computer to be able to use the space it occupied. He didn’t recognize what the computer was even for.

Enlightened trial and error succeeds (1)

All of this started me thinking about how I react when I have the start of a great idea that’s not totally there yet. Too often I choose to sit on the idea instead of sharing it.

“Don’t share that now,” I’ll tell myself. “It’s too confusing right now. And what about problem X that you haven’t solved yet? And who exactly has extra time to be working on this anyway?”

I know that I err on the side of wanting to look like I have it together when I share my ideas, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. Reading through Atanasoff’s story, though, I worry that I have developed a habit of tucking good ideas away because I either didn’t want to ask for help or didn’t know who to ask.

All of this is happening in the midst of the easiest time ever for educators to be connected to one another.

I love that we don’t have to be in the same places today to “visit the lab” where the experts are, and I love that the increased communication has flattened much of the hierarchy that could have existed there in the past.

There’s almost no reason that Atanasoff’s issue should come up again, right? We (connected educators) are a powerful enough voice that people who are looking for help shouldn’t find themselves on the outside looking in. However, I’ll be the first to admit that this doesn’t just happen naturally. It takes a little initiative.

Here’s my encouragement and my challenge: Wherever you are as an educator, you need to be learning from others and sharing with others. Even those ideas that aren’t “presentation ready” yet, even the one you’re almost sure can’t work. Share them. You never know who you will inspire or who might see a creative solution to your linchpin roadblock.

Isaacson concludes his chapter on the invention of the earliest computers by saying:

Innovation is usually a group effort, involving collaboration between visionaries and engineers, and […] creativity comes from drawing on many sources. Only in storybooks do inventions come like a thunderbolt, or a lightbulb popping out of the head of a lone individual in a basement or garage.

I couldn’t agree more.

If you can’t figure everything out on your own, you’re not inept; you’re normal.

If you think your ideas aren’t ready to be shared yet, you’re probably right. Go ahead and share them; that’s how they’ll get better.

If you’re a well connected educator, be willing to listen to a myriad of trusted and new voices.

Sitting on our ideas risks delaying innovation that could profoundly impact our students’ learning experiences. Admittedly, every idea won’t be as influential as developing the next computer (and they don’t need to be).

The real risk is in leaving ideas sitting covered up, collecting dust.

Only in storybooks do inventions come

I Feel Like a Fake

Confession time–I feel like a fake.

Earlier this week I decided to take on a new challenge: sketchnoting. I saw a tweet that pointed me to some resources and provided a few manageable first steps.

That afternoon, I found a copy of Mike Rohde’s The Sketchnote Workbook in town and bought a stylus to help me out (because, let’s be honest, I need all the help and confidence I can get). I got to work, and to make a long story short, here’s what I was able to put together by the end of the night:

IMG_0440Since I was pretty proud of how much I had accomplished, I shared my work with the world.

That looks great, right? I’m no artist, and that looks like I’m at least competent (if you disagree, you’re probably right… but no need to crush my dreams here). It looks great to see that eight hours after first considering the idea I’m taking care of business with a halfway decent sketchnote that’s ready to be shared on Twitter, right? But there’s a problem with this.

The problem is that if you look at where I actually started, it looks something more like this:

The actual first attempt–practicing writing my letters (and not doing a great job)

I wasn’t about to share that. That’s what I work on with my 3 year old; it’s not what I need help with.

Except that it is.

It’s exactly where I needed to start. I needed the basics, and I  needed the eraser end of that stylus more than anything.

It didn’t take long for me to realize (1) that it was good for me to be working on something I enjoyed that stretched me and (2) that I needed to be more honest about my weaknesses and limitations

There’s no place for shame in learning. (tweet this)

There’s a lot of talk about the value of risk in education right now. It’s hard to spend much time reading online without coming across something–a new study, a new TED talk, a new insight in a tweet–that doesn’t touch on the value of trying something new.

But my experience hiding my first steps that I wasn’t proud of made me begin to wonder this:

At what point does an educator’s talk about risk become a safe place for him to hide? (tweet this)

We like safety, but I think we’ve done a good job of bringing the value of risk into our conversations. Still, I think we have room to grow in living out the implications of those conversations.

The frustrating thing to me is that I’ve been sitting on this “there’s value in risk/you can learn through failure” idea for far too long.

In the classroom, J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Address on the importance of imagination and the benefits of failure served as a point of departure for this conversation with students. Before I had every heard of Carol Dweck, I knew these ideas were important for people to consider. I don’t share that to say that I’ve been talking about this forever and it’s old hat for me. I share it to say that I’ve had this idea right in front of me since 2009, and I’ve done less with it than I should have.

Today is the last day of my contract for 2014-2015. We’re taking off on a little vacation for the better part of next week, but after we return, I am trying to set goals for professional growth that are fun and challenging. One of those is to get sketchnoting developed into a useful skill, but the bigger goal is to do what we so often ask teachers and students: try something new and learn through your failures.

I encourage you to do the same.

Books Worth Reading: Creativity and Innovation

BooksWorthReadingIt’s the last week of school in my district, and my to be read pile is calling my name. In case you don’t have your summer reading list finalized, I thought I would share the titles I’ve learned a great deal from recently. Each day this week, I’ll share a five books that I think are worth a look.

Today’s post focuses on five titles that could fan the flames of creativity and innovation on your campus and for you as a professional!

inquiryA.J. Juliani’s Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom is a great place to start the conversation about making changes for the better for students. If you’re looking for fresh ideas on 20% time, genius hour, and PBL, this is for you. It also serves as a great intro to each idea if you’re looking for a primer on any of the topics.

20timeIf you find that 20% time or genius hour is something you’d like to learn more about, Kevin Brookhouser’s The 20time Project is worth investigating. Brookhouser explores why (because “we need wicked problem-solvers”) in the first half of his book before concluding with how to pull that off both in the classroom and across a campus.

creative confidenceCreative Confidence by Tom and David Kelley challenges readers to reimagine their previous conception of creativity. If you think you might be a creative person, but you’re not creative in the conventional sense of the word, this book will help you see where you (and others) truly are creative.

learning by choiceA.J. Juliani’s most recent publication, Learning by Choice, is required reading for anyone looking to include more student choice in the classroom. (And, let’s be honest, who couldn’t benefit from hearing more about choice in the classroom, right?) This has heavily influenced my beliefs about choice in professional development as well. I wish I had read it while in the classroom. Highly recommended!

creative schoolsFinally, Ken Robinson’s recent book, Creative Schools, offers readers an overview of creativity in schools with Robinson’s trademark wisdom and wit. His text is both readable and challenging, encouraging and motivational. It’s an easy read with big ideas for the reader to consider.

Tomorrow’s post will feature five books that deal with school culture. Hope you enjoy some time reading this summer!

Your classroom is not a cooking show

There’s something really powerful about demystifying learning in front of students. If we’re serious about the power of ideas like grit and growth mindset, this demystification process is a prerequisite for increased student success. But how do we do that?

Planning is an incredibly important part of teaching, but in hindsight, I think I often spent too much time planning in the wrong direction. As a teacher, especially as a young teacher, I thought I was successful if I could make my students think that I knew the answer to every question imaginable and that it was easy for me (undoubtedly baggage from growing up thinking that I was smart, not that I worked hard to be smart). As a teacher, I spent a lot of time in the name of “preparing” that was really me investing in protecting myself and finding my identity in places I shouldn’t have been looking for it.

Whether you take this as far as I did or not, I think many educators value this idea of having everything together so much that it may be hurting our chances with students.

We all know that learning is messy. If we’re failing to show our students this part of the learning process, we’re failing them.

Maybe teachers are scared off by this because of the vulnerability required. That could definitely be the case. I think what deters more teachers might be this fear of the unknown. What’s going to happen when I get into showing my students how I learn? What if I get stuck revising a passage in front of 5th graders? What if I can’t conjure up the right phrasing for a particular sentence in front of freshmen in high school?

Not far behind those questions is this: What will they think?

I don’t mean to ignore that question (it’s a huge one and one worth investigating more at another time). Still, does what students (or the teacher down the hall or the admin who’s a little more in the box than necessary) think matter more than the fact that students are learning how to think? For some reason, this wins out more than it should. Why?

Why do we let what people might think get in the way of helping our students think?

Maybe we’ve never looked at the upside of bringing students alongside the expert in the room (or giving ourselves freedom from the exhaustion associated with feeling like you should be the expert in every room we enter). Because we like to control things in life, most of us don’t immediately think of the positives associated with risks as we see them coming. It’s not our default, and the benefits can be so easy to doubt away at times. For many, we’ve just never thought about what’s the best that could happen if we made a change.

Maybe better than anything I can tell you, these two videos help drive home my point. The first shows the power of bringing in someone who might be a disruption and discovering he has impressive talent. The second demonstrates the power of joining in as a participant with students.

If your classroom looks more like a cooking show (you know, with each step perfectly measured out in impossible to replicate steps for your audience), it’s time to consider embracing a little vulnerability with your students. If you want to help students struggle through their learning, you’re going to have to show them a model of a learner struggling through something with a little grit.

Teachers–if students need to struggle through the writing process, you’d better be struggling through the writing process in front of them.

Administrators–if your teachers need to be using best practices, you’d better be using them in you professional development.

Get in there and struggle alongside the other learners on your campus!