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.
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.