Where Do Good Ideas Come From? Steven Johnson’s Got an Answer

I enjoy the insightful and educational work of RSA Animate, the YouTube channel of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. This organization is dedicated to sharing the kinds of innovative and inspiring ideas that are also offered through TED Talks, along with genius visual interpretations.

Today I watched an RSA Animate titled, Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson in which Johnson explains his reasearch into how effective ideas are created, encouraged, and brought to fruition. Take a look:

Johnson examines some interesting findings, some of which point out common misconceptions about what we consider to be flashes of brilliance or moments of heightened innovation. The following are my thoughts and reactions to Johnson’s research.

Highly creative environments operate according to patterns of characteristics and behaviours that we can learn to emulate in our own communities and organizations.

Johnson’s idea makes me want to read his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (Riverhead hardcover, 2010) to learn about these environments. How can we discover the patterns of ‘what works’ in our everyday teaching and learning practices, understand them, and create more of the same? In general, teachers, administrators, and activity/homework/extra-curricular/job-ridden students rush through each day without reflecting enough on what is working and what is not. Johnson’s message reminds me that we need to stop and think about our environment daily, be methodical about analyzing it, grow what works, and reduce what doesn’t.

Great ideas take time to develop and Johnson calls this the “slow hunch”. Sometimes it takes many years for a great idea to come out of dormancy or background activity and become useful to us. Johnson highlights Tim Berners-Lee, a major player in the development of the World Wide Web, who took about 10 yrs to bring his ideas to reality.

I am pleased (relived, actually) to hear that learning and thinking is a life-long process that even I can practice and grow into useful applications. Many of us think of brilliant ideas as magical entities that spring from gifted individuals who wake up suddenly to them, or develop them in their basements in isolation. Fortunately, Johnson claims that this is a misconception. The lesson here is that we should never give up on our ideas, continue to cultivate them, and collaborate with others to grow them.

Good ideas come from collisions between smaller ideas that combine to form bigger ones. People need to collaborate to create great ideas; you may have half a good idea and someone else may have the other. We must create systems that encourage for peoples’ ideas to collide.

In high schools I have witnessed that teachers are caught in an entrenched belief that they can be successful at teaching their students by keeping their classroom doors closed. They haven’t yet realized the magic that collaboration brings, the energy, encouragement, excitement, and growth that comes with putting many great brains together. Teachers who act as isolated conduits of knowledge also expect their students to learn static skills, devoid of real-world applications, ethical challenges, or contact with professionals in situations that they may face in the future. In order to encourage collaboration and for our ideas to collide, I believe that we need to implement time, systems, support, and understanding, and help teachers acknowledge that the discomfort that comes with change is necessary in order to move practice forward.

Although many people argue that the increase in technology leads to greater multi-tasking and a reduction in deep thought, Johnson believes that the connectivity of the Internet actually increases our ability to collaborate and combine ideas.

I consider technology, like anything else, to have both positive and negative consequences. One of the ways in which I have experienced an increase in ideas and connectivity is thought writing this blog and using Twitter to share and learn from others. If I did not have access to the Internet to share these ideas, my network would consist of about five colleagues that I have close working relationships with. To date, all but two of the inspirational ideas that I have blogged about come from people who live in other countries whom I would never have the chance to speak to otherwise. My personal learning network (PLN) is not only vast, but has grown incredibly quickly with the web 2.0 tools at my disposal. I can’t wait for web 3.0 to continue this trend. And what’s more–my motivation to reflect on my practice, process what I see and do each day, and learn continuously, has been deepened and encouraged by this blog, since writing is an activity that I enjoy greatly, and helps me process thoughts and ideas.

What are your thoughts on Steven Johnson’s ideas? What are your reactions? What examples or insights regarding Johnson’s ideas can you share?

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