Serendipity

We found this monster today. He’s a Hickory Horned Devil1. We researched him- learned about his habitat, that he’ll eventually become the regal moth, and the fact that he’s just about ready to burrow into the soil for pupation.

We’ve found a lot of animals and insects this summer. Everything from tortoises to caterpillars- all by chance. They each led to more knowledge for my sons but more importantly they’ve increased their interest and curiosity about nature and science.

That’s what I want out of schools. I want them to create more opportunities for teachable moments, more chances for kids to follow their passions and interests, more pathways and more flexibility. I want schools orchestrating chances for serendipity.

What I see instead are multiple choice tests and many, many more multiple choice tests to prepare you for the final big multiple choice test. What little chance, individuality and spontaneity left is getting stripped out and we pretend to wonder why teachers quit and students are bored.

Serendipity is the enemy of standardization. Serendipity happens when your class is out in the woods and finds a giant, terrifying caterpillar even though you’re supposed to be looking for leaves2. You supplement serendipity by letting kids use class time to research this monstrous worm despite the fact that it isn’t on any state test. You talk about it. You let it interrupt your leaf lesson because this has them on fire to learn more.

In our standards driven, multiple choice, centralized pacing guide world we’re doing our best to crush serendipity, as well as individuality, and education is far worse for it.


1 What an awesome name.

2 and in today’s climate you’re lucky if you even get to go in the woods because of liability concerns and a fear that test scores might drop

Comments on this post

  1. Alan Levine said on September 6, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    OMG what a gorgeous devil.

    I can’t tell what I enjoy more in your posts- the stunning photos, the snarky footnotes, the clever activity ideas, or your passion for bashing the norm.

    I think I like them all.

  2. Jim said on September 6, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    I’ve been thinking for a while now about serendipity as a kind of new faith system of openness, akin to Charles Dickens’ turn to coincidence in his novels, away from providence.

    The belief that to be open and to give back is ultimately good, and will pay forward. Promotion becomes the reward for sharing-there’s a faith system.

    The basic idea is that we have kind of built a religion of sorts on top of Web 2.0 design principles, from that comes a philosophy of beneficent chance, aka serendipity.

    All this is pieced together through tweets, and what was missing is your frame here of serendipity as a educational ethos outside and apart from technology per se, but all the more amplified and augmented through it.

    A kind of insane idea of a web scavenger hunt presentation would be a fascinating presentation. In fact I would really like to co-present around this very idea of serendipity as a kind of philosophy for education, and what it might mean.

    The bionic is on fire lately!

  3. Mike Bogle said on September 7, 2009 at 4:54 am

    Beautifully written and I wholeheartedly agree. Couldn’t have said it better.

  4. Jeff Pierce said on September 7, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Amazing photo, and a real spot on set of thoughts here.

    The real trick, though, is to find a way to cultivate serendipity in a classroom setting that doesn’t sacrifice learning or waste time. With anywhere from 20 – 35 students in a classroom, it requires a real skill to know how to weave in what seems like a complete tangent in an educationally meaningful way.

    Speaking only for myself, that’s what holds me back from following the serendipity more often. Nothing to do with a lack of desire or the bogey of standards.

    Dan Meyer, in his ongoing thread about cultivating curiosity in his students, using show and tell, and “helping less”, has I think journeyed his way to a systematic approach that really works.

  5. Meghan said on September 7, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    The merging of the serendipity of teachable moments, student-led learning and individuality, and a systematic approach very much makes me think of the Montessori classroom…

  6. Tom said on September 7, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    Alan – I’m pleased to hear it, especially coming from you. I’m ready to set up a mutual admiration society.

    Jim – Seems we are on the same track. I would love to do that kind of presentation and you know I love working with you. Be fun to play in something with dice or a 7 degrees of separation type of thing. I’ve been playing with the idea of serendipity in terms of how people need to think when setting up their aggregator/PLNs/PLCs etc. The idea of diverse voices and feeding in info from outside your box.

    Mike – Thanks.

    Jeff – What I’m thinking of on one end is the centralized management of time and the standardization of lesson plans etc. It’s Day 14 you will be covering X and Y. Here’s the test you will give. That’ll pretty much crush teaching in my opinion and will make it something like a fast food occupation.

    The management idea is key. It’s really difficult but I think made much more difficult because of the way our educational system is set up. If you teach multiple subjects you can wander a bit more freely. I loved teaching history, English and reading. It gave me a lot of freedom. I want more chaos (the good kind) and I want tangents. I’m not sure we define what is a waste of time very well. I see lots of well structured time wasting all the time.

    I love the stuff Dan does. I think it does inspire critical thinking and curiosity. I’m not sure it’s really about serendipity though. It’s all orchestrated and planned along a certain path. Nothing wrong with that, really smart stuff, just a different concept.

    Meghan – I plan on reading up on Montessori more and going and observing how they structure things in the middle school level soon. I went, as you know, back in the day. It’ll be interesting to check it out now.

  7. Jeremy said on September 7, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    Our kids learn at home for many reasons, but you’ve outlined one of the big ones, and you’ve written it up better than I could have. Thanks!

  8. Cole said on September 21, 2009 at 8:29 am

    A great post on so many levels. In a lot of ways this inquiry based approach to learning is at the heart of the matter for lots of us out here in higher education. The problem I see as a parent of a second grader is that the opportunity to participate in this exact style of learning is so limited in our schools. I watched my daughter struggle in her first year of public school last year when she had a teacher who insisted on sending home worksheet after worksheet so she could do drill and practice on garbage. I am a bit more optimistic this year since I talked to her new teacher about their science work — they will actually watch over a series of weeks tiny insect eggs hatch, grow into caterpillars, and eventually into a butterfly … now that is more like it!

    At the end of the day one of the things we can do as parents is give them the love of learning that many of us possess. I think the schools are screwing it up for the most part — there are bright exceptions. Taking the time to walk in the woods, dig in the backyard, and have conversations with our kids about what we are seeing are all so critical.

    Really enjoyed the post!

Leave a Reply

Trackbacks and Pingbacks on this post

  1. Just another hole-in-the-wall at bavatuesdays said on September 19, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    […] our own institutional conceptions of technology and learning. It reminds me of Tom Woodward’s phenomenal post on learning and serendipity, which frames this issue far better than I can here. In short, I cannot stress enough how important […]

  2. Just another Hole in the Wall « said on September 21, 2009 at 11:05 am

    […] of our own institutional conceptions of technology and learning. It reminds me of Tom Woodward’s phenomenal post on learning and serendipity, which frames this issue far better than I can here. In short, I cannot stress enough how important […]

TrackBack URL