Serendipity… can you create it? If so, how? Stated differently (or more relevant to teaching and learning):
- How do you maximize opportunities for serendipitous discovery in higher education?
- How do you create opportunities for serendipity and synergy in the workplace?
I don’t have the answers to these questions although I have tried for years in both contexts. I think the key lies in the concept “opportunities.” Serendipitous discoveries are accidental. That’s the nature of the concept. Since I don’t put a lot of energy into thinking about fate or destiny, I tend to look for opportunities.
Although many opportunities reveal themselves by mere chance, some involve a conscious positioning to allow chance discoveries, chance encounters, chance illuminations to emerge from the data overload of our daily lives. The classroom is no exception and the work place doesn’t have to be either.
In an attempt to create an opportunity for serendipitous experiences and ideas in the workplace, I brought in my guitar. I merely placed it in the common area and put up a sign to treat it like “your baby.” It was and is an experiment of sorts. I wanted to see if it could act as a catalyst for fun, conversation, new relationships, new knowledge, and possibly new ideas. So far, it has been somewhat successful. I only have one guitar, otherwise I’d bring in other instruments as well or a painting easel; anything to help build community.
Since the emergence of the guitar (my first guitar by the way), I found out that one of my colleagues is a trained classical guitarist. Another hadn’t picked up the guitar since 1974 and proceeded to play “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple (shows the power of a catchy song). A third divulged her piano playing talent, and the fourth and fifth (not together) were surprise performances. The talent is pervasive! However, the best so far (not in musical talent per se, but in awesomeness) was a VCU building contractor who saw the guitar and couldn’t help but pick it up. I was in my office and heard a soft “Stairway to Heaven” by the great band Led Zeppelin. I stepped out and asked him to turn it up! He balked wanting to be respectful of the work space, and I said that the guitar is here to be played. He then broke out into a beautiful performance that gathered a crowed. The thing is, I would have never known this person or his talent had that guitar not been in the room. When he enters there is now a smile on his face, and conversation flows between us and others in the office. Power structures seem to dissolve. It’s beautiful.
Since then, I’ve put out a challenge for those interested to write a jingle or a short song with the word “innovation” in it. I’m taking a folky country approach.
What about the classroom (virtual or otherwise)? How can I maximize opportunities for serendipity? This is particularly challenging in higher education because of logistics (meeting times and frequency, type of classroom, space arrangement, digital engagement, etc.). There is no one way. I know that, but how do I craft opportunities for students to not only see things from a different point of view and walk away with deeper insight, new perspectives, and new ideas, but also craft these opportunities so that students can showcase their existing skills, insights, and perspectives? One layer deeper?…Can a similar approach be used for faculty development? My view is YES!
Just as our disciplines represent different lenses by which to investigate phenomena, just as we work to help students view content (e.g. the subject, the learning environment, themselves) through different lenses (perspectives), so too can faculty learn to think more deeply about teaching and learning by consciously and systematically using lenses to analyze and evaluate their practices. Let me provide merely one activity that I have used with students and faculty alike.
(Disclaimer: despite my attempts to find the source that gave me the original idea beyond that of Howard Gardner, I cannot find the article. Of course, when I find it I will edit this post. Nonetheless, I’ve developed it beyond the original idea in the process of contextualizing it as a broad pedagogical practice).
ACTIVITY: MULTIPLE INTELLIGENCE LEARNING LENSES
Key Idea: learners process a central/threshold content concept through different perspectives filtered through multiple modalities. To ‘process’ means to build understanding by thinking through the content from different perspectives characterized by different intellectual tasks.
Process: (1) Divide learners into heterogeneous groups of five. (2) Present the modalities and directions. All groups will work through each modality as listed below. (3) Present the content concept to the entire class. (4) Groups have 10 -15 minutes to complete the activity which means they have to come to a consensus on the sufficiency, completeness, accuracy and clarity of their work. Groups can decide to process each modality collectively, or they can divide responsibilities. In either case, learners must evaluate their work and present their best products.
Spatial: create a chart, cartoon, graph, diagram, or other illustrative visual expression.
Linguistic: articulate alternative concepts, construct a poem, think of a metaphor or simile.
Logical: create an analogy or general rule.
Musical: write a jingle or song.
Intra-personal: write a reflection drawing on your personal experiences, beliefs, or values.
I’ve seen some amazing constructs. Just last week I had faculty who teach English as a second language (ELP) process a foundational concept they identified. What emerged? The lenses exposed a professional opera singer, seven different analogies and pictures. Not only were we provided with the opportunity to think through content from different perspectives (and layered at that), we were building community! Serendipity emerged due to a context that was conducive to out-of-the-box thinking opportunities and sharing those insights and interpretations. We learned new things about each other. We thought through content in ways we might never have experienced. A key to this second point involves the disciplined, but fair, evaluation of the work.
Is there a formula? Ouch! The very idea makes me pause, but as an exercise, here it goes.
- Make an intuitive connection;
- Engage with a process and/or challenge that introduces elements of creativity and fun;
- Evaluate the product as a community;
- Promote transfer to different contexts.
Here is my claim: We can construct opportunities that maximize the probability that serendipitous insights and relationships can emerge. How? Well, it involves finding multiple ways to interface and challenge learners to view content (broadly conceived) deeply from a wide variety of lenses.
So far, my personal experience is my guide; however, I’m working to develop a study that test my claims. In the meantime, try it out. It’s fun.