Making Room for Serendipity

“Education is not about filling a pail, it’s about lighting a fire.”
William Butler

I ran across an article today: Serendipity casts a very wide net by Bill Thompson. The author writes about some who feel that the internet has killed opportunities for the chance encounter – and then goes on to make the case for the other side. I have thought about the topic and wrote about it 2 years ago in this post: Serendipity.

The book “The Dumbest Generation” by Bauerlein touches on the idea as well. Being too immersed with only the social groups and ideas that interest us at the moment can limit our vision.

I understand the concerns raised …. to an extent. I just don’t see it happening to myself – or to my husband. Maybe it is because we have always been intellectually curious. Yes – my main interest for the past few years has been library issues – but following up that interest has opened up many other areas to pursue and new connections to make .

My husband is an avid photographer & this passion continually expands his thinking. His mind amazes me. Hillary Clinton once said “Bill and I started a conversation in the spring of 1971, and more than 30 years later we’re still talking.” I feel that way about my husband. He has a very serendipitous mind that leaps from one idea to another and then picks one to study in detail. His interests are wide-open and he keeps serendipity alive and well for me. Recently he took a photo on a portion of beach on Lake Ontario. In the picture was an interesting formation of mud and sand. Most people (if they noticed it at all) would pause for a moment and go on, never thinking of it again. Not my hubby. He began to think about what caused that particular lump of sand to form that particular shape. He was not satisfied with creating a beautiful abstract picture. He had to know what caused it so he could give the picture an accurate title and satisfy his intellectual curiosity. So – he emailed the photo to a professor of geology at a university 100 or so miles away. He included all the circumstances of the day – weather, lighting etc. The professor was intrigued and passed the email on to a colleague in another state. My husband, at home in a small rural village, had a conversation with 2 geology professors in different parts of the country and all 3 of them were able to add to their knowledge in their different areas of interest.

Yes – this COULD have happened prior to the internet – but this kind of serendipity was just not as likely pre-internet. Scholars were more isolated. People were more isolated. The internet has opened the world for both the scholar and the passionate amateur. This free exchange of information helps everyone.

“A rising tide raises all boats.”

What are the implications for education? I believe that educators need to teach students to be open to serendipity – to follow their passions and interests through a hyperlinked world. Bill Thomson says:

The real dangers to serendipity is not the technology we use but our attitude towards it and the opportunities it offers. If all our searches at school are guided and the range of answers we are open to are limited by a prescriptive curriculum, then we will learn to ignore the interesting sidebar and the unexpected link.

Of course I was disappointed that Thompson mentioned libraries only in a rather disparaging way. Another instance of the general public not recognizing our role in a changing information landscape. Librarians have more of an opportunity than ever in this type of world. Our new standards are not prescriptive. Our standards encourage divergent thinking. Here is an excerpt from the AASL Standards for the 21st-Century Learner:

Learners use skills, resources & tools to:

Use both divergent and convergent thinking to formulate alternative conclusions and test them against the evidence (2:2:2)

Now – just how do we go about teaching these “dispositions in action”? The “habits of mind” that lead to serendipitous finds?

…. Serendipity that brings meaning to life ….. or a cure for cancer.

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