Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Connection between Innovation and Ignorance


It's the first day of March, and in addition to being the start of our March Book Madness challenge, it also marks the start of the month long blogging challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers.  The Slice of Life (#sol17) blogging challenge is in its tenth year and invites bloggers of all ages to share a small slice of their day.  Why a small slice?  As author and educator Ralph Fletcher writes, "The bigger the issue, the smaller you write," with the idea being that our voice becomes clear when we focus on a unique, peculiar detail. "Put forth the raw evidence, and trust that the reader will understand exactly what you are getting at."

In the midst of my second hour class, my tenth grade students working to peer revise their multi-genre writing projects, I received "the call." You know, the one that every parent dreads.  My son's elementary school was calling to let me know that he was sick at school. And so the scramble began to find subs and make arrangements to go pick him up.

That's how I found myself snuggled next to him near the fireplace watching TED talks this afternoon when we both should have been sitting in our respective classrooms. He would pick a talk, and then I would. I selected Sisonke Msimang's talk titled "If a story moves you, act on it," and my son picked Sam Kass's "Want kids to learn well? Feed them well." As we scrolled through the TED site, my son saw the picture and title for Alejandro Sanchez Alvarado's talk titled "To solve old problems, study new species." Mom, we have to watch this one! What is that even a picture of?! And by the time we got just a few minutes into the talk both of us were hooked, especially when Alvarado declares: "...if you don't feel like a complete idiot most of the time, you're just not sciencing hard enough."

Alvarado calls his audience to run toward ignorance: "We actually need to bring all of our intelligence to becoming stupid again - clueless before the immensity of the unknown. Because after all, science is not really about knowledge. Science is about ignorance. That's what we do."  Both my son and I loved this. His warm head resting on my arm, my son whispered, "We have to be detectives." And he's right.

Alejandro Sanchez Alcarado ends his speech saying, "We scientists need to teach our students to long for the endless immensity of the sea that is our ignorance."  I couldn't agree more.  Innovation will emerge from our ignorance.  We must teach our students to be comfortable with the unknown, to dwell in it, to question it, and propose interpretations and solutions.  Innovation comes from inquiry into our own ignorance.  Our students need more opportunities to develop their own lines of inquiry, and this means that teachers must be comfortable with being uncomfortable, with not having all the answers.  Because, to adapt the old adage, if we teach as we have always taught, students will only ever learn what they have always learned. That is not innovation. That is just tradition.

We, students and teachers, need to recognize the potential that lies in our own ignorance. It is our opportunity for innovation.

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