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More Cal Newport Brillance: starting a Research Bible

June 23, 2011

Cal Newport, the most insightful writer I’ve ever read on how to develop a deep interest and become a romantic scholar, and ultimately lead a remarkable life, is just about to begin a new job as an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown.

He’s decided to write a series of post describing his techniques for how he discovers, explores and develops new ideas that he grows into a full scale research program. His first article in the series is a must read:

Lab Notes: My Closed-Loop Research System

I loved reading this article, and would enjoy reading similar reflections by other teachers/professors (hint, hint). While I don’t have anything nearly as well thought out as Cal (I’ve mostly got stuff scattered across 6 different applications and google docs, and a giant Omnifocus to-do list, but when I get a bit more organized, and think I have some insight to share, I’ll post something myself).

Anyway, Cal goes on to describe his plans for how he will stay atop his field. Here’s a quick summary:

  1. Cal has committed himself to learning 1 new big idea each week. He does this through background research—attending talks, reading articles, and scheduling meetings. But Cal doesn’t stop with the “gee that’s cool” he actually keeps a Research Bible (in LaTeX, no less) and forces himself to write a summary of the big idea he learned.
  2. Cal then uses his Research Bible and Brainstorming to generate small projects (“little bets”) that last around a month, and lead to some concrete output like a talk or short write up.
  3. Successful little bets go on to become publications and grants. (sounds easy, right?)

I think Cal has laid down the foundation for a rigorous and detailed process for continuous learning that transforms “ah-ha” moments into substantial, innovative projects with real value. And it occurs to me that this is what I would love for my students to be doing, at a much less sophisticated level. It’s a junior version of the game (taken from David Perkins’s wonderful book, Making Learning Whole, which I’m about a quarter of the way through and enjoying immensely).

Could I somehow adapt Cal’s ideas to my high school students, most of whom do not yet have a deep interest? I really like the Research Bible, and this sounds a lot like having my students blog regularly about things they are exploring. Could I push them to learn (on their own) something new each week and blog about it? It also seems to me like little bets are pretty much embodied in project-based learning. And if students went back and took one of their projects from the semester and revised and improved that, I think that would be the high school equivalent of Cal’s top level of research.

Hmm, this might actually work.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2011 7:35 am

    Perhaps the research bible is similar to the observation journal in Synergy 8. This year, @jgough and I plan a much more systematic approach to the observation journals using blogging (it will be our 2nd and 3rd prototypes of the observation journal method).

    From the obs journals grow the project ideas in Synergy – generated by the students, collectively engaged by the students, and enacted by the students. Our biggest hurdle so far: 18 weeks and four 55 min classes a week. Real PBL has trouble fitting into such boxes, in my opinion.

    • June 24, 2011 9:39 pm

      I think the two sound very similar. And I think the little bets and big projects could also fit well into synergy. I think the big breakthrough would be getting kids to move from doing observation journals or research bibles because their class requires it, to doing it because they just can’t not do it—they’re too curious about the world around them not to try to write some questions and thinking down.

  2. June 24, 2011 11:43 am

    I literally just began experimenting with something like this yesterday when I brainstormed in my blog post about trying to become good at a few things rather than okay or bad at a lot of things. I started using Folderboy.com to keep track of my “thought path” and collect ideas and make goals under mini folders that look a lot like the screenshot Cal posted of his research bible. My main heading is my learning/teaching mission for my classroom followed by just three foci to help me get there: 1). Building teacher-student relationships (which also happens to be my Masters project topic) 2). Providing meaningful feedback (à la Shawn Cornally) 3). Autonomy–>empowerment–>fun.

    As I stumble around on the Internets collecting and reading, only ideas that get me toward my mission make it onto my folderboy…everything else doesn’t make it or it’s filed away somewhere else (diigo). Otherwise my energies will inevitably move me away from my mission. Thank you for sharing this article, though, because it has helped me gain insight on the importance of the closed-loop (this is where I’ve always had problems and is the biggest reason I started my blog). I will definitely be creating a way for me to use what I read/watch/collect to produce a product toward my mission with time frames…this article has given me at least one idea on how to try that.

    This has been a big week for me…

    • June 24, 2011 9:38 pm

      Mark,
      This is great. I love how you limit yourself to 3 big topics, and I’m going to think about doing something similar. I tend to have way too many projects going on. Also, I’d never heard of folderboy, which looks pretty cool, so thanks for pointing that out.

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