More Cal Newport Brillance: starting a Research Bible
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:
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.