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A great read: Where Good Ideas Come From

November 5, 2010

A while ago, I blogged about the soon to be published book, Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson.

I just downloaded the book from Audible (love this) and started listening to it this week, and I can now say it’s incredible. One of the more fascinating parts I’ve listened to so far is an study that was done of science labs in order to determine how innovation occurs. The researchers followed around scientists in the lab, coding their actions, questions and comments. They then tried to figure out where and how scientists made their breakthroughs. Surprisingly, they found the overwhelming number of

Here’s a quote from an interview Johnson gave with Salon:

Well, that brings me to something in the book that bummed me out. You cite a study that observed science labs and found the breakthroughs happened more often during staff meetings than at the microscope. I hate meetings.

It’s funny that you say that, because I hate meetings too. I love those stretches where I’ve just been a writer — when I haven’t been doing Internet start-ups — where I pretty much eliminate meetings from my life. But there are different kinds of meetings. What the research found was that it was the weekly status update meeting that was so generative. It was when everybody would get together and tell stories about what they were working on and the problems they were having in their particular work. That’s very different from the meeting where you’re getting together to discuss the annual budget. When it’s a sharing and improvisational meeting, where you’re riffing off other people’s ideas, that actually can be productive.

But a number of studies have found that meetings are a staggering waste of people’s time when they’re not done well. So you can keep your dislike of meetings.

Hmm…sounds a whole lot like whiteboarding discussions, no? Now why don’t I push things to the next level and start giving students group assessments that will allow them to achieve greater insights through collaboration?

I managed to track down the original study that reports the findings from following molecular biologists around (pdf). I’m going to try to read through this later.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2010 2:43 am

    Imagine if PD was like this as well!

  2. November 5, 2010 4:25 pm

    Absolutely! What I would love to see is for department/faculty meetings to be like this. What if groups of 2 or 3 of teachers had to deliver 5 minute presentations on what they were working on/wrestling with/thinking about at the time, and then the majority of the meeting was devoted to talking out these ideas?

    Then again, I remember when my wife was prepping for the weekly research meeting when she was a PhD student, and how stressful it was (mainly because she had a very demanding advisor who could be overbearing at times), and that the meeting routinely ran 2 hours, and wonder if we’d have the stamina to make something like this happen.

  3. November 10, 2010 5:04 am

    John, can you try it in your science department? It sounds good! You would need to structure it well so that you do this first and set a time limit on it — and use whiteboards.

    • November 10, 2010 1:37 pm

      I raised this idea with my department chair, and we might try it at our next PLT meeting—she’s also considering it for our next in-service day.

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