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Cal Newport provides the key for incubating innovation in students

August 11, 2011

Our society is filled with stories of the outsider hero who steps into the sport, picks up the instrument, or suddenly walks up to the chalkboard, and spontaneously releases their genius as them complete the impossible pass, play the unplayable sonata, or solve the insolvable problem. Problem is, this story is a myth. There aren’t lone geniuses who just pick up the basketball and dunk, or write beautiful computer code when programing for the first time.

Cal Newport is a genius. No, I take that back, he’s a genius-demystifier. He pulls back the cover on the on the so-called genius, and shows you the step-by-step path, filled with hard work, that person actually followed to arrive at their place of perceived genius. And one of his most recent posts is pure brilliance in showing others how to do exactly the same:

From “To Do” to “Will Do”: Using the Case Method to Defeat Procrastination.

Previously, Cal explained that procrastination really is “the complex planning component of your brain evaluat[ing] this plan — as it has evolved to do — and then reject[ing] it as not sound.”

In this latest post, Cal explains how to overcome this problem by studying the path of others how have developed sound plans and achieved success—the case study method. Here’s how he describes it:

One of the most effective ways to sidestep procrastination is to find the story of someone who personifies what you want to accomplish, figure out how they accomplished what they did, then base your process on their approach.

And then it hit me. Almost since I started this blog, I’ve written about how to help students do extraordinary things and change the world. I’ve wanted desperately to develop a curriculum or recipe that helps students to see this isn’t some crazy teacher telling them to leap into the void to try to achieve greatness, it really is a well worn path that you can follow to achieve a breakthrough of your own. This is the missing key to my innovation incubator idea, and I think a vital ingredient to the metacogntition curriculum I’ve been thinking about all this time.

So how will this look in my classroom? I think it will look something like this.

  1. Students will identify a case study—a person of accessible fame they wish to study. For the sake of pushing them into the unknown, I will discourage them from selecting family members and friends of family members, and instead try to establish contact with a real, live stranger. I want my students to Call the Guggenheim too.
  2. Students will then interview and try to profile exactly how that person got to his/her level of success, starting from high school. I think I’ll need to create a library of a few example profiles and some starter questions to help students really understand how to dig into this assignment.
  3. Students will then post their reflections on a blog, and we will discuss some of the similarities and differences in the stories, which should make for some very interesting discussions.
  4. Hopefully these relationships and reflections will continue past the case study assignment and develop into full blown mentoring relationships.

If we continue to do this, we will build a library of case studies for students to use to help them see exactly how to move from being a bewildered freshman thinking “I could never do that” to a successful worldchanger in far less time than one would imagine. Now what does this have to do with physics? It might seem at first the answer is not much, but I’m not so certain that is true. Some students are bound to pick scientists as their “accessible famous person”, and many of the traits we will uncover that led to success in any field will be the traits that lead to success in physics. Still, I’m not sure this is going to be a formal part of my course (I would certainly never want to grade something like this, both because I am only out to grade my student’s understanding of physics, and activities like this provide so much personal feedback, any grade would be irrelevant), but instead may offer it as an interesting sort of unofficial club.

Finally, I think this presents a totally refreshing alternative to the stomach turning article I read this weekend, Planning Summer Breaks with an Eye on the College Essay, in the New York Times where students were spending thousands of dollars on trips and activities to demonstrate leadership or uniqueness.Trips and activities were selected and organized by private college counselors who charge tens of thousands of dollars for unlocking your child’s “hidden talents” and pushing them to do things like this. Most of these efforts are completely transparent to admissions offices, but it is sad to see even the simple advice of being yourself and developing a deep interest being so warped by the college process.

This reaction to the article in the Cooperative Catalyst gives is exactly the right response.

Pursuing a personal passion doesn’t have to be something kids cram into their lives to shine up a college application. What if the whole point of school was to help kids pursue activities that make their heart sing, simply because it is the most developmentally appropriate thing to do?

Yes, this is exactly want I want to help my students to do. And when they do this—whatever success they desire will be as simple (and as hard) as persisting down the well marked but arduous path.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 11, 2011 11:58 am

    Thanks for taking time to sort through the information/articles & then share. My oldest son is on the cusp of entering HS & will no doubt be pummeled with advice on how to build a college resume. So nice to have the importance of passion to contrast against the idea of marketing himself & so neatly packaged by you too!

    • August 12, 2011 12:50 am

      I think I’ve said this before, but there is no better blog out there for high school students than Study Hacks and his book, How to be a High School Superstar should be a required reading of all incoming freshmen.

  2. September 19, 2012 11:49 pm

    I agree with your idea that it is important to help student to pursue activities that make their heart sing. Doing something with initiative may keep students motivated, because they are the owner of their project. Hence, this can prevent procrastination, which is part of human nature I think. There always something that we like to do or we don’t like to do, like the food we like to eat or we don’t. Even though we don’t like it, we have to do it or eat it, because it is good for us or we need it. This is life. If we are not motived or interested in the subject, it is easy to get procrastinated. From “to do” to “will do”, it is a change of attitude.

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