So, I’ve been thinking a lot about the article in The New York Times from February 23rd: “True Innovation“. Jon Gertner is the author of a forthcoming book about Bell Labs called The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation and this was a kind of preview. There was plenty of detail about Bell Labs that was new to me, all well and good. What I thought was most thought-provoking was to think of how the characteristics of Bell Labs that Gertner identifies as success generators might or might not be present in schools.
Gertner contends that Bell scientists “worked on the incremental improvements necessary for a complex national communications network while simultaneously thinking far ahead toward the more revolutionary inventions imaginable.” This idea of combining incremental change and visionary thinking is what struck me. I think this is what schools should do. They should work continually to improve what they do (tweaking this and that) while at the same time be working towards that revolutionary (re-)invention. Gertner states that Mr. Kelly, who ran the lab for many years, believed it was necessary to have “a ‘critical mass’ of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas.” If schools can attract and retain talented teachers, they should be all set in this department. A little more respect for the teaching profession would help here, yes? Anyway, what professional doesn’t want to work with a team of talented colleagues? I know some people don’t want to work with a team, talented or not. But, let’s just say you are working with others, not too many people would say, yes give me the duds. So it seems obvious. However, I think that what is not obvious is that you want bunch of talented folks in the same place. It’s not overkill. It means that they will have peers and be able to have that exchange of ideas that is so important for real innovation. This is a place people will want to be! Excited and interested teachers will attract and produce excited and interested students. There’s our critical mass.
According to Gertner, Kelly also set up the building to encourage, if not force, people to come into contact with each other regularly. On top of that, he gave researchers freedom and time. Just let that sink in a little. Employees have a physical space set up to allow and encourage them to run into each other, they have the freedom to follow paths they think will be valuable, and the time to do so. Sound good so far?
There are lots of other interesting details in the article. It’s worth reading the whole thing, in my opinion. What I noticed was the powerful combination of purposeful design of space and culture in the service of understanding. That is certainly what I want to be going on in my classroom. I want to set up a physical space that allows for easy and frequent interaction by students. I want to give my students more freedom to follow their interests, trust them to be serious (serious for 10 year olds) about it, and time to get lost in what they find. And, I want that for myself as a professional. I want to run into all different colleagues regularly, not just the ones whose classrooms are next door to mine. Once I run into them, I want to be able to sit down somewhere and talk, not necessarily in a room filled with laminator fumes on a cast away sofa. I want to have the freedom to do new things and spend time, lots of time, working on how to do what I do best. Some, even many, of these things I already have, but as my students will tell you, I’m not really about half-way. I want the whole thing. I want it for me and for my students.