Monday, April 4, 2011

Let's Steal Some Ideas

Lifehacker points readers to Austin Kleon's "How To Steal Like An Artist (And 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)."  I like stolen ideas.  I've mention stealing them here and here.

Among the gems that Kleon lists,
1. Figure out what [idea] is worth stealing.  Move on to the next thing.
2. An artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: hoarders collect indiscriminately, the artist collects selectively. They only collect things that they really love.
3. Side projects and hobbies are important.
4. The secret: do good work and put it where people can see it.
5. Be nice. The world is a small town.
6. Be boring. It’s the only way to get work done.
New York Times columnist David Brooks devotes two columns to stealing ideas from science.  The first discusses Steven Pinker's question:  "What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?"  Brooks links to an Edge online symposium that features 164 thinkers' answers to the Pinker's question.  I'm usually leery of putting science on a pedestal, but Brooks, in this instance, put my mind at ease when he contends "new discoveries about the brain don’t explain Macbeth."

Brooks's follow-up column lists a few of his favorites.  He lists the Pareto Principle, the idea that 80% of the results are produced by 20% of those involved.  Of course, results might be negative as well as positive.  For example, 20% of the discipline students cause 80% of the discipline problems in a classroom. He also lists Douglas T. Kenrick's "idea that we are not just one personality, but we have many subselves that get aroused by different cues."

Nosing around the Edge site, I came across a few other interesting ideas.  Mark Pagel suggests that everyone should remember "there will always be some element of doubt about anything we come to 'know' from our observations of the world."  Pagel closes,
No other system for acquiring knowledge even comes close to science, but this is precisely why we must treat its conclusions with humility. Einstein knew this when he said "all our science measured against reality is primitive and childlike" and yet he added "it is the most precious thing we have".
Douglas Rushkoff suggests that "technologies have biases."
People like to think of technologies and media as neutral and that only their use or content determines their impact. Guns don't kill people, after all, people kill people. But guns are much more biased toward killing people than, say, pillows — even though many a pillow has been utilized to smother an aging relative or adulterous spouse. 

Our widespread inability to recognize or even acknowledge the biases of the technologies we use renders us incapable of gaining any real agency through them. We accept our iPads, Facebook accounts and automobiles at face value — as pre-existing conditions — rather than tools with embedded biases.
 Some of the answers seem a bit esoteric, but as a teacher, I have the job of preparing students with a cognitive toolkit.  Granted, they're not going to fill that kit with only the items that teachers give them in the classroom; they're going to have borrow, steal, and adapt tools from a variety of places.  They will, however, need to be exposed to ideas that outside the mainstream to survive in the world they're going to inherit.  The more ideas teachers can expose them to, the better off they will be.

One principle I'd nominate for every student's toolkit is "Simplify."  In Walden, Thoreau writes,
Our life is frittered away by detail. .  . .Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify.
If I'm really simplifying, I suppose I should cite Ockham's razor: "of two competing theories, the simplest explanation of an entity is to be preferred."

I'll open it up to readers.  What's the best idea you've stolen?  What should be in every student's cognitive toolbox?

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