Saturday, June 23, 2012
Learning off Water Fleas ( Daphnia)
One of my favourite books at the moment is Steven Johnson's 'Where Good Ideas Come From' (2011). Steven uses the story of the water flea as an example for us all when things get tough - time to look around for new ideas! Johnson's book is about environments that foster innovation. 'Some environments', he writes, 'squelch new ideas, some environments seem to breed them effortlessly'. The future, he writes, is about creating powerful collaborative environments to create and share new ideas. In my thinking - a definition of a creative school.
Under normal conditions Daphnia reproduce asexuality, with females producing a brood of identical copies of themselves. In this mode, the Daphnia community is composed entirely of females. It turns out this strategy is stunningly successful in warm summer months.
But when conditions get tough , when droughts or other ecological disturbances happen, or when winter rolls in the water fleas make a remarkable transformation: they start producing males and switch to reproducing sexually.
Scientists believe that the sudden adoption of sex is a kind of biological innovation strategy: in challenging times, an organism needs new ideas to meet those new challenges. Reproducing asexually makes perfect sense during prosperous periods; if life is good, keep doing what you're doing. Don't mess with success by introducing new genetic combinations. But when the world gets more challenging- scarce resources, predators, parasites- you need to innovate. And the quickest path to innovation lies in making novel connections.
When nature finds itself in need of new ideas, it strives to connect, not protect.
It seems that in the human world we are entering equally challenging times as old ideas no longer seem to be working and that we need to create environments that foster new ideas, connections - to see things with fresh eyes.
As Johnson writes 'when the going gets tough, life tends to gravitate towards more innovative reproductive stragies'. In our organisations, our schools, we need new ideas that can only come by being encouraging of those who see things differently. We need to adapt to the changing pressures or opportunities that we find ourselves in. We need to tap into the fertility of our collective imaginations.
Moving into standardisation and conformity - as schools are being encouraged to do, is the wrong approach. This is equivalent to asexual reproduction - and not much fun - and the consequences are just too predictable with a narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the tests ( which will come) and sidelining of creative areas.
The water fleas have it easy.
PS Just been thinking how 'asexual' schools are. Compliance to Ministry requirements ( notably National Standards) and conformist requirements of schools results in a consistency of expectations that make it hard for creative teachers to develop 'sexy' ideas. Johnson's book has lots of examples of the kind of free flowing open environments that encourage the development of new ideas - some that even work - but , he makes it clear, taking advantage of serendipitous mistakes are where new ideas emerge. Ideas that created the Industrial revolution were spawned in coffee clubs!
If such things as a performance management, merit pay and competitive 'League Tables' are introduced into schools collaboration and sharing - even trialling new ideas -then innovation and creativity will be at risk.