In Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From The Natural History of Innovation, (Amazon affiliate link) he tells the story of a nineteenth century French obstetrician, Stephane Tarnier, who noticed a chicken incubator on a visit to the Paris Zoo. As he watched the chickens toddle around in the warmth of the device, he thought about the number of babies he delivered that had died. Those babies had been born too soon and as he watched, he wondered if an incubator was the answer to this problem. With the help of the local zookeeper, Tarnier set to work creating the first incubator for babies and as a result of this collaborative mindstorm, Tarnier succeeded at cutting the infant mortality rate at his hospital in half. Incubators revolutionized maternity wards and are so successful at nurturing the life of premature babies that they are used to this day in hospital NICUs the world over.
Why am I telling you this story? Well, this morning I happened upon a blog by Dr. Todd Kashdan at Psychology Today titled “Ways to Be Insanely Creative Dissecting the Worlds’ Greatest Maverick Scientist.” With a title like that, who could resist? I was fascinated to learn about John Lilly but what really stuck with me was Kashdan’s commentary about what we can learn from Lilly’s life. He wrote, “The quickest route to creativity is the blending of ideas from multiple topics and disciplines,” and it dawned on me: that’s exactly what happened when Dr. Tarnier went to the zoo. And it’s exactly what happened when Donald Graves started to think about how we teach children to become better writers. Once upon a time, we “assigned” writing. It was a task that was completed in a minimal amount of time and handed in for a grade. We lamented the poor spelling, lack of grammar, and overall quality of the writing, gave it a C, and handed it back. Like Tarnier who was at odds with an uncomfortable reality, Graves walked into the proverbial zoo with this problem on his mind. If kids are to be better writers, he reasoned, we need to look closer at the people who publish books. How do they do it? How can our classrooms mimic the process that authors use to produce successful writing?
Kashdan calls this blending of ideas “intellectual smoothies.” I love smoothies and I can think of no better time for a “smoothie” than the summer. Education is ripe with paradoxes and problems in need of creative solutions. My question is this: what will you be mulling over on your trips to the zoo?