Learning, invention, greatness

Norbert Wiener

I came across a striking sentence yesterday in one of the books I’m reading, Norbert Wiener’s Invention: The Care and Feeding of Ideas.

For a great period of invention, the artisans must become philosophers or the philosophers, artisans.

I think Wiener is right, and I have several thoughts following that statement:

  • The moments of insight that characterize deep learning have, for the learner, the flavor, feel, and energy of invention. In other words, when learners “realize” something, they do not simply memorize the connection that the teacher has made for them. They feel, and rightly feel, that they have made this connection themselves–which means they feel as if they themselves have invented the idea or connection. The arts of intellectual seduction (as Bruner puts it) are closely linked to the arts of temptation and elicited curiosity, not as a mode of pandering to students, but in simple acknowledgement of the fact that the “a ha” moment does not mean “a ha, now I see what you have shown me” (though one may use such words) but “a ha, I have made a breakthrough, I have invented a new thing.” Of course the learner may or may not have “invented a new thing.” If not, then of course the learner should credit other learners and not cherish the illusion that he or she has in fact invented the wheel. But it is the feeling of having done so that matters, and that separates the pursuit of insight from mere studiousness. It’s important to have the discipline to be studious, but it’s more important to understand that every moment of deep learning feels to the learner like an innovation or an invention, and (thus) to frame the learning experience in such a way as to make that experience more likely. Repeat-after-me is antithetical to the experience of insight or innovation, though it may be a useful stage of preparation, especially if it’s in the context of play, not scolding. Otherwise, as Wiener writes (with the masculine pronoun that, alas, reflects 1954’s biases), “the scholar-workman is bound to a perpetual subordination to a prearranged order of things.” (Sounds rather like our current “curricular” strategies that culminate in “learning management” and teaching-to-the-test, but I digress.) Weirdly, I find that many people seem to think the feeling of invention I’m describing is relevant only to a) mavericks or b) very gifted students (and to the combination of a and b, of course). My argument is that this feeling of invention characterizes all deep learning, and is therefore relevant to all learners; all learning experiences should be designed and carried out with this in mind.
  • The artisan/philosopher connection is at the heart of what we think and talk about in the New Media Faculty-Staff Development Seminar.  As the editors of The New Media Reader put it:  “Understanding new media is almost impossible for those who aren’t actively involved in the experience of new media; for deep understanding, actually creating new media projects is essential to grasping their workings and poetics.” Or as Richard Feynman said, “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” Or as Alan Levine insists, it’s all about being there, and creating out of that being. Tanya Roscorla has captured this ethos very well indeed in this article in Converge magazine, for which my heartfelt thanks.
  • The artisan/philosopher connection is at the heart of what Jim Groom and Martha Burtis are doing, brilliantly, with ds106.  I am frankly in awe of their conceptions and efforts, and equally in awe of what the students have created in response.

Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution

Finally, to time-travel backward just a bit, the artisan/philosopher connection was reinforced when the Royal Institution abandoned its plans for a separate stairway and entrance for the sweaty makers whose labors furnished the scientists with their instruments. The initial idea was to separate the artisans from the gentleman scientists. Thank goodness the Institution members thought twice, and thought better.

I spoke to this change of heart last January, in a talk at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. The occasion was the opening faculty convocation at the beginning of the spring term. The topic for the entire year had been “Faculty of the Future,” though I think it could equally well be described as “Faculty for the Future.” My hosts were extremely warm and generous. The audience was perceptive and receptive. The State of the Union address just the night before, which I watched in “enhanced” mode on the Web as I sat in my NY hotel room, gave me some key insights to share the next day. And some credit-where-it’s-due there, as well, since my daughter Jenny was also watching that enhanced version, and used a Twitter backchannel to let me know she was right there with me on that meta-level of understanding. That knowledge, in turn, inspired me to further invention.

For the other truth about invention is a mystery: it feels singularly individual, and in many ways it is, but at the same time it is fostered most completely in a society of mutual respect and support. Like a family. Like a community of best-selves whose highest pitch of being emerges from a great whole. Like the Beatles. Like a fellowship of invention. With all the agitation about education these days, I sometimes feel like Frodo, who in his small but stubborn naivete insists that if we carry the ring, we will find the way.

With thanks, then, to my ace librarian Alice and my hashtag artist Jenny, here’s the talk I gave at F.I.T. in January, 2011.


7 thoughts on “Learning, invention, greatness

  1. Beautifully said — and written — Gardner. It appears that the divide you speak about is widening and that so many of my colleagues in the Academy are part of the problem. Who knew so many of the best and brightest were not-so-closeted Luddites? (Bless poor King Lud’s heart, wherever he’s buried. He probably doesn’t deserve this.)

  2. I cannot say how much joy there us seeing a light on my RSS reader next to your blog- Gardner is Writing (and making that idea poetry you do so well).

    Thanks for sharing that passage; “invention” might be a tricky word as it typically is something we think of great geniuses do, but the part I resonate is in the act of “doing”– for me this was the magic part of my math learning when I had most of the rote basics, the foundations, and started applying it to more complex problems.

    I’m also finding resonance as I finish my first reading of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — which I had always thought if as a modern philosophy work but am funding do much I link to learning.

    Write on!

  3. I really enjoy your blog and often re-read your postings.

    With regard to the philosopher/artisan and artisan/philosopher connection that aligns with invention, learning and real understanding-I think you have assembled the ingredients and maybe the recipe. A social environment that supports invention learning needs-some sense of play, some sense of purpose, trust, egolessness, passion, humility, rudimentary knowledge, receptivity, self-sustaining feedback loops that encourage further engagement, engagement, organic sense of time, urgency, fluidity…

    Kenanow is a Cree word which means, “all of us here, now.” Learning in the Cree world takes a village; all the resources are in play and in service of the community/greater good. Kenanow embraces the values of the Cree; a world that is without individualism, without possessions, without prisons. Learning is synergy and synergy occurs in community.

    I suppose this is a kind of technology of social fabrics from whence the most remarkable invention springs.

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  6. Is there a copy of your slides from this FIT presentation that goes along with the audio?

  7. @Robert If you think it’s written well, then I’m well pleased, given the source of the judgment. Thanks. Looking forward to reading what *you’re* writing now as well!
    @Alan I’ve started ZATAOMM again. Thanks for that inspiration, as for so many others.
    @Sheri. Very beautiful, and most fitting. Thank you for that great gift.
    @Jim. Yes. I need to find them and upload them to slideshare. Once I do, I’ll embed them here. Thanks for asking.

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