I Like a Teacher Who Gives You Something To Take Home to Think About Besides Homework*

March 7, 2010

To be bored is to kiss death. • Jorge Luis Borges

I wrote about Dyer & Gregersen’s (2009) discovery skills in an earlier post (Brownyn Fryer, September 28, 2009, “How Do Innovators Think,” Harvard Business Review). Today, I’m sharing some alternatives to homework that can help build these skills linked to innovation. They’ll help you avoid the boredom I’ve referenced earlier as well. After all, you can be bored to death.

According to a report for the International Journal Of Epidemiology in February 2010, specialists from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London studied more than 7,000 civil servants over a twenty-five year period and found that those who said they were bored were nearly forty percent more likely to have died by the study’s end than those who were not bored. (Jonathan Petre, February 7, 2010, “You Really Can Be Bored to Death, Scientists Discover,” Mail Online)

Here are the five discovery skills with some home•work to help build each skill:

Associating, a “cognitive skill that allows creative people to make connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas.” Identified as a “key skill.”

Create a list of interesting nouns and choose two of them at random. Think about the words and what they mean and then begin thinking about how these two words/concepts could be combined. Some words to get you started: umbrella, television, piano, refrigerator, rocking chair, alligator, popcorn, hanger, bathtub, scissors, shampoo, dictionary, ruler, pencil, notebook.

Discovery of a solution consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking of something different. • Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

Questioning, the “ability to ask ‘what if,’ ’why,’ and ‘why not’ questions that challenge the status quo.”

Comedian George Carlin was known for his comedic questioning, asking: If a word is misspelled in the dictionary, how would we ever know? Why is “phonics” not spelled the way it sounds? And how come abbreviated is such a long word? Significant ideas can be inspired by seemingly insignificant questions. How many questions you can generate in an hour?

Nobody is bored when s/he is trying to make something that is beautiful or to discover something that is true. • W.R. Inge

Observation, the “ability to closely observe details, particularly the details of people’s behavior.”

Visit a public place—a restaurant, park, mall, or somewhere else with lots of people to observe—and become a purposeful people watcher. Determine what you’re interested in looking for before you start (parent/child interactions or clothing or footwear or cellphone usage or . . .I’m fascinated by the way people hold their cutlery. Until I started looking I didn’t realize there were so many ways to hold a fork. • Jim Zinn).

To acquire knowledge, one must study; but to acquire wisdom, one must observe. • Marilyn Vos Savant

Experimentation, “trying on new experiences and exploring new worlds.”

Be an outsider. Extend your comfort level. Go somewhere you’d don’t usually go, a place that is not part of your daily cultural experiences: a social event, a church service, a concert, an art gallery, a museum, a dance. Expand your interactions in class or at school by talking to or sitting with someone you don’t know.

In the field of observation, chance favors the prepared mind. • Louis Pasteur

Networking, “with smart people who have little in common with them, but from whom they can learn.”

Conduct an informal survey of at least five people, recording their answers to a question of interest: What three books should every high school student read? What should schools teach? If you were a teacher, what’s the first thing you would ask your students? What’s your earliest childhood memory?

Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. •Tom Rea

Make up your own homework to nurture your creative spirit.

I ain’t never bored. There’s too much to see and do in this new land. I’m makin’ a life out of nothin’ much at all.
• Hattie Anderson, pioneer, trail diary, 1840s

* Thanks to Lily Tomlin as Edith Ann for the title quotation.



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  2. Although we can’t determine what the circumstance was for this encounter, we will assume you are making this information known to either warn others of your capabilities, impress your fellow peers, or because you have remorse for what you did. Missionaries, who arrived with many of the explorers and conquistadors, were much less surprised for their training had included instruction on these ancient customs and “their written accounts include frequent references to the tattooing practices of the Moors, who occupied the Iberian Peninsula until the fifteenth century” (van Dinter 2005:42). Styles have become very distinctive and really show the individuality of a person.

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