Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Serendipitous Learning and Zemblanitous Education

What did you learn today? It's a question plenty of kids get asked when they come home from school - but maybe one we don't ask ourselves so often as grown-ups...

Well, in the past twenty four hours I learned at least two things. One is that the word 'serendipity' comes from an old name for Sri Lanka - Serendip. For a word of such a vintage, its origins can be dated with unusual precision, to the 28th of January, 1754. It was coined by Horace Walpole in a letter, referring to a fairy tale called 'The Three Princes of Serendip'. These princes 'were always making discoveries by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of'. Hence, serendipity.

My second learning of the day was that serendipity has an opposite. An antonym, in fact. (And how often do you get to use that word?) 'Zemblanity' is a more recent coinage, the work of the novelist William Boyd:

So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design.

All this I learned by following up a presentation by a Finnish guy called Teemu Arina - which I came across thanks to a post from Artichoke. Teemu reckons (and I agree) that "making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design" is a pretty good description of what happens in formal education, when "learning outcomes" are specified in advance.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, Will Davies is concerned that "Web 2.0" threatens to eliminate serendipity from whole areas of our lives, in the pursuit of more efficient ways of finding music we'll like or people to whom we're indirectly connected:

Outside of the economy - and very often within the economy too - we find that the constraints and accidents of everyday life are the basis for enjoyable and meaningful activities. They don't necessarily connect us to the people we most want to speak to or the music we most want to listen to. Sometimes they even frustrate us.

But this shouldn't lead to business process re-engineering. ...when we vote, chat to neighbours, browse through a record shop we are not seeking some outcome in the most efficient manner available. We are engaging in an activity that we find valuable.

That reminded me of an experiment by Matt Jones (who's on our advisory board for the School of Everything). A few years ago, he asked the readers of his blog to help him make contact with Brian Eno - a quest in which he succeeded within two days. Afterwards, he reflected (in a less apocalyptic tone than Will) on the unsatisfactoriness of social networking tools which leave no room for serendipity:

...the goal of all the 'Sters is to collapse our social web to a surveyable size, bringing our friends and connections close enough to see beyond them to new people. A little like glancing over the shoulder of someone you’re talking to at a party in order to see who’s coming through the door.

The picturesque and playful exploring of our social connections is sacrificed. The mathematics of coincidence are intruding on the delusions we enjoyed every time we exclaimed to a new acquaintance the reassuring cliche “what a small world!”.

Where’s the business model in social networks? The same as email and other generators of information overload: the new luxury of meaning. I will pay to sustain the space, the silence and the signal. Give me privacy and anonymity, but also possibility. Extend my connections, but don’t collapse them.

I share Will's concern about the ways in which the tools we use shape us - deform us, even. There is too much hype about Web 2.0 and that means not only that its strengths are over-rated, but that its more troubling aspects are overlooked. Yet compared to the compulsory zemblanity of the education system, my meanderings across the internet continue to be spiced with serendipity...


Steve Hayes said...

when we vote, chat to neighbours, browse through a record shop we are not seeking some outcome in the most efficient manner available. We are engaging in an activity that we find valuable.

And that's why library books should be on open shelves where they can be browsed, and not hidden away in basement stacks, where they can only be found by computer search.

I've nicked your post for one I'll be putting on my blog soon.

Dougald Hine said...

that's why library books should be on open shelves where they can be browsed, and not hidden away in basement stacks...

Agreed! That's actually one of the clearest differences between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

At Oxford, the subterranean stacks of the Bodleian are off-limits to all but the library's staff. A first year undergraduate and a university professor are equally dependent on an ordering system that can involve several hours' wait. (There is a rumour that H.G. Wells' vision of the future in the 'Time Machine' - where the human race has diverged into the scuttling, troglodyte Morlocks and the dissolute, surface-dwelling Eloi - was inspired by the Bodleian...)

At Cambridge, by contrast, all members of the university are (so I'm told) free to wander the stacks of the University Library, open to serendipity and wrong turnings.

Steve Hayes said...

At the University of South Africa (in spite of the rude things I said about it in the post linked to yours) not only books, but journals are on open shelves. When working on my doctorate I was able to browse likely journals, make notes of relevant articles, and order photocopies. If they had been in closed stacks I'd never have found them.

Nick said...

Yesterday I was on a walk with my friend to his new apartment near Berkeley. We thought of taking the local metro, but decided to walk the 5 miles from where we met up, instead. Along the way, we walked through beautiful scenery, came across a free performance of The Three Musketeers in a park, and later that night, on our walk back to a station, found a free box of books and records on someone's door step in which I found a a book an English teacher from 12th grade once recommended to me: Einstein's Dreams.

Serendipity is and continues to be one of my favorite words and one of the primary means by which I organize (or don't!) my life around.

Nick said...

I wasn't aware of that difference between Oxford and Cambridge. Why do you suppose that is?

zemblanity said...

Looking for my blog (!) I came across this. The term 'zemblanitous education' is quite thought-provoking...

Dougald Hine said...

@zemblanity - how serendipitous! I've been thinking about intrinsic/extrinsic motivation this week in relation to the future of work. I'll keep an eye on your blog.

@Nick - sorry I never replied to your Oxford/Cambridge question. I don't know, but I assume the difference is simply an accident of history. (On the other hand, perhaps there was a decision at some point in time to open/close access to the stacks at one or the other? I'll keep an eye out for someone who might know the answer.)

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