School Should Be Impractical

The Practical Benefits of Being Impractical

Note: this originally appeared on my blog The Creative Classroom

Schools are designed to be practical but this has a hidden drawback. Innovation is often impractical because it’s unpredictable. So, what if the push toward “practical skills” in school is actually making learning impractical? And what if impractical ideas and skills we ignore are actually what students will use later in life?

The Impractical Idea Driving Space Innovation

Every time you board a plane, you’re stepping into a vehicle that’s held together by glue. The same is true of most cars and trucks as well as spacecraft.

Okay, nobody’s gluing your aircraft together with Elmer’s. They’re using a state-of-the-art adhesive — which is both stronger and lighter than bolting things together.

Which leads to another random fact: the future of spacecraft involves geckos. I’m serious. For centuries, humans marveled at the mystery of gecko feet. How do they hang upside down? How do they grasp objects with such strong adhesive force and then let go so effortlessly? Why don’t their feet leave any sticky residue on surfaces?

With more accurate technology, scientists continue to explore the intricate details of gecko feet. Engineers are currently applying these new discoveries to their latest inventions in the burgeoning field of “gecko adhesives.” NASA is looking toward geckos for inspiration as they develop better adhesives for their spacecraft.

The Adjacent Possible Is Often Impractical

I recently listened to a Surprisingly Awesome podcast about glue. That’s right, glue. The show lived up to its name. Glue is surprisingly awesome. But here’s another reality: the impractical information in a show like Surprisingly Awesome can be surprisingly practical.

I doubt that a group of engineers ever huddled together and said, “How do we solve the spacecraft adhesive issues?” then, after a few minutes answered, “How about geckos? Yep, we should start studying geckos now that it seems practical.” Instead, they likely borrowed from the discoveries in biology and applied it to engineering.

Theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman refers to as the adjacent possible. You combine several seemingly unrelated ideas and play around with them until something works. You find new uses for old things. But every innovative idea is simply a reorganization of what is already available or a further iteration of what we are already doing.

The adjacent possible is why there’s such a thin line between the improbable and impossible — and why both require you to be impractical. But it’s also why you innovation often means playing around in the impractical.

It’s the idea of mental tinkering. Steven Johnson describes it this way:

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.

I love this impractical image of tinkering. You play around with ideas and try things out. Most of the time, it doesn’t work but that doesn’t matter. Innovation is often impractical in the beginning. The adjacent possible is an exploration into ideas that seem impractical but not necessarily impossible. It’s unpredictable.

We often ask ourselves, “Will this work?”

The “yes” option leads to something practical. But it also leads to the status quo. The “no” answer leads to potential failure. But it also leads to innovation.

Which leads back to geckos. As engineers reach for any possible solution for spacecraft adhesive issues, they might just pull from studies on gecko feet. But they might not. They might find inspiration from beetle larvae or from networked systems or from pine tar on baseball bats (and George Brett would be vindicated).

The Future Is Impractical

If you had asked engineers twenty or thirty years ago to predict the future of adhesives, it’s doubtful anyone would have mentioned geckos. They would have called it impractical.

Even now, as we talk about STEM and STEAM, you rarely hear people say, “Kids need geckos.” You’re likely to hear about coding or robotics or 3D printers. But not geckos. Nobody is setting up Donors Choose campaigns for lizard-based learning programs. Geckos aren’t practical . . . but they are fascinating. I would argue that schools need geckos as much as they need 3D printers.

Here’s the thing. Humans suck at predicting the functionality of information. We get stuck in mental models that either assume the status quo or fail to grasp the continuity of the present tense. In other words, we assume the future will be way different than it actually becomes or we fail to recognize just how different it will be.

We live within the confines of the adjacent possible and we can’t predict what innovation will look like in upcoming decades as the adjacent possible expands.

Should School Be More Impractical?

This has me thinking about school. We often define relevance as “things you actually need to use.” There’s a laser-like focus on being “up to date” and “preparing students for the future.” Unfortunately, we can’t predict the future.

I love the way A.J. Juliani puts it.

Our job is not to prepare students for something, our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.

Instead of trying to prepare students with futuristic skills, we need to empower them to think critically and creatively. Teachers often ask, “How will kids use this in the future?” but this question misses a different question, “What new possibilities might this open up for students?” This filter of practicality often strips away innovation.

In the push to be relevant, we accidentally design lessons that prove irrelevant in the future. Meanwhile, we miss out on those gecko feet moments that inspire wonder and creativity. So, how do we change this? Here are some ideas.

#1: Embrace confusion and complexity

When we focus on making learning practical, we often strip learning of its confusion and complexity. But I’d argue that school should be more confusing. These are the moments when students are asking questions and thinking critically. Engagement skyrockets and students learn how to wrestle with hard ideas for a longer amount of time. We do a disservice when we make learning too easy.

Annie Murphy Paul describes it this way:

“We short-circuit this process of subconscious learning, however, when we rush in too soon with an answer. It’s better to allow that confused, confounded feeling to last a little longer — for two reasons. First, not knowing the single correct way to resolve a problem allows us to explore a wide variety of potential explanations, thereby giving us a deeper and broader sense of the issues involved. Second, the feeling of being confused, of not knowing what’s up, creates a powerful drive to figure it out. We’re motivated to look more deeply, search more vigorously for a solution, and in so doing we see and understand things we would not have, had we simply been handed the answer at the outset.”

But this is impractical. When students chase rabbit trails sparked by their own curiosity, the destination often feels like a waste of time. After all, we have crowded curriculum maps and state testing and content we need to cover. However, when students chase their own curiosity, they grow into empowered learners and deeper thinkers. I noticed this every time students engaged in a Wonder Day (where they would ask a random question, pursue it through research, and then communicate it to an audience).

#2: Go outside . . . even if it feels impractical

Notice that the previously mentioned gecko moment began with a sense of wonder about how geckos could walk upside down. Yes, they spent time in a lab and they used technology. But the deeply human wonder at the natural world sparked their curiosity that ultimately led to innovation. I find this interesting because the Stanford d.school often makes definitive statements about how design and curiosity need to begin with empathy. Project-based learning proponents will say it should begin with a specific scenario or a profound question.

But sometimes it starts outside. Sometimes it begins with wonder and the amazing universe we inhabit.

Now, I get it. Our students aren’t going to look at geckos and then design spaceship adhesives. However, in January, I shared a story of how my son experienced snow for the first time and how that led to experimentation and creativity. This happens all the time. When children go outside, they experience an entire world of possibilities that can’t exist inside of a screen.

This is totally impractical. But what if instead of virtual field trips, students might just need more walks out into a forest? What if a creek is as vital to creative thinking as a maker space?

#3: Tinker more (make something impractical)

Tinkering is inherently impractical. It’s the idea of making something for the sake of making something. Often, when people tinker, they play around with items by mashing up unrelated concepts and trying out new things before ultimately building something new.

Tinkering can actually feel like a waste of time. However, play is vital for creativity. It might look like chaotic play, but when kids tinker, they’re often engaged in curiosity, which leads to experimentation, then rapid prototyping, and then a type of play that pushes more curiosity as and experimentation and new iterations of the same product.

When I taught middle school, students worked through this cycle in our rapid prototyping Maker Projects and cardboard challenges. They weren’t always practical. In fact, some of the ideas were downright fantastical. But in the midst of the impractical, students gained long-lasting practical skills. Students who tinker with products and ideas learn to think divergently by using materials in unexpected ways. As they split test their ideas through experimentation, they engage in iterative thinking. In other words, they learn to think like entrepreneurs.

#4: Scratch your itch (even though it’s impractical)

Sometimes “scratch your itch” means you chase after your own geeky interests and topics through a Genius Hour. Or it could be topic-centered Geek Out blogs, where students choose a specific area of interest that then create multimedia content for that specific audience.

Other times, it means you are learning a new skill or perfecting a new craft for the sheer joy of learning how to do it. These “scratch your itch” moments might seem like a waste of time. However, they often develop practical skills.

When I was in high school, I wanted to take theater. However, I opted for more practical, college-focused classes instead. Now, as I get in front of large groups and speak, I wish I had taken theater. Meanwhile, I often use the very skills people told me were a “waste of time” when I was growing up.

Don’t be an author. You’ll never make money.

Quit drawing. You’re not a “real” artist and artists don’t make any money.

Don’t learn graphic design. There’s no real market for that.

You get the idea.

Now, I find myself drawing, writing, and making videos on a regular basis. I often connect seemingly unrelated ideas from random things I’ve learned from the deeply human desire to geek out on everything.

We can’t predict what information will be relevant in the future. Imagine saying to someone thirty years ago, “If you want to be on the cutting edge of space travel, you should go study lizards.” Information changes. We are constantly redefining relevance. But one constant remains: who you are as a learner. Are you passionate? Are you curious? Do you find the world interesting enough to explore?

These are impractical ideas but they ultimately lead to something deeply practical: empowered learners who can think critically and work creatively. And that, ultimately, is what I want to see students become in the future.

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