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The Thrill of Accidental Learning -- and Teaching

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An excellent essay by Damon Darlin some Sundays back in the New York Times, "Serendipity: Lost in the Digital Deluge," got me thinking -- not for the first time -- about the joys of accidental learning.

A couple of years ago, I had written an editor's note for Edutopia in praise of focus, hoping it might be a counterweight to the newly perceived "virtue" of multitasking. My point then was that I'd never known anyone to succeed in a career without the ability to focus his or her mind, and that the more students deal with the fragmenting effects of digital technology, the more that ability is weakened.

But the Darlin article brought to mind another approach to the subject, an idea about what might be called soft focus instead of sharp focus. The digital technology that makes me nervous can actually be quite tightly focused -- not a bad thing in a busy world, one would think.

When savvy users go to a search engine, they know that the more specific their entry, the less browsing through results they'll have to do. So they figure out how to sharpen the descriptors before clicking on Search. The better they get at this, the less extraneous information they'll have to deal with.

A similar kind of pre-editing takes place when Amazon recommends books based on what we've ordered previously, or even shown interest in. Ditto with movie suggestions from Netflix, which are based not on the goal of opening up a new areas of interest for us (as, for instance, the omnivore's mix of Turner Classic Movies might), but on giving us what we already like.

Vast stores of digital memory and cookies tirelessly keep track of who we are, where we've been, and what we've done there, so the idea of intellectual accidents is subverted.

Which brings me to serendipity. This is a word coined by Horace Walpole, derived from an old Persian folktale about the three sons of the king of the mythical land of Serendip. Through astute observation of clues that good luck brought their way, these clever fellows were able to describe a lame camel, what it was carrying, and who was leading it, all without ever seeing the creature.

Thus, serendipity is the combination of knowledge gained by a combination of accident and sagacity; it is the peripheral vision of learning.

When I was a teenager, I was determined to assemble an impressive vocabulary. The reason was not so much to build a writer's cache of words -- at the time my ambition was to become a race car driver -- but to impress girls. (Yes, that really was a viable way to impress girls back then.) So I always kept a dictionary handy when reading a book. Sometimes, when the book was by a word-intensive author such as Vladimir Nabokov, I might turn to the dictionary three or four times a page.

In those days, long before online dictionaries, I would find the word I was looking for (some Nabokovian favorite such as tessellated or quotidian) and then, serendipitously, I'd stay around to collect three or four other words that were close by.

This is still a workable approach. For instance, if a student picks up the American Heritage Dictionary to look up, say, serendipity, she or he will find the definition "The faculty of making fortuitous and unexpected discoveries by accident." Similar definitions appear in the Internet dictionaries, but there's a difference: Online, the word appears alone.

In the printed dictionary, it shares the page with dozens of words that happen to start with "ser." So that student looking up serendipity might also stumble on seraph, a celestial being having three sets of wings (kind of an angelic dragonfly), or the far less sublime serf, a slave, especially a member of the lowest feudal class in medieval Europe -- a three-for-one bonus.

What's so important about serendipity is that accidental information can change lives and offer unplanned paths that become highways. A couple of years ago, Edutopia ran a feature called "Learning Curves," in which prominent achievers told what they'd learned when they were supposed to be learning something else. Mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade came to her passion for music while studying French, Smithsonian magazine editor in chief Carey Winfrey related how he'd learned about coping with setbacks while in the U.S. Marine Corps officer candidate school, and Donald Trump said he learned about how to do business by reading biographies (but not those of businesspeople).

The point was that for them, digression was education.

Here's a good example, also from the New York Times, in a review of a book about the empire building era of Athens called Lords of the Sea:

"[Author] John R. Hale was a freshman at Yale in 1969 when an offhand comment from the legendary classics professor Donald Kagan changed the direction of his life. Mr. Hale was taking Mr. Kagan's introduction to Greek History, and when the professor learned his student was rowing for the freshman crew . . . he made a suggestion: 'He told me that I should investigate Athenian history from the vantage point of a rower's bench. It was an assignment, I found, for life.'"

Why should we worry about losing the happenstance delights of serendipity when we now have technology that encourages efficiency? After all, there's never any gain without some loss.

And why should teachers encourage young minds to wander when there's work to be done, curriculum goals to be met, tests to be taken?

Well, I'm not making the case for taking our eyes off the prize (proficiency in the subject, good test scores, high promotion and graduation rates, and so on). But I think there's a case to be made for more occasions to say "but I digress" when giving students a chance to stumble on the unexpected.

For instance, what harm could a little diversion into The Art of the Fugue be for math students? Or a side trip into the hauntingly eloquent letters of Civil War soldiers during a history class? (Who knows what eloquence they might inspire?) Or a brief digression about the technique of actors when reading Romeo and Juliet or Death of a Salesman?

With so many students, so little time, and so much competition from the noisy world beyond the classroom, it's clearly not plausible for teachers to be ever more expansive generalists, weaving a complex tapestry of alluring colors and textures into the fabric of what must be covered in any given course. But a few minutes taken out for what modern marketers call "value-added" material may pay off in all sorts of ways that shape students' lives.

Call it serendipity.

Do you believe in the happy accident in learning? How do you encourage them?

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Jo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a school librarian, I've noticed that the students spend much more time wandering the net than browsing the shelves. I find that a pity because such wonderful treasures can be found just next to something one might have found disappointing.

I find some consolation in books like the Guinness Book of World Records and the Children's Miscellany books which provide that serendipity in their very structure. Those books have a hard time finding their way back home to my library, but I can only hope they're inspiring some reluctant readers and increasing their knowledge bases, no matter how strange the facts may be. :-)

Jo Harman, Librarian
Fulmore Middle School
Austin, TX

Jon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The challenge is learning (both parents and formal educators) to reward the tangential and divergent...

Education has become about the simple regurgitation of information - divergent thought isn't recognized and rewarded, it is simple accounted for as a mistake or wrong answer...

It is incumbent upon those who observe this phenomenon to try to instill in others, specifically our children and young people, an understanding of the joy that comes with the accumulation and application of greater knowledge and wisdom.

Or, we can simply continue to watch reality tv.

Julie McLendon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As long as standardized tests "reward" students and teachers for gathering minutia of information, true education will not thrive. I struggle teaching students inquiry based science only to realize that they will not be tested in the same way. While the tests are improving somewhat, there is still tons of minute bits of detail necessary to succeed.

I would prefer to teach science as problem solving. Unfortunately, when I've done that, the students rejoice in the labs and experiments offered but do not internalize the information. Basically, they learn but they will not study enough to retain the material even for a test; despite low and often failing grades, and while they understand a concept they do not retain all the information gained through the labs. As a school, my colleagues and I find ourselves creeping back to book work because it is what helps them succeed on the tests even though it goes against what we believe in.

Accidental teaching would be lovely, problem-solving is a primary example of such. But with the push of filling their heads with a packed curriculum in time for the quarterly benchmark tests, I fear I will never be able to spend quantities of time allowing my class to pursue a course of study because we "ended up there".

Dina Sonbol's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a teacher and I love it, but had it not been for serendipity I would've never experienced the joys of a classroom. Someone, someday mentioned changing careers and becoming a teacher. They started at a private school with a good salary, so I thought to myself that it would be nice to leave work at 3:00 p.m. everyday and get paid well. Not to mention, I'd get a summer vacation and Christmas break. ANd thats when I became a teacher. But I do not think in that materialistic way because now I realize that despite leaving at 3:00 I work harder both at school and at home.

If a student digresses to ask a question in class, then it has to be respected and answered responsibly. He might remember the answer to his curious question more than most of what he has learned that year. Serendipity is a primary source of relevant, realistic learning and remembering.

Alexis Corrigan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our schools need to provide more concrete learning experiences for students so that it becomes the norm rather than a special occasion. Students have picked up on the fact that teachers, parents, and politicians, value test-scores more than experiences. They have figured out that it doesn't matter how well they do on a lab; they will only do it once. In students' minds, the "real" thing that counts is the written test or worksheet. Teachers need to reflect on their teaching methods, and what these methods are communicating to students. Your desire to use more hands-on teaching experiences obviously comes from your natural "intuition," but now brain research is supporting what teachers have known all along. Maybe this will make the parents and politicians pay attention. In Pat Wolfe's article, Brain Research and Education: Fad or Foundation (2003), he describes the importance "concrete experiences" in learning. Wolfe found that hands-on learning makes the biggest impact on memory. He describes the importance of involving as many sensory organs as possible when teaching so that it will make it easier for the brain to reconstruct the information when it's asked to recall it (Wolfe, 2003). Our goal is for students to do more than memorize and regurgitate. We need to make learning meaningful and purposeful (Kottler, J., Zehm, M., & Kottler, E. , 2005). We want students to develop an understanding of concepts so that they are capable of applying this understanding to real-life obstacles (Wolfe, 2003). I hope you will continue to make time for these classroom experiences.
Kottler, J. A., Zehm, S. J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Wolfe, P. (2003, Fall). Brain-compatible learning: Fad or foundation? Retrieved May 24, 2007, from
Reprinted with permission. From the December 2006 issue of The School Administrator

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