Serendipity and creativity

‘Only connect’ (E. M. Forster)

Serendipity has long been associated with scientific discovery and creativity in general. Its importance is now in the spotlight in relation to networked learning (Kop, 2012). Computer scientists are also beginning to recognise the importance of environment and the role of purposeful ‘hunting’ for connections and associations between seemingly disparate ideas (Paul et al, 2009).

What comes out of recent research is that what on the surface looks like chance, is most likely to be based on someone else’s previous work, whether that be scientific propositions, artistic self-expressions, altruistic ideas, whatever. In the remix and reinterpretation, creativity and innovation can emerge when unlikely ideas butt up against one another. And given the way new technologies often facilitate this process, we are likely to see more and more new ideas, new re-combinations rapidly building ‘by chance’ on what has gone before.

Can I have some help with my maths please?
One beautiful example of serendipity in terms of creativity and teaching, is the case of the Khan Academy. This not-for-profit organisation came about (serendipitously) because Sal Khan, an MIT graduate and hedge fund analyst, wanted to help his younger cousin improve her maths. After giving her some one-to-one maths coaching, he found that he could better help her and other family members who also wanted tutoring, by uploading narrated videos to the Web, explaining single maths concepts in simple terms.

Khan’s library of recordings  on YouTube allows the learner to go over and over explanations at their own pace. This approach is not unknown to those acquainted with online learning, but the escalation of the idea into a global learning resource is remarkable. The free, open source, on-demand library of videos is available for anyone, anywhere in the world. It’s now being used as a resource by some primary (elementary) schools and high schools to ‘flip’ the classroom: the videos are set as homework, which allows more time for teachers to work with students on maths problems in the classroom the next day.

Khan says ‘Its not my idea’, the way the resources are now being used in schools, but serendipitously Khan’s creative approach to teaching his cousin has led to creativity in other areas of learning and teaching. His idea has been picked up by others and remixed.

If you’re really interested in Sal Khan’s ideas, then I recommend watching this talk given to MIT students. It’s long (90 mins), but you can get the main ideas in the first 10 minutes. Otherwise, if you’re short of time, and really only have 2 minutes, then listen to Khan’s interview with Wired Magazine instead.

Rethinking Education – Sal Khan at MIT

Rethinking education Sal Khan

Paul, A., Schraefel, M. C., Teevan, J., & Dumais, S. (2009). Discovery is never by chance: Designing for (un)serendipity. Paper presented at Proceedings of the seventh ACM conference on Creativity and Cognition, Berkeley, California, USA.

Kop, R. (2012). The unexpected connection: Serendipity and human mediation in networked learning. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 15(2), 2-11.

Emerging from the swamp

Welcome to Teaching creativity and teaching creatively!Yes, it is all about me and the thesis.

I’m a PhD student in the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology in sunny, sub-tropical Brisbane, Australia. I’m 18 months into my candidature and finally emerging from the swampy wet lands of the initial confirmation stage where I have been designing my research approach and immersing myself in the literature. I’m now looking for solid ground so I can kick off my research and get that data gathering happening. I have a set of case studies planned and there’s some survey data to be added to  the mix.


I’m looking into creativity – how the best teachers in higher education develop their students’ creativity, and how they themselves teach creatively. What motivates these excellent teachers? How do they think about creativity? What can we learn from these teachers and their students? How does the technology they use impact on their efforts to foster creativity?

TED ideas worth spreading: The Creative Spark playlist
I’ll use this space to reflect on my research and share ideas and resources with like-minded researchers and teachers. To initiate that process, the TED talks are a good place to start, and the TED playlist called The Creative Spark is a heartfelt collection of videos which I like going back to. They provide insights from novelists such as Elizabeth Gilbert and Amy Tan talking about where creative genius resides and hides, to Ken Robinson’s thoughts on the role of schooling and kids’ creative futures, and David Kelley’s motivating speech about self efficacy, purpose and creative confidence.

Please post your comments and share resources – otherwise I’m sitting here, chatting away to myself, as usual, the crazy PhD student, staring at my digital future . . .