Manufactured serendipity?

flickr photo by BBC Radio 4 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

I’m not sure why it was such a surprise that a mote of inspiration happened by me whilst out for a run this morning, but it was. As a distraction from the discomfort of running, I often listen to podcasts. Sometimes they’re related to my studies, so I get a mental as well as a physical workout. Sometimes they’re just enjoyable or informative; Radio 4 podcasts are wonderful here. If I’ve something I need to ponder at greater length, I’ll leave the mp3 player at home. But today was just meant to be some light relief courtesy of ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage,’ which joyfully brings science and humour together. The topic was serendipitous discovery in science and how some of the great discoveries have come about by what appears to be chance. Not particularly closely related to professional learning and Twitter one might think, but there’s always an angle if you look hard enough … or perhaps it was a serendipitous revelation?

The programme ranged across some interesting examples of serendipitous scientific discoveries (Perkin’s Mauve, Viagra and Post-It™ notes), but also considered some of the factors which might increase the likelihood of such a discovery being made. As (comedian) Lee Mack observed:

They can’t be completely chance discoveries can they, because I have never made any discoveries by chance, and you two seem to have a bit of a better chance than me. I mean, you are looking in the first place.

So in order to make that breakthrough, you need to position yourself to have a better chance to do so. And this set me thinking about my own area of study. I wouldn’t say for one minute that teachers are seeking a miraculous revelation when they use Twitter to learn professionally, however, the simple act of placing yourself in a position where learning (rather than discovery) can occur, might increase the chance that it will. Simon Singh shifted the perspective somewhat:

If you know what you’re looking for, you’re gonna go and find it. There are things that we know we need to know and then there are things we don’t know that we need to know. The things we don’t know that we need to know are the things that change the world.

I don’t think teachers (always) go on Twitter knowing what they’re looking for. That’s much more akin to professional development – a need is identified, a programme assembled and delivered, practice is changed, job done. That’s a solution for known knowns. Twitter can do that too; watch the timeline for a while and you’ll see plenty of people asking for assistance, ideas or advice. Perhaps there’s another aspect though and that some of the learning people say they get through Twitter helps with the ‘things we don’t know that we need to know?’ This might be where the serendipity comes in.

The sense in which we might position ourselves in a less formal setting to seek fresh insights to the challenges we face is not a new one. The guests talked of the histories of innovation at places like Bell Labs, Phillips and more recently and famously Google. The discoveries in these organisations often came about because they recognised the importance of providing space; space to play and space to talk with your peers. Professor Andrea Sella phrased it like this:

This idea of having your own private time, your own private space and the time to play is incredibly important. One thing that has happened in academia is the loss of common rooms for example. Places where people just kind of get together and talk about stuff. And out of those conversations, emerge new ideas that weren’t there before.

In the quest for ever improved efficiencies in education, perhaps we’re ‘knocking back’ the dough of serendipity; squeezing out the air and the breathing space we need to solve some of the challenges we face? In the last school in which I taught, the year after I left, an older building was flattened to make way for new facilities. In it had been the staffroom; it wasn’t replaced and I’m glad wasn’t there to experience the fallout. I wonder if Twitter might be a place where teachers go to talk and to play and that the talk and play lead to, or even constitute learning? As Professor Brian Cox observed when the discussion turned to grant funding:

So I suppose there’s that tension between directing the money to solve particular problems, but also allowing the play time which can lead to ultimately far more valuable discoveries in the longer term.

Once more I might interpret that as being similar to the juxtaposition between professional development, which addresses education’s ‘particular problems,’ and professional learning on Twitter leading to more valuable (but less predictable) outcomes further down the road.

Professional learning, my former life as a physics teacher and serendipitous discovery seemed to coalesce in a comment Lee Mack made when quizzed on why science hadn’t ignited his passion at school:

At school we used to do experiments to prove what we already knew. If a teacher had said to me ‘If I mix these two chemicals, do you know what’s going to happen? No? Neither do I!’ I would have been extremely interested very quickly.

Professional development addresses ‘what we already know’ (or want to know). As the teachers in Hustler et al’s (2003) research opined, CPD is driven more by national and school agendas than their personal need and interests. Being marginalised in this way is hardly likely to produce a thirst for discovery. Perhaps that’s why some teachers turn to Twitter? A place where you never know what the results of a visit might be? The hope for serendipity.

HUSTLER, David, et al. (2003). Teachers’ Perceptions of Continuing Professional Development. London, Department for Education and Skills. (429).



I know that teachers go to Twitter to talk; that’s already coming through from my pilot studies. I hadn’t considered though that serendipitous discovery might be a draw, or indeed that ‘play’ might be of significance. I thought I had a rare moment of insight. Err, no. When I started to research serendipity in the context of learning, it appears it’s already a ‘thing.’ In fact someone’s (Buchem, 2011) already thought about how this might apply for Twitter. Buchem proposes serendipitous learning as a subset of incidental learning (another ‘thing’ for me to check out!), and a form which is particularly engaging:

Gaining new insights or discovering interesting connections between seemingly unrelated bits of information are rewarding learning experiences which may generate important research ideas, transform current assumptions and encourage exploration and investigation leading to construction of new knowledge.

Its unpredictable and unstructured nature make serendipitous learning difficult to conceptualise, and Buchem advocates for further empirical research. Specifically we need research which describes ‘the actual processes of serendipitous learning and the nature of it outcomes.’

Looks like serendipitous learning might still be a fertile area for me to consider then. Then there’s the notion of play; wonder if that idea is taken?

BUCHEM, Ilona (2011). Serendipitous learning: Recognizing and fostering the potential of microblogging. [online]. Form@ re-open journal per la formazione in rete, 11 (74), 7-16.

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