Teaching Opinion

Promoting Serendipity in Education Policy

By David B. Cohen — March 01, 2015 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

About 700 years ago, a Persian poet wrote the story of three princes of Serendip, whose powers of observation and deduction allowed them to describe, based only on its tracks, a camel that was blind in one eye, missing one tooth, lame in one foot, and carrying butter, honey, and a pregnant woman. Centuries later, after multiple iterations of the story in various cultures, Horace Walpole wrote a letter to Horace Mann in which he referenced that source in coining the English word serendipity, with essentially the same meaning it has today. Walpole noted that the princes’ unexpected discoveries came about by “accident and sagacity” - and while the latter half of that formula is often minimized in casual use of the word serendipity, it turns out there’s quite a body of writing about serendipity in business, science, technology and innovation, all of which tend to keep that “sagacity” in play. And for good reason.

I recently attended a talk at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, given by Lee Shulman, professor emeritus, and president emeritus of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Shulman was one of my instructors when I completed my master’s degree at Stanford twenty years ago, and we’ve kept in touch over the years, so I would gladly attend any talk he’s giving. This one had an intriguing title that offered a little extra incentive for me to go: Serendipity Policy in Education; Opportunity Is Not Enough.

Based on casual use of the word serendipity, I was curious to see what Shulman might suggest about education policy that goes beyond opportunity to promote pleasant, unexpected discoveries. What I learned had more to do with the sagacity of serendipity, the idea that these surprises in learning and innovation depend on prior knowledge and wisdom in order to capitalize on the accidental.

Shulman offered the well-known example of Louis Pasteur’s discovery of the principles behind vaccinations and acquired immunity, which came about through a mistaken lab procedure. To those who might argue that the discovery was more luck than genius, Pasteur responded “In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.” As Shulman presented the idea of education policy that favors serendipity, he made it clear, and I would reiterate, that it’s not a question of random pleasant surprises, but rather, cultivating both knowledge and the circumstances that lead to unexpected and innovative application of that knowledge.

The central question Shulman raised is this: if opportunity policy is about removing impediments to a well-designed educational experience, what would serendipity policy look like? Can we craft policy that recognizes and supports a need to prepare people to respond to chance, accident, the unpredictable and uncertain? There’s a tension there that Shulman has wrestled with directly in his career: when he used to teach the concept of evaluation, there was a challenge to anticipate and account for the unpredictable in teaching.

It’s more than a matter of academic curiosity; Shulman cited research done on medical decision-making that revealed expert practitioners are not those who make the fewest mistakes, but rather, those who recognize and correct mistakes most quickly and effectively. The implications for teachers and for students are that complex and dynamic situations will put everyone in situations requiring decisions based on always varying circumstances. Learning to navigate the unknown and still reach successful outcomes necessarily involves making and correcting some mistakes along the way. How can we foster circumstances that allow serendipity to work, where people have the sagacity needed to turn accident into discovery?

It’s a question of preparing the mind for discovery and innovation - for teachers, and students: for teachers, because education innovation must be led and implemented by skilled practitioners, and for students, because their continued education and future success in life and work depend on this mindset. Shulman noted that the Association of American Colleges and Universities is addressing these same issues through an initiative called Liberal Education and America’s Promise, authors of The LEAP Challenge: Education for a World of Unscripted Problems.

There are steps policy makers and school leaders can take to promote serendipity, or inhibit it. Shulman mentioned a number of examples of studies and policy initiatives suggesting that time is essential for good learning - not just the amount of time, but the rigidity of it. Giving teachers and students more time to study, collaborate, and persevere with challenges increases the likelihood of serendipity, while over-planning and strict enforcement of time limits can decrease opportunities. (There’s one of the reasons many accomplished teachers reject pacing guides, especially when impelmented top-down and with strict expectations of lock-step uniformity in execution). To the extent that system-wide assessments drive teaching and calendars, those assessments may hinder the type of learning we should promote. Shulman didn’t suggest, nor would I, that standardized assessment has no purpose or value in an educational system, but bad assessment and accountability policies skew priorities on campuses, and harm learning.

For the most part, however, Shulman suggested that school and district level policies and practices have the greater effect, and identified some avenues to examine and improve schools:

  • A culture of serendipity supports rather than punishes serendipity. Expect the unexpected. Learn from variation. Embrace unpredictability.
  • An architecture of serendipity uses physical space to encourage and enhance human interaction. Bring people together in common spaces that are inviting.
  • A pedagogy of serendipity creates on open system, influenced by the outside world, expecting productive failure, embracing the unknown, driven by curiosity and diverse perspectives around “unscripted” problems.

Again, serendipity is not about individual amusement or aimless meandering. There must be a knowledge base and a direction - but also an expectation of variability. Shulman cited what Jerome Bruner called the vicissitudes of intention: you need a plan, you work from intention, but you embrace the likelihood of unexpected developments.

As I’ve traveled around California visiting schools this year, I’ve seen plenty of serendipity; in classrooms led by skilled educators, with appropriate resources and support, it’s actually common. I’m not saying there’s enough of it, but it hasn’t been hard to find either. Just last week, I watched fifth graders design robots (Scribble-bots) built with basic materials, without directions or blueprints; two days later, I saw a high school English teacher guiding seniors in an exploration of American education, having them critically assess a variety of sources, without predetermining which sources to use or what questions to ask.

Early on, I described my journey this year as an attempt at “capturing the spark” that animates great teachers and schools. The concept of serendipity will definitely help draw out the nature of that spark.

Lee Shulman’s talk repeatedly touched on dualities that, if balanced, help us understand good learning conditions: sagacity and accident, preparation and chance, intention and vicissitude. At the policy-making level, there’s not as much to do concerning accident, chance, and vicissitude in learning, so policymakers focus on what they can define and control. Then, they may be inclined to build into policies some degree of punishment to ensure compliance. How much better off would we be if teachers and students could also hold policymakers accountable for promoting (or at a minimum, not inhibiting) serendipity as a vital aspect of better learning and thriving schools?

Photos: Mangla Oza reacts to a student’s success building a Scribble-Bot at Duveneck Elementary School, Palo Alto, CA; by David B. Cohen.
Harriet Garcia leads a class discussion at Independence High School, San Jose, CA; by David B. Cohen

The opinions expressed in Road Trips in Education are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.