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The Coffee House, Liquid Networks and The Challenge to Change

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I’m not sure if Steven Johnson loves coffee as much as I do, but he certainly has a great deal of appreciation for the coffee house! In his 2015 TEDTalk, Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson points out that, in addition to the coffee being consumed:

 the (other) thing that makes the coffee house important is the architecture of the space. It was a space where people would get together from different backgrounds, different fields of expertise, and share. It was a space, as Matt Ridley talked about, where ideas could have sex. This was their conjugal bed, in a sense -- ideas would get together there. And an astonishing number of innovations from this period have a coffeehouse somewhere in their story. (from transcript)

Johnson identifies the type of liquid network that characterizes the coffee house—both literally and metaphorically—as being another key pattern in the history of innovative ideas. Just as new insights in the mind are preceded by the creation of neural connections that likely didn’t exist previously, so too, new ideas that make their way into the world to become actual innovations do so in environments that allow ideas to collide, intermingle and form new pathways. But these liquid networks can be found in places other than coffee houses, pubs and other places of social gathering.

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CC photo by Vern's Pics

Reflecting on a study that underlines the importance of the weekly lab conference that takes place in many research facilities, Johnson extends his coffee house analogy:

The most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans sitting at a table—talking shop. When you work alone in an office…your ideas can get trapped in one place, stuck in your own initial biases. The social flow of the group conversation turns that private solid state into a liquid network. (p. 61)

Certainly those of us who have been involved in good quality professional learning communities (PLC) may have experienced both the power and beauty in the way that ideas seem to flow if the network is truly in a liquid state. Quite often, however, the excitement that comes from this type of generative environment can quickly hit a wall when group members return to their more solid and more isolated work environments!

So, just as I did some thinking out loud in my last entry about how Steven Johnson’s focus on the adjacent possible could help us reframe some of our thinking about the change that we envision for our schools, I’m wondering how the closely related metaphor of a liquid network might affect our sense of what is possible.

Let me provide one example before throwing the floor open to your ideas.

One of the common frustrations that was voiced right across the country when the CEA conducted its Challenge to Change conversations had to do with just how “siloed” school environments become as students move through the system. It isn’t long before the integrated nature of the kindergarten classroom dis-integrates into separate (and very traditional) disciplines taught by subject specialists, divided into distinct subject departments, housed in separate subject offices and connected by subject councils.

At the same time, an integrated, authentic curriculum has been an important pillar in the vision of school expressed by so many.

How might the metaphor of a liquid network help us innovate towards that vision? As an example, what new physical arrangements might help both broaden and deepen the conversations, the course development AND the type of learning that occurs at all levels of the system?

  1. What might develop if a Foods teacher shared an office with a Science teacher?
  2.  What might happen if the Art department and the History department shared common space? 
  3. What would be the result if the Music and Phys-ed Departments regularly met over coffee?

I’m not suggesting that change will happen by simply moving a little bit of furniture or forcing people to meet. What I am wondering, however, is how new insights into what might be possible in our schools if we became more aware of the power of liquid networks and how gathering new streams of thought around our working tables might be a catalyst for change. Lots more to explore here, but I'll rest to let you offer your perspective.

 In thinking about your own education context, what types of liquid networks already exist? Where are the opportunities to forge new relationships in order to bring new energy and perspective to your conversations and work? Do you have examples of liquid networks in other aspects of your life/work?