From coals to diamonds – the evolution of ideas

One of the most valuable lessons from my experimental language workshop was seeing how ideas can change, evolve and die when in contact with reality. What I imagined the workshop would look like and what it turned out to be are two things that not only look different, but are also based on very different principles.

I’m posting an email I’ve recently sent to a friend of mine which sprang out of one of our discussions about language learning, trying out new ideas etc. In it you will see the key stages of the evolution of my workshop and some of my personal reflections on the whole topic.  Name and other personal details have been removed.

“Anyways, we were talking about how reality can mess with our ideas which sound so cool, yet don’t really work like we expect them to. As you know, I’m currently doing the experimental English language workshop, and I mentioned how much the thing changed from what I thought it would be  […]  Here’s the progression in my head (I’ve attached a diagram, cause inspiration struck and it was too much fun not to make it 😀 ).

the evolution of ideas in 6 steps

the evolution of ideas (click to enlarge)

– The 1st idea – the COAL phase (Concept Of Awesome Levels): This is the idea in its raw form: a powerful image which just screams “look at me, I’m awesome on so many awesome levels!” It doesn’t have to be completely clearly defined; it’s the concept itself which pulsates with a “it’s just feels right” vibe.

In my case, the idea I had was a room for learning Japanese in which in one corner you’ve got a bar, a tea ceremony in the second, beanbags and a Playstation with Japanese games in the third etc. with teachers in roles appropriate for each corner. Basically, a small room which simulates Japan.

– The 1st revision – the RAW phase – (Reality Appends Work-plan):You start fleshing out your idea, adding details, trying to make it comfort to reality. Here you’re slowly coming to the end of the idea honeymoon in your head, realizing that it requires quite a bit of tweaking to make it feasible; but you’re still thrilled – after all, since the idea sounds so cool in your head, how could it possibly not work?

In my case, out of the first idea I took what seemed to be the essence why I thought it was cool: it was all about creating a virtual reality in which people learn a language through physical actions, movement, colors, sounds, taste etc. The quintessential example was the fruit stand, where participants would, while surrounded by sounds and pictures from the supermarket, buy actual fruit, smell it, taste it etc. What we were looking for, basically, was a way for people to learn a foreign language effectively and pleasurably in big groups.

– The 1st contact with realitythe WAR phase (What About Row?”): When we tried the fruit stand out, we realized it was a lot of fun – for those who were doing the actual buying. As for those standing in the queue (row :), well, they weren’t really doing anything. Later on in the feedback the participants confirmed our suspicions: it was really fun doing the shopping, but several people commented about the problem of the row. On the other hand, when everyone was participating in the making of fruit salads, which came after the shopping, that segment received unanimous praise.

So, this is the segment where your idea makes contact with reality. You try it out and you see that a) it either works perfectly (rarely happens), b) it works, but not entirely – something you overlooked is making a problem (most common) and c) it doesn’t work at all (seems to happen much more often than a) :-/ ). In our case, it was b), which means we go to:

– The 2nd revision – the SOLVE phase (Sack Our Line, Victory Ensues): We started discussing how to make our technique work with two dozen people. We simply couldn’t find a good solution for what to do with the queue (or line :), so we went back to what we knew from the participants’ feedback: When people aren’t involved, they’re not learning and they’re not having fun, but when they were all involved, everyone was having a great time. So, what do we do?

Well, the participants’ feedback gave us the answer: we needed to involve them all, and this means we don’t even need the queue! So, we made 5 fruit stands, with 5 people at each stand (two sellers and three buyers), and we gave them simple guidelines – in the 1st round, the sellers were very enthusiastic to sell, in the 2nd the buyers could haggle etc. After every round (around 4-5 min), everyone moves to the right, so that after some 5-6 rounds everyone had a chance to be both a buyer and a seller at least once. Also, changing partners and having different guidelines for each round was something we thought should keep the exercise fresh and interesting.

We still couldn’t be sure that it would work, but there was a distinct feeling that we were on the right track. We were catching a glimpse of the principles behind our technique, but the true test was yet to come:

– The 2nd contact with reality the WHEEE! phase (Whoa, Hey, Everyone’s Enjoying Everything!): Here you try out your refined idea and you realize it actually works! Some small part might need a bit more tweaking, but overall it’s a success!

Our new shopping simulation worked great! All the participants were constantly participating and having a lot of fun in this exercise!

– After the successful trial comes the DIAMOND phase (Dude, I Am Majestically Observing New Dimensions): the long and arduous journey of your first lump-of-coal of an idea into a shining diamond! Here you integrate all your real-world experience and you formulate it into some sort of a coherent whole – a method, technique or trick based on some clearly stated principles. Also, in this stage the idea starts to inspire you to make new ideas and uncover some new, deeper principles behind it!

In our case, we observed what went right in the segment and which principles were at work there. So, when everyone was doing something, everyone was having fun – thus, the principle we uncovered there is “When people are involved, they learn and have fun – thus, everyone has to be involved all the time”. As I mentioned, this was also confirmed by the participants themselves, through evaluations. This is what not only made the shopping exercise a success, but it helped us define one of the principles which would henceforth guide us in defining practically all of our other techniques! This technique gave us a glimpse into the dimension of effective, engaging and fun language learning in large groups, so to speak, and it inspired us in many other ways.

So, that’s basically how our workshop evolved, from a weird, expensive idea into something that actually works In Real Life. I’ve been applying these principles for working with our ideas for a few weeks now, and so far they’re definitely giving results. Here is a sort of a big lesson I’ve learned about ideas during my work:

– When you see that an idea isn’t working, don’t try to make the reality comfort to it. Rather, change the idea itself. It’s all about what you intended the idea to accomplish, not what the idea itself is! I could have been egoistical about my VR room idea and stuck with the sounds, images etc. but it simply doesn’t work. Instead, I’ve realized that what I wanted to achieve with that idea was a room in which a lot of people could learn a language effectively while enjoying themselves. Once we tested out the idea and saw it didn’t quite work, we went back to the principles, adjusted it and pressed Play again; and it worked!

Your ideas will most often behave differently in real life, compared to the awesome trailer in your head, sometimes dramatically badly. Build upon the (unavoidable) failure – Your ideas will simply not work sometimes, and yet you feel that there’s something right about it. It probably means that you’re onto something, yet that something can only be achieved in quite a different way. Tinker with your idea and see what happens, and don’t be afraid to fail. I think our brains work in such a way that they need something concrete which they take as a point of reference and build upon that, no matter how bad that something is! The way we most often come up with our techniques for our workshop is that we brainstorm a bit, one of us says something which sounds cool to him, but it seems like it really can’t work. Then we try to see what’s good about that first idea, and we build upon it. Oftentimes it changes into something completely different, but if that first ‘’bad’’ idea wasn’t there, the final product wouldn’t exist!

– Another important thing is that your idea will change a lot! It will quite often look a lot different than the first idea. Again, remember, it’s not about your idea, it’s not about your ego, it’s about the result you want to achieve!

– Another valuable and stress-relieving lesson was: Sometimes the idea simply doesn’t work, even when you change it! So, ABANDON IT! Accept that not everything you think about is worth your weight in gold. If the idea does have some merit, your brain will subconsciously tinker with it while you’re doing something else and inspire you at some unexpected point in the future. Or, it won’t. Just don’t lose too much sleep over it”

That’s the email. I will write some sort of a follow-up with some more observations, because I think that one of the keys of making a better system of education (or a better system of anything) is not only defining what we want to get out of it, but also realizing that what we think sounds great quite possibly might not work at all – it is the focus on what we want to achieve which should guide us to defining how we want to achieve it.

7 Comments to “From coals to diamonds – the evolution of ideas”

  1. fruit salad 😀
    fruit cake is next u fruit cake 😀

  2. ah, yes, while we’re at it, you were promising me that big red cherry some time ago? 😛 😀

  3. awesome diagram!!! 😀
    and a cool radio interview! (although my connection was awful and i heard only half of it 😦

  4. yay 😀
    (Ken Robinson wolud be proud 🙂 )

  5. Send me the interview as well lad!

    A bit of repetition in this text (We get it, if the idea don’t work, adjust it, keep the goal in mind).

    But we did talk about all this before… so thumbs up 😉

  6. @Bruna
    I have yet to make him proud 😉

    I think people tend to stick to their first ideas way too much, either out of ego-tripping or because they genuinely believe it’s a good idea, no matter what the results are showing. So, that’s probably the one thought I wanted the reader to take away from this text. I might have overdone it, but I felt it was necessary 😀

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