The Usefulness of Nonsense

“That’s just the way it is
Some things will never change
That’s just the way it is
But don’t you believe them”

Bruce Hornsby and The Range; The Way it Is

I’m finishing up a book called The Search for Aliens: A Rough Guide to Life on Other Worlds by Piers Bizony. Don’t laugh! I love this stuff. It inspires me. It makes me think. It encourages me to ask fruit-loopy questions without fear but above all, this topic humbles me. Why? For me I find the spiritual, religious, and scientific connections related to the plausibility of life elsewhere to compelling to ignore and subsequently subscribe to the notion that God would ONLY create life on our little blue planet. Why would such a Creator limit their talents to just one planet when billions upon billions (That’s for you Sagan fans!) of celestial bodies roam the universe. But that’s for another day.

On page 212 of this book is a chapter titled The Usefulness of Nonsense. It begins in a way I think many of our best and most innovative minds in education reform today are dismantling the way it is in public education. “When it comes to alien intelligences, countless supposedly academic papers by some of the best minds on Earth blur the boundaries between plausible ideas and speculative fancies.” I simply call this the “What if?” question or, as two of my favorite Twitter personalities (@B_Wagoner and @robinmebus) would call them, “bat (expletive) crazy” ideas!

As an avid follower of my Twitter account, I’m no longer surprised at the wealth and variety of ideas being shared by people who are asking all the right “What if?” questions. I’m confident most of today’s boldest reform efforts started out as beer-talk during a late night gathering at a pub, or over lunch or during a team meeting, at a sporting event, while driving alone on a long stretch of highway or while on vacation with the family. Whenever the mind is freed of the known and comfortable, amazing things can happen. If drunken words are sober thoughts then the nonsensical ideas we share about transforming education must be based on some shred of unspoken truth or simple gut intuition. One simply needs to look at the rise of the flipped classroom, standards-based reporting, virtual courses/schools, 1:1 schools, social media in the classroom and so on. All of these concepts had humble beginnings as someone’s whimsical ‘What-iffing”. So how did these and the other myriad ed reform efforts take hold? Simple. Like minds challenged the system. They didn’t fear the system.

  So how can we as school leaders tap into the usefulness of  nonsense? Face-time is critical and setting up the right environment is crucial. How about…?

"What if we had two person teams?"

“What if we had two person teams?”

  • setting up a “What if?” think-tank in your school? No agenda. No chairperson. Make it a place where anybody can attend and share their idea(s) with the expressed intent of getting and giving feedback in order to help one another grow their idea.
  • implementing PLCs in your school? The nature of quality PLCs will encourage continued growth and improvement by stimulating new thinking to old strategies.
  • if you are a principal or lead teacher of a team, give away the power to create solutions to problems to those closest to the situation? Fresh eyes to old problems is invaluable.
  • talking to students? Informal lunchroom conversations are very revealing. Food to kids is like sodium pentothal! Give them some pizza and a soda and they will tell you anything and…they are usually very insightful.
  • if you took your committees off campus for some of their work? We’ve done this with our Scheduling Committee and have had wonderful results and found new right answers in an unfamiliar setting.
  • engaging social media? Twitter has become my most preferred method of professional development. Start a hashtag (#) with your own question or idea. You’ll be surprised at what’s out there.

I think it’s safe to assume that, like scientific thinking, every topic today relating to transforming public schools began with one revolutionary yet simple question. “What if…?”

It’s Better in the Middle!


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