Percolating with Einstein

This post is part of a series of posts called “Memory & Learning Monday” that consider some of the latest developments in cognitive psychology and other disciplines.

One of my favorite quotes attributed to Einstein is “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” It’s a favorite because I’ve never been a fast worker, thinker, reader of anything. I’m more like the little engine telling himself, “I think I can, I think I can . . .” Einstein offers hope of brilliance as long as I’m actively patient.

This past summer, I came across a concept that reminded me of this quote while reading How We Learn by Benedict Carey called “percolation.” It’s Carey’s solution for solving “messier, protracted problems” such as the ones we find when writing term papers, creating business plans, drawing construction blueprints, etc. The key ingredient is creativity, a process that needs time to do well. It’s not the quick-fix strategy incubation but what Carey describes as “an extended-release pill,” his way of putting procrastination to good use (147). Want to percolate? Read on.

Percolation works essentially like this. You have a project that relies on your creativity for originality, such as you might want to offer in a term paper. You begin by journaling your thoughts, perhaps listing a number of questions that you would like to be able to answer by the end. You work on the project a little every day so that you create some traction—i.e., forward movement that feels like you understand the problems more clearly, articulate the possible solutions more concisely, etc. When you encounter seemingly irreconcilable ideas, you try one way then another without the pressure of having to reconcile the issues right now; eventually, you find a solution. All the time, the ideas and concepts, constructions and deconstructions of what you have been working on are being stirred together inside the pot of your mind so that during an afternoon walk in the park or an early morning run a solution bubbles to the top at which point you make a mental note and reflect on it during your next journaling session. You find yourself working on the project consciously and subconsciously over the course of several months.

That’s percolating.

As teachers, we often take percolating somewhat for granted. We eat, sleep, and breathe our academic interests. I have been working for months on a complicated passage from Plato’s Sophist on impersonation and pedagogical practice, and my mind reaches incessantly at the smallest hint of a similarity in all kinds of situations: it’s Orson Welles’ use of mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai or an educational talk on role-playing or—and this really happened—the Wild Kratts episode on cheetahs that sends me exuberantly forward with my argument that Plato is reconsidering the usefulness of mimetic performance within a pedagogical context wholly separate from Isocrates’ conception of aretē yet connected to an epistemology emphasizing universal forms over relativity.

Maybe it sounds like nonsense. Just like we sound to students when hoping that they’ll come up with something brilliant on that term paper we assign at the end of October and want to collect by Thanksgiving Break so we can grade them before finals. In our minds, they have a month to work on a project we’ve been talking to them about for two months. How long should it take to come up with something interesting in 5-10 pages? Well, longer than a month. Probably.

Percolation, the process by which we slog through protracted problems and come out on the other end transformed in our understanding and perspective, takes time. That’s why it’s recommended that in order to get better results—and by “better” I mean more original and innovative products, clearly and concisely articulated—we begin the process sooner for students rather than later. Projects that begin Week 1 with journal entries, allow for early drafts of raw, un-nuanced creativity, and span the length of the semester have a greater chance of percolating, of letting “new thoughts . . . float to the surface only when fully cooked, one or two at a time, like dumplings in a simmering pot” (133) as Carey so poetically muses. Perhaps students will not feel the need to sound smart but rather, like Einstein, “stay with problems longer” and actually grow smarter and more confident in their abilities. Maybe.

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