September 9th, 2011

Bring Commonplacing Back to Education


Steven Johnson attributes much of the progress humanity made in science during the Enlightenment to the widespread practice at the time of “commonplacing.” People would carry around a notebook in which they would record interesting passages that they read, comments from others, or thoughts that they had (Johnson, 86).

Teaching with Technology column

John Locke, for instance, began his book during his first year at Oxford, and eventually developed an indexing system that organized the entries by subject. That indexing system was eventually published by John Bell, whose work influenced people such as Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin (Johnson 87). These works were even passed from generation to generation.

The importance of commonplacing was that it cultivated the “slow hunch.” Most truly groundbreaking insights began as vaguely formed hunches. These hunches take time to develop, often years. Commonplacing nurtures the hunch by preserving thoughts that become significant pieces to a puzzle years later.

The practice also allowed people to pull together seemingly disparate elements into a coherent mosaic. Robert Darnton describes it beautifully:

“Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.”

Next to this passage I wrote in giant letters “Blog!!!” A blog is the modern commonplace book. The blog fits the above description perfectly. The blog I am writing here is helping me grow my own slow hunch about the personal learning environment and technology.

The classroom does not encourage the slow hunch. An idea must be well formed in a paper or presentation by the end of the term or it gets marked down. We have done little to cultivate a student’s slow hunch that grows over many courses or years.

We should be encouraging, maybe even requiring, our students to write a blog that expresses their thoughts on the topics they encounter inside and outside of the classroom. The value of a blog is that ideas on different topics are expressed as they occur, yet the postings also can be indexed to allow the student to draw them together later. Plus, the blog makes commonplacing public, allowing others to contribute their own insights to the idea.

So let’s use blogging to bring back commonplacing in education.

As always, I welcome your comments, criticisms, and cries of outrage on the blog.

Robert Darnton, Extraordinary Commonplaces, New York Review of Books, no. 20 (2000), 82-87.

Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, (Riverhead Books: 2010, New York).

John Orlando, Blogging to Improve Student Learning: Tips and Tools for Getting Started, Faculty Focus.

John Orlando, Personal Learning Environments Help Students Extend Learning Beyond the Classroom, Faculty Focus.