Faculty Focus


Why You Should Encourage Collisions Between Students

We want our students to develop original insights, and are often disappointed when discussion provides little in the way of original thought. But this is not the students’ fault. The traditional classroom encourages students to try to give the instructor what the student thinks the instructor wants to hear.

But it turns out that many of today’s true innovators developed their ideas outside of the classroom. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to create Microsoft after tinkering with ideas in his dorm room with co-founder Paul Allen, and Mark Zuckerberg was nearly thrown out of Harvard after he started Facebook as a response to getting dumped by his girlfriend.

Teaching with Technology column

There is science behind these examples. A study found that people in large cities are 15% more productive than those in small cities because they are more creative (Lehrer, 52). The reason is not due to the availability of education or the arts, but rather the larger number of “collisions” with others—chance meetings that give them a new perspective on what they are doing.

Can these collisions be encouraged? Yes. A good example is Google, which gives its engineers one day a week to work on anything they want. Google also has a corporate policy that no employee is ever more than 100 feet from free food. They want employees to bump into one another at the free food and share ideas. They understand that this informal sharing is far better than the formal discussion at meetings, which is regulated by power positions and the like. They want employees to form teams around ideas based on their interests, not corporate structure. They also have employees post information about their projects to a company-wide message board where everyone can comment on them. An employee from another department may lend some insights to the plan, or decide to join the working group.

Classroom discussion is not unlike the formal meetings in corporate structure, which are lauded as a means of encouraging the flow of ideas, but usually do little of that. Like corporate meetings, students in a classroom as self-conscious of how they appear to others.

So what can teachers do to foster “collisions” among students? Even online discussion within an LMS tends to be restricted by the position of the instructor and pre-set questions. But some teaching tools can cultivate structured experimentation:

  • Student blogs: Giving each student a blog provides them with a voice and ownership of the discussion. Students feel more free to experiment, and other students are comfortable commenting on each other’s posts. Importantly, blogs allow students to create a “Personal Learning Environment” where they can pursue their interests with others, including those outside of the institution. A host of free systems allow students to set up blogs without any technical skills.
  • VoiceThread Lectures: A VoiceThread lecture allows students who have an idea related to that day’s lesson to attach their idea directly to the lecture at the place where it comes up, rather than later in a separate discussion thread. The discussion is much more creative because it is not channeled by prestocked discussion questions in a traditional LMS.
  • Digital Storytelling: Digital storytelling forces students to express a concept as a story illustrated with voice, photos, and video. It widens a student’s perspective on a topic and generates insights they would not have had with a text report. The product is also much more interesting for others, and could be posted to the student’s blog for commentary.

Foster creativity by encouraging collisions in your class.

As usual, I welcome your comments, criticisms, and cries of outrage in the comments section of the blog.


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

Jonah Lehrer, A Physicist Solves the City, New York Times Magazine, December 18, 2010.

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

John Orlando, Pump up Your Online Discussions with VoiceThread, Faculty Focus.

John Orlando, Digital Storytelling Can Help Boost Learning, Faculty Focus.