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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.

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:

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.