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March 28, 2011


Intentional Serendipity

by Peter Skillen


For some ten to fifteen years, I have called my computer ‘Intentional Serendipity’. I did this somewhat flippantly at the time because I had recognized how many wonderful events seemed to serendipitously occur in my professional and personal life. (In fact, my spouse has suggested that I have a well-placed horseshoe that brings me good luck!)

Whether it was in my teaching, or researching, writing, holidays, or adventures- I always seemed to have ‘good luck’ with the ways things unfolded and turned out. Of course, I knew it wasn’t really luck.


It appeared to be related to my willingness to be open and flexible to opportunities as they arose. Although I might have made plans to pursue things in a certain way, those plans were rarely etched in stone. I was on the lookout for chance events, signals, ideas that might lead us in a better direction. I believe we should maintain an opportunistic vigilance.

…maintain an opportunistic vigilance.

So often, if our plans are made in a top-down fashion, we are bound and determined to follow them. Not me. For most things. I see planning as important – but, I view the ability to change those plans rapidly as circumstances dictate, to be even more important.

The Power of “Why?”

The trick, I think, is to know ‘why’ you are making the plans. Understand the ‘why’ deeply to your core. The plans are actually the ‘how’ and ‘what’. The ‘why’ becomes your ‘intention’. The ‘how’ and ‘what’ are the ways in which your intentions are achieved. These can be flexible…and you should always keep your eyes open to changing them to better achieve your intentions.

We, leaders at the YMCA of Greater Toronto, have been asked by our CEO, Medhat Mahdy, to always start with “Why” when we are developing a new project or initiative. It is a request I honour and respect.

The Power of Pull

So after all of this time believing in the intentionality of serendipitous occurrences, whose book do I pick up but John Seely Brown‘s “The Power of Pull”1.

John Seely Brown

Image via Wikipedia

Interestingly, I have been reading J.S. Brown’s work since the eighties because he is a cognitive scientist who worked at Xerox PARC. In fact, JSB was the “Chief Scientist of Xerox Corporation and the director of its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)—a position he held for nearly two decades. While head of PARC, Brown expanded the role of corporate research to include such topics as organizational learning, knowledge management, complex adaptive systems, and nano/mems technologies. He was a cofounder of the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL). His personal research interests include the management of radical innovation, digital youth culture, digital media, and new forms of communication and learning.2” So as a teacher and student of ‘learning’, I worked with his extended family of colleagues at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (now OISE/UT) – including Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter.

The Power of Pull is worth the read. One of the points the authors emphasize is the role of serendipity in moving organizations to capitalize on the connections across the organization. They speak of how we can ‘shape’ serendipitous encounters; how we can organize environments so that beneficial communications and connections are more likely to occur; how we can ‘pull’ information, resources and ideas from the ‘edge’ to the ‘core’.

…we must accommodate the rapidity of ‘knowledge flows’ that stream over us.

So I believe in ‘intentional serendipity’. It is not luck. It is a way of being in the world that suggests we must accommodate the rapidity of

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

‘knowledge flows’ that stream over us.

After all, it was rather serendipitous that I discovered The Power of Pull. I had shaped the possibility that it would be discovered by me – through Twitter, blogs, conversation, and, yes, Amazon bots!

1Actually, the Power of Pull is authored by John Seely Brown, Lang Davidson and John Hagel III

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Apr 6 2011

    I knew when I saw M.E.’s tweet, I would want to read this. I, too, believe in serendipity and believe in opportunities availing themselves to us because of a willingness to be flexible and open. I so get this! And I like how you’ve framed it in lesson planning as well.
    John Seely Brown speaks to me (I’m reading his current book right now). “The harder you fight to hold on to specific assumptions, the more likely there’s gold in letting go of them, ” he says. I like the idea of going for the gold:) Thanks for sharing.

  2. Apr 6 2011

    Hi Susan,

    Great to meet you! Thank you for your comment. I used to get criticized by some of my teaching colleagues for being too ‘laissez faire’, too unplanned, too chaotic. Speaking of reframing, it often got me down and made me feel like I was not working hard enough at lesson planning and structure and all. But, in fact, I always had the ‘bigger goal(s) in mind’. I had the ‘intention’.

    Part of that intention was that the kids could ‘take charge of their own learning’ and be responsible not just for their own learning but also for the learning of others. Part of it was that I expect kids (people!) to set their own learning goals, generate strategies for achieving those goals, evaluate & select wise strategies, implement them and then reflect on the efficacy of their efforts.

    Whoa! That’s a far cry from having them just learn the content! 🙂 So, I reframed it to realize that my expectations are actually higher than if I were to do it the ‘other way’.

    But, I have to regularly give myself the ‘It’s ok Peter. You are doing the right thing,’ lecture!

    This philosophy has been implemented into a staff learning model – well, part of a model – that @brendasherry and I have called “Minds On Media”.

    If you are interested, I’d be happy to share the ideas with you!

    Let’s ‘go for the gold’!!!

    Looking forward to learning with you.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Collaborative Projects: What Does It Mean to ‘Co-construct’? « The Construction Zone
  2. Pursuing Intentional Serendipity | Ideas and Thoughts
  3. There is No Such Thing as Serendipity - CogDogBlog
  4. Intentional Serendipity – Unpacked! | The Construction Zone
  5. Intentional Serendipity – Unpacked! |
  6. Metacognition: A ‘Way of Being’ in the Classroom | The Construction Zone

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