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January 17, 2012

6

Intentional Serendipity – Unpacked!

by Peter Skillen

PART 1 – Intentional serendipity ≠ engineered serendipity 🙂

I am giggling at the interest in the term Intentional Serendipity. I even tried to get it included in my job title – Manager of Intentional Serendipity.  I have used it for several conferences as the tagline on my nametag! That sure started many a conversation.

However, as with any term tossed out there without due diligence of explanation and context as in a previous post, the meaning will be constructed by the perspectives of the reader! “The reader writes the story,” as they say.

Dean Shareski, in “Pursuing Intentional Serendipity,” gives some insightful examples that are relatively consistent with my perspectives on this seemingly conflicted construct. Alan Levine, in “There is No Such Thing As Serendipity,” takes a close look at ‘serendipity’ and provides some excellent thoughts and references about its nature.

Alan suggests that “It can’t be serendipity and intentional, because serendipity is accidental…  serendipity is not intentional, nor is it a thing we can pursue– it is a force generated as a secondary (or many-ary) results of our actions of sharing, helping, contributing. It is when we create a potential opportunity for the unexpected to happen…”

…Intentional serendipity relies on the vigilance of the learner…

Strangely enough, I never considered ‘intentional serendipity’ to be the same as ‘engineered serendipity.’  So I am glad this discussion has erupted because it affords some unpacking of the term!  For me, it is not about the ‘intention’ to create serendipity.  I am not speaking of constructing ‘chance’ events or encounters.  I have been thinking more of a learner’s stance – one with an ‘intention’ to learn.  If you hold an attuned intention to learn, then you will have sentinels at the watch for all that goes by. You will be ‘at the ready’ to opportunistically grasp anything that is useful to your learning. So you are not constructing events. Rather you are vigilant so that you do not miss events relevant to your intention. Intentional serendipity relies on the vigilance of the learner within the learning space.  The intentional learner may set the conditions of that learning space to optimize opportunities – opportunities conducive to the task at hand. It may be by turning on all the knowledge flows – twitter, text, skype, etc. Or it may be by selecting a place of silence for reflection and inner workings of the mind and heart.

Of course, this requires some skill and attention. 🙂

PART 11 – The relationship of ‘intentional serendipity’ to ‘intentional learning’ theory

Learning to be intentional…

The notion of ‘intentional serendipity’ arose out of my studies with Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter who developed ‘intentional learning’ theory.  They briefly describe Intentional Learning as the voluntary direction of mental effort, or, the wilful allocation of spare mental capacity. That is, cognitive capacity that is not already engaged by the ongoing task may be turned back into the task. This is characterized by activities, behaviours and displays of skills many of which may be described as metacognitive. Metacognition is usually considered to consist of both knowledge about cognition and regulation of cognition.  Intentional Learners are assertive in their approach to learning. They set goals – both task and cognitive goals.  They choose to, and are able to, apply any unused mental effort to increase their proficiency on the task or to generalize that which is being learned to other tasks or other domains. They consider, not only the task at hand, but also the larger spectrum in which such learning is embedded. The student considers the knowledge explicitly and separate from the present task. There is consideration for when and where that knowledge can be used in the future. They negotiate meaning with their peers. They ask questions. They seek answers and construct solutions.

…become expert at being expert

Intentional learners are learning to become expert at becoming expert. That is to say, not only are they learning declarative, subject matter and procedural functionality, they are acquiring valuable metacognitive knowledge as well.

Intentional learning differs from metacognition

Intentional Learning theory differs from metacognitive theory in that there is an explicit recognition of other aspects of self.  Intentional Learners are developing, not only well-developed metacognitive skills, but also attitudes (an affective stance), motivations, and social behaviours that are focused on, and conducive to, advancing one’s own knowledge and the knowledge of others. Bereiter & Scardamalia suggest that to generate a useful educational theory one cannot concentrate solely on the knowledge aspect  of intentional cognition, but must also come to understand and include other aspects as well. These include motivation, affect, allocation-of-resources, and ecology.

Intentional learners and the ZPD

Intentional Learning is a frame of mind that is characterized by a student’s ability to be in control of their own Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This is central to being in charge of one’s own learning. The ZPD may be defined as the zone in which we can accomplish a task with the assistance, or accompaniment, of a more knowledgeable other – a task that we could not handle alone. (ZPD – Who’s In Charge Here?)

“…learning is a process of enculturation…”

IL is a frame of mind that thrives in a classroom culture focused on students’ taking charge of their own learning. Many agree that the cultural surround affects learning.  Newman et al say, “In the Vygotskian approach to instruction, changes in the whole interactional system, not just in the student, are thus considered in the analysis of cognitive change.” John Seely Brown et al suggest that “learning is … a process of enculturation.” What people learn is often “a product of the ambient culture rather than of explicit teaching.” This implies that the belief structures, the personal interactivity, the nature of the activities and the atmosphere of a learning community are critical determinants of what is learned. This is not to say that explicit teaching is not an appropriate technique. Rather, it is but one of the components of a culture conducive to the development and support of IL.

…student in control…

If we want students to be in charge of their own learning, then it necessitates that we create environments where this is most likely to occur.  Any tools and techniques, therefore, that are to be used within an environment designed to promote and support ‘mindfulness’ or IL should be considered within this context of shifting the control of the learning over to the student.

Summary

…it is not the serendipity that is intentional, it is the learner’s frame of mind.

So I am not speaking of constructing serendipity. I mean that we need to empower learners to be intentional and to create a cultural surround that is conducive to supporting those intentions. It is not the serendipity that is intentional. It is the learner’s frame of mind.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jan 17 2012

    Thanks for the thorough walk through Peter, and I hope you hold on that title. When I read your original post I did get a sense of your idea and were not advocating that on can actually engineer serendipity. It just rang as an odd phrase that is clearer with a full explanation as you have done.

    To me what is more complex to explain are processes/strategies to get in the path of topics, ideas, sources, people that are outside our usual realm of intentions- getting inputs and ideas from unexpected places.

    Digging into some of your resource links– thanks again.

    Reply
    • Jan 19 2012

      Hey Alan,
      Thx for your response!

      I was thrilled that you mentioned the points you did because it gave me an opportunity to re-visit the expression and think more deeply about it all.

      I agree that the tough part is understanding and explaining the ways to set yourself up for serendipitous occurrences. I have been thinking a lot about that lately. One of the things that comes to mind right now is to be on the edge of the ‘echo chamber’. Being right in it doesn’t help. Perhaps being too far out of it is too disconnected. Somewhere on the edge seems good to me. LOL

      thx alan
      peter

      Reply
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