I can’t count the number of times I have discovered a new way of teaching a concept or solved a problem while taking a walk, driving aimlessly or riding my bicycle. Those “aha” moments occur when I least expect them and when I’m not concentrating on the unsolved issue.
According to Jason Gots, who wrote Why Top Innovators Make Time to Waste Time, 3M, one of the most innovative companies in the U.S., has adopted “wasting time” as a core philosophy. According to Gots’ article, 3M has a 15% rule that encourages employees to spend 15% of their time “doing nothing.” During this 15% time, employees are encouraged to do what helps them be creative: take a nap or play games. This was to encourage employees to solve problems in different ways and to think creatively.
And according to the article, science supports that philosophy. Quoting from the article:
Joydeep Bhattacharaya, a psychologist studying attention and creative problem-solving at Goldsmiths, University of London, has managed to pinpoint creative insight in the brain. Moments before subjects solve a tricky creative problem, a steady stream of alpha waves emanates from the right hemisphere of the brain – the half more closely associated with abstract thinking than with tightly focused logical reasoning. What stimulates alpha waves? Laughter, a warm shower, a game of ping pong – activities that we find relaxing and pleasurable and that give the mind freedom to wander. Creative workers consistently report arriving at solutions to problems they’ve been struggling with for weeks while lying in bed on a lazy Sunday morning.
3M’s philosophy and the science of creativity are consistent with my own experience. I find that when I “work” or concentrate intensely for too long, I get work done, but I may feel incredibly rushed and unsettled. Occasionally I feel as though I’m missing something. During that time, I feel as though there’s another solution somewhere–a solution that’s elusive.
How can we use”time wasting” to promote learning? Should we provide “play” time during classes? I know that when I assign cases or scenarios for small group discussions in class, some groups finish earlier than others. To keep those students busy, I plan an additional step for the students in that group. I might add a question or ask that group to complete an additional task.
But maybe I should relax. Maybe I should permit the students who finish early to discuss other classes they’re taking and how well they’re completing work in another classes. Those off-task discussions seldom last more than 3-4 minutes during a 50 minute class [that’s only 8% of the time]. And maybe those discussions help students reflect on the information.
Are there other ways we can use this information to improve learning?
So, the next time you see me staring into space, don’t disturb me. I might just be creating new and innovative solutions.