Innovation can be planned. Brilliance can come from meticulous attention to detail and not letting the smallest detail go unnoticed. See every Stanley Kubrick and James Cameron film for examples of this. See the teacher down the hall who really knows the curriculum front to back and builds lessons like you've never seen, down to the minute, and then manages to pull them off more often than not.
People like me love saying that accidents are where real learning occurs. That it's the unplanned moments where flashes of brilliance are allowed to come through. That boundaries and constrictions, self-imposed or otherwise, can lead to real creativity.
I'm also reflective enough to constantly wonder if I'm justifying my own peccadilloes by saying all that. That being the case, I'm pretty invested in this particular line of bovine excrement. I do believe in the beauty of limitations and the value of forced creativity. For myself and my process, the end of my rope is where I find a lot of my best ideas. Accidentally. Or not. Luck is preparation meeting opportunity, so sayith Roman philosopher Seneca, quoting American philosopher Oprah.
My go-to example when I talk about this is always JAWS. One, because it's one of my favorite movies, and two because it's literally the perfect example of this. If the shark had worked, if Robert Shaw hadn't been a drunk, if Steven Spielberg hadn't gotten screenwriter Carl Gottlieb to be on set and live with him during filming, if Richard Dreyfuss hadn't panicked about his career and decided to play Hooper, and again, if the shark, THE TITLE CHARACTER, had worked, JAWS wouldn't be the classic it is. It had to go wrong in order to force Steven Spielberg to think around every corner and create a truly terrifying adventure in which you don't see the title character at all until over halfway through the movie, but you don't need to.
In this case I would rather use a different example. Still, oddly enough, a Steven Spielberg film though. This time I want to talk about RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the first (and best, followed by Last Crusade then Temple of Doom and that's the only three, fight me) Indiana Jones movie.
This is a story that everyone who is a fan of the movie knows, it's been told over and over, but to be sure everyone is on the same page, I'll recount it one more time. First, watch the scene in question.
HE SHOOTS THE GUY! Perfect. Except not what was planned. They storyboarded a huge sword fight between Dr Jones and Giant Sword Guy. Giant Sword Guy, this is true, trained for three months for this fight sequence. And there should be a big fight. That's what happens in these movies. The good guy, being the good guy, has a fair fight. But Indy instead has a perfect character-defining moment and, with patented Harrison Ford annoyance, pulls out a gun and shoots Giant Sword Guy dead. No fight. Why was there no fight? Because Ford was incredibly ill with food poisoning. He couldn't do it. So they improvised and instead of a marketplace-spanning sword fight that, in hindsight would had hurt the fight with the Giant Nazi At The Plane later in the movie because of the repetition, we get a five second reaction that no one who saw the movie will ever forget.
Totally unplanned. Complete on-the-day rewrite to fit the situation. Nothing to do but what you can and hope it works out.
A few years ago I had a student who would not stop drawing in class. Constantly doodling. Every time I turned around her paper, journal, whatever, was covered with art. We had All The Talks, my friends. All The Talks about time and place and I promise I'll give you a chance to draw and grrrr please do what I'm asking and go to recess so I can pull my hair out trying to find yet another way to convince you to stop drawing all the freaking time and focus. Until finally I gave up. I ran out of ideas. My barrel, it was empty and I had no more barrels to go to. I had her stay in for a second from recess, not as a punishment but for another chat, and I said, "Ok, draw. I don't think I can stop you without having to be some ridiculous version of a teacher that I don't want to be. So draw. But please, draw what we're talking about. I'm fine with you drawing, but if we're talking about the story, draw the story. If we're doing math, draw the math problems. Deal?"
She looked so relieved and agreed. I sent her away, not sure if I was doing the right thing, worried I was giving a student permission to space out with no consequences, but also thinking about who she seemed to be and trying to trust both her and my end-of-the-line instincts.
And it totally worked! She was on task. She did know what was going on. She drew and stayed with us. Her mom came to me near the end of the year an told me that no teacher had ever tried that with her before and it was the first time she really felt connected to school. I take no credit for this, it was a last ditch accident. Sketchnoting might have been a Thing at this point, but I didn't know it existed until five years later at ISTE. When I saw it I had that gratifying moment of, "Hey! I do this too. I didn't know I could have named it though!"
A last ditch accident tied to one other thought. She was a really good artist. Practice makes perfect and all that, right? And in my head I could see her getting famous. A gallery opens and she is interviewed by a major outlet. She's asked if she had a teacher who helped her. Here time timelines diverge.
In the darkest timeline where the interviewer has a goatee, my former student sighs and says, with steel in her voice, "I had a teacher who refused to let me draw. He put his foot down. I draw like this to show him how wrong he was."
In the light timeline she smiles and says, "I had a hard time with drawing too much in school. Until I had this one teacher, my favorite teacher, probably the best teacher I ever had, or anyone ever had (this is my imagination, remember). He helped me use my talent for my education. It helped me continue to draw."
Obviously I'm self-aggrandizing for humorous effect (as far as you know), but those scenarios did play into my decision. I'm glad they did. I think about her all the time, every time I see a student who isn't fitting in to the learning the way I'm expecting. She allows me to trust myself and every student after her that they will find their way to the learning, I just need to make sure the barriers are removed and the bridges are in place.
Total accident gave us one of the most iconic Indiana Jones moments ever. Total accident helped me define who I am as a teacher.
Accidents are good. Take that Cameron.
If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.