Although this post isn’t in direct response to Hockey90’s Thinking About Thought, I believe it accents my post quite well, so I suggest you read it too.
The concept of critical mass has always been intriguing to me, but until recently I never saw the application to thought, teaching, or writing. For those of you who may be uninitiated, critical mass is the idea that there is some number of things (atoms, people, ideas, uproar, etc.) that it takes in order to create a desired action (attract more people, create a revolution, etc.). This means that it is very hard for one person to change the outcome of an election, but it is pretty easy for 10,000. This is a critical mass of people.
Well, I began thinking of what the critical mass of ideas was. If I think about the problem of world hunger for a minute, I probably won’t come up with any lasting solutions. But the question is: how many minutes do I have to think about it for me do so? How many different ideas do I need to have in order to create a critical mass, finding a path to a true answer that will actually work. For most of us it probably takes quite a few minutes and quite a few ideas to actually come up with answers. We have to consider all of the different possibilities and then pick the best one (and even then we are often wrong). It is my belief that only a true genius can see an answer from one idea. They are the only people who have a critical mass level of one idea or thought. The rest of us need more, and that is where other people come in.
If other people are not in the picture, if they do not put forth their ideas, drawing out more thinking from us, then very few things would ever get done. This is why teamwork and group participation is so important. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a discussion be born and die with a mere two comments from students. On the other hand, there are just as many discussions that reach a critical mass of comments, and every hand goes up. What is the critical mass of a discussion? I believe it is at least 3 hands up at a time, with at least one different idea. This is, however, just a working theory.
As for engagement, its critical mass is much harder to determine. I have been in many classes (Spanish in middle school) that I feel truly bored in. When I feel this way, it is very hard to become engaged in what is going on. How many thought-provoking moments does it take to draw me back in? How many times do I have to relate to the subject for it to work its way into my brain and take hold? The critical mass of engaging ideas is probably different for everyone, but for me it is considerably more than one. It also helps me when I have the tools at my fingertips to engage. If I have pen and paper at hand, I can better engage. If I have a laptop and a wireless connection, I can be looking up what we are talking about. I can be writing up notes. I can be making comments about the stupid things that people are saying around me (to myself). All of these things are aids to my critical mass of engagement. I wonder what this would be for each of my students.
I have talked quite extensively about memes and viral ideas and books, but I think that a critical mass of ideas is much bigger than one for writing. I have to hear/read about something a few times or at least be thinking about it a few times before I can comment on it, or incorporate it into my way of thinking. Blogging is the easiest format for creating critical mass that I have ever seen. You can collect ideas, aggregating them in your head, until the time when you have amassed enough of them to start writing about them. If you are running out of things to write about, start reading. Create a critical mass for yourself. Look around you, all of the ideas are staring right at you, waiting to be collected.