Big Data, Intuition, and the Potential of Improvisation

Welcome back to the second half of winter term!  As nice as it is to walk across campus in the quiet calm of a fresh new year (ignoring the giant pounding on top of the library for the moment), it’s a comfort to see faculty and students bustling between buildings again and feel the energy of the college reignited by everyone’s return.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been trying to read the various higher ed opinionators’ perspectives on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and the implications they foresee for colleges like Augustana.  Based on what I’ve read so far, we are either going to 1) thrive without having to change a thing, 2) shrivel up and die a horrible death sometime before the end of the decade, or 3) see lots of changes that will balance each other out and leave us somewhere in the middle.  In other words – no one has a clue.  But this hasn’t stopped many a self-appointed Nostradami (Nostradamuses?) from rattling off a slew of statistics to make their case: the increasing number of students taking online courses, the number of schools offering online courses, the hundreds of thousands of people who sign up for MOOCs, the shifting demographics of college students, blah blah blah.  After all, as these prognosticators imply, historical trends predict the future.

Except when they don’t.  A recent NYT article, Sure, Big Data Is Great, But So Is Intuition, highlights the fundamental weakness in thinking that a massive collection of data gathered from individual behaviors (web-browsing, GPS tracking, social network messaging, etc.) inevitably holds the key to a brighter future.  As the article puts it, “The problem is that a math model, like a metaphor, is a simplification. This type of modeling came out of the sciences, where the behavior of particles in a fluid, for example, is predictable according the laws of physics.”  The article goes on to point out the implications of abiding by this false presumption, such as the catastrophic failure of financial modeling to predict the world-wide economic collapse of 2008.  I particularly like the way that the article summarizes this cautionary message.  “Listening to the data is important, they [experts interviewed for the article] say, but so is experience and intuition.  After all, what is intuition at its best but large amounts of data of all kinds filtered through a human brain rather than a math model?”

This is where experience and intuition intersect with my particular interest in improvisation.  When done well, improvisation is not merely random actions.  Instead, good improvisation occurs when the timely distillation of experience and observation coalesces through intuition to emerge in an action that both resolves a dilemma and introduces opportunity.  Improvisation is the way that we discover a new twist in our teaching that magically “just seemed to work.”  Those moments aren’t about luck; they materialize when experience meets intuition meets trust meets action.  Only after reflecting on what happened are we able to figure out the “why” and the “how” in order to replicate the new innovation onto which we have stumbled.  Meanwhile, back in the moment, it feels like we are just “in a zone.”

Of course, improvisation is no more a guarantee of perfection than predictive modeling.  That is because the belief that one can somehow achieve perfection in educating is just as flawed as the fallacy of predictive modeling.  Statisticians are taught to precede findings with the phrase “all else remaining constant . . . ” But in education, that has always been the supremely ironic problem.  Nothing remains constant.  So situating evidence of a statistically significant finding within the the real and gnarly world of teaching and learning requires sophisticated thinking borne of extensive experience and keen intuition.

Effective improvising emerges when we are open to its possibilities – individually and collectively.  It’s just a matter of letting our experience morph into intuition in a context of trust that spurs us to act.  Just because big data isn’t the solution that some claim it to be doesn’t mean that we batten down the hatches, pretend that MOOCs and every other innovation in educational technology don’t exist, and keep doing what we’ve always done (only better, faster, smarter, more, more, more . . . ).  Effective improvising is always preceded by intuition that is informed by some sort of data analysis.  When asked why they did what they did, successful improvisers can often explain in detail the thought processes that spurred them to take a particular action or utter a particular line.  In the same way, we know a lot about how our students learn and what seems to work well in extending their learning.  Given that information, I believe that we have the all of the experience and knowledge to improvise successfully.  We just need to flip the switch (“Lights, Action, Improv!”).

Early in the spring term, I’ll host a Friday Conversation where I’ll teach some ways to apply the principles of improvisation to our work.  Some of you may remember that I did a similar session last year – although you may have repressed that memory if you were asked to volunteer for one of the improv sketches.

In the mean time, I hope you’ll open yourself up to the potential of improvisation.  Enjoy your return to the daily routine.  It’s good to have you back.

Make it a good day,




2 thoughts on “Big Data, Intuition, and the Potential of Improvisation

  1. Hi Mark, just came upon this post in my research about the relationships between story and data. Excellent observations. And of course, improvisation is at the beating heart of all of it. Thanks for posting! Please stay in touch…

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