Innovation in Isolation

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by jhoc

One of the magical “C’s” that is emphasized over and over again is collaboration.  I am a big believer in the power of teams coming together to build something greater than what is possible creating alone, but I sometimes wonder if this (as other things) is sometimes overemphasized. Collaboration is important, but what about isolation?  Do we teach the ability to work on our own?

With the massive amounts of information that surround us at all times, we need time alone to be able to collect our thoughts.  As I continue to do workshops and connect with people, I have come to appreciate the opportunity to sit in an airport and be anonymous at some points. This gives me a break from all of the things that we do in our world, catch up on my own thoughts, reflect, and clarify.  Is the ability to be alone something all people possess or are comfortable with?

Lately, leading workshops, I have really focused on the implementation of time for people to simply have time to reflect and give them a space to share their thoughts, whether they choose to or not.  Sometimes working within the group is implemented in full force that we do not have an opportunity to be with our own thoughts, and people start to check out anyway.  From what I have seen, people are at first thrown off by the time I give for them to think about some big questions, but are later thankful for the chance to be within their own head.  Admittedly, a full day of group talk can be overwhelming for myself.

In the article, “The Power of Lonely“, being alone, the author believes, is extremely beneficial for our spirit and mind:

But an emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us — that certain tasks and thought processes are best carried out without anyone else around, and that even the most socially motivated among us should regularly be taking time to ourselves if we want to have fully developed personalities, and be capable of focus and creative thinking. There is even research to suggest that blocking off enough alone time is an important component of a well-functioning social life — that if we want to get the most out of the time we spend with people, we should make sure we’re spending enough of it away from them. Just as regular exercise and healthy eating make our minds and bodies work better, solitude experts say, so can being alone.

If we are truly to become “creative and innovative”, we have to be able to individually bring something to the table.  The ability to connect with one another is no more important than the ability to connect with ourselves.  Many of my ideas come from sitting in Starbucks by myself, or going for a run on my own.  Is being in isolation not a skill we should be modelling and teaching our students?



  1. I find this debate in education so intriguing. In my ‘previous life’ before teaching, I worked as part of a committee to find preventatives for alcohol and substance abuse in small communities. Research at that time suggested that many people who were abusing substances felt significant discomfort being alone. Many experienced anxieties about being solitary and thus used substances to numb their discomfort. Further research suggested that adolescents who were comfortable spending time alone were less likely to engage in harmful or self destructive behaviour.
    When I see someone sitting having a coffee at a cafe alone or going to the movies alone, I don’t assume “lonely” (they could easily boil the kettle at home, or watch the movie on their couch at home), I think there’s a person confident in their own self.
    I believe if we want our students to be confident and creative, we need to support them to develop their sense self alongside their abilities to work with others.

  2. This reminds me of R.L.Moore’s methodology in Mathematics “The students in Moore’s classes were forbidden from talking about anything in the course to one another — or to anybody else — outside of class. Moore’s idea was that the students should discover most of the material in the course themselves.”

  3. I really like this post because I am the kind of person that really, really needs time alone to process my world. I find being with others often exhausting and being on my own is how I recover and recharge my batteries. It allows me to think, process my world and generate creative ideas. I often recharge my batteries by reading, writing, running, biking, walking or lifting weights alone. I enjoy doing those activities with my children or with friends but I also really value being able to do them simply alone.

    • Agreed. As an introvert, I get my energy from time spent alone and in reflection. It is hard to explain to my family sometimes why I don’t want to talk at the end of the day, but they are starting to “get me”. (After 34 years…)

  4. Thanks George. I think you’ve highlighted that balance is the key. When we let students reflect on what they do during collaborative learning times it enables them them to process and hopefully sythesise any new discoveries. Then, let them apply their learning and test it in a collaborative environment to refine it.

  5. I am an extrovert who loves being around others. At times though I find I need to walk the dog or read a book or just sit alone in the hot tub. We also need to recognize this need in our students. Thanks for writing about it and making me recognize it as a need.

  6. I’ll be sharing this with our 5th graders. We spend so much time working in teams that we often forget the necessity of alone time. We are starting a positive disruption project where individuals must write a script and produce a five-minute presentation about something that are passionate. They will be able to rely on peers only after the creative juices have started flowing all over our three rooms and some drafting of the project has started. Plus, we begin state testing next week, a solitary endeavor.

  7. I agree with you 100%.
    I can focus much better when working alone.

  8. I’ve said this many times to folks…my best ideas come when I’m at the gym, or in strangely enough…in the shower. I guess that is when my mind is most free….not bogged down with “i have to do this” or “this has to be done now.” At any rate, great post.

  9. Just to make sure I have this right, you are saying we need a healthy balance of both isolation and collaboration, correct? This I can understand. We all need private time for reflection, to sum up our thoughts. We often don’t provide enough of that in school settings for our students. We hurry them to give an answer so that we can move on to our next question or piece of information to share. We don’t take the think time or reflection time needed for deep thinking. Still, I do think that many brains are smarter than one and that if we collaborate and connect we can extend the learning (or at least examine it from another angle) we have done on our own. Thanks again for reminding me of the extremes people can take on an issue. We all need to find a balance in our approaches.

  10. This post resounded with me—ironic that thoughts on isolation would have such a “loud” impact. I am enrolled in a Masters program and last week’s readings on reflective practice are reinforced in your post. In the education profession we can often get caught up in the business of teaching, the fast-paced momentum of terms, initiatives, networking…in fact, I have often missed the critical piece of pausing, coupled with a little isolation. I am inspired by your thoughts…thanks!

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