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Sunday, 12 June 2011

Innovation and Failure

According to the press, at least, the world's economy is in a mess.  Not for me to agree or disagree.  My focus is how do we best prepare our children for whatever is coming?  Canada has never been really big on manufacturing, and I don't see that changing dramatically in the foreseeable future.  We have our natural resources and that is great, although we do need to hold them precious and take care of them.  But what about our other minds?  What can our kids do if they are not able to get, or don't want, jobs in that sector.  Where Canada has great potential is in the area of innovation.  We have bright minds and the freedom and security to use them.  So I think the best thing that we can teach our children to be is innovative.  Another word is creative.

This sounds great.  Only one problem.  Funding is being cut for most of the arts programs.  Focus is all on literacy and numeracy.  (For those of you not in the education field that's reading, writing, and arithmetic.)  I am all for these basics (afterall, I do teach English and mathematics) but even they would benefit from a little creativity.  It is not just the reduction or elimination of art and music programs that is hurting the imagination of our children.  It is some of the basic pedagogical (teaching) methods that are traditionally used.

The worst is the attitude towards failure.  Failure is terrible.  Failure is something that erodes self-confidence.  Failure means that you are no good.  That you are wrong.  That you cannot do something.  I guess nobody told Edison that.  And thank goodness or we would never have light bulbs.  Or told Albert Einstein.  Or George Lucas.  Or Bill Gates.  No scientist, inventor, entrepreneur even got where they are without failure.  Failures are a necessary learning tool.  They are not to be avoided.  In fact, they should be embraced.  They are the perfect learning opportunity.  From failure we find the next step.  Edison did not have 99 failures.  He had 99 steps that finally showed him how to light that bulb.  Without those steps, that didn't work, he never would have reached his goal. 

Read any book on how to succeed in anything and there will be a chapter, at least, on how to benefit from failure.  And yet, this technique, adopted and valued by successful people everywhere, is not in schools.  In schools we abhor failure.  We teach our children that failure is either their fault or that they have a learning disability which becomes their excuse.  We either run them out or we weaken them by saying "It's okay.  You have a challenge which means you cannot do this."  HOGWASH!  (Sorry, I get a bit irritated sometimes.)

Why do I so strongly support Art in schools?  Because that seems to be the one subject which has not been infiltrated by this attitude.  In Art there is no failure except not doing anything.  Experiments are allowed and encouraged.  Attempts are seen as necessary steps to the final work.  Risk taking is encouraged.  Try something and see what happens.  Why can't we do this in math?  We can but we have to change our attitude towards failure.

I have only two criteria when I assess student work.  1) Is there some sign of intelligence?  In other words, did they actually focus on the project and think about it?  2)  Is there some sign of effort?  Did they just brush this off or work at it?  These two characteristics are essential to any kind of progress no matter what the goal.  Did they do the assignment the way I would have done it?  That is irrelevant.  Did they do it the "best" way?  Maybe for them at that time and stage.  Might they fail?  In the effort to get to their goal, very likely.  In the class, no way.  Did they learn?  Absolutely.  They now know what will not work and that is a huge step towards finding what will work.

If we want Canada to be a country of innovators then we had better start encouraging risk taking and productive use of failure right now.  Remove the stigma from failure.  The only real failure is the failure to do anything.   

1 comment:

  1. Twitted, and shared on FB. We have had this discussion: we need to learn from trying things out. That is where discoveries are made.

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