Saturday, November 10, 2012

On Becoming Innovators - Failure is Mandatory

This week a team of seven Sidwell Lower School teachers went to Boston to participate in EdTechTeacher's first iPad Summit USA. The two day intensive on iPads in education began with a keynote from Tony Wagner, the author of Creating Innovators, among other books. He began with the reminder that our students must create jobs in the future that don't exist now. He ended with a caution that there is clearly reason to be concerned about unrestricted "screentime" for our children. (But did not elaborate on what constitutes screentime-passive consumption of media, active gaming, socializing, creative composition of original works, or all of the above?)

What became my theme for the conference however, was the middle of his engaging talk and reinforced in Tom Daccord's sessions and keynotes: How can anyone become an innovator when our culture of schooling emphasizes failure and creates risk-aversion among students and teachers?

Wagner said that in his research for his book, he found that across the board, innovators make mistakes and learn from them. Innovators (and life-long learners, which we all say we are working to create in our students) don't look at mistakes, missing the mark, or setbacks as failure, but as one more iteration - making mistakes, learning from them, trying something else is the most valuable part of their learning process. 

Tom Daccord shared his mantra: “Failure is...mandatory" in his discussion of school culture, both for teachers and students. He argues that it is through those failures that we learn and document best practices. The celebration of failure and risk-taking as a step towards growth requires a culture of trust and respect between teachers and students. We can only hope to encourage risk-taking, new ideas, and unexpected growth, in an environment where it is clear that failure, followed by reflection, is not only expected, but celebrated through honest conversation, encouragement, and positive feedback. 

As teachers, we all know that the first time we teach something, it is a dress rehearsal for the next time, and each iteration of the lesson gets stronger as we work out the kinks. Even when we think we have a perfect lesson planned, the students step in and change it in unexpected ways. Why are we so sure that we know the ultimate method of presenting ideas and concepts? 

Tom Daccord also shared the mantra of the Singapore school system, which states simply:
“Teach less, learn more”
Perhaps it is time for us as teachers to become risk-taking innovators who not only don't fear failure, but embrace it, who don't consider ourselves the only source of knowledge, but let go the reins and allow the students take to charge of their learning and to share in the teaching. Thus we will all become the innovators the future needs.

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