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Innovation Requires Failure (and we don’t do failure)

I don’t remember the first three Educon conferences having a theme (certainly not the meaningless alliteration used by most educational conferences) but this time around, at the very least, the word of the year seemed to be “innovation”.

Friday night at the Franklin and at the Sunday morning session panelists were asked to reflect on the concept and the term seemed to be woven through many of the conversations during the rest of the weekend.

While many of the panelists and others at the conference offered some great insight, I’m still not sure I understand what innovation really is.

Is it unique? Or do you call anything new and unlike what we’re used to “innovation”? Can anyone who does things differently from what is considered normal be called innovative? Where is the line between being innovative and just plain nuts?

Maybe the concept is similar to that of creativity: very subjective, and the degree to which someone or something fits in the category is in the eye of the beholder.

Certainly from the people on all sides of the education reform debate we hear plenty of talk about “innovation” and “creativity” being two skills we want our students to learn, and traits we want teachers and administrators to have.

As the concept applies to education and teaching, one of the best points was made by Kathleen Cushman, author of Fires in the Mind, during the Sunday morning panel when remarked that she has trouble with term innovation since for students it looks a lot like learning.

Anyway, regardless how you define it, I can’t help but wonder if our educational system even wants to teach kids to be innovative in the first place.

Because, people we think of as being innovative will often talk about their many failures before they made the big breakthrough for which they received the recognition.

However, when it comes to school, we don’t handle failure well.

Teaching kids to be innovative would require encouraging them to experiment, try new things, many of which will fail, and then helping them learn how to recover.  That is not how our cookie-cutter, test-driven system works.

So, the bottom line to all this rambling is that I still have more questions than answers when it comes to the concept of being innovative.

But I’m very sure it has little to do with what we currently think of as school.


  1. Doug Johnson

    Hi Tim,

    We techs are an overly-cautious crowd and perhaps lacking in self-confidence. So we don’t like admitting to our mistakes.

    But i agree that without some screw-ups, you don’t learn much. Here’s a way to put a positive spin on failures:


    Somebody said that if you aren’t making mistakes you aren’t making anything. I am guessing that person probably didn’t have a boss, but I still like the sentiment!


    • Tim

      Doug: I wonder if it’s not just techies but our whole society that has become very much paranoid of making mistakes in recent years. I also like the sentiment that mistakes are a natural part of making progress.

      Thanks for the link.

  2. Paul C

    I think that you can tell a lot about what an education system values by looking at the way it treats its practitioners. We don’t encourage innovation in teachers (beyond lip service) because we don’t trust these professionals to make decisions that are in the best interests of children. We standardize instruction and write scripted curricula to eliminate the “unknowns”, the variables, the innovation.

    If students look around, they’ll see that conformity is what we value in education, and it might be what we value in many workplaces.

    Am I being too cynical?

  3. Tim

    I don’t think you’re being too cynical at all. The more our school curriculum narrows to test prep for a few subjects (reading, math, maybe science), the more scripted the teaching becomes. The number of teachers who want to experiment in the classrooms (some of which will not work out the way they expected) is declining as the pressure to produce uniform results (as in test scores) increases. It’s difficult not to be cynical.

  4. Carl

    A bit about failure: http://got.im/7hn

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