Failing is essential

The ratio between success and failure remains pretty constant. To succeed means we must fail. And the more often we fail the more we succeed. The key is to fail frequently and fail fast. Then move on and try something else.

That was the message of Tina Seelig who works at the entrepreneurship center at Stanford. The focus of her NAIS talk was “Innovation as an Extreme Sport”.

She began by describing how extremely accomplished and bright students arrive at college with quivers full of AP’s and perfect grades but completely burned out. These kids with perfect scores are intellectually locked up and incapable of creative and fluid thinking. The mindset of these high achievers is “How do I get an “A’ on this test, in this course”.

“Why should we teach innovation?”
“Because our students know everything else.”

Her aim is to develop T-shaped people with a broad spread of knowledge who know how to make things happen and move between disciplines. And then the deep knowledge of at least one discipline.

Turning problems into opportunities is the heart of innovation: How to leverage limited resources to make things happen to solve problems and create something new. Big problems – big opportunities.

In Seelig’s program students have to unlearn so much of what they have had drummed into them in school.

Instead, they have to learn that cheating (aka sharing ideas, team work and collaboration) is essential; learning is active and creative; taking risks is required and failing is inevitable. And therein lies the heart of success.

Because the ratio of success to failure is pretty constant, we can measure success by how often we fail.

So how does that fit with our model of education where one “F” is enough to ruin your GPA? Where students are taught that what we expect is the perfect score? And success means rising to predetermined levels excellence?

This raises the questions:

Is it the grading system that makes no sense?
Is it the nature of the tasks we ask of students, especially in high school?
Or is it both?

Here is Seelig describing her work in creativity and entrepreneurship with examples from her classroom:

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