Innovation Education and the Concept of Iteration

One of Innovation education tenets includes guidance on how to “normalize failure” by encouraging students to ask questions that they may be afraid to ask and to share incorrect answers with their peers. “Sometimes it’s important to simply tell students that you love mistakes because that’s how students learn,” one innovative sample discussion plan says. “Start the class with a lesson on why you like mistakes and what students can learn from them.” Importantly, learners need to be free to make mistakes as they solve problems. Making mistakes, reflecting, and trying another approach is not only key to learning, but also builds persistence, which will help students meet their learning goals (Merriam, et al., 2014). Students must feel free to make approximations by providing risk-free environments (Dillon, 2000)

Covington (1998) wrote that the Need Achievement Theory was developed initially in the 1950s and early 1960s by John Atkinson (1957, 1987 and by David McClelland, 1965, in Covington, 1998, p.14). This theory holds that human achievement is the result of a conflict between striving for success and avoiding failure. These two motives are couched largely in emotional terms and are said to encourage success-oriented individuals to strive for excellence and failure-oriented persons to avoid situations where they believe themselves likely to fail. It is this difference in emotional anticipation (pride vs. shame) that was thought to answer the questions of why:

• Why do some individuals approach learning with enthusiasm and others only with reluctance?
• Why do some choose easy tasks for which success is assured, whereas others tackle problems for which the chances of success are exquisitely balanced against the chances for failure? (p. 14)

Beginning in the early 1970s researchers led primarily by Bernard Weiner and his colleagues (Weiner et al., 1971) posed a radical reinterpretation of Atkinson’s theory by reasoning that cognitive (thought) processes rather than emotional anticipation were the agents primarily responsible for the quality of achievement. Weiner proposed that how individuals perceive the causes of their prior successes and failures is the deciding factor in choosing whether to:
• Work on a particular task
• Deciding how long to persist once work begins, and
• With what amount of enthusiasm

For instance, persons who attribute their past successes to their ability are more likely to undertake similar challenges in the future because they anticipate doing well again while people are less likely to be optimistic about the future if they attribute their prior successes to good luck. From a theoretical perspective, a subtle change occurred as the result of this cognitive reinterpretation. The classic question of why individuals achieve or not, which was answered originally in terms of feelings (pride vs. shame), was now treated more as a question of how – how people interpret events and attribute meaning to them.

Success and failure are psychological concepts; they mean different things to different people. Judgments of success and failure depend less on the individuals’ actual levels of attainment than on whether they achieved their goals. When individuals are free to choose their own goals, they typically minimize failure by lowering their aspirations when they I fall short. When individuals exceed their goals, they experience feelings of success and tend to raise their aspirations.

In education if the rational, cognitive side of our nature truly controls motivation, then educators would be well advised to put a premium on teaching students how to analyze the causes of their successes and failures in the most constructive, yet realistic ways possible. One feature of attribution theory is its focus on the role of effort in achievement (p. 14).

This emphasis is justified if for no other reason than the widespread belief that student effort can be controlled by teachers through the application of rewards for trying and, when necessary, punishments for not trying. Students whom teachers see as having studied hard are rewarded more in success and reprimanded less in failure than students who do not try.

From this pattern of rewards and punishments, attribution theorists have concluded that students should come to value effort and trying hard as a major source of their personal worth. But if this is true, then why is it that so many students do not try in school? Recall Shelby Steele’s depressing observation that “One sees in many of these children almost a determination not to learn, a suppression of the natural impulse to understand.” And why do other children hide their efforts or refuse to admit that they study hard? The answer to these questions lies in the domain of self-worth theory.

Self-Worth Theory

In our society human value is measured largely in terms of one’s ability to achieve competitively. For example, researchers have found that nothing contributes more to a student’s sense of self-esteem than good grades, nor shatters it as completely as do poor grades (Rosenberg, 1965, in Covington, 1989, p.15). Thus, it is achievement – and its handmaiden, ability – that dominates as the ultimate value in the minds of many schoolchildren. Given this reality, it is not surprising that the student’s sense of self-esteem often becomes equated with ability – to be able in school is to be valued as a human being, but to do poorly is evidence of inability, and reason to despair of one’s worth (Beery, 1975, in Covington, 1998, p.15).

Here we have the makings of a profound conflict in values. On the one hand, attribution theory emphasizes as most important those sources of worth that come from complying with a work ethic – being dedicated and trying hard – whereas, on the other hand, self-worth theory emphasizes those sources of worth and pride that follow from feeling smart.

Self-worth theory contends that the protection of a sense of ability is the student’s highest priority – higher sometimes even than good grades – so that students may actually handicap themselves by not studying in order to have an excuse for failing that does not reflect poorly on their ability.

A number of strategies for avoiding failure, or at least avoiding the implications of failure – namely, that one lacks ability – have been identified by researchers (e. g., Birney, Burdick, & Teevan, 1969, In Covington, 1998, p. 16). Some of these failure-avoiding strategies are favored by middle-class white students and others by impoverished youngsters and ethnic minorities, but all of these strategies — no matter who employs them or what form they take — undercut the will to learn and compromise school achievement.

According to a self-worth analysis, the reluctant learner who may refuse to study is already motivated, driven by circumstances to protect his or her self-esteem. Thus, the failure to achieve is just as likely the result of being over-motivated but for the wrong reasons, as it is of not being motivated at all!

Those who would champion a drive interpretation of motivation typically assume that the best way to arouse students to action is to put them in competition with one another, where too many students scramble after too few rewards in what has been referred to as an ability game. In this circumstance, negative reasons for learning are encouraged – achieving for:

• Fear of losing
• Fear of being left out,
• Anxiety over being unmasked as incompetent

This had led to the disastrous consequences for the quality of learning. (p. 17)

Some Positive Aspects of Failure

In the innovative education process of Design Thinking (see: Design Thinking in Systems and Design Learning) fear can impact the thinking process. Fear of failure or criticism introduces destructive negativity which may prevent someone from even beginning to apply methods and processes to achieve their goals. Both have psychological effects which divert someone from focusing on solutions and shifting their focus to doubts of self-worth (Cross, et al, 2006).

Mistakes are not all created equal, and they are not always desirable. In addition, learning from mistakes is not all automatic. In order to learn from them the most we need to reflect on our errors and extract lessons from them. If we’re more precise in our own understanding of mistakes and in our communication with students, it will increase their understanding, buy-in, and efficacy as learners. “It is well to cultivate a friendly feeling towards error, to treat it as a companion inseparable from our lives, as something having a purpose which it truly has.” – Maria Montessori

As stated one of the basic premises of innovative education is iteration. It may sound odd to include in a system of pedagogy a concept of something so seemingly negative but if approached correctly, iteration can be a powerful learning tool. As the early twentieth century education philosopher Maria Montessori said, “Any cause of great importance, all those who have given any contribution, even though it may only be an attempt not crowned with success, are worthy of the respect of humanity… Every great cause is born from repeated failures and from imperfect achievements” (1924). “It is well to cultivate a friendly feeling towards error, to treat it as a companion inseparable from our lives, as something having a purpose which it truly has” – Maria Montessori.

Other education philosophers have weighed in on the concept of innovation and failure as have contemporary business leaders in the technology industry. Much like Socrates, John Dewey suggests that for humans to grow or improve they must encounter problematic situations and such situations create innovation (Johnson, 2008). Hannah Arendt, whose educational philosophy contained a unique blend of conservatism and existentialism viewed the past to the present as a “series of innovations… full of breaks and fissures and the kinds of reinventions [she] wants the young to make” (Arendt, 1961, p.49).

In her book Teaching Tech-Savvy Kids: Bringing Digital Media into the Classroom, Grades 5-12 Jessica Parker talks about failure as a positive when she advises teachers who get frustrated using unfamiliar technology. “Today’s students have a different mindset: they play with the technology and will “fail” over and over again until they have mastered it. Don’t get frustrated and give up in five minutes. Give yourself ample time to play with the technology and allow yourself to fail over and over again. And ask yourself: Are there ways to harness this “willingness to fail” in an educational setting?” (Parker 2010, p. 66)

Innovative education sees failure not as a stigma but as a teaching and learning opportunity. Students should be taught that a wrong answer can be as informative as a right answer. Students feel more successful and develop a greater love of learning when they realize that it’s not always about the right answer. Students need to be taught the positive virtues of failure and with the initial CCSS test scores predicted to fall an average of 30 percent failure could commonplace.

In the words of the education philosopher Sir Ken Robinson, “If you are not prepared to being wrong you’ll never come up with something original that has value. We don’t grow into creativity we grow out of it – or rather get educated out of it. By adulthood we have lost that capacity and are frightened of being wrong. We run our companies this way – people are stigmatized of making a mistake. We are now running national education the same way where making a mistake is the worst thing one can do. We are educating people out of their creative capacities. Many highly talented, courageous and brilliant people think they are not because they have been stigmatized out of doing well in school” (Sir Ken Robinson TED Conference 2/2006).

In Silicon Valley where innovation is a mantra, technology developers will fail ninety-nine out of one hundred times but on that on hundredth time they become billionaires. At an economic outlook conference at Sonoma State University oDesk’s VP Matt Cooper, said that “What I see are more graduates coming out who have never had to struggle. In an age of helicopter parents, some emerge without having learned the art of failing, a fundamental component in what gives the Bay Area its economic edge on the rest of the world — innovation.” (“Finding Team Players in iPod Age.” Santa Rosa Press Democrat – 2/23/2014).

Too often in American schools standards and testing have been “dumbed down” to a point where an “A” in one school district was not equal to an “A” in another. The system is designed to keep students moving through the schools and to keep parents satisfied that their children were academically succeeding. The problem became that some students were not succeeding but to fail a child was thought be so traumatizing to not only the student but also the parents, that it was not an option (Haran, 2014). As Covington (1998) stated:

The wider policy implications of these observations seem clear. One often-heard refrain in the chorus of reform proposals is the suggestion that teachers should arrange classroom learning so that students experience either no failure or as little failure as possible. This view assumes that failure per se causes loss of esteem and self-respect. Quite to the contrary, failure can act as a positive force so long as it is properly interpreted by the learner. Rather than focusing on failure as the culprit, educators should arrange learning so that falling short of one’s goals, which inevitably happens to everyone, will be interpreted in ways that promote the will to persist (p. 64).

Children have to be taught in a system where they have the freedom to fail. If they fear failure the child’s learning processes literally mutate as they try to please the teacher and avoid embarrassment. Failure in a success-oriented culture is hard to take. Even children who achieve enviable grades are failing to learn (memorization without true understanding – Cominsky, 2014) much of what we hope to teach them: abstractions, curiosity, and, most of all, appreciation (Holt, 1964 p.13). Since innovative education works from the “bottom-up” it’s predicated on student self-perception. “You have to take what people perceive their problems to be, not what we (educators) perceive their problems to be. We had to learn how to find out about the people, and then take that and put it into a program.” (Horton, 1990)

A progressive teaching and learning platform (see: Teaching and Learning Platforms) is called “Innovation-based Learning” in which students are actually given test that are rigorous to a point that they are certain to fail the first time they are tested. Students then use the test as learning tools (base learning) and are also taught that current failure can lead to future success. Turner & Paris (1995) in their “Six “C’s” – Ways teachers can foster motivation in their classrooms, state, “Students are encouraged to share their successes and failures; Teachers help students to see that errorless learning is not learning at all, rather, real learning comes through error as errors provide information about needed improvement and equip students to attempt more and more challenging tasks” (1995, p. 672, in Dillon, 2000).

In U.S. K-12 education failure is considered a negative concept and the primary cause of stigmatizing students. With Innovationism failure is a starting point as it sets benchmarks for education progress. One of the biggest complaints from contemporary U.S. businesses is that recent graduates don’t understand the value that failure plays in innovation. The engineering concept of systems thinking (see: Systems and Design Thinking) forms the basis of the development of innovative education curriculum and serendipity guides student research. A system is a complex of interacting elements that are open to, and interact with their environments. (von Bertalanffy 1968)

Larry Rosenstock, the CEO of High Tech High in San Diego summed up the positive use of failure with the following analogy: “Why is it that your average kid, regardless of socio-economic or educational background, if given an MMO or video-computer game, if left to their own devises, would play with it for 10 hours a day for 14 months even though it is fraught with failure, frustration and setbacks (and successes) but going through and persevering? Some of us ask isn’t there something pedagogically we can take from that if we were to change the nature of the transaction – so there’s a lot of educational opportunity there.” (Rosenstock, 2009) Shouldn’t there be a way to use this phenomenon to encourage kids to embrace learning?

“Thoughtless education occurs when students do not see the larger utility (authenticity) of what they are learning, when the fear of failure degrades intellectual functioning, and when schools neglect systematic instruction in how to think (Covington, 1998, p.198).