Innovative Thinking, and the Value of Getting It Wrong on the First Try

By Andy Shaw, Academic Dean

The Bay School’s mission tasks us with a focus on innovative thinking, an oft-used buzzword these days, although we’ve had this focus since our inception. A key component of our approach to innovation has to do with our cultural stance towards getting things wrong. Much has been written about failure and its role in the innovative process; suffice it to say that it’s generally agreed upon that innovation requires the courage to screw up, often many times, before succeeding, and that the most successful innovators have consistent track records of failures leading up to each success.  

I feel lucky to be at a place where the educators understand the crucial value of getting things wrong the first time around.  In fact, we model this beautifully for the students. When a new course runs for the first time, it’s the norm that in follow-up conversations with me the teacher will talk first about the piece that didn’t work, the timing that was off, the project that flopped. And the bolder and riskier the endeavor, the more certain we are that we’ll get something wrong the first time through. Our response as a school isn’t to back away from the failures, but to investigate how to address the issue and knock it out of the park next time; consistently, that approach has resulted in some of the school’s finest and most innovative programs. There’s a clear sense among Bay’s educators that if you’re not getting something wrong the first time through, you probably weren’t bold enough in your original intent.

We talk openly about our process with students, and the benefit for students of spending four years in this milieu is that they begin to understand for themselves that getting it wrong on the first try is ok.  It starts small with 9th and 10th graders, as we give them myriad opportunities to revise papers and retake tests.  “Yes, you’re accountable for your performance the first time out, but wouldn’t you like to see if you can do better the second time around?” As students get older, this balance between innovation and accountability means that while there isn’t always a retake, there is lots of space for conversation where small-stakes failure can be normalized and processed. “Ok, so you didn’t ace that test. One test grade isn’t going to ruin your future; let’s think about what happened and try to innovate when it comes to your study strategies.” The close relationships students at Bay have with advisors, teachers, deans, and learning coaches make this kind of conversation possible and productive. By the time students are seniors, they’re ready to take on the Senior Signature Project, where we help students understand that failures and missteps are an expected part of the process, to be dissected, reflected upon, and celebrated as opportunities for deep learning.

What are the costs of a school accepting, even embracing, the act of getting something wrong the first time through? Pretty low, it turns out. When our teachers make mistakes, they are skilled and attentive enough to realize that something has gone wrong and make sure that the students not only have a great learning experience nonetheless, but also that the students get to participate in the conversation about how the teacher might do it differently next time. When students get things wrong the first time through, it works largely the same way – we work with them to learn from what happened and recover as best they can. And the payoffs of accepting and celebrating mistakes? Teachers and students learning, growing as innovators, and reshaping education in the process; graduates who have a significant head start in college as adaptive and resilient problem-solvers and creative thinkers.

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