Creativity and Failure

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with a top level academic officer who asked me “how do we infuse creativity into the undergraduate curriculum?”  I was a tad embarrassed that I wasn’t more articulate in my response.  So I went back to  Steven J. Tepper, who in 2004 published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that people in my field are still talking about.  Tepper’s The Creative Campus: Who’s No. 1? calls for a campus “creativity index”, an index that “ranks colleges by the extent to which they foster creativity.”  Tepper defines creativity as “those activities that involve the application intellectual energies to the production of new ways of solving problems (as in science and mathematics) or of expressing ideas (as in art).” He continues, “Creativity is not simply about self expression.  It is about producing something new (or combining olde elements in new ways) to advance a particular field or add to the storehouse of knowledge.”  Tepper goes on to posit that there are several “structural conditions for creativity” including: collaboration, diversity – cross-cultural exchange, interdisciplinary exchange, time and resources, and an environment that tolerates – even encourages failure.  That last one is where my recent conversation stalled.  How do we create an environment in undergraduate education that encourages failure?  Students come to our campuses to succeed.  They work hard and set goals for success, not failure.  I find this idea particularly challenging at an elite university.  We are all invested success of our students.  Their success is a reflection of our success.  We are frequently reminded of this, if not subtly from top level administration, often bluntly from parents.  It is my – and my colleagues – job to ensure student success.  I even have a friend and colleague at another university whose title is Director of Student Success.  One need only look around to know that the culture and expectation of success permeates society as well as our university.

What would it look like to encourage failure?  Certainly we have to rethink, or reposition the idea of grades.  What would it look like to evaluate a student’s process, not their product?  Would they accept that as sufficient learning? What do courses look like that have no end result in mind, no correct answer, no finite result, but instead encourage and celebrate discovery and the exchange of ideas even if we find they don’t “work”?  I know those courses exist, though they seem to be the exception rather than the norm, particularly in undergraduate education.

Encouraging failure, or redefining success in education means examining our philosophy of education.  In Democracy and Education, 1916, Philosopher John Dewey get’s to the heart of an educational system that might just create an atmosphere that allows for failure by focusing on the educative process of communication.  We learn by exchanging ideas and perspectives unique to us and our individual experience within a community.  Dewey says,  “Not only is social life identical with communication, but all communication (and hence all genuine social life) is educative. To be a recipient of a communication is to have an enlarged and changed experience….The experience has to be formulated in order to be communicated. The formulate requires getting outside of it, seeing it as another would see it, considering what points of contact it has with the life of another so that it may be got into such form that he can appreciate its meaning. Except in dealing with commonplaces and catch phrases one has to assimilate, imaginatively, something of another’s experience in order to tell him intelligently of one’s own experience. All communication is like art. It may be fairly said, therefore, that any social arrangement that remains vitally social, or vitally shared, is educative to those who participate in it. Only when it becomes cast in a mold and runs in a routine way does it lose its educative power.” Democracy in Education, 1916.

I have an answer now for the question, “How do we infuse creativity into the undergraduate curriculum?”  We change the whole thing!  We can do that, right?

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5 Responses

  1. There is so much about education that is based on assumptions (see Seeds for Change at http://www.easyschoolsuccess.com), and many of those are based on the fact that people are all the same, can do everything in the same way and develop skills from that uniform process. The fact is that few do, that most of education is irrelevant to life skills, and no one has a voice to change the system, because the habitual ways of doing things prevails.

  2. I have a different perspective on the failure topic because I have personally grown because of failed situations over my career. These experiences can convey the realities of the world to our students. For example, in graduate international marketing, I created a team exercise that asks students to sell “ice to the Eskimos”.

    The students have to create a plan to export a specific product into a specific country (It just happens to be that country’s major export). Once they get over the initial shock, I encourage them to use their critical thinking skills to come up with a very innovative solution, and all have been able to create reasonable approaches.

  3. My buddy, Dave Needham, who runs Peak Alignment (“removing roadblocks to Peak performance by Aligning talent, systems, and strategy”) recently wrote a blog post regarding the failure of our educational system to prepare students for the real world of business. His contention is that typical assessment methods discourage creativity and collaboration while the business world rewards for them.

    Read it!

    Does the SAT kill innovation? by Dave Needham

    http://www.peakalignment.com/Blog/blog.htm

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