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Stanford University leads in producing tech leaders. (JIM WILSON/NYT)
Stanford University leads in producing tech leaders. (JIM WILSON/NYT)

Debate This: Innovation in Education

Entrepreneurial education must learn from start-up culture Add to ...

When our education system punishes failure, it inhibits creativity and stifles ingenuity. Fostering an acceptance for failure, on the other hand, encourages curiosity and opens floodgates to innovation.

Change is an inevitable consequence of trying to spur innovation and creativity. And change innately involves experimentation and uncertainty, which, in turn, creates the possibility of failure – this is a natural reality of innovation. But our education system rests on a fear-driven mechanism called grading, that has built resistance to change, hindering the skills that our education system should instead be trying to nurture. If failure is not accepted, there will be no change, and there will be no innovation. There will only be stagnation.

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Silicon Valley’s culture defies most of these orthodox characteristics, making it a prime example to follow. In the Valley, failure is success deferred, not the end of it all. I visited this global innovation hotspot this summer to speak with the world’s leading technologists and entrepreneurs, in an attempt to understand their vision of the future of education. Seven days and several interviews later, everything boiled down to one fundamental principle: changing education is about changing our attitudes toward failure.

At Singularity University, a learning institution located at the NASA Ames Research Center, students and alumni invent technologies in areas ranging from artificial intelligence, robotics, and computing, to synthetic biology and digital fabrication.

When you speak with the students and faculty, you notice an unparalleled level of curiosity that drives their thinking and application. Every project, every company, and every idea born and executed at this place seems to have a touch of superlative, consummate imagination and genius. But this genius isn’t natural. It’s a product of the culture they have instilled deeply into their programs over many years – a culture, according to their Founder, Ray Kurzweil, that revolves around “the power of ideas, and the acceptance of failure [because] failure is just success deferred.”

I then met Aaron Levie – the 27-year-old CEO of Box, Inc. and one of the world’s most creative people in business according to Fast Company. “The only way we’ll get innovation is by taking risk,” Levie told me. “But by definition, when you take risk, it means that there will be failure. Perhaps the better way for other economies or regions to think about it is: The only way to get innovation is by accepting failure.”

Changing attitudes to failure starts in school. It was a point stressed by Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy. After our long conversation, what struck me most was his opposition to grades. “I don’t think we’re going to use this grading mechanism any more. I think it’s fundamentally flawed. If someone has a ‘B’ in algebra, to me it means that they should work on their algebra until they get to that ‘A’ level as opposed to going on to algebra 2 or calculus or whatever else,” he told me.

Instead, Khan proposes what he calls a competency-based system. Rather than having a variable level of competency – where students spend a fixed amount of time on a subject and are graded based on how much they absorb in that time – we should have a fixed level of competency. In other words, the variable is how long a student works on a subject, and what’s fixed is bringing every student’s understanding to the same level.

Khan proposes creative portfolios and collaborative learning, instead of the existing evaluations that solely revolve around test and assignment scores (which promote competition, not collaboration). Every discipline has a creative component, and creativity is inherently an unstructured process – one that requires trial and error, and possible failure. Eliminating grades, therefore, will welcome failure and promote a fixed level of competency.

Fostering an acceptance for failure can plant seeds of curiosity capable of changing the world. That should be the goal of our education system.

Afraj Gill is a student, Chancellor’s Scholar and former senator at Queen’s University. He is a recipient of the British Columbia Community Achievement Award. He tweets at @afrajgill.

This is the second part in a series. Tomorrow, how education helped an entrepreneur.

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