Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Making Failure Safe

I’ve been chewing on Adapt, Tim Harford’s latest. (He’s the Undercover Economist.) It’s a wide-ranging survey, but the basic idea is that adaptability requires making failure safe. If failure is not an option, then innovation will not occur, and eventually history will render your perfection irrelevant.

He gives the example of photography. Early digital photography couldn’t compete with the quality of film, but it didn’t need to; it justified its own existence with other virtues, like the ease of sending as email. That new virtue gave it enough market strength and time to improve its weaknesses; at this point, film is of mostly historical interest.

In some ways, Harford’s argument seems tailor-made for academics. Academic freedom should be the epitome of “making failure safe.” In a perfect world, colleges and universities would be hotbeds of experimentation, with success speaking for itself.

But it isn’t. In fact, it’s hard not to notice that academe is more tradition-bound than most other institutions. That’s especially true at the community college level.

Some of that has to do with the vulnerability of the student population. Given students whose previous track records suggest real challenges, there’s an argument to be made for playing it safe. For these students, failure is patently unsafe; the dropout rates for students who fail a class are dramatically higher than those for students who pass. These students generally don’t have elaborate safety nets; if anything, they’re often stretching just by enrolling. The scion of wealth and privilege at Snooty U can afford to take a flyer on a risky class; the single Mom who’s barely making it, can’t.

Some has to do with transfer. Annoyingly, many destination colleges use the “checklist” model for determining transfer credits. “Intro to Psychology” is on every checklist, and it transfers without issue. “Topics in Psychology” -- the kind of course in which we’re allowed to take risks -- generally doesn’t transfer at all. If it does, it gets “free elective” status, which amounts to not transferring. Since the classes have to fit predefined slots or they won’t carry over, no matter how good they are, there’s a powerful incentive to keep it vanilla. Colleges that run interdisciplinary freshman seminars for their own students won’t take interdisciplinary seminars in transfer.

In practice, experimentation becomes a class privilege. Those who have the resources to survive failure are allowed to experiment; those who don’t, aren’t.

The tragedy of that is that the traditional system works most poorly for the students with the fewest resources. In a very direct way, they have the least to lose by trying something different. They’re the ones who most need the breakthroughs, but the least likely to get them.

Harford’s examples unwittingly make this point. He repeatedly cites Google as exemplary in trying hundreds of things and sticking with the handful of riotous successes. But Google is an insanely profitable company; it can afford to eat a bunch of small losses. In the public sector, turning operating profits like that would be considered politically unacceptable, even if someone figured out how to do it. And without a cushion like that, repeated failures are fatal.

That said, I’d love to figure out ways to make pedagogical failure safe. The alternative is to keep doing what we’re doing, which implies that we’ll keep getting the results we’re getting.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen or figured out a way to make failure safe in a setting without a huge resource cushion?

I'd add "teaching practices" to this list as well.

Disclaimer: I am not talking about anyone in particular, just noting trends.

For the most part, each discipline has a set of teaching practices which is considered "normal" and are used over and over and over from 9th grade through the end of phd coursework. In math, we love us a good lecture.

Yet, when thinking of the students who are at-risk, haven't these students been subjected to these methods over and over? Shouldn't we be trying something radically different to get basic algebra/pre-calc to stick this time?

National reports have been calling for less lecturing for 30 years, and there was a brief move away with calc reform, but that's been dying and a 2004 report claimed that more 'traditional' practice has been returning.

So, I'd add this into the list of places where college should be hotbeds of innovation but seem relatively stuck as well...
Incidentally, Harford's photography example works twice...the first time, it was Polaroid.

I think this is the key thing you said: "In practice, experimentation becomes a class privilege. Those who have the resources to survive failure are allowed to experiment; those who don’t, aren’t."

I've argued for years that college should be a place where it's safe(r) for students to try things--ideas, attitudes--and take risks, but that, except for a relatively small nnumber of places, it isn't. I'll also have to admit that, as a college instructor, I tend to have relatively high standards and am quite willing to give failing grades (although those wind up mostly going to students who have "informally" dropped the course--disapperared but are still registered).

And I'd agree womewhat with timfc's point about teaching innovation, although there's a lot of variance between institutions. (And I think it's not so much that teaching innovation is discouraged, as that it's so *costly* to individual instructors in terms of time and effort.)

But what t do about it? Unfortunately, any answer involves resources. The European system of relatively large student stipends comes to mind...
Good post.

Another challenge to innovation (on the teaching side) is that certain courses have certain expected outcomes and content requirements. This limits experimentation to what is accepted by those with power in a department. More so, for those of us who are not in tenure line positions which, ironically, often includes the people who would be most willing/able to put the time into developing & successfully implementing innovative new approaches to course content.

As a practical note: one way around the problem you mention with "interdisciplinary seminar in X..." is to give the students credit for two (or more) plain vanilla courses that make up the interdisciplinary nature of the experience. We do this for our incoming freshman seminars - they get credit for a Geography, a Political Science, and an English class, rather than credit for "Seminar in ....".

Seems to work ok for them, and avoids all kinds of bureaucratic and power politics nightmares for us.
I like the premise of the post, but am having difficulty figuring out where you are trying to lead.

Are you asking specifically about how to make failure safe for students of lesser means, or are you asking about how to make failure safe for academe as a whole?

If it's the former, then the conclusion that must be drawn is that students of lesser means will always be irrelevant, because they will never innovate and the students of better means can and will always surpass them. But that's not news...

But you also seem to be positioning the CC system in the same light, where the system can't take a chance at failure, because if it does, then the students lose. So the logical conclusion here is that some other system will take over... like the for-profit sector.

Another good example of the introduction is dial-up internet. AOL was king in its day, but it failed to innovate, and as a result, fell flat on its face. It's interesting that the dial-up heavyweights (AOL, Compuserve, Prodigy, GE) have absolutely nothing to do with high speed internet -- this is the domain of the cable and phone companies.

So is the real warning that whatever comes along and kills you is something that you never saw coming?
Thoughtful post, as usual. However, there’s a huge difference between making failure safe, and providing the opportunity to succeed. Public college, especially community college, can and should provide an open opportunity. Personal success in the academic arena in preparation for a better future, and beyond in the dog-eat-dog world is primarily predicated on individual self-determination, and perseverance. If a student risks a difficult class, and/or tries out for the forensics team, etc., and fails, safety provides the opportunity to pick ones self up, dust off, and go at it again. Best to learn from it and move forward with some grit because it can, and will, happen again in the normal course of life, which is not fair. Nobody likes quitters or excuse makers, and the world does not own any of us anything.
Single-payer health care is the biggie I can think of, but that would require a social contract based on something other than looting the middle class.
The real reason dial up companies lost is that the cable companies already had high bandwidth stuff in place. So you could tell early on that they would win. Phone line vs. in place fiber optic? Tough to overcome that
Some of these structures exist -- we have withdrawal dates, pass/fail options, auditing, semester reset buttons, etc.

Yes, they are more expensive for the poor than for the rich, but that's what "poor" and "rich" mean. I think the real issue is that "poor" is perhaps "too poor" for our notions of how a meritocracy ought to function.
To some degree, this is a matter of providing good advising, too. Poorer students & first generation college students have less experience and fewer personal connections to draw on, when it comes to making choices about which classes to take, how to balance life/school loads, what to do when difficulties arise, and what academic corners can be cut, or not cut. Time and again, I talk with poor students who make choices that are clearly not in line with the norms in academia, but they simply don't know those norms. Middle class and wealthy students seem to have a better sense of what those norms are, and seem to have an ability to work the system - or at least, their parents, older siblings, neighbors, etc., can give them solid input.

Unfortunately, good advising is hard to come by, and it costs money. Given the nature of the students they attract, CCs and regional publics should be paying the closest attention to advising, but with budget woes, probably most of them do not.
Who is more likely to try something radically new in the classroom, a person working "at will" on a year-by-year contract, or a person with tenure?

The people I know who have tried radically different approaches in the classroom all have tenure. Junior faculty and adjuncts are the most conservative.

When those innovations work for "at risk" students, both sides are winners.
I think your post does a lot to explain why single working mothers, and other poor students, are often reluctant to major in something that's not "practical." We can talk till we're blue in our faces about the skills and world outlook we acquire from the liberal arts, but when someone has to support someone else, literature, philosophy, history and art are "tough sells" next to accounting or nursing.
Interestingly enough, CCPhysicist, just the opposite tends to be true on my campus. Here, the folks who are most likely to innovate, to effectively teach the "at risk" sections, and to look for pedagogical professional development opportunities are non-tenure track faculty (full time and adjunct). Maybe because some of them see teaching as their primary function and so are willing to dedicate the additional time; maybe because they have little to lose, being accustomed to arbitrary dismissals anyway (might as well have fun and try something exciting, in the meantime); maybe because many expect to move on in a few years and want to develop a diverse portfolio of teaching experiences while they are here.

Maybe, because the tenure-line folks are so bogged down in additional administrative duties that they can't actually put in the time necessary to make innovative teaching work.

Or maybe it is just a campus climate thing, that differs considerably from your campus to mine.
I think this is one of the rare questions that had a very strong answer:

invest in good advising for students, especially those unfamiliar with the academic system.

The current system does have structures for minimizing the costs of failure, thus allowing experimentation. But if students don't know how to implement them, then they don't exist.
As a trainer of active learning and student-centered teaching methods (and a teacher who uses this approach), I agree that there is a need to spread the word about the inefficacy of traditional lecturing. But in addition to making learning more engaging, there is one very practical way to make failure safe for students who have time and fiscal constraints or just poor study habits. This would be to reduce the penalty for those who overcome a poor class performance by

1. allowing students to retake a failed course (or one that they passed but want to repeat for a better grade), and...
2. making sure that if a student achieves that better grade that the original attempt not only doesn't count in the overall GPA, but that it is removed from the transcript.

I believe that achievement should be rewarded, and that if a student falters first and then makes good, they have already paid a cost... tuition X 2!
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