Teaching Stories

How to succeed at failing

The academic team from the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CFIE) ran an interactive seminar at the International Enterprise Educators Conference (IEEC) annual conference in Oxford in September 2019. The subject was central to our core mission of enabling innovative and entrepreneurial students; how to handle the inevitable failures that arise from the process of trying to do something innovative. This seminar went on to win the ‘Best in Track’ award for the ‘Enterprise within the curriculum’ track, which shows how much interest there is in this topic. 

Failure plays a pivotal role in the literature of both innovation and entrepreneurship; from the necessary failures of any experimental method that probes new territory, through embracing ‘fast failure’ in Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methodology, to the notion of expert entrepreneurs undertaking ‘affordable losses’ in the effectual logic of Saras Sarasvathy; failure is everywhere, but it doesn’t mean seeking catastrophe, it means learning through small setbacks along the path towards discovering insights and creating value. 

“We fail our students when we don’t provide opportunities for failure in their Enterprise Education studies, our students fail themselves when they avoid failure at all costs. Therefore, we must design into our Enterprise Education curriculums specific opportunities to fail, reflect, and recover.” (Jones, 2019) 

In our interactive seminar we had over 20 colleagues from across the UK and beyond engaged in sharing their examples of failures they’ve witnessed or suffered themselves in the classroom. We used these examples and the discussion that followed to address three questions and identify some useful principles for other educators. 

How do you enable ideas to fail but students to succeed? 

Recognising that students can learn a lot through making mistakes we often try to cultivate a learning environment within which students can fail without being academically penalised. 

In the CFIE we use a lot of student project work; often group-based, in which the development of an idea is central. Whilst this project may carry a lot of weight we try to mitigate the risks to the students by marking their process or method rather than the idea; we also often include an element of reflection as a means for students to potentially have a car-crash of a project but still demonstrate how much they have learnt from the process. 

Similarly, IEEC participants also championed the use of both ‘rewarding the process not the outcome’ and ‘using reflection’ as the best means of marking the learning rather than the idea itself. Breaking the assessment down into discrete ‘chunks’ whereby each element might stand alone in the mark scheme rather than one poor element sabotaging the rest was also suggested, as were ‘offering multiple attempts’ and ‘providing very clear examples’. We really liked the suggestion to ‘set an impossible task’ whereby the outcome was doomed to fail but the process of undertaking it might still be usefully marked, and similarly to ‘work on someone else’s idea’ which again reduced the implications of the idea itself and focussed attention on the process used. 

How do you handle situations where students fail at the process of what is being taught? 

Sometimes students will fail to demonstrate or execute on the process or method that is being taught in a class despite our best efforts. Sometimes they will even chance upon a decent final output that as an educator you know is derived from a poor or inaccurate method. How do you deal with a failure to learn? 

Here in the CFIE we have had incidents where one or more students has not adopted the taught process and persisted in simply writing up an early concept despite all the evidence suggesting they iterate or pivot away from it, often in denial that their pet project has no traction with its intended audience. 

This might be a failure on the part of the educator to get the method across, so we tend to use a mix of staff feedback, peer review, and iterative steps to catch a bad idea before it gets too far. IEEC participants also heavily recommended the use of ‘checkpoints or viewpoints’ on a regular basis, and processes of ‘external and peer review’ as another means of catching bad ideas and reinforcing the adoption of a good process. Those reviewers might be other students (in the class or beyond it), mentors, external advisors, or guest speakers who reinforce the process taught. 

Opportunities to ‘hire or fire’ group members and similarly mechanisms that ‘reward or punish non-engagement in the group or the class’ were suggested as a means of making sure that individuals were participating, so hopefully picking up on all the cues to adopt the process! ‘Being clear about expectations’ was heavily recommended and again ‘multiple or iterative attempts’ might be a means of catching a poor process at an early stage. 

Given that as educators we need room to innovate and be enterprising in our classrooms; how do we deal with the inevitable risk of failure as an educator? 

The CFIE is still something of a start-up itself; we are only this year, 3 years after opening, teaching all four years of the new units written for our programmes. Inevitably not all the bright ideas we have for a unit work at the first attempt; so how do we manage at the front of a classroom when our ideas fail any or all of the stakeholders concerned? For example, this year we adopted not one, but four new assessment formats for a single 40-credit unit… Whilst one was a huge success and the others were all broadly effective the combined effect on the students and staff did create some uncertainty and anxiety that would have been gratefully avoided by all concerned.  

IEEC participants highlighted, above all other suggestions, the value of a ‘supportive culture’ in the department to undertake innovative approaches and manage the fall-out when they don’t quite work. This includes senior and peer encouragement (not just tolerance) and ‘license to experiment’. 

Linked to this was strong endorsement for ‘having time to evaluate’; so, colleagues can plan well, anticipate and respond to problems, and prepare examples and explanations to support students through new and unfamiliar processes; ‘modelling what success looks like’. Using ‘incremental adoption’ was also recommended, as was ‘sourcing and responding to feedback’. Time and tolerance are required on the part of colleagues, students, and from the educators themselves to not rush too far ahead too soon. 

Conclusions 

IEEC participants particularly championed the importance of focusing assessment on reflection and marking the process rather than the outcome and highlighted that the hardest thing to get right was finding the time as a staff member to do all these things to an effective standard. Getting the culture right to support failure as integral to learning was both championed as critical and acknowledged as hard to do. 

The seminar at IEEC was a great opportunity to share practice, gather up some great ideas, and validate a lot of our current approach. Thanks to the CFIE team: Ki Cater, Suzanne Cole, Sam Crawley, Dave Jarman, Andy Littledale, and Mark Neild. Thanks also to all those who took part and shared some of their hard-won experience! 

Dave Jarman, senior lecturer in Entrepreneurship and academic theme lead for Bristol Futures (Innovation and Enterprise).

Teaching Stories

Engaged Learning 101

During our smooth, buffer-free Skype call, Senior Lecturer in Design Thinking Ann Padley and I chatted about the fresh take the Innovation course at Bristol has undertaken. The 4-year integrated master’s programme collaborates with 14 subject disciplines (from Music, to Computer Science to Social Policy) and has a cohort of up to 80 students. The interdisciplinary programme is structured around two aims: i) specialisation in a subject and ii) the acquisition of practical skills and initiative.

‘Through the programme, we aim to make our students T-shaped graduates.’ What Padley means by this is that the course combines the breadth of practical skills students learn at the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship with the depth of knowledge from their subject disciplines. But how does the programme strike this balance between breadth and depth?

The course encourages students to fully immerse themselves within the department of their chosen subject area by fulfilling the same unit requirements as Single Honours Students. The added dimension of students in Innovation comes through core units.  

These units are not graded with the typical summative exam students are used to. These assignments are not floating around waiting to be marked, processed and dissolved into the academic ether.

These assessments are not meant to be forgotten. They are meant to engage and be engaged with.  

Such assessments are business plans, client presentations, and proposals for new innovations organisations to consider… They are projects that burst through the bubble of academia.

The value of these projects does not only come from their unconventional format. They reside in collaborative partnerships students build with each other, their tutors and… external actors. That’s right, students work with professionals through the concept of engaged learning.

In a nutshell, engaged learning is that bridge where theoretical knowledge and the oh-so-desired work experience employers seek finally meet. But the experience isn’t a simple binary between academia and the professional sector. Engaged learning fosters skills like collaboration, creativity, problem-solving… Transferable skills and experiences that would make students well rounded scholars as well as well rounded people.

The projects that students take on are conceived through their working relationship with tutors and the organisations that supervise them.  These projects are usually a long-term process. 2-3 weeks are taken to flesh out and evaluate the parameters of assignment and 9-10 weeks are taken to execute the project throughout a Teaching Block. This extended effort allows students to engage with a project they co-produced with their tutors.  Students get to shape their project alongside their industry professionals and give them the opportunity to claim authorship of their work.

You could call the Innovation programme the lovechild between a consultancy position or start-up experience and a full-time degree. The programme is practically designed to whet students’ appetite for experience and quench recruiter’s thirst for well-equipped entry-level applicants.

Ten engaged learning projects were led last year on the Centre’s Client-Led Briefs unit with companies ranging from a top national law firm to Northern Surveying, a family-owned quantity surveying practice. Padley highlights that such projects allow the concept of engaged learning to be put into practice rather than being taught as an isolated ‘island’ concept that students learn about without applying it to their wider academic interests and/or working skills.  

Engaged Learning projects are a refreshing pedagogical step forward, however, they are not without their challenges. This type of learning makes students learn about the unavoidable obstacles of the working world. (Clients that are difficult to get a hold of, team members not pulling their weight, uncertainty about the best next step to take…etc.)

This is when partnership principles are put into place to mitigate the obstacles of such projects and to safeguard and preserve the interests of students, academics and the external institutions.

When conceptualising these principles, Padley states ‘We need these principles to be able to help shape the way engaged learning takes place and to build an ecosystem focused on creating value for all parties involved.’ For her, principles are not only put into place to guide methodology, but to manage power dynamics between parties and peoples. Padley states that as well as collaborating with others, students and staff should also learn to gage compatibilities and delegate responsibilities in a just manner.

This hierarchy of power and responsibility should be viewed as a network that encourages the collaboration of knowledge. In the Client-Led Briefs units, Innovation students are considered ‘junior consultants’ and their tutors ‘senior consultants’. These titles do confirm that a hierarchy does not necessarily negate a partnership but enhance it.

Padley highlighted that students are not ‘placing an order from a set, defined menu.’ Although I was a bit confused at first, this intriguing metaphor did make sense. Students aren’t placing a fast order of work experience to companies through a quick business transaction. Students must think about the impact of their order, and the contributions of their exchange. Companies are not cashiers, they are waiters, more interactive and receptive to the order. They let you know about the seasonal specials, the tasty work constraints, the crunchy financial plans…

Engaged learning is about understanding this academic transaction. Students, staff and academics do not just create a partnership to passively exchange notes, but to examine and evaluate the benefits of their collaborative efforts.

Innovation is entering its fourth year and is expected to export its first cohort of graduates next summer. When I asked Padley about the work opportunities her future graduates were expected to fall into, she said that some graduates would have the potential to start their own business, use their entrepreneurial mindset within existing organisations, go into consulting, or forge their own path into a completely different sector they are passionate about.   The Innovation programme’s incorporation of Engaged Learning is a glimpse into the future pedagogical landscape of tertiary education. This is hopefully a landscape where assessments and projects are no longer feared for their immediate numerical outcomes but valued for their emergent learning experiences.  

Corrie Macleod

500 Words, News

Is There Any Link Between Design Thinking and Essays?

The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and Senior Teaching Fellow in Civil Engineering. 

It’s strange how a number of unconnected events can form an idea in your mind.

This weekend I stayed with my sister and we watched the film ‘Blood Diamond’, a harrowing film made in the early noughties about the illegal diamond trade. We started discussing the role of the press and, at a more meta level, the film industry, who were indirectly profiting from the same trade through film profits. It reminded me of a magazine I read a few years back called ‘Colors Magazine’. Each issue focused on a specific concept and the one that came to mind was Issue #86, which is all about making the news. In it there is a page on war photography, which included a harrowing photo seen in many newspapers. The magazine presented it by covering most of the photo and leaving just the part of the image widely presented in the press visible. Turn the page and you see the whole photo; it is a different story. Gathered around the incident are dozens of journalists and photographers capturing the moment. It is a shocking moment.

Fast forward a couple of days and I had the pleasure of meeting Ann Padley. Ann is a teaching fellow who works on the new innovation programmes and specialises in design thinking. As a designer of buildings and a teacher of people who design buildings, I would like to think I know a thing or two about design thinking. But it turns out there is a lot more for me to learn. Over a rushed lunch we discussed problem solving, problem definition and redefinition. We discussed narrative as well as more empirical ways to come to design decisions. We talked about the importance of active listening in problem definition. And we talked about something I have been struggling with, how do we differentiate between outcome and process? Is it possible for a student to successfully go through a design process but come up with a less successful solution and probably more commonly a successful solution without going through a successful design process (or at least unable to articulate the design process- something I have struggled with as an engineer across my professional career because it is actually really hard to do and requires a lot of practice)? Ann described the methods they use to set and assess design problems which don’t just focus on outcome but focus on the successful implementation of design processes.

Later that same day I spent a very enjoyable hour talking to Zoe Backhouse, one of the BILT student fellows. Our conversation was wide-ranging but covered different forms of assessment. We discussed the essays that she had written, and it started to occur to me that what is presented in an essay, much like the photos in the newspaper I mentioned at the beginning, is the story that we choose to tell. But what happened to all the other stories? How do we know that we have presented the right one?

These thoughts linked me back to my conversation with Ann. I realised that design thinking is not just important for designers but for anyone who is given a problem (or title) and then has to deconstruct the problem and find what the real problem is before deciding on the solution (when there are many possible solutions). Maybe not just engineers, but all of us would benefit both from learning to articulate not just the solution, but how we got there. The narrative around the solution. The options we considered and discarded. And maybe not only would we benefit from articulating this but also from discussing it with our friends and tutors. To receive feedback (or more precisely feedforward) not just on the output but on the processes through which we have gone to arrive at the solution (or essay).

Ann Padley is a Teaching Fellow in Design Thinking 3 days a week and is an independent consultant on design thinking for her other work days.

Zoe Backhouse is a final year student on the four year masters degree in Liberal Arts, she is a BILT student fellow and a fledgling zine maker. Zoe would welcome any musings, poems, doodles or cartoons from students & staff about your experiences of assessment at Bristol Uni. If you’re a student, you’ll get a £25 Amazon voucher for whatever you contribute! Email zoe.backhouse@bristol.ac.uk for more details.

Colors Magazine Issue #86 ‘Making the News’ published April 2013.