Killing Your Darlings: The Cost of Innovation (CI 2012)

I’m going to take a little more informal approach to some of the themes expressed at CI 2012, because I have a lot of things to do, and you have a lot of things to do, so we can’t sit here waiting for me write everything up and you most certainly don’t want to read 100,000 words about What Nick Did In Late Spring In Melbourne. So let’s go forward.

Innovation is the introduction of the new, whether product, service or idea, but we know what this really means – it means that we have to let go of something old. Letting go of something old is not going to be easy, and how difficult it is can be a very complicated and emotional calculus, so innovation, which can already be hard, is made harder because change can hurt.

If you’re a writer, you may have heard the term “Kill your darlings”, which is attributed to Faulkner (the other one) and is a recasting of the following quote from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch:

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings”

On shallow reading, it appears that any attachment to something makes it eligible for extinction when what is really meant is that sentimentality is the enemy of objectivity. Innovative change is full of situations where your attachment to elements of your existing situation, or an entrenched commitment to the status quo (no, not the band), will compromise your ability to objectively assess whether you are making a correct decision.

There is a statement that every industry will go away at some stage – we’ve seen the rise and fall of so many that such a statement appears to have some credibility. But what about education? We have changed a great deal but will the industry of education every truly disappear? I honestly can’t say but I can talk about a simpler problem, which is what the “darlings” are in the traditional Higher Education system. And, sure enough, when we start talking about innovation and the threat of the new, we see these darlings protected in a way that doesn’t necessarily always seem objective. Now, we don’t have to kill any of them but change is inevitable and, if change is to come in, something has to go out. I have a starting list, which I’m planning to work on over time.

  1. Darling #1, The Lecture:

    We know that the traditional 1-to-many broadcast lecture is a successful way to occupy the time of everyone in the room but it is most certainly not the best way to get certain types of information across. There are many different aspects to this but conference talks and seminars are a world away from the traditional “today I will talk slowly about differential equations while I flash hundreds of slides past you at a speed that you can’t record and no you can’t have any notes or recording”.

    Yes, some lecturers are better than others but when information transfer and retention is important, the lecture is not the right delivery mechanism. Yet, it’s almost unassailable in its ubiquity. It’s a darling.

  2. Darling #2, The Exam:

    I was looking back at my Grand Challenges course, which had a 20% final examination of some of the core topics, and thought about what it had achieved. From my marking of the exam and review of how students prepared, my goal for the exam worked for most of the class. Most had reviewed all of the core material and organised it in a useful way to be able to summarise the core content of the course.

    But did it have to be assigned as a 1 hour exam in a giant examination hall? Did it anything to the course?

    You know, I’m not sure that it did. Next time, I might just assign an exercise to provide a portfolio of work from the course in an organised form and then have an assessment of that which is effectively a viva voce examination to assess that students had done enough work to produce a useful index and had sufficient familiarity to rapidly contextualise problems and knowledge. But, and this is important, far more conversationally.

    The examination can be made highly objective and has the advantage that you are really pretty sure that the student is doing the work – but we’re already seeing cheating technology that we will have more and more trouble dealing with. If the only supporting argument for the exam is that it’s harder to cheat, we need a better reason. If the argument is that it will force the student to learn the work, then we’ve got that around the wrong way. We need to bring motivation back into the rest of the course. Right now, the vast majority of learning happens 2-3 days before the exam and is forgotten by the following weekend.

    And yet, exams are everywhere. They’re entrenched institutional artefacts. Hello, darling.

  3. Darling #3, Me and my University:

    Oh no! Apostasy! But let’s be honest, the primary question around MOOC is whether we need the Universities that we’ve had for so many hundreds of years. If we’re questioning the University, then we’re starting to question the role and future of the teaching academic. Teacherless education was a theme that popped up occasionally at CI 2012 and, while I instinctively react to this in terms of ‘well, who builds these experiences’, we can still learn a lot by looking at what we actually need to make things work.

    I have a small office in a big and old University, with my academic robes hanging on the door for when I walk into the graduation ceremony in the giant old sandstone building once or so every year to farewell and congratulate my graduating students. How much of this is necessary recognition of achievement and how much is a darling?

    Let’s face it – we’re darlings ourselves.

Let me stress that I am not saying that everything must go, but innovation needs space and that means something else has to go. Rather than saying that everything is sacrosanct, we should really be looking at what can and should go, which will drive a search for the new and innovative. My hope would be that by looking at these things, we find the reasons why some of these could stay and belong in the future, rather than propping them up with sentimentality and an ultimately weak approach to necessary change and reinvigoration.

What are your darlings?



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