Disposable Rafts & Educational Innovation: Fail Fast & Reflect Often

There was a man traveling beside a river who found himself in a dangerous place. He noticed that there was safety on the other side of the river, but the waters were fast and there was no boat or bridge in sight. He gathered sticks and twigs, and he built a raft to safely cross to the other side. What do you suppose he did with the raft when he got to the other side? The Buddha’s Raft Parable is one of the better known stories of Buddhism, told in many ways and simply stated in the Diamond Sutra. “Understand that the words of the Buddha are like a raft built to cross a river:  When its purpose is completed, it must be left behind if we are to travel further!”

While the lessons of this parable are intended to teach about the nature of the Dharma or teaching of the Buddha, I sometimes think about this parable in terms of educational trends and innovations. I’ve met many educators, parents and administrators who critique the near constant trends and innovations to which we cling in education for a short time, only to leave them behind for something else. There is truth and value in this critique. There is a risk for those of us in education to become drawn to the next shiny thing in the realm of educational ideas with little critique or consideration about the affordance and limitations, the ultimate benefit. There is need to examine the data and research, and it is equally important to leverage and analyze the trends in service to the greater purpose and mission of a learning organization.

At the same time, this opening parable gives us another useful perspective on the role of educational trends and innovations. I find it helpful to see them as tools to face present challenges and opportunities. You only need a raft as long as you need to cross a river. Once you are on land, there is little need for such a vessel. At that point, you may need an altogether different set of resources. Isn’t the same true when it comes to thinking about educational trends, innovations and technologies? The needs depend upon the context, the learner profile, upon the current challenges and opportunities. Also, as new knowledge and technologies develop, we will find tool that better meet our needs than those of the past. This is the nature of tools. While there is a valid critique of the mindless meandering from one trend to the next, perhaps it is helpful to see these items as more temporary and transient, albeit useful.

This parable also prompts me to look at perceived failures with educational trends and innovations from another angle. Yes, some efforts and innovations are largely and widely seen as failures, sometimes because they did not live up the promises attached to them. Yet, there is so much benefit that we can gain from the lessons learned of a failed effort, if we are open to embracing them as learning opportunities. I think of the many failed 1:1 implementations in schools, failed in the sense that there was not enough planning and limited consideration for the scope of such a project. Some abandon the effort, label it as a failure and move on. It just didn’t work out. Still others look at it more strategically. What did we learn from this effort that we might not have otherwise discovered about ourselves, the learners, the need for planning and research, and the importance of involving different stakeholders? Without such “failures”, it might be difficult to pass on these lessons to others, or certain important lessons might remain hidden from us.

This is not a defense of poor planning, careless experimentation, or ignoring issues related to stewardship of time and resources. There is wisdom in small experiments before trying larger ones, taking the time to review the research, and going through a systematic process. Yet, even the best plans do not always produce the best results. So, we learn to fail fast, reflect often, and extract as much meaning and learning as possible from our efforts. And as the goals, contexts, and technological landscape changes; we will still find ourselves leading behind even our best rafts as we head into new learning journeys.

I have a lot of disposable rafts in my history with educational innovation and experimentation. I used to look at more of them as embarrassments and failures. Yet, from the long view, I also see how work on some of these “failures” led to many more recent successes. Perhaps those failures are not always failures after all. Maybe they were just disposable rafts that served their purpose and made the way for future adventures.

What is your experience with disposable rafts in the realm of educational technology and innovation?

Posted in blog, editorials, education, education reform, educational entrepreneurship, educational technology, innovation

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.