Risk, reflect, revise, repeat

Associate professor of international business rethinks curriculum development

University of South Carolina faculty tend to dream big. From education to international business, from aerospace to the arts to medicine and public health, they’re always coming up with a new approach to an old process or a novel solution to some vexing problem. This spring, USC Times, the university’s quarterly magazine for faculty and staff, launched the “Big Ideas” series to give faculty a platform to share their dreams and visions, whether they hope to transform their field, improve higher education or even change the world. These are their stories.

A couple of years ago my son was a freshman here, and I went to orientation. There was a speaker talking to the students about failure, how Albert Einstein famously said something along the lines of, “If you’ve never made a mistake, you’ve never tried anything new.”

But while we teach our students to take risks, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, academia hasn’t really done that itself. I’m certainly not saying we should throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to our curriculum, but we should be willing to make small mistakes so that we can learn from them. 

It’s something that I’ve tried to put into play in the undergraduate program at the business school. Until recently, the curriculum hadn’t been revised in a substantial way for about 30 years, so that was something important that we needed to address. We also wanted to increase rigor. The question was, how do you do that?

On one hand, the members of the undergraduate faculty committee could have said, “Okay, we’re going to come up with a plan, it has to be the best plan, and everybody has to stick to that plan.” But then after some discussion we said, “Wait, why can’t different programs try things different ways? Accounting could approach the curriculum one way, finance another way, econ another way” — we could become a laboratory.

Everybody didn’t have to approach curriculum revision in the same way. Or rigor. We could experiment, see what works, then come back and design a plan informed by those experiences. The same philosophy can be applied to every aspect of education.

We’ve taken a similar approach as we’ve introduced business sections of University 101, working with director Dan Friedman. The first year, we started with just five instructors, and we emphasized career education, teamwork and leadership. We put in metrics to measure it, as we had with the curriculum changes and increases in rigor, and then we said, “OK, let’s reconvene after the first year and see how things are going.”

Well, they seemed to be getting the teamwork part, but they weren’t getting the leadership or career education parts as well as we’d hoped, so we reconfigured things a bit. Then we thought, “OK, let’s see how it works with more sections,” so we increased to 19 sections. And then, last year, we learned a little more. This past fall, we had about 45 sections. Dan is working with us to make this the best University 101 section that we can for business students, not by risking everything but by making improvements at an incremental rate.

You see this same mindset with lean startups, which have a philosophy based on an iterative cycle. You take risks, you experiment, sometimes you fail, and then you reflect — “What could I do better?” Then you revise, then you repeat. Risk, reflect, revise, repeat. Risk, reflect, revise, repeat. 

That’s what our world requires right now — that nimbleness and agility. Instead of perpetuating a culture where you can’t fail, so no one ever takes risks, we should actually celebrate risk and recognize that failure leads to mastery.

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