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When Little Bets Don’t Mean Thinking Small

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Date posted: December 5, 2011

One of my take-aways from the Encore 2011 conference came during a keynote speech by Peter Sims, entrepreneur and author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries.

Through his research, he’s found that the great thinkers, innovators, creators take a methodical course of small steps, making “affordable little bets,” rather than beginning with a fully formed great idea. They fail quickly and learn fast. They make adaptations and improvements. They take ideas and experiment with them in incremental steps, analyzing what went right and wrong. Trying over and over, making many small discoveries until a breakthrough happens.

bubble testIn a way, that describes today’s video and computer-based games. A player confronts a new world or game environment. He makes predictions and tries different strategies and actions. Some work; some don’t. He learns from failure and is encouraged to try again. The immediate goal is just out of reach but attainable with a little persistence and experimentation.

That doesn’t look at all like most schools, where learning is measured by tests on which there is only one right answer for each problem and where, if you get it wrong, it’s over. You aren’t encouraged to try again. You don’t reexamine the problem and try a different approach. You don’t inch your way towards understanding.

That also doesn’t look much like education reform, where the bets are huge and are often based on unproven ideas that require deploying untested curriculum, instructional strategies, or technologies. It’s made worse when one big bet is reversed by the next educational fad or by new political leadership.

Would education reform be more effective and efficient if it were to proceed through a series of little bets? Or is the whole system so dysfunctional that only wholesale change can make things better?

Learn more about Encore 2011, the encore career movement, and the Purpose Prize here.

Image from Microsoft Office.