Thomas A. Edison
I had a busy summer professionally (and personally, really). I got to attend several conferences where I connected with a ton of educators across the US and around the. I was at ISTE, the Lausanne Learning Institute, ASCD’s Leaders 2 Leaders conference, and the Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE) Institute in Singapore.
Though there were a host of professional learning takeaways for me, one stood out as a real actionable item. Funny, this same theme came up at every conference I attended: Celebrating Failing.
Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes its built on catastrophe.
“Failure is not an option” as the old NASA adage goes. And I agree with that if you are talking life and death situations or even aggressively finite timelines. But we’re in education, which at its core is about learning for all, and as such the need for failure is paramount. Learners need to experience risk taking that leads to unfavorable outcomes, they must grow from their mistakes, they have try, fail, and learn the resilience to keep trying.
At ISTE, we talked extensively about the Maker Movement. The Maker Movement is predicated on the ideas of creativity, tinkering, and problem solving. For a learner to grow in any of those spaces they must try and fail, then try and fail again. Learners who organize and participate in maker activities understand that the learning doesn’t move towards a specific end, but that the journey of trying and doing develops a set of attitudes, competencies, and grit that transfer to all aspects of academic life. Without the experience of failing the learning would have little meaning.
In Memphis, at the Lausanne Learning Institute, I met an administrator who had incorporated celebrating failure into his school culture. He called it The Golden Plunger award someone would earn the award for trying something and failing miserably. During his/her acceptance speech the recipient would recount the activity, laugh about the failure, and then discuss the learning that came out of it. The next winner is always identified by the last, so the stigma of failure is removed and learners are encouraged to improve through experimentation and support.
At the ASCD L2L conference, we talked a lot about the central tenets of the organization: Growth Mindset. Within the framework of Growth Mindset (see Carol Dweck’s work) the idea of perseverance and fortitude are central to breaking barriers and improving. However, to do this a learner must embrace the failures s/he has endured. The organizers believed this so much, they asked program leaders to go around the room talking about how their projects had failed. Of course, each of these failures led to a discourse of development and reflection, but what was most impressive was regardless of how big the failure the learners themselves showed tangible improvement.
It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.
At the Apple Distinguished Educator Institute, we had a practice of vocally celebrating failure. When someone went off cue or fumbled a slide, the whole crowd would shout “Wooo!” It was a recognition that failure is a measure of learning and progress not a destination or negative. The “Wooo!” was a means of congratulations and support that something was tried and something learned. That person is a better learner and a better achiever because s/he failed. Of course, the waiter that dropped the plate of glasses at the closing dinner might not have found 400 people “Wooo!”ing at him very well supported.
This is what the best EdTech people do: fail better. We live in a world governed by complexity, pedagogy, learning, and ever changing technology. We are bound to fail and do so publicly. I have a vivid recollection of a project where a 6-year-old student searching the Internet stumbled upon some pornography. That was not in the plan. But we stopped the lesson and reflected as a group on what would be the best way to respond if this ever happens again.
In Educational Technology, the greatest learning in our classrooms is borne out of the ashes of these failings. EdTech people have learned to embrace mistakes in all learners, including ourselves. We encourage people to keep trying, to share their mistakes with others (maybe even blog or tweet about them), and to do better next time…until you realize that next time will be different and you’ll need to fail all over again to make learning meaningful.
A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.
I wanted to close with BF Skinner, the noted educator. I chose this because I would like to put a charge out to school leadership out there: Celebrate Failure. Failure is the seed learning far more than standards or test scores. As our mission is to take all learners forward, leadership has to lead the effort by having the tenacity and courage to say that the normal metrics we use in schools will not eliminate opportunities for learners to try, fail, improve, and reflect. Failure on a multiple choice quiz or an of year exam provides little lasting learning that can be taken to the next school, job, task, problem, challenge, or whatever. We need to allow learners to tinker, try, and fall and when they do fall celebrate and honor that being a key part of the process towards mastery, success, and intellect. But do it in yourselves first.
Lastly, I want to note that I deliberately said “learners” throughout this piece, not students…or even teachers. Regardless of where we work in this system, we are learners who benefit from and should be encouraged to fail.