Time Out at the Failure Love-Fest

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Time Out at the Failure Love-Fest

I wish I were in Philadelphia this weekend, bouncing ideas madly with some of the best educators in America who are attending EduCon in person.  But I am forced to watch from afar, view the live-streams and follow the fire hose of Twitter feeds, a window seat voyeur sifting the flow of ideas and vision for what the future of education holds. Like any voyeur, I run the risk of sounding like a sniper when commenting from outside the room, but you know me; I get my hands dirty in person whenever I can, so you will forgive this once.

imagesWe are finally embracing failure!  It was not even a part of mainstream discussion a few years ago, except amongst the few propeller-head teachers who mentored the Robotics Club.  Lest the pendulum swing irrationally too far, here are a few comments about failure that I think we need to keep in mind.

Failure sucks. Yep, I said it and will say it again.  Failure stinks and big failures stink more than little failures. If you have ever lived through an epic failure, you agree.  If you don’t agree, you have never experienced epic failure.

Failure is not a goal; it is a result.  This is a huge distinction.  There is a pulsing enthusiasm to embrace failure because it is a great way to learn.  That is just not true.  We learn by trying, or more specifically through the experience of trying.  Failure is one result of trying.  The teacher is the experience.  John Dewey told us to “try in order to learn” not “try in order to fail”.  Big difference when you are developing that class unit.

The Experience Equation has four other terms: risk, success, failure, and reward.  The more you risk, the higher the likelihood that failure is the result.  Our current love-fest with failure stems from wanting to take more risks and knowing that means we will fail more, and we can learn from those failures.  Great! But you don’t learn more from failure than from success; that is just wrong.  You learn equally.  It is just that the world holds far more opportunities to fail than to succeed, especially as you increase the risk term in the equation, so the cumulative lessons learned from failure will tend to be greater. Our love-fest needs to be focused on maximizing experience in the equation, not failure.

images-1Finally, failure in learning is a luxury.  We learn by failure because we have the luxury of picking ourselves back up and trying again, which is blessing.  But much of the real world does not have that luxury, and we need to teach our students this; that is where empathy comes in.  I can test which type of seeds grow best in my garden out back of the school house and learn from my failures because I have more seeds in the classroom and my mom is going to make me dinner when I get home.  A farmer down to his last packet of seeds that will either sprout and feed his family, or not, sees failure very differently.

So thank goodness we are embracing failure in our schools! What a refreshing breeze.  But let’s keep focused on the prize gem, and not lose it because we are so happy digging around in the dirt.

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By | 2013-01-27T16:39:47+00:00 January 27th, 2013|21C Skills, Innovation in Education|3 Comments

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  1. Patrick Martin January 27, 2013 at 5:31 pm - Reply

    Fantastic post. I could not agree more. When I look back on my schooling, I remember few of the award ceremonies, but I do remember the epic failures. I like to share these with my students; however they are strangely greeted with a mix of intense curiosity and scrutiny. When I relay to my seventh graders how I failed out of school in seventh grade, they are shocked. Frequently they will question how I got a job teaching them. I try to explain that my failure in seventh grade is precisely why I chose to become a teacher, and they find this idea novel. I am not sure they “get it,” but I like to think that it resonates somehow later on.

  2. olsond6 January 28, 2013 at 10:30 pm - Reply
  3. Holly Chesser January 30, 2013 at 4:14 pm - Reply

    This is such a powerful post, Grant. You’ve articulated the unease I’ve heard many educators express about the “embracing failure” movement. Personally, I cringe when I hear that it’s ok to fail. It’s not, and bumper sticker encouragement doesn’t change the reality for most students driven to succeed and fearful that any errant grade will derail them on that path to success. Before we can advocate accepting failure, we need to change the system so that it’s not so focused on grades, summative evaluation, and preparation for future life rather than the life each student is presently living. I don’t think it’s fair to ask kids to embrace failure if the system still penalizes them when they fail. The only lesson we’d then be teaching is distrust.

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