A few weeks ago I, along with several other co-workers, visited a neighboring school in a different district to see how they incorporated design thinking into their school day. After we walked around for a couple of hours and observed the goings-on, we reconvened with each other and the principal and assistant principal of the school and had a debrief.
In our debrief, I asked the school leaders how far they would let a student head down an unproductive path during their passion project time. What I was envisioning when I asked was a student that falls into the trap of procrastination and then is so deep in a hole, just gives up. I was wondering how far a teacher might let the learning experience of procrastination go before intervening.
I used the word “fail” in the discussion and the educator I was speaking with said they were a “growth-mindset” school, so the undone project would be incomplete, but not a failure. Instead of failing, the student would just keep at it, keep improving his/her project.
The softball coach, teacher, and smart-aleck in me thought in this moment, “Yes, and when I assess where the student is with their project, he (or she) will receive a failing grade if it is the end of the semester."
There is always a point at which something must be acknowledged as a failure - even if the failure is temporary.
But isn’t all failure - that is not a life safety issue - temporary?
I wanted to continue the conversation because there was a disconnect about the way I was using word “failure." This educator thought I was talking about a failing grade. My mental self-talk aside, I was actually wondering about failing to engage. The learning process of the effects of procrastination are valuable. What I wanted to talk about was at what point do we, the educators in charge, intervene and save a student from traveling too far down the path of procrastination? However, we were in a large group and there were other great things to talk about, so I let it go.
The exchange got me to thinking about failure and the connotations of saying that someone has failed at something. We tend to see failure as a shameful thing - something to be avoided, certainly not celebrated. Even though every successful leader I’ve ever known has stated many times that they learn so much more from their failures than they do when they get something right, we shy away from failure.
Unfortunately, doing so can be crippling - in an attempt to avoid failure we avoid some challenges - challenges that might make us stronger, smarter, and better even if the finished outcome wouldn’t be labeled by everyone as a “success.”
I’d argue that the label of success versus failure is part of the problem. If we get smarter, stronger, and have a better understanding of the problems we are trying to solve, then that’s a rousing success. Maybe this seems self-evident: there are platitudes on every school wall in America: “You miss every shot you don’t take.” “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” “An essential aspect of creativity in not being afraid to fail.” “Mistakes are the portal of discovery."
For something that everyone seems to agree is inevitable and perhaps even necessary, we sure don’t want to experience it. Fear of repercussions is a big part of that, of course. Feeling blamed for every perceived ill with American education tends to create a situation where teachers shy away from things that could result in obvious failure. I don’t want to fail at creating an engaging, digital-age classroom - that’s not only my job, but my passion. The thing is though…even if the end result is labelled a “success,” it never looks like I thought it would when I started. The project and my students morph, we react, we keep going. Some things go well, some things don’t.
In his post, “Fail Forward Fast: Get Over Being Right and Get On with Getting On With It,” Edward Muzio talks about decision making processes. He writes that we should "make the very best possible decision that we can, every single time” but to also understand that both the decision and the act of considering alternatives change the situation. Then, by the time you decide and implement, the situation has changed even more.
So, what to do? Muzzy writes,
' "Get over your incorrectness and get on with the work. Make your next incorrect decision based on the information you now have. And do it as quickly as possible, please. As we used to say when I was in high-tech engineering, “fail forward, fast.” ‘
In an interactive classroom environment, teachers has 200-300 interactions with students every hour - many of them unpredictable and unplanned for. We don’t have any other choice than to make decisions quickly, intuitively. Some (most?) of those decisions don’t work out the way we might hope. So we re-calibrate and decide again.
Of course this doesn’t mean that we just decide something - anything - and do it, willy-nilly. We always make the best possible decision we can every time. We gather our data, we collaborate, we research. We always do our best with what we know in that moment, and we also know that what we will know tomorrow will be different than what we know today - and that’s just how it should be. I was a decent teacher by my 5th year of teaching. But I was a better teacher after 7 years. And even better again after 20. I was always doing the very best I could and I reflected on things that didn’t go as planned and made changes. If I had never felt that I had failed, what would there be to reflect on? Where would I grow? We may hit the mark with a decision, but we will miss the mark with many others. That’s not only okay, it is necessary and good.
I'll leave you with this from Astro Teller: