Educators Need To Get Better At Embracing Failure

Public education has changed little over the past century and debates rage on about the best way to move forward. One thing that needs to change is our mindset regarding failure and risk-taking.

As I reflect upon a recent post from Seth Godin's blog,  the concerns of people who are anxious about the transition Burlington High School will be undertaking as we move to becoming a 1:1 school are forefront in my mind.  One of the biggest fears I hear from some people is that they are concerned about losing control control due to the fact that they will not know how to best utilize all of the tools that they will have at their disposal.  They are afraid that their students may know more than they do in regards to using the new tools that they will be trying to implement.

The fact of the matter is that, this is never going to change due to the fact that the list of tools is growing daily.  There is no one on earth who can claim expertise in all of the technological tools out there and this creates the obvious need for a shift in thinking from people who see themselves as experts in their classrooms to people who see themselves as guides and/or co-learners.  My friends in Van Meter, Iowa have described the shift as creating classrooms that are not teacher-centered, but are instead learner-centered. These are places where teachers consider themselves learners along with their students.  We need to spend more time thinking about what it really means to be a lifelong learner and what the role of educators looks like in this model.

Failure is Not Fatal

Personally, I am excited about the opportunity and would prefer to fail often than just go about things the way that we have done for years.   Of course, the idea of failure has been one that has been avoided at all costs in schools for decades and it is one of the biggest reasons we are where we are in public education. In so many instances, we stay in our comfort zones because we are afraid that something might not work. In the meantime, we are preparing our students for a world in which things are changing faster than ever and where flexibility and innovation are at a premium. In short, we cannot adequately prepare our students if we do not adopt this mindset. 

As Godin pointed out in today's post (see below), we need to embrace failure:

"As you gain resources, the act of being wrong goes from being fatal to annoying to a precious opportunity, something that you've earned.  You won't advance your cause or discover new truths if you're obsessed with being right all the time--and so the best way to compound your advantage and accomplish even more than you already have is to set out (with relish) to be as open to wrong as often as you can afford to be."


As we loosen up our white-knuckled grip on security and relish the opportunities that failure can present, we also need to talk openly about our shortcomings and share them with others.  Godin asks an important question "When was the last time you set out to be promiscuous in your failures?" in his book Poke The Box.  In order to become a highly functioning learning environment this needs to be a daily occurrence.

We Need To Be More Transparent 

If our intention is to remain relevant then we need to pull up the shades, open our doors and embrace the failure that comes with change.  We have some important choices to make and it comes down to a few questions that those of us who choose to be educators have to answer in regards to the the types of learning environments we want for our students.  These questions would be something like the ones that Godin outlines in his book Graceful, questions asked by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos to the graduating students at Princeton.

"Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions? Will you follow dogma, or will you be original? Will you be a cynic or will you be a builder?" 

In closing, I have to mention the seven survival skills that Tony Wagner discusses in his book The Global Achievement Gap, skills that our students need whether they are going on to college or the workplace.

  1. critical thinking/problem solving
  2. collaboration/leading by influence
  3. agility and adaptability
  4. initiative and entrepreneurialism
  5. effective oral and written communication
  6. accessing and analyzing information
  7. curiosity and imagination

We cannot get where we need to go, if we as educators do not model these skills and we cannot model these skills if we are afraid of failing.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Burlington Mom May 22, 2011 at 01:03 PM
There is a difference between making mistakes and learning from them, and falling flat on your face. One is easier to recover from than the other, which is why most schools and businesses pilot important innovations before rolling them out to the whole population. I applaud the innovation and pioneering spirit of this administration. I also approve of prudent and thoughtful planning - and realistic piloting - to avoid true failure. The one-to-one initiative is a wonderful goal, but I fear that we are rushing headlong into this in order to be innovative. But innovation is not the goal. One year of piloting the program would not put us "behind the times" but may allow us to take greater advantage of the powerful tools we are implementing.
mary August 01, 2011 at 01:19 PM
Good article re education at BHS. I just ordered "Poke the Box" for my Kindle.


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