The school year has started and many educators are already talking about failure.

8226451812_88007f08df_bThis isn’t the failure that many of us are familiar with from school (not from personal experience, just from being in school. It isn’t the glaringly big red F that we feared. Instead, it is presented as a more benign learning opportunity. A recent blog post from Jeff Kubiak and Eric Ewald makes the case that we should embrace failure and get over our shame of it.

In our rush to build grit and resilience, and build a growth mindset, have we too broadly defined failure? Are all failures equal? Is failure from trial and error more meaningful than failure from a more methodical testing method? What about negligence? It still can cause failure, but it is the same kind of failure as that of a carefully created experiment not giving the expected results?

Adam Savage, in an episode of Still Untitled: The Adam Savage Project, explained a possible difference:

“Failure might not be the right word…It’s not that I’m repeatedly failing. When I think of failure, there is capital F failure and there is small f failure. Capital F failure is like I had a job interview and instead I got drunk and had a blackout…I burned a bridge. There is small f failure which is like I cut that chair leg too small and now I have to make it a third time. The thing is that on that level when you make something even when you set out to make something… what you end up with is never about what you originally set out to make… It’s not about failing safely, it’s really about being awake to what that path is going to be instead of trying to impose the path on what’s happening.”

Savage’s small f failure is the kind that we want students learning from in school. Perhaps, to help them avoid running into the big F failure. There are learning opportunities in both, of course, but I think we want our students to avoid running into the larger F because of poor choices, particularly if there are other ways to learn.

Failure needs to be within context as well. There are limits to the number iterations that can be made in a project, either because of time or resources. Failure can bring with it fewer opportunities to try other things

Perhaps most importantly, though, we need to realize that failure + perseverance does not equal success. There is a missing component of reflection that needs to be incorporated. Otherwise, we may doom ourselves to commit the same error repeatedly without ever learning from it.

That might be the ultimate lesson inside of failure. Fail to reflect and failure won’t be a learning tool at all. Healthy failure, the kind that educators talk about it, requires reflection. The source of the error doesn’t matter if you cannot look back on it and ask yourself the difficult questions that come with reflecting on failure.


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