Why We Don’t Truly Embrace Failure

    Although it seems to be cliche and commonplace in education to talk about innovation and the importance of “failure” in the process, this thought process seems to be misguided and focusing on the wrong aspect of the process.  Advocates of the importance of “failure” will often point to stories such as that of James Dyson, the inventor of the Dyson Vacuum who, “spent 15 years creating 5,126 versions that failed before he made one that worked.”  Yet the reality of this story is that no one would even mention James Dyson if it wasn’t for that one success at the end.  How many other vacuum inventors can you name and, especially,  how many of the other vacuum inventors that never successfully got a vacuum on the market can you name?
    The part of this process that is imperative is resiliency and grit.  Resiliency, in this case, being the ability to come back after a defeat or unsuccessful attempt, and grit meaning a “resolve or strength of character.”  These are characteristics that are important in the innovative process as we need to continuously develop new and better ways to serve our students.
    For example, I was recently talking to a learning coach that shared her frustration about working with another teacher who basically tried one process with a student and it didn’t work. When her learning coach asked her whether she tried anything else, the teacher had told her she hadn’t.  The learning coach was obviously frustrated that this was a “one and done” situation.  Later, our group conversation turned to focus on the notion of failure and how it is important that educators “embrace” and be okay with it.  I immediately jumped in and asked the learning coach, “Do you consider the process you described earlier as a failure?”, to which she quickly said “yes”.  I then asked, “and were you okay with that?”, to which she emphatically said, “NO!”  Trying out different things and figuring out alternative options for our students are all part of the “innovator’s mindset“, but accepting failure, especially when it comes to our kids, is not something I, or others, will ever embrace.
    When I first started teaching, I remember famously saying to a student, you are going to learn the way I teach.  I could not have been more wrong in my thought process with this student.  A great teacher adjusts to the learner, not the other way around.  This is where resiliency and grit are not only “nice”, but necessary.  Not accepting failure is important to be successful in serving our kids.  What works for one, might not work for another, and as leaders, we need to develop a culture that focuses on doing whatever we can to ensure that we are successful in serving our students.  This “napkin drawing” by comedian Demetri Martin, beautifully outlines this process.
    Success is messy, as is learning.  Although I love this picture, the one thing that needs to be pointed out is that on both sides of the drawing, the endpoint of the arrow is pointing in the same direction.  Towards a better way in the end.  Yet in many educational institutions, their “line” would not look like either.  It would simply be a plateau where we have done the same things over and over again; no better no worse.  We all know what a “flat line” means in the medical profession.  Schools can’t mirror that or we might face the same outcome.

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