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Stuck in the Mud


Photo by Paul Harrop

Photo by Paul Harrop

Bottom line…without mistakes, risks, or errors we wouldn’t be where we are today. Why, then, does the educational system discourage this in our students?

I wrote that back in 2009 (!) after reading this blog post, by Liz B. Davis: Putting Gladwell’s Compensatory Model into Practice or NECC 09 Keynote Part 2. In my post A Compensatory Model of Education¬†I wrote about my frustration with education’s focus on students getting the right answers rather than learning from the process and continually improving.

Here it is, 2014. For the last couple of years the theories behind game design and design thinking have been filtering into educational thought, but not having a direct impact in the mainstream classroom. The Maker movement is popular again causing innovative schools to rethink their space in order to create tinkering labs or innovation spaces. I think this is great. My school is currently considering its own innovation lab. The problem? These movements do not address what Gladwell, Liz Davis and I wrote about years ago: failure; specifically embracing a culture of failure throughout education. Yes, these ideas encourage and even require failure, but the ideas seem to be relegated to special “labs” or a particular unit rather than day to day classroom practice.

Design thinking, game design and tinkering all require failure and learning from that failure. They involve ideating, iteration, prototyping, testing; a messy process that can send you back to any point in the process at any time. When do you do this in the classroom? Do you assess your students on how they have improved? On the steps they took to get to a product? The persistance they showed in completing a task? Or are you simply looking to see that the student got the answer you were looking for or created a project that looked like a replica of the example?

This is where we are stuck in the mud. High stakes testing, comparison to other students, the pressure to get into a good high school, let alone good college, all put teachers in a situation that discourages do overs and failure. Sure, maybe a student can correct mistakes on a test to improve a grade, but the grade is still based on getting the correct answer on the test.

Here we are, amlost five years later, and I’m still asking the same question: Why do schools discuourage failure? I know it’s improving and I do what I can to encourage students to take risks, make mistakes and try again. The issue isn’t simply a personal ¬†decision to cultivate failure, but a cultural mindset. All we can do is keep encouraging failure in our classrooms, educating policy makers about the importantance of process over product and reassure parents that their child will survive, thrive even, if they fail.