Rethinking Failure

Posted on June 19, 2012


The concept of failure is very present in modern day education.

We use the threat of failure as both a means of motivating, so that you don’t fail, and of filtering, preventing those students who did fail from moving forward.

This concept of failure is only part of the picture in the real world, though.

As with school, in the real world failure is also used as a means of filtering and motivating. Those who have avoided too much failure enjoy greater rewards for their successes and avoiding failure is a motivating factor in all professions.

But failure is also an integral part of the process. Environments such as Silicon Valley thrive on encouraging risk-taking and the failure that accompanies it because each attempt at accomplishing something moves us a step closer to realizing success. Hence the phrase, “failure sucks, but instructs”.

In schools, though, it seems that failure just sucks.

In the real world you’re remembered for your successes, not your failures. If you try a thousand times and then hit it big on the one thousandth and one attempt, then that’s all that matters.

Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Yet in schools a failure becomes a part of your permanent record and, too often, it becomes part of your permanent psyche, creating feelings that you just aren’t good at a subject despite only trying once, let alone 10,000 times.

That’s why I think we need to focus more attention on trial-and-error environments where you can test hypotheses that lead toward a goal (puzzles). With puzzles each “failure” is just a failed hypothesis and is actually eliminating one possible solution from all of the solutions you can think of. So it’s getting you one step closer to a solution that will work.

We need to create more environments where failure happens frequently. Trial-and-error environments require that students learn through testing hypotheses. By definition there is a lot of error involved and that is a fundamental requirement. If there is no error then the learning that takes place is less useful. If you don’t have some idea of why one thing doesn’t work then you have less context to understand why a different thing does work.

Yes, people should strive to avoid failure, but they shouldn’t avoid it all together or they won’t be taking any risks. The big problems in the world are going to require 10,000 hypotheses before the correct one is discovered. If students are being discouraged from taking thousands of attempts to move forward then we are doing them a great disservice.



The Puzzle School