Friday, February 22, 2013

Epic Fail

My daughter and I are learning to cook together. My mother’s most essential cooking utensil was a can opener so it’s an area in which I am lacking key skills, but my daughter has a creative streak with food so we are trying to figure it out together.
We trawl through online recipes, choose one that seems most appealing and challenging, shop for it and do our best to follow the instructions.  Many of our cooking adventures result in epic fails but we enjoy the process of experimenting, tweaking, adjusting and ultimately learning. Failure holds no fear for us, indeed it spurs us on to do better, and it occurs to me that I need to fail epically more often in the classroom .
My students brainstorming skills are improving. They are at the point in the year where they have established trusting relationships, and they more familiar with the routine of trying to generate 100 ideas in ten minutes with no holds barred. It is moving from ideas to action that seems to pose the greatest problem. As soon as they begin to consider their ideas they can generate just as many, if not more reasons why their ideas won’t work. They reach an impasse quickly and will tend to descend into a dulled state of defeat and inaction. Rather than attempting a challenging solution and learning from their mistakes they prefer to choose not to try at all.
The question is, how do I help my students attempt to solve a problem with the same fearless enthusiasm that my daughter attempts a new recipe? I need to make my classroom more like my kitchen; a fun place for messy experimentation, a safe place to make mistakes and a place to celebrate success. I can make a start by modeling failure more often.
Instead of being just a coach and guide I am going to try and become more of an active participant. When I ask students to solve challenging math problems I am going to attempt solve some myself. When I ask them to build something, I will build too. When I ask them to play a game, I will play too. Being an active participant will enable me to demonstrate what it looks like to take risks, to dive in, evaluate, consider alternatives, rethink and try again. It will also provide opportunities for open and purposeful conversation about failure, about redefining success and about character traits like grit, determination and perseverance.
As educators we constantly hear that it’s not about the tool, (the iPad, the interactive whiteboard…the can opener) it’s what you do with it. Well my new learning tool is going to be failure, maybe my plan will fail fantastically, but the process will be epic.



  1. Thumbs up for failure! I know my kids have heard the "we learn best from our mistakes" line more than a couple times. I also know I don't model it. Your post really resonates today. I had research failure on our 5th grade travel brochure project for the umpteenth time. Slow Internet, databases not opening and mounting frustration. What do I do? I kept coming back to the goal of team-work. What if I acknowledge that the research process is probably not going to get better? Admit the failure and move on. Take the bits and pieces all the kids have found, share and get to the product. We can work through the failure and still come out ahead.
    I hope it works!

    1. I think you have an excellent opportunity to model how to handle failure :) As teachers we are so used to hiding away our failures, I think I'm ready to see what exposing them will achieve. I will be interested in hearing how you move forward and what the students learned.

    2. I think you also have an opportunity to redefine success. Often Erin and I cook up things that taste good but don't look pretty or vice versa and we still declare them a success.What have your students achieved or learned that can be deemed a success?

  2. Good point about redefining success. Each of the groups has had some success in locating information. All will have greater success if we share with everyone. I will let you know how it goes on Monday.