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Putting Failure to Work in Education

My own educational philosophy is deeply rooted in the concept of learn-by-doing and an understanding of the role that failure plays in learning.  So, when the New York Times came out with its annual “Innovation” issue cloaked in the premise of failure, I was very interested. Adam Davidson’s “Welcome to the Failure Age” develops a curious, almost distasteful, narrative around failure through the metaphor of the Weird Stuff, the Silicon Valley reseller that has built its own success in large part off the failures of the high tech industry.  Don’t misunderstand me. It’s brilliant (both the idea behind Weird Stuff and Davidson’s depiction of it), but the entire piece takes on a somewhat post-apocalyptic hue that doesn’t map to my own . . . appreciation of failure.

Over time, I’ve come to appreciate the role failure can play and believe that it’s time to put failure to better use in education. In the initial stages of my professional life, I spent 15 years teaching in a well-respected institution of higher learning where team teaching supported an environment of creativity, experimentation and continuous improvement. Quite honestly, failure was not highly tolerated, but the built-in mechanisms for peer engagement and feedback made for higher on-the-job learning curves.

Working for Roger Schank and developing simulation-based learning programs corporations and institutions of higher learning in the early 2000’s, I saw firsthand how technology-enabled instruction provides an incredibly safe means by which to leverage failure for positive learning outcomes.  Therefore, my own experience, from a practitioner’s and a designer’s experience, has made me keenly aware of the role that failure can play in the classroom and beyond in the ongoing evolution of educational practices.

We’ve seen change over the past few years but not all for the good. There are still some obstacles to the type of change that is needed in education. The failures of the past few years need to be leveraged in order to make room for positive change. In brief:

  1. Recycle MOOCs

I think Weird Stuff knows exactly what can be done with MOOCs. Let’s recycle the millions of megabytes of video and online quizzes and instead of those being the bulk of the course on their own, incorporate them into more of the high-touch, facilitated online learning programs we know people are really looking for.

  1. Lead with services rather than technology

There are fantastic tools being developed in the name of enhancing the learning experience, but let’s spend more time working with real practitioners understanding the root cause of today’s inefficiencies. Why build a better mousetrap if the mousetrap isn’t what we need?

  1. Revamp the school day

Given what we know about today’s workplace, it does not make sense to spend each of the current 13 years of school inside one building for 7-8 hours a day. Expanding the responsibility for learning beyond the walls of the classroom may be the single most important change we’ll see in the coming decades. It’s a 70:20:10 approach to learning that should be propagated throughout the entire educational continuum.

In his article, Davidson notes that “Education is facing the threat of computer-based learning posed by Khan Academy, Coursera and other upstart companies.” The threat that they pose is not in that their products will entirely replace what we know as education today, but they have shown us that people are hungry for change, access, enhancement, or revision of the status quo. But they themselves and all of the rest of us along the educational continuum have risked the potential for replacement if we don’t recognize and learn from our present failures.

For more on learning design and social impact, visit us at Designs2Learn.


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

Designs2Learn blogs were originally published on a separate site devoted solely to educational issues. 

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