Failure.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the 2016 Techspo conference in Atlantic City and walked away thinking “failure”. Not because anything went horribly wrong; in fact, it was quite the opposite. The conference was held at the beautiful Harrah’s Casino, which featured a large, well-laid-out floor plan. The venue even had decent wifi, which was historically a challenge when the conference was previously hosted at a competing casino. The lunch was the usual choice of chicken salad, tuna salad, and turkey, but wasn’t bad (by certain standards).

So why did I leave thinking about “failure”?

The conference launched with a keynote by the amazing Kevin Brookhouser (@brookhouser). He spoke about motivating students to engage in algorithmic problem solving and provided a real-life example — a video game. While he was playing the game on-stage, Kevin spoke about how kids innately face a challenge, fail, and learn from their mistakes; improving each time, until the challenge is overcome.

He went on to engage in a bit of geek-heresy, by announcing that Yoda was wrong. There is a “try” and students should “try” as frequently as possible. This “trying” should come with the understanding that failure was possible; if not probable. Kevin told stories of asking students to intentionally fail — providing them with 20 minutes to come up with the worst ideas possible in something called “The Bad Idea Factory”. What was surprising was how the students turned some of the “bad ideas” into impressively great ideas, such as adding a wheelchair ramp to a school after a student committed to voluntarily spending a week in a wheelchair and discovered inaccessible areas of his campus.

Throughout the conference, I attended several sessions in which the presenters discussed the notion of failure. It left me thinking, why does failure seem to be such a hot topic in education today? With such a focus on high-stakes testing and rigorous teacher evaluation, is now really the time for educators to promote failure?

While I agree that standardized tests will never really assess learning and play is critically essential to learning, pitching the intentional pursuit of failure may still be a “tough sell” to many stakeholders. Nonetheless, I am interested in finding out more about failure and its implications on achievement. If you are reading this and have any thoughts or research on what I’ll call “the success of failure”, please do not hesitate to share. I will do my best to follow up on a future post.

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