Learn to Reframe Failure

Hear how one teacher designer is changing the way we think about failure in schools

By Elsa Fridman Randolph

Here is a teacher daring to design.

Teacher Designer: Shipley Salewski

Shipley Salewski is the Dean of Instruction at Everett Middle School in San Francisco. Everett Middle School is a public school in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission district. Shipley knew that being an educator was going to be her life’s calling after completing her student teacher training in a struggling vocational high school in Boston.

“The distance between the way my education had impacted me and the opportunities I had had, and those of the students with whom I was working was so great that to not want to be a part of diminishing that distance would be almost unthinkable. It was and is incredibly compelling life’s work.”

The How Might We Question

How might we reimagine the P.E. curriculum to serve as a catalyst for developing a growth mindset in all areas (academic and extracurricular) of students’ lives?

The Opportunity

Readily accessible and affordable technology, such as heart rate monitors, is creating a new way to capture and see hard data about effort. Shipley and her team wondered how being able to show, in a very tangible and quantifiable manner, the ways in which effort impacts outcomes might help students to develop a growth mindset that would then be carried over into other areas of their lives. The team, which, along with Shipley, was composed of two P.E. teachers, Everett’s Athletic Director and their district’s Teacher on Special Assignment in P.E., redesigned Everrett’s P.E. curriculum to shift the focus from assessing ultimate outcomes to effort in the hopes that it would help students reframe effort and potential in other areas of their lives.

The Solution

The team redesigned their P.E. curriculum, which will be implemented this Fall. In prototyping aspects of their new curriculum, the team was able to glean important insights about the user experience they were designing— for example, how to get the girls to put on their heart rate monitors without showing their stomachs and feeling embarrassed. These insights garnered from prototyping aspects of the redesigned P.E. curriculum has enabled the team to create a truly human-centered learning experience for their students.

Design thinking is an iterative process, and the first version of the redesigned P.E. curriculum is just the beginning of the team’s design journey. They have mapped out some of the metrics that they are looking to capture in their feedback loop — for example, how well the students understand basic principles of fitness and nutrition. Other measurements however, such as how to capture and assess the students’ ability to reframe effort and potential in other areas of their lives, are still unclear and an exciting challenge for the team to keep tackling as the students experience the new curriculum.

Shipley’s Design Thinking Moment

For Shipley, the most empowering aspect of adopting a design thinking mindset has been the way it has helped her reframe failure as a learning opportunity.

“Because we exist in the era of backwards planning and the standards-based instruction movement, our planning work has been dominated by processes whereby you gain clarity and total specificity about your outcomes, and then you plan perfectly to achieve those end goals; so much of what we do is making everything aligned and fine-tuned, and calibrated in such a way that each component drives towards a pre-determined place. And it feels really high stakes. This is the big insight for me, having participated in the design thinking process is:

“we can go experiment, it can be low-risk, and we can actively seek, rather than avoid at all costs, places where our plans fail. In fact, you’re trying to fail. If you don’t get something wrong, you didn’t learn anything. Go back, try it again.”

“The teachers, especially teachers stressed for time and pressed to make changes, want to jump to solutions really quickly before we’ve even really understood the user perspective. So many of us, especially people in leadership positions, or people who have been at this for a long time and have a high degree of expertise, tend to think, “I know what to do, we just need to do it.” Design thinking helped us retrain that instinct. In the messy, divergent part of the design thinking process, you are in listening and learning mode, you are not in figuring out what to do mode.”