Mirror + Map // February 25, 2019

Educators, We Must Embrace Failure

Ryan Ricenbaw
FYG Chief Educator

Change is hard in education. But if we are too afraid to fail, we won't ever succeed.

In the 11 years I served as principal at a Nebraska high school, I saw incredible change in the real world, which corresponded with significant change in kids — from the communication platforms they used to the careers they sought to the homes they grew up in. These changing external variables clearly meant we would need to adapt to truly prepare every individual student for his or her life ahead.

The vision: transform the high school into a personalized student experience. The objective was that students would be able to engage in their own journey in education by experiencing learning in the context of the real world, measuring success through growth, and take ownership of the process. This would then create a natural differentiation process that would all but eliminate teaching “to the middle” and establish a genuine personalized learning experience that every student can find value in.

We had all the resources in place and checked all the boxes when it comes to implementation. We began by prioritizing the essential skills identified by our district as the foundation of our curriculum (basically your 21st Century skills with our own twist on them). In order to create sustainable, systemic change, teachers had a hand in the revision and implementation stages. They were provided the time and space to collaborate together and play a role in specific changes that were needed. Teachers were trained in the PBL approach (Project-Based Learning) which was the precursor to a new instructional model and also provided us with a framework to translate these skills across any given curriculum. This required us to begin accounting for growth as a critical element in the assessment process.

This process was spread out over a number of years, but this was still an enormous and aggressive undertaking. Teachers needed permission to take things off of their plate, so they were encouraged to use more informal, subjective, professional judgments along the way. These formative approaches are critical and also supported our goals of increased student-teacher dialogue and relationship building; the stuff teaching is supposed to be about, right? Early on, this all made sense to me and I was especially excited that teachers were given the opportunity to focus less on test scores and grades more on the most important reasons why they became teachers in the first place.

But it wasn’t enough. Or maybe it was too much. Either way, in my time as principal, this vision never materialized. I wasn’t able to establish the needed traction across the whole staff. There were pockets of great things happening in classrooms like more innovative practices, much more meaningful assessment processes, and students being challenged to think deeper than ever before. But as a school, we never got over the hump. There are plenty of things I would do differently as a leader, but I believe that the inability to make real change a reality in a high school came down to this: our failure to fail. There were many too afraid of being uncomfortable, or not having all the answers if they were asked. I believe we lost focus on the benefit and were too worried about the cost. I spent a lot of time making sure everyone could make sense of what we were doing, and not enough time making sure they understood that we were going to fail, that it was going to be difficult, and that we will be better because of it. This was a big, big mistake.

This experience gave me a new perspective on education in general. Certainly, when dealing with the current and future lives of children, educators have to be especially thoughtful, and, yes, careful, when implementing change. That said, education must always be looking ahead and embracing change. Education must serve as a fearless institution that isn’t afraid to fail, knowing that any failure will only better prepare us for tomorrow. After all, failure is an essential component of the real world experience. Those who succeed learn how to take it in stride, bounce back, become resilient, and begin to pivot in its face. This is no different for students as it should be for teachers. A recent study in low-income schools in New York found that many kids believed success was connected to a natural aptitude they lacked. “Failure’s value is something of a tough sell in an education system in which the emphasis on test scores puts teachers under immense pressure to prioritize getting things right, right away,” the study’s author, Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, told The Atlantic.

In my new role as Chief Educator for Find Your Grind, I have been provided the dream task to evolve a curriculum for which learning from failure is one of the critical building blocks. At FYG, the belief is that if we want to prepare kids for the ever-changing real world, we must give them opportunities to connect with real-world content. The journey through the curriculum will be an iterative process where students will constantly review their decisions, actions, ideas, plans, etc. The failures should have the greatest impact on their growth; this only can work if students are part of the process from the beginning, not just in the end.

We all must find a way to embrace failure in education. What if we were able to ease the fears by anticipating failure, embracing the struggles together with students. Or what if the struggles and failures were considered part of a learning journey that students and teachers went on together. Imagine how different that classroom might be. How real it might feel. Imagine the powerful possibilities for students and teachers who are no longer fearful of failure and are instead challenging themselves like never before? With all the support students have in school, shouldn't this be the place where they are most comfortable to fail?

If we can help kids take an honest look in the mirror then we can help them to create the map to get them where they want to go.

What do you think?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please email me at ryan [at] findyourgrind [dot] com and let’s start a dialogue. I’ll share some of the most enlightening feedback in a future post.