Fail Fast, Fail Forward

Fail Fast, Fail Forward

A pottery teacher split her class into two halves. To the first half she said, “You will spend the semester studying pottery, planning, designing, and creating your perfect pot. At the end of the semester, there will be a competition to see whose pot is the best”.

To the students in the other half of the class she said, “You will spend your semester making lots of pots. Your grade will be based on the number of completed pots you finish. At the end of the semester, you’ll also have the opportunity to enter your best pot into a competition.”

The first half of the class threw themselves into their research, planning, and design. Then they set about creating their one, perfect pot for the competition. The second half of the class immediately grabbed fistfulls of clay and started churning out pots. They made big ones, small ones, simple ones, and intricate ones – making lots of mistake along the way, learning from those mistakes, and trying again. In the competition at the semester’s end, the judges ruled that the best pots came from the students who’d made lots of them. (Story from Eric Scott)

As educators, we often excel at the first approach – learning and teaching in an ordered, sequential way. Yet, researchers consistently emphasize the second approach’s effectiveness – LEARNING BY DOING!

So – what’s my point with this little pottery story tangent? My point is: get out there and try something new! Take a risk! Don’t wait until you have read about it and seen it in practice, and thought about it some more and talked to your team about how you might integrate it into next year’s plans if the district curriculum lightens up and allows it… stop thinking about it and TRY IT! It’s okay to fail! Fail FORWARD! It will be better then NEXT time you try it!

As educators, we should work to fail fast as startup developers do. Designers of new products typically try to create a barely functioning product as quickly as they can, then gather feedback from real users about their likes and dislikes so they can revise the product as they build it again, and again, and again in response to more user feedback. As educators, our tendency is to read, plan, attend a professional development, plan more about how we might integrate this new strategy or tool, think more, plan more… and so on… We spend so much time planning and preparing that when we do finally introduce the new tool the first time and it fails we deem the whole endeavor a huge failure and a big waste of time and swear never to try that tool again – and even tell others how it is not a useful tool in the classroom. If, on the other hand, we take the stance of new product designers and take a risk and introduce a new tool to students quickly, gather feedback from student use, refine implementation, use the tool or strategy again, gather student feedback, and on and on… our success rate would skyrocket and our students would get ownership and voice as they provide feedback and help us to shape the integration of the strategy or tool into the classroom.

Failing fast is something we all strive to teach our students – we daily ask them to try new things and we desperately want them to have a growth mindset about failing and trying again. Why don’t we step out and model this for our students with our teaching and our conversations with students about our teaching and their learning?

We do not expect students to master new learning on their first attempt. We build learning activities into our lessons such as guided practice, partner work, and other non-graded experiences to scaffold students and ensure that they have a safe place to try, make mistakes, fail and learn from their mistakes and failures. We know that our students learn by doing. We must now recognize that WE DO TOO.

We must try new strategies, new tools, and new ideas in our lessons while giving ourselves the grace that it WILL NOT be perfect on our first attempt. But we can iterate, we can get feedback from students, and we can grow as educators as we learn to implement new tools and as we learn to implement them for the specific students in each of our classrooms (because we all know that what works for me may not work for you – or may not work from one group of students to another).

In her book The New Pillars of Modern Teaching, Gayle Allen suggests as we go out on a limb and try new things in our classrooms, we start small and keep it simple. “First, identify one small change you’d like to make… Second, without spending a lot of time on it, alter a lesson to implement this change in a very basic way. Third, observe the result in class to gather feedback from students about how this worked for them. As much as possible, be transparent with your students that this is something that you’re trying and that their feedback is important” (pg 42).

Keep in mind that if you’ve done this little experiment correctly, some part of your implementation should fail. That is the whole point! The point is to learn from your quick implementation and then revise the lesson for your next class or next use in order to make it better. Then repeat. Again and again. Fail forward. Model the growth mindset. So what have you been thinking about trying out in your classroom? Try it. I mean it. Try it. Tomorrow. Expect to fail. Take notes on those failures and try again! Have you been waiting for a sign? This is it. Fail fast in order to grow!

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