Failure in Learning: Personal S-curves

Failure is a habit we should be cultivating in schools.  Unless we as teachers and administrators occasionally risk failure and unless we encourage our students to pursue crazy ideas now and then, we invite the far more insidious risk of dulled curiosity.  And flattening the tension of learning seems to me a real threat in the “arms race of achievement in America,” a poignant loss for a society that has long valued innovation.  I am not advocating sugar coating bad ideas, labeling them “iteration” rather than failure, but suggesting that we would be better served by schools that recognize the importance of negative space in learning.  As with negative space in photography, what we can’t make sense of and what frustrates us surrounds and more clearly defines the objects of our learning.  Failure lets us better compose and articulate what we do know, and energizes our questions.  Portfolio assessments, project based learning, and performance tasks are practices that facilitate trial and error and encourage habits of perseverance and critical reflection.  As time consuming as these practices are, they also seem to me better at assessing the learning over time that indicates durable learning.



I wrote this post prompted by three things.  The first is Samuel Beckett’s famous description of the writing process, which I often share with the fledgling writers in my high school English classes.  I am reminding the students of the importance of rewriting, but also hoping to shape a growth mindset.  Beckett writes,  Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”  How can I help my students and my staff fail better, fail smarter?



The second prompt for this post was Whitney Johnson’s insightful Harvard Business Review post,  Johnson and her collaborator, Juan Carlos Méndez-García, suggest, “one of the best models for making sense of a non-linear world is the S-curve, the model we have used to understand the diffusion of disruptive innovations, and which [we] speculate can be used to understand personal disruption — the necessary pivots in our own career paths.”  The authors draw on research in business and neuroscience.  Their convincing argument, that “understanding the S-curve can keep discouragement at bay as we build new knowledge,” left me pondering how I can encourage those around me to take those leaps of unknowing, or even join them in mid-air?



And lastly, I was prompted to post this by a phenomenal ed tech conference happening now at my school, integratED SF,  Risk-inspiring educators from Gever Tulley to Diana Laufenberg and Ramsey Musallam (a wonderful colleague at Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep) and facilitators such as OETC’s Darren Hudgins and SHC’s terrific Director of Educational Technology Matt Montagne are scouting exciting S-curves in learning for all of us.  This post is a small thank you.


Images copyright 2012 Juan C. Mendez and Whitney Johnson.

Seek and scale a learning curve.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s