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Willing to Fail

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August 10, 2012 03:56 pm


Throughout the last year and a half of working on digital learning issues here at the Alliance, I have heard one piece of advice over and over again: In digital learning, and in all innovation, you have to be willing to take risks, and be willing to fail.

I had a direct experience with that in a recent webinar I hosted on the role of teaching in a learner-centered, digitally-empowered environment. For the webinar, I was eager to use video clips from a previous Alliance event. In testing the day before, they worked seamlessly, but on the day of, tests revealed about a 10 percent failure rate, and during the webinar itself, the first video worked fine, but the second and third failed, and we did not even attempt the fourth. My experience went well with one of the themes we discussed during the webinar – you have to take risks, you have to be willing to fail.

This is true for teachers in the classroom who want to take their instruction to another level, to reach more students, to make learning truly personalized. Educators piloting innovative use of the Khan Academy in Los Altos, California say that part of their culture is to take risks and that it’s okay to fail. And the framework used by Epic-ed , the online community run by the Friday Institute, holds dear this idea in its framework: vision – plan – implement – assess. An idea must be assessed, then feedback must be incorporated, then we go back to the vision and plan how to do it better.

It’s also true for the students themselves. The oft-cited TIMSS 1999 video study noted that in Japan, “teachers often give students problems to work on that they have not seen before, believing that it is good for students to struggle with something they have not been taught, both to develop thinking skills and to prepare them for later instruction.” And Carol Dweck’s research on mindset tells us that learning to deal with setbacks and failures is what opens the door to better learning. That’s why gamification of learning has such powerful potential. When you fail in a game, you keep right on trying. How much fun would Angry Birds be if we all just put the iPhone down the first time we failed? No, we keep coming back, we keep trying new strategies and thinking outside the box until finally we get it right.

Now, the very word “innovation” can strike fear into the hearts of many. No parent wants their child to be an experiment. We should only do completely research-based strategies that have been tried and tested, and have met the gold standard.  The fact is we experiment on students every single day.  It is always a constant struggle to find what works for each learner. For me, it’s absolutely thrilling to see how, through digital learning, teachers are finding new ways to do what they’ve always wanted to do – see that light bulb come on for every student.

Here at the Alliance, we’ll keep working to find ways to make our internet-based outreach more interactive, vibrant, and useful to the audiences we serve, including using video or whatever other techniques we can. We’ll learn some lessons from our snafus on Thursday, make adjustments, and keep trying. And in doing so, hopefully we’ll continue to improve. And we hope that if more teachers are willing to fail in those small ways every day at trying to make their teaching better, in the end, more students will achieve.

Watch archived video from the webinar on the role of teaching in a learner-centered, digitally-empowered environment here.

Terri Duggan Schwartzbeck is a senior policy associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education.


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