Quick summary of what comes below: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
As a professor, it seems that these days I'm being pulled into a lot of discussions about "failure." (To my students: don't panic, this post has nothing to do with the essays I'll be returning to you next week!) It's something I've been thinking about often, especially ever since I started teaching in 2004. I even wrote a piece called "Not Failure" for MAKE Magazine two years ago. Lately, with the rise in engineering design (and design thinking) being taught in PK-16, the word "failure" comes up a lot and my reaction to the word itself is intensifying.
For context, this year I am teaching multiple sections of Engineering Design and Graphics to engineering undergraduatess (mostly first year students, many foreign students) and a section of "Engineering Design" for PK-12 educators. As design and design thinking becomes something more and more PK-12 schools and colleges are trying to teach, I'm struggling with the words that I hear people using.
I know that at conferences, and among practitioners, phrases like "celebrate failures" and "fail fast" are considered paradigm shifting and eye opening, but I'm really struggling with seeing these words used at the PK-12 level, and even in college classrooms. I have had quite a few educators come and tell me that they want to celebrate failure or that they have heard that teaching children to "celebrate failure" is what they should be doing.
I agree wholeheartedly in sentiment, but not in semantics. Words matter. When we work with learners who are in difficult situations, it seems disingenuous to tell them to be okay with "failure" and then later in the day if they "fail" the math test we hold them back, or call their parents, or take away their scholarship. I liken the design process to writing. We never assume that the first draft is the final draft. We know that we'll iterate and get feedback from users, peers and others. I have started to say that it's only failure if you completely give up. Otherwise, it's just a draft, or an experiment. Rather than "celebrate failure" or "fail fast" I use "Prototype early" "Try lots of things and experiment," "learn from your iterations," "try something!" and things to that effect.
This has been touching a nerve with me lately as this week I'm travelling with colleagues and when I randomly chose a table for a group discussion I ended up at the one about "teaching students to embrace failure." One quote from the discussion was "failure isn't failure." A follow up to that was an investigation into how to grade students in a class where you're trying to teach them to fail. My thought on that is that you're not teaching them to "fail," you're teaching them to "prototype," "try," and "iterate." If you have to grade don't grade the product. Grade the process. Ask them to aim high and play. Apply a process and grade the application of their process.
I feel a bit bad that I keep pushing the point, but if you're in a situation where students staying in school depends on their grades, it seems confusing to stress that "failure is okay." When I pointed this out,I was told that students "know we don't mean they should really fail. They are smart enough to know the different types of failures." I'm not sure that I know what that means. Especially when we're working with young learners, and first generation college students, and communities where people are working as hard as they can to meet their family's basic needs. Unless we change the language completely, and no longer call a 59 on a test a "failure," I just can't wrap my head around telling these my students that failure is okay in some parts of school and not other parts and that "of course we mean a different kind of failure."
I'm trying hard to adopt the language of iteration, persistence, experimentation and play and consciously stop using the word "failure" when I teach design.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this!