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How to fail successfully

By Team ISTE
June 28, 2015
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The more educators hear about what other people have tried and failed and would change next time, the faster education moves forward. That’s the new norm in teaching: We try something, and if it doesn’t work, we try something else.

Which was easy for Barbara Nemko, superintendent of Napa Valley Schools in California, to point out at the Lead & Transform panel at ISTE 2015. But there’s a very scary word in that philosophy: fail.

Worst yet, it goes hand in hand with another discouraging word: fear.

“We’re terrified. It is so hard to say, ‘I think I can change this school but you have to trust me and you have to let me try these things and you have to let me fail.’ Because there will be big failures,” said Pernille Ripp, a seventh grade teacher at Oregon Middle School in Wisconsin. “But if we’re truly going to transform education, we have to start failing more in our classrooms and not always taking the safe route to the information.”

It’s not a word that leadership in particular is comfortable with, as Carl Hooker, director of innovation and technical learning at Eanes Independent School District in Austin, Texas, admits — especially in an industry where competition is valued over collaboration.

But there are ways to embrace it, such as:

Mentally commit to the fact it’s going to happen. You not only have to stand back and let people fail, you have to encourage and celebrate these goofs, setbacks, roadblocks and duds. Consider it hands-on learning for adults.

Fail out loud. Take a page from Hooker and be prepared to share your own mistakes. For instance, Hooker readily admits he tried to give up email for Lent this year, citing the fact that students want to use other communication channels instead. The vow lasted just 19 days as his connection to the world crashed and burned.

Remove barriers. Many educators find that policies hold them back, so lobbying to remove regulations that prevent innovation is another active step leadership has at its fingertips.

Be prepared. If you failed because you tried something bold and failed, that’s good. If you failed because you didn’t do due diligence, that’s not so good. Too many leaders, for instance, believe the young teachers coming out of college know everything they need about digital classrooms and technology advances. Wrong. They’re taught by a university system that isn’t automatically up to speed on digital learning, and thus can need as much hand-holding, encouragement, and resource and learning support as the veteran educators in your system. Don't let your ignorance of that cause you to fail.

Eager to hear more great ideas like these? Don't miss ISTE 2017 in San Antonio, Texas.