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Why We Can't Fail Forward If We Don't Know Where We Are Headed.

Educated By Design Blog

Why We Can't Fail Forward If We Don't Know Where We Are Headed.

Michael Cohen

This article is a follow up to "Why Education Needs To Understand That Failure Is A Procccess, Not A Destination". 

Reflection Is A Work In Progress

We leave almost zero time for reflection in education today. Outside of a student sitting and wondering why they didn't get at least a 90% on the big test, how much time is allotted for reflection? The challenge we face is that reflection is not a “measurable” data set when you compare to data hungry areas of growth like reading and math literacy. So how can you measure reflection? While a student summary on the experience might be a good method to assess understanding, it will do little to evaluate their ability to take this failed experience and do something more significant because of it. Even worse there are schools of thought in education that still view reflection as a soft skill. Something that should be secondary to other areas of learning and development. Meanwhile career sites like are publishing articles about how critical those skills are. Adaptablity? When do they teaching that in school? In business, startups, and entrepreneurship in general, failure takes on an nearly tangible form. Is your business failing? What do you do? Do you close shop? Do you weather the storm? Do you pause, review, and strategize how to relaunch? How are these questions fathomed? Are they part of the MBA script? The game of school? Author and Brand Ambassador Guy Kawasaki jokes about his MBA that he's “come to believe that an MBA is a hinderance to entrepreneurship, but I do have one from UCLA.” The key ingredient found in many successful people, is how they reflect on failure with the expectation that they are going to do something about it. It isn't enough to just be a bold risk-taking failure embracer. You can risk and fail in the same thing over and over again, and make little process or growth while still "embracing failure". Failure is not a means to an end, it is part of sitting down and looking at not just what went wrong but how to make it right. It's uncomfortable, embarrassing, and even scary for many of us, including me. That is because failure isn't the treasure, it's the key.


If you value the key and know what it can unlock, it gives you the power to seek out the treasure and empower you to win. Failure is the key that can unlock the treasure of the greatest possible you.


So how do we reflect? First you need to believe that the first or second attempt isn't your best. If you are ready to do your best the first time every time, get ready to live a pretty mediocre existence. Find me one champion in any field that would disagree with that. Now lets be clear, no one should plan to fail. Nor are we saying that failure is appropriate for all experiences. As a father, I struggle with standing on the side and watching my kids do things that they might fail at or struggle with. Still as much as it hurts, I know they will be strong and better with the struggle then if I do it for them.

On that note, I want to share a personal story of the failure, and how the value I place in short term loss in the spirit of long term success. As a connected educator and a life long learner, I am always striving to hone my educational craft and connect with amazing educators who I can learn from. One amazing space that allows for that is ISTE. I have attended ISTE since 2012 and have gained so much from the personal connections and sessions. I have also been rejected to present multiple times, include this year. I have to admit, this year I was crushed. I have been on a roll, as I try to build up credibility and interest in my work, and was certain that my ISTE session would be selected. So what did I do with the failure? I had to solve the puzzle. While I didn't understand why or what made my session proposals weak, I knew that it was solvable if I took the time to move past the feeling of failure, and shift to the focus of how to achieve a greater success. So when the Ignite session opened up, a slot that I technically had even LESS chance of being accepted to present, I jumped at it. Because failure challenges me to figure out why my approach didn't work, and whose approach did, so I could analyze it, and figure out what I need to do next time. Now if my initial session was accepted would I have submitted an Ignite! Talk? I can't say for sure. What I do know, is that for me this example of how to turn a short term failure into a long term success is why I value failure's role in my life. This mindset was not something I learned in school, but it is teachable. I learned it from podcasts, blogs, youtube channels, and books from people that get it, succeed, and win constantly. Whether its business, sports, or even the medical field, there is a way to build confidence to not even flinch at the emotional drain of failure and persevere to achieve that win. Because of that I had a chance to share my thoughts on creativity to over 500 educators. That Ignite! Talk was one of the greatest moments of my professional career. 

So why is failure missing from the list of foundational literacies in education? Don't blame the founders of modern education. They were looking to create a mass education method that would run itself similar to a factory assembly line. Risk isn't safe, secure, or pre-plan(able). You can't assess risk because it's something that is part of the soul and the mind of a person, a drive that lets someone make a decision whether its worth it to win, lose it all, or figure out how to win later. 


 Planning Failure As A Teachable Moment

I understand that in the classroom we need to be realistic. There is curriculum to cover, standards to be taught, and all of this needs to be assessed. We are still evaluated based on the success of these requirements through standardized tests and teacher reviews. Where do these big ideas that require risk and result in meaningful failure happen? First of all, lets be clear. In school, where time is limited, the risk needs to be framed in open ended learning experience that might fail, need to be redone and relaunched. Risk cannot be involved in whether or not students will learn how to read, or master their multiplication table


Embracing Failure Does Not Mean Failing Your Math Final or Biology Class

Students need to learn how to manage failure too. When we speak of embracing failure, we are not and should not refer to failure because of lack of planning, effort, or call for support. Failure is part of big ideas. It means that you need to embrace the unknown and understand that risk is required. We aren't talking about learning 2+2. We are talking about understanding how to face challenges where x+y=z and all three are truly unknown.

 If At First You Don't Succeed, Figure Out What's Wrong!


As someone who entered into education from the business space, I have a certain sensitivity to how education is currently glorifying startup and business culture. So much so that I am writing a sort of investigative report on startup culture to give education a different lens to look through. With that said, I think there is much that we can learn from the startup space. Take AirBnb for example. They launched three times before they became the household name of home sharing and travel accommodations. Imagine if the second time they closed shop? What if they shifted the direction of their company? So how did they do it? An article from GrowthHackers put it bluntly as “pure unadulterated hustle in the face of initial resistance”. Failure is only as good as your confidence in yourself, your team, your work, and your mission. I can’t be anymore clear that the failure I am talking about is not on linear problems with defined answers. It's the complex and nonlinear challenges that our student will without question face the day after graduating college. Whether its founding a startup or learning how to manage monthly expenses, the intention and reflect that is involved with learning from failure, can serve all our students. 


Call To Action!

In education, embracing failure needs to be rooted in the drive to teach others how to overcome their encounter(s) with failure. Remember, we are not talking about a problem with a clear answer! Failure in that respect might just be poor planning, lack of effort, or carelessness. While those are also great learning experiences, the failure is something that might happen two, three, or even eight times in different capacities because the big idea is there and you and those around you are hungry to achieve success beyond a fill in the blank bubbled letter learning outcome.