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Failing Forward

Originally posted on September 21, 2017


Happy Thursday!


I was in a book club a few years ago and we were reading Jim Collin’s book, Good to Great. As we were talking, someone was lamenting about how they felt bad because something they read they didn’t know before. It made me think, “That’s great! It’s only when we’re experiencing something new that we are learning because if we already know it, whatever we’re experiencing is nothing more than validating.”

What I wonder is, when do we shift from a place where it is expected that we are all learners to a place where it is expected that we are all experts? In other words, why is there an inverse relationship between age and learning so that the older you are, the less you are expected to be a learner? I feel like this is especially true when you’re in the field of education because there is this false belief that if you are an educator, you should have all the answers. This often leads to a feeling of being inadequate when you don’t know the answer or when what you planned to happen doesn’t.


Case in point, last week was the first week that we had students attend our elementary science labs. This is one of the most innovative experiences that I have seen in a long time. We have no path to follow because we are trailblazers in this arena. Furthermore, our science lab teachers are exposing students to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) where students are going to be expected to develop their critical thinking skills in ways that do not provide them with the answers—rather ask students to discover science through experiences. As Michael Dhar wrote in an October 9, 2013 post on LIVESCIENCE, “Under the NGSS, students will instead concentrate on asking questions, developing hypotheses, testing models, making evidence-based arguments and learning other skills that real scientists ‘use all the time.’" Yet, when talking to our instructional coach for science who has working with our science lab teachers last week as they did their inaugural lessons, she woefully expressed disappointment that the lessons they created and delivered, particularly for the kindergarten students, did not go as planned. The tasks, though thoughtfully and expertly created, proved to be too challenging for the kindergarten students for the first week of school.

Contrast this disappointment regarding the mismatch between the planned lesson and the actual lesson with a classroom teacher who, during her first week, gave her students a task that involved them using clues to figure out what happened to the principal who was “abducted by aliens.” This is a teacher who sees two different sets of students. This lesson worked beautifully with one set of students but bombed with the other. With a desire to embrace a growth mindset, the teacher wrote to tell me about the way she felt about the differences between the two groups of students.


Thank you for stopping in yesterday!…I teach two classes [of] ELA and did that activity with both groups. What a great learning experience for ME!! One group had a terrible time following directions etc and we had to stop half way thru[sic] because they could not work together well, nor were [they] following the directions. The second group did a great job! Worked well together, all participating etc. I say a great learning experience for ME because I think I learned more about each of the kids work habits, collaborative work habits, interests, etc. by observing their groups. Even though it essentially bombed with the one group, it really was great for me to learn these things the first week and can help when planning future lessons! Create a Good Day!

Here is someone who recognizes that she is, herself, a learner. Even more, she is embracing the learning! This makes me think of the posts that are easily found on social media, etc., called “epic fails.” These are funny images of things that have obviously gone wrong or side-by-side images of the way something should have looked but does look. For example, here’s a link that makes you realize that so often we are not successful with our first go at anything. I would argue, in fact, that if we are good at something our first time, then what we are attempting is likely below our zone of proximal development. I’m not saying that things must be out-of-reach; I’m saying that if we only do things that are easy, we are not learning or growing.


In the end, we cannot ask those with whom we work to try something if we are not models of vulnerability and humanity. After all, to become great at something requires experience and that requires practice. No one ever got to the finish line without having to run past the starting line. I hope that rather than hide from or try to avoid failure, we embrace it as being one step closer to the intended outcome…this is failing forward!


~Heather

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