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The Fail Test


Last week I had the great fortune of sitting in on training with Dana Britt and Collin Thompson, consultants with Education Elements. During the training, Dana and Collin had us play “The Fail Test.” The game is played in three rounds and must be done in pairs (not triads).

  • Round One: Each pair counts to 3, switching off saying each number. “1,” “2,” “3,” “1,”... Go as fast as you can!

  • Round Two: Same as Round One but replace your 1s with claps.

  • Round Three: Same as Round Two but replace your 2s with snaps.

  • Round Four: Same as Round Three but replace your 3s with stomps.

When someone in the pair messes up (which is bound to happen), the response from both people in the pair is to joyfully exclaim, “We failed!!”

According to Dana and Collin, the purpose of this task is to remember that it can sometimes feel like

there is little room for failure. We get that. And also…we don’t want you showing up feeling like you need to have all the answers. We want to create a space that encourages you to celebrate when you mess up, change your mind, ask questions, and take the incredible ideas of the people around you and make them your own.

The value of failure and treating yourself and others with grace when experiencing failure is an important reminder we all probably need to hear more often.

In reflecting on this experience of playing the game, I realized some important takeaways.

Takeaway 1: Safe Enough to Try

Even though this was intentionally challenging (everyone would fail multiple times), the task was low stakes. In this way, even for competitive people like me, Dana and Collin made it “safe enough to try.”

Takeaway 2: Listen Carefully

I also noticed that there were ways to reduce the challenge. For example, “Go as fast as you can” did not have to translate to “go as fast as humanly possible.” The directions did not necessitate that my partner and I had to attempt to leave our Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), only that we needed to work within it; as we did so, we could find and surpass our initial zone. I need to remember to pay attention to how easily people can misconstrue directions and make things harder on themselves. Neither Dana nor Collin said, “We will set the pace for you so you know what we mean by ‘fast.”’ They said, “Go as fast as you can.” The former is teacher-directed and lacks differentiation; the latter is student-directed and allows the participants to set their pace.

Takeaway 3: Meet Them Where They Are

Sticking with the ZPD example in Takeaway 2, I noticed that by working within our ZPD, we were able to feel successful and that success allowed us to increase our speed. If at the start, we were told to go at the pace that we were able to achieve by the end, we might have felt anxious and not tried as hard. In other words, with minimal exposure and practice, we were able to get better than we would have if the bar was high and immovable to start.

Takeaway 4: Lighten the Load

At first, I tried to think “One equals clap,” and so when my partner said, “Three,” my brain had to take the time to think, “One equals clap.” However, I realized if I changed my thought to “Clap, two, three” rather than “One equals clap, two, three,” I lightened my cognitive load by simplifying the task and therefore reduced the challenge and increased my success. The takeaway here is to look for ways to simplify the process while maintaining the product.

Takeaway 5: Progress Over Perfection

Finally, I’m thinking about how most educators tend to be perfectionists. This should not be surprising considering how teaching more or less requires a deep level of understanding of what is being taught. Many educators equate a “deep level of understanding,” with a deep desire to get it not just right–but perfect. Unfortunately, as Winston Churchill said, “Perfection is the enemy of progress.” What’s more, schools are often bastions of perfectionism as evidenced by our grading practices where we give grades for all/most assignments and rarely allow for retakes. The game, “The Fail Test,” was about the antithesis of perfection; it was about failure. It’s ironic that in order to achieve anything close to perfection means we have to expose ourselves to a great deal of failure. I feel like our students need to hear that more.

Bringing It Together

How do schools pass The Fail Test? Perhaps the best way is to create places where the adults and students feel safe enough to try (and fail). After all, if we want adults to celebrate their own failure–because it means they took a good risk and hopefully learned so they can improve the likelihood of future success–then shouldn’t that be true for students too? This way, rather than thinking about The Fail Test as something for just adults or just students, we could think of this as something for all learners.


P.S. Dana and Collin also shared this video. I dare you to watch it and not feel motivated to do something that might scare you.

P.P.S. Please remember to...

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1 Comment

Nov 16, 2022

Love the video. The reaction at the end was priceless

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