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Jul 10

Chris Smeaton

Fail Forward

During my opening address to staff last year I termed the phrase “Fail Forward” as a way to promote an environment of risk taking and culture of transformation. Although I was fairly confident in my own definition of the phrase, I erred in not fully understanding the potentially negative connotation of it.  Failure is not a word that we like to use in schools, home or society.  Too often parents and teachers “save” their children and students from failure. We don’t allow them to fail…at anything. We talk about failure as being the reason for low self esteem in children and adults. While I would never suggest that we shouldn’t protect our children, over protection is not healthy either. Children who have not been allowed to experience failure in their lives (not life or death), have minimal coping skills when a significant issue hits them and there is nobody to save them. This lack of facing failure or more precisely, this lack of effectively dealing with failure is hurting our children. The ability to move forward after a failed attempt is a process that must be taught and role modelled in our classrooms. 

In education, we get assaulted with the statement, “Failure is not an option!” and yet, failure is the only option. But failure can be the only option if forward progress is part of the process. In other words, failure as an event is acceptable, failure as a permanent condition is not! Therefore the critical part of learning is not in the failure but in the forward motion after.

The fail forward concept is what I would suggest for education and has been well articulated by Dan Rockwell as Successful Failure. But the fail forward mentality must begin at the upper levels of leadership in school divisions. There is no other way around full system improvement without  senior administration creating an environment through word and action that failure is acceptable when being innovative and creative, when improving the learning experience of our students. We can ill afford to be so wrapped up in raising test scores that learning gets forced to the back burner. I have always been firm believer that test scores will take care of themselves when learning is highly engaging, students are motivated and teachers are at their best.

During this past year of involvement in Twitter and other social media, I’ve been astounded at the wealth of knowledge available when one is connected. It has reaffirmed my belief for the continual need to change/evolve our practice and provided me with many examples of how and where it is accomplished. The PLN that I belong to has many great educators both in the classroom and in administration who are pushing the envelope to better the experience of students. A common thread in their work is their fail forward mentality. They chose to try something different to enhance learning instead of trying to do more of the same. In their failure, they reassessed, refined and reviewed their practice in order to improve the learning experience. They were never content at just doing the same.

Now is the time in our systems where leaders have created a fail forward environment for teachers (and parents) to accept this challenge. It is time for us to get out of our comfort zones and evolve. Accept that it will make you uncomfortable because you likely won’t get it right the first time. But deep learning, which is what we want from our staff and our students does not come without a little toil.  

Develop a fail forward ethic when you return to the classroom this fall and you and your students will benefit!

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