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We are writing a series of blogs to respond to the growing movement in business and education (dare we say celebration) of “failing fast,” “failing forward,” or “failing forward fast.”

We have seen headlines and social media posts proclaiming that businesses are lauding their strategy of  “failing forward.” Some of these headlines then are followed with advice to educators that they should incorporate this soft skill. The advice is to teach students how to deal with failure or how to fail successfully to better prepare students for the workforce. We often see  this advice coupled with professionals or students working through a STEM activity or project which doubles down on the concept that STEM is the place to “fail.” We see this also in television with the success of shows featuring disasters or mistakes made by scientists or engineers. 

Pisa
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of the best-known engineering failures which is now celebrated for its unique tilt.

 

We are very concerned by this trend at several levels.

Based on our research into the maker movement, STEM education practices, STEM career attrition, our experience as educators, and interactions with world-famous STEM professionals, we can confirm that this is, at best, a poor choice of words and may, at worst, drive students away from STEM careers.

The choice of words and how we describe events, people, and actions does matter. Words leave long-term impressions that can change an individual’s trajectory and future choices. Experiences matter even more and their mindful design is critical.

We will not argue that students should be insulated from projects, experiences, or activities in a way that keeps them from falling short of the designed objective. We will, however, advocate for more of those experiences to prevent what a world-famous scientist described as one of the most discouraging aspects of their professional experience.

While on a break for a film shoot for one of my books when I was at JASON Project (now JASON Learning and part of National Geographic at the time), I asked a participating scientist what was the most difficult thing that they had encountered as a scientist. Without skipping a beat, they said their biggest challenge was mentoring students at all levels including undergraduate students, graduate research assistants, and post-doctoral researchers to deal with failure.

This scientist went on to recount that too many intelligent, talented, and promising students quit their discipline because of failure. Not failure in terms of education, grades, or achievement or an inability to grasp and demonstrate knowledge on a topic or procedure but an inability to cope with research, projects, or tasks that had gone awry or turned out in some unexpected way pushing the student to quit the field.

The statistic the scientist shared that upwards of 90% of their professional work could be coined as a “failure” because their research and projects rarely turned out as envisioned.

The scientist remarked that the students did not realize that failure was far more common at the cutting edge of science. They further explained that none of the students had been prepared throughout their educational experiences to manage failure in this context. In fact, the scientist said, that the students were always among the best of their cohorts for years and had grown to expect success at every turn.

The scientist said that they spent a lot of time helping students gain clarity on failure so that they could continue to contribute to the field. The conversation ended with a comment about how educators could and should design learning for students to work past the “failure” and chart a path to understand how to move forward from unexpected results.

This conversation has stayed a part of my thoughts as I moved forward into my career.

We will explore the current trend of lauding failure and present our research and experience on how to best work with projects and activities that have a multiplicity of outcomes. The posts will include how to design an experience that can end without successfully advancing the activity, but still advance learning. We will share additional stories from our experiences and best practices we have seen as well as suggest teaching practices that allow students to learn from experience and improve results.