Stop the Grand Celebration of Failure

As educators, we hear more and more how we should embrace and celebrate failure. Failure leads to profound and meaningful learning, so the argument goes; therefore, we should embrace it as a learning imperative. I've seen more tweets about this one topic than any other in the past two years on Twitter, not to mention hearing it in presentations by keynoters and educational practitioners alike. Failure, it seems, is all around, and it is to be celebrated ad nauseam.

Stop celebrating it, says Mark Payne, president and co-founder of Fahrenheit 212, a leading innovation consultancy. "Failure," he writes, "has become almost fashionable. Of course, we all need to think big, be fearless, extract the valuable, and abandon the fruitless. But as right as all of this is, I'm increasingly feeling like this rampant celebration of failure has gone too far. It's deflecting attention from the real issues [schools] are facing today around their innovation challenges, investments, and returns." Note that I've inserted 'schools' in place of 'companies.' To me, this over-celebration of failure goes beyond companies only; it has become pervasive in K-12 education, international or otherwise.

In the spirit of Payne, I would submit that there are two types of schools: those that don't try enough bona fide innovation (many schools), and those that do (smaller number of schools). He suggests that those that don't try enough innovation should find the messaging about the value and nobility of failure pertinent and compelling, whilst those that do engage in regular innovation are not paying enough attention to the reality and cost of failure. In other words, the former group of schools isn't failing enough, but the latter group is failing too much and needs to focus more on succeeding. It is this latter group which interests me greatly.

Upward of 90% of innovation projects deliver nothing tangible to 'how we do school' or to the balance sheet, according not just to Payne, but to those who work directly in innovation across industries. In the past, as Payne suggests, this kind of result wasn't so impactful, but in this hyper-competitive world, success in innovation and stable/growing enrolments are becoming more synonymous, and that is especially true in urban environments with multiple international schools as well as increasingly internationally-minded state/national schools. Those involved in innovation in schools, those schools that are practicing it regularly and perhaps at scale, need to focus on improving the 'hit rate,' which is to say the rate of projects hitting their objectives, relative to the needs in the education market place.

That may be a challenging sell to schools that have embraced the mantra of "failure is great." As Payne states eloquently, "the power of a lesson learnt is proportional to how far it spreads." Consider that for a moment. Yes, failure can teach us great lessons, to paraphrase, but let's not forget that failure is not the only teacher: success too is a teacher, and it can hold a certain degree of profundity when we consider that success in innovation leads to meaningful change in schools, whether a process or a new app.The point is that we need to look to moderation in success and failure. Everything in moderation -- a saying that certainly holds true over time. Unless a school has a free-flowing spigot of cash, it will not provide incessant funding to innovative initiatives; it will want success in order to mediate the failures.

Payne goes on to talk about how companies [schools] need to improve at identifying avoidable and unavoidable failures, in order to help their success rate. Paying attention to methods, models, and capabilities -- and reworking them if necessary -- will help schools to distinguish between them more often. In many ways, this approach is about strategy, and that involves paying attention and choosing to do -- and not to do -- certain things.

Take, for example, one international school that forms a partnership with another international school, creating a unique programme that benefits both schools, resulting in notable enrolment growth from their community, which now sees new value. A classic win-win scenario. However, after just a short while, one of the schools sniffs further advantage and proposes that it could increase its enrolment even more by having similar partnerships with other schools. What has this school chosen to do? To replicate similar partnerships, a move that will be very effective at making the extant partnership less potent and favourable because the unintended effect will be to water down the value that was just created. What has the school chosen not to do? To consider new ways to grow with its already-successful partnership, creating enhanced value on top of enhanced value.

This school misses the mark: they are not paying attention, and the result is an avoidable failure. Proper attention to strategy could have helped them to increase their success rate. So, as we consider the grand celebration of failure, let's inject at least a modicum of realism, and move ourselves toward the moderate track with failure. Inasmuch as we talk about balance and harmony in the lives of our students, have we considered whether our quasi-deification of failure is in line with such balance?

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