Invitation to Fail

Preschool — Building Blocks of Life Long Learning
October 31, 2014
A School Designed with Your Child In Mind
November 7, 2014

Invitation to Fail

This post was originally published in CLC’s Friday News last winter.


I am not afraid to admit it: I am the sap who tears up during every heartfelt Olympic story. I am the target audience who cannot watch commercials of parents caring for their children-who-become-Olympians without getting watery eyes.

However, it isn’t the success that strums my heartstrings. It is the adversity before – the hardship and challenge that necessitated the tenacity, fortitude, and perseverance to become a champion. By the time the father is cheering on his daughter as she competes in snowboarding, nanoseconds before a corporation flashes its logo, I am reaching for the tissues.

It is one of the reasons I love the Olympics. They celebrate failures and falls for what they are: the, ahem, cornerstones of future success. And, in my opinion, we need that storyline as part of our “How Success Happens” enculturation.

IMG_2995Pick an innovation from the past million years and I bet missteps, mistakes, and, in many cases, misery are woven throughout its history. I imagine early nomads sitting around chewing on raw meat determined to get the fire started. Millennia later their descendants sit around the fire, but hungry, brainstorming ways to bring down enough herding animals to feed a tribe. And still millennia later, dreaming of having enough force to more consistently bring down mastodons, a dream that results in the atlatl.

At the heart of these and all modern day triumphs, is trial and error. As Mulla Nasrudin once wrote, “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.”

While I am in no way advocating for creating a “Well, That Was a Bad Idea” elective, I am advocating for cultivating a culture of embracing mistakes as pathways to deeper understanding. A growing body of research examines the value of mistake-based learning, and from it is emerging an understanding that we learn far more from what we don’t get right than from what we do.

As with learning to walk, falling is as important as staying upright. Learning how to stand up, make adjustments, and make better reads of one’s environment contributes to future successes in mobility. So, how do we do that – create the right balance between success and failure? Getting it right and getting it wrong?

IMG_9652Neuroscience gives us some insights in this regard. To effectively gain and sustain access to students’ neurological prime real estate – the prefrontal cortex (where higher order thinking primarily occurs) – we must attend to the needs of the amygdala (the part of the brain that triggers the fight or flight reflex). When the amygdala is not triggered by fear, anxiety, or even boredom, information and experiences are more likely to engage the areas of the brain that reason, consider, reflect and consolidate long-term memories.

In short, learners must first feel safe (physically, emotionally, and socially) if they are to risk making the mistakes that lead to deep learning.

So, this is my invitation to you – parents, teachers, and students – risk failing. Try something new. Make (safe) mistakes. Then reflect on them. Errors are a sure sign that you have dared to chase an idea, question, or dream. They lead to corrections. Corrections lead to improvements. And improvements to innovations.

If learners can transform their mistakes and failures into lasting knowledge and applicable wisdom, they might realize that stumbling blocks are stepping stones in disguise. They might internalize the process of gaining what is most important in falling down – harnessing the strength to get back up again.

*Reaches for tissues. Dabs eye.*

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