This phrase, “failure is inevitable along the path to innovation,” is something we regularly hear referenced in books, talks, and interviews with people who have experienced the connection. It is common advice shared by successful innovators with people who read or listen to them. When each one of us reflects on anything we have been successful doing, we probably come back to a time along the journey where we faced failure head on. How we handle the situation is instrumental in determining whether we persevere or give up. So I am a believer in the phrase, “failure is inevitable along the path to innovation.”
The question I hold is why has this phrase been so difficult for educators to embrace and use as a design principle in our schools, programs, and assessment policies. Generally, our grading policies reward efficient and speedy learning, while penalizing learning that is process-oriented, reflective, slow or methodical. The student who takes his or her time, requires more time to learn, and possibly needs special attention is placed in a “special education classroom.” Special is not used to mean highly valued, but rather to mean someone who requires “more resources from the system.” When students fail, we rarely send them the message that it is merely a speed bump they have encountered. Rather, they believe that they are “not capable” of achieving in this area of study. We hear these stories from students all the time. It is the rare teacher who perseveres with the student who has encountered a speed bump, and asks why has this happened. It is even rarer for a teacher to look in the mirror and ask the question: Is this my failure that the student didn’t perform well? As educators, we need to embrace this phrase, “failure is inevitable along the path to innovation,” as a design principle in thinking about our lesson design, assessment practices, and our efforts to counsel students as they learn. If all-means-all, all students can and should learn, then failure is not something to be avoided and demonized.
Finally, if as educators we are hoping to be innovative in our field, then we must also embrace “failure is inevitable along the path to innovation.” This means we must look in the mirror when students (all students) are not mastering the targets we want them to hit. Maybe our teaching is lacking some special ingredient. Maybe our teaching is myopic in its approach. Maybe we don’t understand our learners sufficiently to see how to connect the ideas to how they learn best.
The challenge we all face is integrating the idea, “failure is inevitable along the path to innovation,” into our daily lives and realizing that perseverance is what gets us up the mountain.