Teaching failure

Seth Godin has a thought!  Joking—he’s got plenty of thoughts.  This one was particularly interesting because it poked a sore spot in me about teaching innovation and entrepreneurship: The difference between a failure and a mistake.  He makes a useful distinction that, even if it’s not going to change Webster’s definitions, should change how we talk about and teach innovation.

Failure happens when something doesn’t work the first time.  It has the potential to teach you something (even as simple as “that door is closed”). A mistake is trying the same thing over again and expecting a different outcome. It can come from carelessness, selfishness, or hubris; it can come from not taking the time to understand what happened and why. And it can come from not being allowed, or taught how, to learn from the experience.

From my perspective, there seem to be two kinds of mistakes—the kind that happens when people go from failing (falling short in some way) right back to trying without learning something new, and the kind where people stop trying because they fell short the first time (see my quick scratch). Failure vs mistakes

If failure is critical to innovation and entrepreneurship, then we need to teach people how to try again.  That means we should never assign work that doesn’t give students a chance to fail, learn, and try again. If all our assignments: papers, projects, faux business plans, and finals are one-off deals, then aren’t we just teaching people how to make mistakes (and move on)?

Teaching failure (build, test, rebuild) means focusing on the rebuilds. Rather than have a final project that slowly and steadily builds towards one final plan/paper/presentation, we should have the final assignment due in the first few weeks, and then spend the rest of the term learning how to learn, recover, regroup, redirect, and resubmit through multiple iterations. Life happens opposite how it’s taught.

1 thought on “Teaching failure

  1. As current college student who struggles with multiple-choice tests, I’ve faced many courses where the final grade is determined by three exams with no opportunity to fail, learn, and try again. Regardless of the field of study, only through failure do I clearly learn what more I need to learn. I further argue that one-off deals are not reflective of workplace culture, as failure is common at the start of any new job or career. Hopefully, these new jobs not far off following their eventual graduation from formal education.

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