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Failing Forward...

We've got some really big problems right now in K-12 education; standardized test scores in reading and math are way down, students and teachers are in mental health crisis and teachers are leaving at unprecedented rates. It's clear that single efforts or initiatives are NOT going to solve it all. Adding to the struggle of finding solutions is that society has trained us to believe that failure is to be avoided at all costs. The very opposite is true- we need to learn that failure is the key to learning and teaching resiliency.

I had not heard the phrase "failing forward" until this week, but it stuck in my head. To fail forward means that we use failure to learn and move our knowledge forward. I always tried to tell my Advanced Placement (AP) Physics students that my classroom was one where they had to learn to fail. It is uncomfortable, but we don't learn from successes. It is not easy convincing students of this when they get their first AP style test back and they did not do well. It becomes easier when they are given time to make test corrections, a process where they have to learn from the mistakes they made on the test. Students often tell me they learned more from the test corrections than they did during the unit. While part of me hates hearing that (what had I been doing the past 4 weeks?), but the students started to hear what I had been telling them about failure and its important role in moving forward.

History is full of examples about the importance failing forward. Think about Steve Jobs who was fired from his own company (Apple), failed forward to back PIXAR, and then was brought back to Apple which changed the way we communicate. Think about Thomas Edison who tested 2,001 different elements while trying to find one that would stay lit in his light bulb. Can you imagine? Failing 2,000 times, but still trying? He is quoted as saying, “Oh we have come a long way and we have learned a lot. We now know that there are two thousand elements which we cannot use to make a good light bulb.”





Good teachers instinctively fail forward, trying something new and then looking at data to see if it was successful. One of my biggest leaps was to change the how I approached the entire second semester of physics. There were so many disconnected topics and equations, the conceptual ideas were lost. So, I cut out some topics and made all the topic assessments project-based. The focus for fluids became how to float a boat (Archimedes’ Principle) and their assessment was a cardboard boat regatta. The had to build a boat out of cardboard, capable of holding a person who had to row the boar across a pool (see pictures below). Sound was taught by having the student make string, wind and percussion instruments out of recycled materials and them performing as a band (see video below). Electricity and power required students to build an electronic boat out of unusual materials to race in a rain gutter. Analyzing the optics in games or movies, writing a children’s novel, and building 3-D optical illusions were a few options for their optics project. For thermodynamics, students learned by analyzing data due to climate change, learning how much energy it takes to raise the temperature of oceans and how much energy it takes to melt the glaciers.



We need to be teaching our students that failing is a natural part of learning. But perhaps more importantly, districts need to not just allow, but encourage teachers to fail forward. That’s how you show teachers they are valued, by trusting their professional judgement. Districts and parents need to trust the teachers to find best way to teach our students.


That’s how we move forward- by failing.

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