February 2, 2015

Reconsidering Failure in Maker-Centered Learning

If you’ve been following the growing buzz about maker-centered learning, you’ve probably heard someone somewhere say that learning from failure is an important aspect of any making experience. Slogans like “fail early, fail often” and “failing forward” are now popular refrains throughout the maker-sphere. What’s meant by “failure” in this context, of course, is iteration. The idea is to learn from one’s mistakes and thereby develop a sensitivity to try, try, and try again.

Like Instructables and DIY.org, the website Build in Progress offers step-by-step instructions for a variety of maker projects, but different from Instructables and DIY.org, Build in Progress also shows all the failed attempts makers make along the way. Here, a contributor to the site shows how using electrical tape to connect a power supply for a touchless trashcan project was potentially dangerous—and ultimately didn't work.

The website Build in Progress offers step-by-step documentation of various maker projects, but it also shows all the failed attempts makers make along the way. Here, a contributor to the site shows how using electrical tape to connect a power supply for a touchless trashcan project was potentially dangerous—and ultimately didn’t work. It’s popular to use the word “failure” in maker circles, but how appropriate is it to use the word failure in schools?

While we understand the value of prototyping and iteration, the Agency by Design team has recently been debating about the use of the word failure in education. When taking practices from the professional engineering and design worlds into a K-12 space, we feel there are contextual consequences for the transfer of language and practices that are worth exploring. In this regard, we join critics of the word failure, such as Sylvia Martinez, who have also wrestled with the use of this terminology. As one of Sylvia’s recent blog posts states:

I understand the intent. I’m all for the iterative design process where roadblocks or challenges are celebrated as learning opportunities. Of course people learn from mistakes, if there is time to actually ponder those mistakes and try again.

Here’s the problem. It’s the word “failure.” Failure means a VERY specific thing in schools. The big red F is serious. In school, failure is NOT a cheery message to “try, try, again!” it’s a dead-end with serious consequences.

Using this loaded word to represent mistakes, hurdles, challenges, detours, etc. is confusing and unnecessary. Teachers cannot talk about failure as a challenge, when failure also means judgment—the worst possible judgment.

Though we are in support of Sylvia’s argument, the AbD team is still questioning this language and thinking hard about the use of the word failure in maker-centered learning. Is failure a word maker educators should rebrand as a pathway to progress? Is there a dispositional aspect to failure that prompts one to take risks and try new things? Or is there a misalignment between the use of the word failure around the chop saw in adult makerspaces, and the weighty meaning the word holds inside school walls?

As we continue to examine this terminology, we’d be interested to hear what others think. What is your take on the use of the word failure in maker-centered learning? How do you see the word failure from your perspective in the educational sphere?

Tags: learning , Maker , Values ,

9 thoughts on “Reconsidering Failure in Maker-Centered Learning”

  1. It’s true that the word “failure’ means a really specific thing in schools, and that this overloading of the term makes it somewhat problematic to use in certain contexts.

    That said, I think a lot of the reason folks like myself, who are into making and engineering and iteration and education, use the term ‘failure’ is explicitly because we object to the way schools have overloaded the term. I tell kids that they failed, all the time. Hell, I tell them that they’re failures, with a smile on my face and give them a high-five and tell them to get back to work because I want to render the idea of failure, whether it is “failing” or “being a failure” less powerful, more ridiculous.

    But I’m not a classroom teacher, so I get to use the word in this way without worrying about how it interacts with judgement-power-hierarchies. And, in fact, I use the word this way because I want to poke a bit of fun at the judgement hierarchies that they experience in school, since a lot of the kids I work with attend (or have attended) schools that they feel marked them as ‘bad’ in various ways, and I want to playfully take away the power of that marking whenever I can.

    To put it bluntly, the fact that schools frequently give single-point, binary, success-or-failure grades is a mistake. I think that if your method of grading/judging precludes you from using the word ‘failure’ positively, then your method of grading is a bad one.

    Which I don’t think is at odds with Sylvia’s point, at all, so I’m not really arguing here. The more nuanced point I’d make here is that failure-celebrating, iterative, design-centered-etc teaching/learning demands (and presents an opportunity for!) a different kind of grading, probably one that empowers kids to get precisely the grade that they want by having an infinite number of chances to iterate on a project/process until it meets a known set of criteria.

    I am suggesting a grading/judging process that more closely resembles the process of determining success or failure in an engineering/tinkering project — a process where criteria for success is known ahead of time, and you can keep working until you meet that criteria. Until then, you haven’t “failed”, really, you just haven’t succeeded yet.

    This works better for some domains than others. Obviously it’s incredibly natural in, say, engineering (an “A” bridge holds 20 lbs, a “B” bridge holds 15, etc..) but isn’t totally inapplicable to “softer” domains, like writing (revise your essay 3 times in response to my comments to get an ‘A’, 2 times for a ‘B’ once for a ‘C’)

  2. Gus Goodwin says:

    I think that kids understand the difference when they hear Dave Kelley from IDEO say “Fail often to succeed sooner.” and failing a math test, but even so, I prefer to reframe the idea of learning through failure. Instead I might say things like:
    “As you are working on your invention remember that it is ok to make mistakes. I don’t expect you to already know how to solve this problem, that’s why you’re here.”
    and “It is also ok to ask for help and see how your classmates are solving the same problem, sharing ideas is not cheating, sharing ideas is how we learn form one another.”
    Over time I have designed a critiques session and have called it “making rounds” based loosely on Steve Seidel’s rounds model- just like doctors make their rounds, the students are going to make their rounds. When kids are working on a project I have one student from each team go around and take notes on what the other groups are doing. They are not allowed to talk, they just observe the other teams working on their inventions. Once all of the students have gone through the rounds, I ask them to compare notes with their team mates: What did they see? How did other groups solve similar problems? Is there anything that they saw that can help their team? What was the coolest idea they saw?
    I try to take the concept of “failure” in engineering and reframe it in a more positive approach for deeper learning.

  3. I often think of design process as a series of experiments. I like the word experiment because most people acknowledge that experiments are exploratory, and setbacks and ‘failures’ go hand-in-hand with experimentation.

    With Build in Progress, I try to encourage the practice of sharing failed experiments as a way to help others avoid similar mistakes. When sharing failures is reframed as a way to help others (rather than a ‘mistake’), I think they become much more meaningful.

    Flagging failures on Build in Progress is something that I’ve thought a lot about and can’t say I’ve come up with an ideal solution. For example, in the Touchless Trash Can example you shared, the failed attempt is indicated using a red label, which helps draw attention to it, but is also strongly associated with negative sentiments (e.g., the red ‘F’). I’d be interested in hearing if other people have suggestions for visually representing and celebrating failures.

  4. Thanks for the comments on my blog post – I don’t think I disagree with any of the comments here.

    I also think that it’s different for different populations of kids. People interested in this topic should check out an interesting blog and comment exchange with one of the FabLearn Fellows, Susan Klimczak who is working at Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn, a Boston community organization that is designed to engage a critical mass of Boston youth in technology and science and catalyze community change.


    Here’s a short quote – please read the whole post and comments!
    “While all youth struggle with developing a positive and playful relationship with failure, our youth of color’s struggle is complicated by the everyday behaviors and attitudes they encounter in people and institutions that are dysconsciously rooted in racism. Examples include attending public schools with few resources and low expectations for what they can achieve, relentless negative media about people who look like them, relentless microagressions (and macro-agressions like stop and frisk, high penalties in school for common teenage oppositional behavior), lack of access to maker or geek role models who look like them which often generates an “imposter syndrome” (interesting discussions about this can be found if you google articles about the remarkable success of Harry Mudd college in attracting women to STEM)

    Too often, because of the impact of these behaviors and attitudes, our youth are reluctant to try new things or learn new things if they even think they might fail. I suspect that this is because the thought of adding one more failure to the constant messages they are up against is just too emotionally painful.”

  5. Jaymes Dec says:

    AnnMarie Thomas also wrote about this concern last year. http://annmariethomas.typepad.com/annmarie-thomas/2014/02/its-not-failure.html I agree with most of the folks here that “failure” is too loaded of a word to use for something that we want students to go through. I don’t really use the word in our lab. I just tell kids that it’s okay if their project does not work. In fact projects rarely work the first time (or for demos!). And that is totally normal. But it’s not okay to give up at that point. I do tell my students that I’m more impressed if they can get a project to work after troubleshooting a bug, than if it works the first time that they set it up.

  6. Bruce Hammren says:

    I read this blog at lunch today then I asked two students their thoughts on the use of the term “failure” in education. I first explained the context of this question. It is worth noting that the two students were in a tutorial where an academically gifted upperclassmen was tutoring a freshman who was making a turnaround in her academic performance. The upperclassman said “honestly, failure in the sciences means that you did not learn the information presented.” And the freshman said, “failure is when you quit trying.” I liked the juxtaposition of their views on failure.

    I think there is a cultural value in reevaluating our perspective of failure and its impact on how we teach. As near as I can tell, life is an iterative process and an opportunistic perspective of “failure” is something maker-centered learning offers.

  7. Jay Collier says:

    Another construct might be “hitting a dead end.” Doing so, in an iterative process, isn’t failure, it’s an opportunity to return, recalibrate, and explore elsewhere.

  8. The AbD Project focuses on making stuff. What if we consider a broader domain? At Woodside One Wheelers, an elementary school circus arts program especially unicycling, we focus on ‘making’ performers and performances. There, we emphasize pick yourself up and try again, 500 times and if necessary 500 more. And if you get discouraged, the community offers support to try again. http://woodsideonewheelers.org

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