Failure or failing? Does it really make a difference?

October 29, 2017 - 5 minutes read

This blog post from Laura Magrath was originally published on her website, “Becoming A Resident.”


“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” —Thomas A. Edison


This word is laden with judgment and often brings to the surface feelings of embarrassment or inadequacy; something to be avoided at all costs or to be hidden from the disapproving views of others.

To develop innovation and design thinking in our classrooms, educators are being encouraged to embrace failure with our students, to become more like the world of Google and Pixar where failure is celebrated and showcased as a necessary part of the creative process. Despite understanding this importance, many educators are left with a feeling of unease when celebrating failures. This seems counter intuitive – we want to encourage and help students succeed in their endeavours, not encourage them to fail.

I feel this unease with accepting failure, in both my personal and professional life. I believe, as Michael Cohen shares, that failure can sometimes be deemed an “excuse for poor time management, disorganization, or lack of effort and determination.” Cohen continues to suggest there is a difference between performance failure and growth failure; a failure in completing a task that we are capable of doing vs. failure in attempting something new or expanding our thinking. “That is why embracing failure can be a danger zone and it is up to us as educators and mentors to help our students learn the difference.”

I think this is an incredible challenge – to help students know the difference in the category or type of failure. I also feel that celebrating failure is a celebration of a product rather than a process. As John Spencer and A.J. Juliani explain in their book Empower, failure has a permanency to it and we don’t want students to fail.  “We want them to revise and iterate based on what they learned from failing – all on a path to real success.” This requires support, guidance, and most importantly, the time and space to reflect on their ‘fantastic fails.’ This subtle shift from failure to failing can reduce the unease of judgment or acceptance that may be holding students – and teachers – back.

As I walked through the woods on this beautiful autumn morning, I am reminded to learn from my surroundings. There is no failure in nature. When the nights lengthen, deciduous trees reduce the chlorophyll in their leaves, producing a colourful display before dropping the leaves to the ground. Life is failing in these leaves; however, the tree is not a failure. In the same way, when a tree dies, it is not a failure. The process of decomposition continues to breathe life into a new iteration on the forest floor. When a Douglas Fir tree fails to send nutrients to the smaller, ‘baby’ fir trees, it does not end the life of fir trees in that particular ecosystem. The tree co-develops a sharing process with the fungal network whereby nutrients can be exchanged and a symbiotic relationship emerges.

As we celebrate the beauty of nature’s failing at this time of year, let’s encourage the same celebration of failing, not failure, in our classrooms. To be reminded to have the humility to recognize when an idea is failing and to seek feedback. To have the openness to look for and to accept other influences to reach the next iteration. Failure is permanent, but failing is a beautiful process that allows new growth to emerge and flourish.

I’m eager to write, to explore, and to share ideas about failing, creativity, and the design process in our classrooms and communities. Stay tuned!

Some great reads in this area are:

  • Empower: What happens when students own their learning – John Spencer and A.J. Juliani
  • LAUNCH – Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring out the Maker in Every Student – John Spencer and A.J. Juliani
  • Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom – Amy Burvall
  • The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery – Sarah Lewis
  • Hacking Leadership: 10 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Learning that Teachers, Students, and Parents Love – Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis