UK education fails nearly half its GCSE entrants every year, so why the big deal about failure? Gavin attended Nesta's Fail Fest to find out.
Jim WynnPromethean education director Jim Wynn presents at Nesta's Fail FestWhat do you think of Valve Software’s approach to business? Its website says “when you give smart talented people the freedom to create, without fear of failure, amazing things happen. We see it every day at Valve. In fact, some of our biggest insights have come from our biggest mistakes. And we’re OK with that!”

Valve’s site goes on to declare “Since 1996, this approach has produced award-winning games, leading-edge technologies, and a ground breaking social entertainment platform. We’re always looking for creative risk takers who can keep that streak alive.”

The Economist has reinforced a similar message saying “Fail Often, Fail Well” and “Failure is often a better teacher than success”.

So how are we doing with this approach when it comes to education, and more specifically when it comes to education and technology? I’m not sure, but Nesta gave it an excellent airing at its recent Fail Fest. The evening was arranged with pace and focus, allowing each of its seven presenters just five minutes to reflect on personal failure in education and technology, and what they had learned from it. A man with a gong delightfully ensured that there were no over-runs!

When school enterprise 'involved subject-branded knickers'

Claudia Barwell, the evening’s moderator, set the tone with a story of misguided advice for a school’s enterprising ideas. Suffice to say this involved subject-branded knickers and went a long way before being consigned to the failure bin.

Then the failures started rattling through, from Tom Kenyon’s work on Jamie’s Dream School to Jim Wynn’s attempts at breathing life into a Raspberry Pi. They made me wonder if some failures are associated with 'group think', when there’s a momentum and it takes a brave voice to question its direction. There was Tony Parkin’s reflection on those initial failures with technology where we simply transferred old practice into new machines – old wine and new skins comes to mind.

Then Emma Mulqueeny’s work in exciting interest in coding among girls (beware the dangers of putting a spotlight on ‘target’ groups) and Dawn Hallybone’s blaming it on the technology. There was Annika Small’s timing in launching a new Futurelab initiative, although, it has to be said, Annika didn’t choose to change the secretary of state for education the night before. And there was Rajay Naik’s Movember mistake – come on, who can honestly say they haven’t complimented someone important on their fine November moustache then found they’ve been growing it for years?

The general message seems to be that all of us who are optimistic for the future of technology in education need to remain so, but we also need apply humility, given the past wrong turns and disappointments.

Each presenter, it seemed to me, managed to provide a blend of their bigger failures and little mistakes that made for comical yet compelling storytelling. Presentations that brought gentle heckles and laughter from the lively audience filled Nesta’s rooms. And the audience joined in too. The failure wall reflected their admissions of coming up less than best. They included failures in education such as:

  • “Non-realisation that you can change direction with your studies – there really are no closed doors”
  • “Being complacent. Realizing that I could get away with half the effort in an important assignment around the stock market and missing opportunities to learn a lot more from a great teacher”
  • “Caring too much about management approval, rather than doing the right thing”
  • “Being too focused on grades and doing well in exams”
  • “Driving test x2”
  • “University (the first time)”

I suspect each of these might have made for an interesting conversation if not presentation.

The whole thing experience brought to mind a range of clichés so I’ll get them off my chest. There are omelettes and eggs, silk purses and sow’s ears, snatching victory from jaws of defeat, and defeat from the jaws of victory. And of course every dog has his day. Maybe they don’t all apply, but they all seemed to have some relevance in failure.

The presentations brought with them a series of lessons that included the importance of:

  • recognising a doomed idea;
  • doing research and listening to independent opinion;
  • recognising personal shortcomings;
  • avoiding blaming the technology for human failings;
  • avoiding paralysis by fear of failure.

Reflecting on thinking openly about shortcomings, I pondered on the value of reflection on the progress of a range different projects I’d worked on. Would more of an honest Fail Fest approach have helped adjust their direction, helped avoid pitfalls and ultimately have led to greater success? I think it might. The fun of Fail Fest could just have a serious place in project development and management. Maybe a Fail Fest approach is just good practice. This reflection reminds me of the stories of leaders in the early days of computing organisations who would celebrate decisions to close down major projects as well as decisions to invest in new. Both kinds of decision were considered as making equally positive contributions to success and profitability.

'Sharing failure relaxes people, increases empathy'

But perhaps the over-riding lesson was in the event itself. Jim Wynn put his finger on it first. After the event he said “I think the reason for the success of the Fail Fest is around trust. Sharing success often precipitates feelings of jealousy, fear and worry, rather than the expected admiration. Sharing failure relaxes people, increases empathy and builds trust. This is something special. We should build on it.”

Acting on it brings to mind one last story – as a student I covered a bread round, driving a baker's van for man who’d been in the navy. I was a bit nervous of failure, ordering the right amounts of bread and buns, and keeping the customers happy. The van owner shouted to me, without a hint of a smile, as he marched off into the distance and to his holiday, “Don’t worry Gavin, if you use your loaf, it’s a piece of cake”.

So let’s use our loaves, encourage more risk taking and learn more from failure.

Gavin Dykes is an independent education adviser and consultant, and director of Cellcove Ltd

See also "'I learn more by teaching than learning' – Gavin Dykes" 

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