Emerging Technology

Fail Fast, Fail Often (Fail Safe)

Within the K-12 marketplace failure is unacceptable, especially when answering to the local board of education. On one hand, that is very understandable, failure affects students; on the other hand, it places schools completely out of sync with how the world works today. Businesses have learned that survival means they must be nimble and they must learn how to celebrate failure. Learning to celebrate failure goes back at least thirty years.

In their original book, “In Search of Excellence”, Peters and Waterman documented that successful companies celebrate failure. Ore-Ida celebrated the failure of a potato experiment with the firing of a huge cannon out back, behind their R&D building. Their leadership understood that each failure propelled the company closer to their next success, so they celebrated failure.

Clayton Christensen’s book, “Innovator’s Dilemma”, provides insights to how large successful companies fail to understand the turbulent, messy, low end of their market where innovation is the key to survival. These low-margin manufacturers continuously scramble (trying things on a small scale and failing) in order to create an advantage over their competitors. They understand that failure moves them to their next success. Suddenly, an innovation created to stave off insolvency at the low end of the market replicates what the big successful company is doing, but at a fraction of the price. Oops! The big company never saw it coming and is out of business.

The average person has no idea of how deeply embedded the concept of Fail Fast, Fail Often is in the whole “Silicon Valley” and 21st-century technology phenomena. A group of people come up with an idea and they take a leap and try it out; if it does not yield what was expected, change it some and do it again, and repeat until you arrive at a product that businesses or people want. It starts off with a leap, and then a lot of refinement that should be translated to “failures.” Even then, it may end in failure, but you must be willing to fail. Many venture capital firms will not talk to startups unless the leadership has experienced failure.

Carol Dweck, in her 2008 best-selling book, “Mindset: the New Psychology of Success”, provides a layperson’s viewpoint of her clinical data that people who accept failure as part of any learning process are the ones who succeed. They have a “growth” mindset, meaning they learn from their failures. Those with “fixed” mindsets will not try something new beause they may fail; therefore, they never grow. The concept of Fail Fast, Fail Often is critical in today’s world.

It is important for the educational leaders to understand the concept “Fail Safe.” Do not experiment at a level where failure will lead to collapse of the organization or termination of the leadership team. Recent initiatives where school districts have jumped feet first into large 1-to-1 initiatives, or orientation to student-centered learning have failed in spectacular manner. Make the movement into a new culture of learning a “stepped” process.

The first step is small and limited in scope, i.e., a school district with a teaching staff of 500 wants to move to student-centered learning supported by a total digital environment. Find 30 teachers (and their principals) interested in making that transition. Start with five teachers and their principals, providing training on 21st-century learning methodologies, some digital content, flexible furniture, at least a 2-to-1 computing device ratio in their classrooms and a suite of digital learning management tools. Give them freedom to try different learning methodologies.

At the two-and-a-half-month mark, start an assessment of what worked and did not work and modify your training and provisioning of classrooms accordingly. At the three-month mark, bring another 10 teachers on board with training and provisioning of classrooms. Repeat the assessment at the five-and-a-half-month mark and then bring another 15 teachers into the program and provision their classrooms. Yes, training teachers and provisioning classroom at different times throughout the year can be messy and hard, but you are changing your culture of learning at a safe pace with feedback.

Make the collection of data a prerequisite for teachers to participate (data collection is an algorithm on a computer — not a teacher inputting data). If a student experience does not demonstrate superior academic growth, stop doing the activity. After two years of this Fail Fast, Fail Often (Fail Safe) approach, you will have a clear picture of how to bring the majority of your staff into this new culture of learning.

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Glenn Meeks is president of Meeks Educational Technology located in Cary, N.C. He can be reached at gmeeks@meeksgeeks.com.

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