Failure is Progress

Failure is progress and a normal part of the process. Whether it’s science or life, you have to start, fail and just keep pushing. In a football game, time runs out, and a golf match ends after the last hole. But when you are working on something and it doesn’t work, you just extend the game – and give your experiment or your prototype another go.

 Peyton Robertson

Over on the TED website, there’s an interview with 12 year old Peyton Robertson. At the end of the interview he gives the above quote, which I think is fantastic.

I find we’re becoming so caught up in this idea that failure is a “bad thing” that we often get paralyzed and unable to move forward. Over the break, as I was going over sight words with my nephew (who’s only 5), he told me he didn’t want to show his mom and grandma his progress in case he got one wrong! This is a problem. No 5 year old should be so afraid of failure that they won’t show the people who are most supportive of them their progress because it’s not “perfect.”

I see the same thing when ever I interact with students taking a first-year computer science course. They don’t want to even start the assignment because they’re not 100% sure of how to solve it. And without that 100% guarantee, why should they even try?

Computer science is such an interesting field, because it’s all really built around failure. The only way progress is every made is by people trying new things (and failing at them) before finding the ‘right’ (or at least good enough for now) solution. And so, in my experience, the better computer scientists are the ones who aren’t afraid to try. Even knowing it may end up being a frustrating process as they get it wrong time after time, they continue to push ahead. They search out potential solutions and give them a try, and move on when they don’t work. And when something does work, they try to understand why so that next time they’ll be better able to predetermine whether a possible solution will work.

The startup I’m working on is an EdTech startup about writing, and we’re running into this problem with some of the students. In it, students are encouraged to start by free-writing, which means writing without focusing on on grammar or spelling (that can be fixed later). And yet, there are students who can’t proceed when they hit a word they don’t know how to spell. They don’t want to put down the “wrong” answer, even though no one is judging (and often times spell check is available).

One of the really neat things about games (computer games, board games, playing out side games) is that they teach people how to deal with failure. How to get up and continue on and try again. But, even though people can play tons of games and be perfectly okay when they don’t pass that level on the first (10th, 50th) try, something still seems to prevent them from using these coping skills outside of the game.

Reading the interview, it reminded me that should I consider staying in academia (pretty doubtful right now), there are two areas I’m interested in most. The first is the intersection of technology and education (how can it be used effectively, what are good practices, etc). The second is failure (how can we teach people to embrace failure). Both of these can be combined together (even better). And while I may not end up researching as part of a university, I can still use my interest in these areas to help create better EdTech products.

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