New View EDU Episode 19: The Role of Failure and Risk in Designing Deeper Learning

Available May 10

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We’re all familiar with the stories of people who became wildly successful after failing dozens of times to reach their goals. But what if those “inspirational” failure stories are the wrong ones to share? What if we’re defining success and failure the wrong way to begin with? And how do our own expectations of how things “should” be influence our perceptions of what learning, growth, and success actually look like?

Laura McBainLaura McBain is the K12 Lab Director of Community and Implementation at the Stanford, and comes from a lengthy career as a teacher and school leader. She joins host Tim Fish to talk about her upcoming book, My Favorite Failure, and why she believes we as a society have the wrong ideas about the value of failing, the purpose of education, and the role of student agency in developing schools for the future.

Laura argues that we currently tend to share stories about failures that turned into material successes; but the real learning, she says, comes when we fail in ways that change how we approach the world. In that context, examining many of our common educational systems and practices leads to questions about whether we’re setting students up for deep learning experiences. For example, Laura points out, in a world where students can Google the right answers, should we define success and failure through grading right and wrong answers? Or is a more student-focused, exploratory approach to learning needed, allowing for inquiry, personal growth, and “stepping into the unexpected?”

Starting from the perspective that all humans are creators, and all educators are designers, Laura encourages school leaders to think not about content mastery but about engagement in the learning process and setting up conditions for learning and connection. Instead of “do you understand,” she argues, we should ask “how do you feel about this?” Rather than reactionary discipline, might we approach student behavior with supportive care? And what would happen if we adjusted our expectations around ideas like task persistence, grit, and perseverance to focus instead on support, connection, and curiosity? 

Key Questions

Some of the key questions Tim and Laura explore in this episode include:

  • What is the relationship between expectations and failure? How can parents and schools do a better job of understanding that relationship and communicating more effectively with students?
  • In the book, Laura’s co-author Ron Beghetto talks about learning as an act of stepping into the unexpected. What does it mean for students to “step into the unexpected?” How does that play out in schools?
  • What is the purpose of school? And for that matter, what is the purpose of teachers?
  • What does it mean for educators to be designers?

Episode Highlights

  • “And I think the purpose now is actually education … should be the thing that allows every person in this world to not only be a part of the world, but shape the world in which they want to live in, which means designing new career paths, new industries, and really allowing them to see, to be fully, fully realized as an individual, as a human and as a contributor to society.” (3:27)
  • “We don't teach them how to learn through failure. Because we're so focused on getting the outcome, the grade, the project right, that we don't just sit with the moments of those, what we call those favorite moments of failure, which are the ones that changed you. They may not be the one that got that next job where they made you become the startup of that big company … but they have changed you. And they changed your DNA, the fabric of who you are and how you approach the world. They show up as an integrated part of your own humanity.” (9:32)
  • “Students have textbooks that give them the answers. They can Google the answers. Like there's, nationally, no new content that they're actually trying to learn, essentially, that's not actually already out there. They're expected. This is why we see massive cheating scandals. We see students disengaging in textbooks. We see people looking up the answers in the back of the book, because they're expecting the right answer. And that right answer already exists. The answer's already there. So there's nothing, there's no new learning there, I think.” (17:44)
  • “I don't believe you can separate content from emotions. We are emotional human beings. So the idea that feeling and learning are actually quite separate, if I don't feel a lot of how I'm learning, is actually not true. We get excited … we get really passionate. We're laughing. We're alert. That's an emotion. And so how do we have a space in our classrooms to just have students express their emotions, not just from a mental health perspective, which is important, but also how do they feel about the content they're learning?” (23:56)
  • “You and I, as adults, if we were asked to do the same thing over and over and over again and persist through it, and it didn't unlock any interest or curiosity in us, you and I would say … no, I'm not doing that. And then we wonder why our young people are disengaged or … act up in classrooms. Their curiosity is being stamped out. And then we get mad at them for actually not doing the thing, but we're asking them to do something that probably could feel like torture, you know?” (38:19)

Resource List

Full Transcript

About Our Guest

Laura McBain is the K12 Lab Director of Community and Implementation at the Stanford She leads the K12 Lab network and aims to use design thinking to transform education and the world. As a human-centered designer, her work focuses on understanding the ecosystem of education and finding meaningful opportunities for disruptive design. She is an advocate for equity and social justice work and is leading experiments to ensure more students have access to an innovative educational experience that will help them thrive in a changing world. Formerly, she was the director of external relations at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education. In that role, she traveled the world designing and leading professional development focused on the implementation of progressive education, school transformation, deeper learning, and equity initiatives. She has served as a principal of two HTH sites and has taught middle and high school classes in public charter and comprehensive schools. Laura was the architect of the Deeper Learning Conference, a 1,200-person, adult learning experience aimed at activating and galvanizing educators for large-scale change.