Reconsidering Failure in Maker-Centered Learning

Agency by Design researcher Edward Clapp questions the use of the word failure in maker-centered learning, especially as making activities begin to find their way into schools where “failing” has serious consequences.

If you’ve been following the growing buzz about maker-centered learning, you’ve probably heard someone somewhere say that learning from failure is an important aspect of any making experience. Slogans like “fail early, fail often” and “failing forward” are now popular refrains throughout the maker-sphere. What’s meant by “failure” in this context, of course, is iteration. The idea is to learn from one’s mistakes and thereby develop a sensitivity to try, try, and try again.

While we understand the value of prototyping and iteration, the Agency by Design team has recently been debating about the use of the word failure in education. When taking practices from the professional engineering and design worlds into a K-12 space, we feel there are contextual consequences for the transfer of language and practices that are worth exploring. In this regard, we join critics of the word failure, such as Sylvia Martinez, who have also wrestled with the use of this terminology. As one of Sylvia’s recent blog posts states:

I understand the intent. I’m all for the iterative design process where roadblocks or challenges are celebrated as learning opportunities. Of course people learn from mistakes, if there is time to actually ponder those mistakes and try again.

Here’s the problem. It’s the word “failure.” Failure means a VERY specific thing in schools. The big red F is serious. In school, failure is NOT a cheery message to “try, try, again!” it’s a dead-end with serious consequences.

Using this loaded word to represent mistakes, hurdles, challenges, detours, etc. is confusing and unnecessary. Teachers cannot talk about failure as a challenge, when failure also means judgment—the worst possible judgment.

Though we are in support of Sylvia’s argument, the AbD team is still questioning this language and thinking hard about the use of the word failure in maker-centered learning. Is failure a word maker educators should rebrand as a pathway to progress? Is there a dispositional aspect to failure that prompts one to take risks and try new things? Or is there a misalignment between the use of the word failure around the chop saw in adult makerspaces, and the weighty meaning the word holds inside school walls?

As we continue to examine this terminology, we’d be interested to hear what others think. What is your take on the use of the word failure in maker-centered education? How do you see the word failure from your perspective in the educational sphere?

This blog was published on February 2, 2015.
Authored by
Edward Clapp

Edward Clapp is a Principal Investigator on the Agency by Design project.