Fail Fast

The engineers and venture capitalists of Silicon Valley have embraced the mantra “fail fast” in their relentless pursuit of the next big thing. Failure, which for so long has been something schools did not advocate, is becoming more and more popular in the tech world. To fail fast means that people should fail early and often on their way to a great idea. Failure is now something cool. And it should be. The reality is, we all learn from failure as it’s an essential component in trial and error.

But while the Web has made it easier and cheaper to start up and succeed, it has also made it easier and cheaper to fail.

–Eric Markowitz in “Why Silicon Valley Loves Failures”

Dave McClure is a venture capitalist in a startup incubator in Silicon Valley called 500 Startups. It’s more commonly known by its alternate name: the fail factory. “The alternate name we came up with for 500 Startups was ‘fail factory,'” explains McClure in Fast Company. “We’re here trying to ‘manufacture fail’ on a regular basis, and we think that’s how you learn. Getting used to that, bouncing back from that, being able to figure out what people hate and turn that into what people love…if you’re not willing to take the risk of failing and not experience failure, you’re never going to figure out what the right path is to success.” The reality is, failure has not traditionally been embraced, but this is starting to change. Eric Markowitz of Inc.com hypothesizes that many factors have led people to embrace failure today. “The first, and most obvious answer, is that failure has become inexpensive,” Markowitz writes. “Decades ago, starting a business typically entailed borrowing capital from a bank, friends, or family. Opening a physical storefront required lots of capital. Today, the Web has democratized the process for starting up–building a website and hosting its data, even for e-commerce, are relatively inexpensive.” For these reasons–at least in the the technology world–failure is embraced as it is a necessary part of the learning process. In fact, there is now a global conference series dedicated to studying and celebrating failure called FailCon.

For a long stretch in the twentieth century, learning theory was dominated by the work of Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner–a man many consider to be the most influential psychologist of the twentieth century. Skinner advocated a theory called “errorless
learning.” In Skinner’s model, learners were spoonfed new material in small bites and immediately quizzed on it while it remained in short-term memory. As the authors of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning point out, students in Skinner’s model had virtually no chance of making an error. As the two renowned psychologist-authors of Make It Stick reinforce throughout the book, errors are an integral part of the learning process–especially with new material. “Yet in our Western culture, where achievement is seen as anlogo indicator of ability, many learners view errors as failure and do what they can to avoid committing them,” the authors write. “The aversion to failure may be reinforced by instructors who labor under the belief that when learners are allowed to make errors it’s the errors that they will learn.” We know today that this belief is misguided. Freedom from “errorless learning” has so empowered people that a group from Finland has created the Day for Failure taking place next week. It’s a chance for people to lose their fear of messing up. People can participate by tweeting their failures to #dayforfailure.

Fail fast, manufacturing fail, fail factory, FailCon are terms that help capture the mood of the technology and venture capital world today. However, the idea of celebrating failure is not likely something you see embraced in daily life. One way schools can embrace failure and teach perseverance is by encouraging self-directed learning (and yes, failure) by giving students a place to invent and learn from their experiences. This is why we are beginning the process of putting makerspaces in our schools. A makerspace is a place where students come together with expert faculty to design, create, and build projects using material and technology they might not come in contact with during the regular school day. Exploration in a makerspace is student driven. Makers are limited only by their imagination.

A makerspace is a place to tinker and explore. It’s a place where you can build with legos, print in 3-D, or even learn how to fly a drone. In a makerspace, failure is expected as is learning from mistakes. The reality is, as you explore new ideas and technology, you will always make mistakes. On this blog, I’ll chronicle our makerspace journey as we move from concept to reality. Besides, don’t you want to learn how to fly one of these?

2 thoughts on “Fail Fast

  1. Jonathan – Excellent post! Really enjoyed the makerspace references and how you relate failing to learning.

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