Learn from the past & look toward the future

This article originally appeared in Techniques in October 2012.

Failure is good!

In the classic Hollywood film National Treasure, Benjamin Gates — played by Nicolas Cage — goes to great lengths to locate and steal the Declaration of Independence. Plan after plan fails until he learns the true path to the treasure. When his sidekick thinks Gates’s plan is doomed from the start, Gates paraphrases a quote attributed to Thomas Edison.

Edison, when asked how it felt to have failed many times to make the light bulb, said “I have not failed. I have successfully discovered 10,000 ways to not make a light bulb.”

Learn from failure.

Edison’s quote may hold the key to revitalize and reenergize teaching, especially in CTE. To Edison, a technology student and teacher at heart, the only way to succeed, to accomplish great things, was to fashion an environment in which failure was not something to fear. To conceive of one of the most revolutionary inventions of his time, he needed to have a place to create, understand and fail!

When we think about the learning process, the failures often leave the biggest impression. That is why we incorporate simulations, lab exercises and work-based learning as vital components of career and technical education.

Because it is through these experiences of trial and error that we learn to achieve success.

Achieving success takes hard work and perseverance, sure, but another crucial ingredient is the ability to learn from failure. We must remind our students that it is okay to make mistakes. In the classroom is where the freedom of trial and error should be championed. There they learn to hone their skills so that when they leave, they thrive.

Let the past help the future.

Consider the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). For CNN, Michael Belfiore discussed the agency’s unusual mission. Known as America’s first space agency, DARPA’s only goal was to “undertake projects that have a good chance of failing — projects that few others dare to take on.”

DARPA’s failures over the years led to the development of handheld GPS receivers, interactive computer displays and even the internet. Belfiore wrote, “Failure is not surprising; permission to fail is what enabled the agency’s success.”

CTE educators could all take a page from the DARPA playbook. Understand that failure is an integral part of success. There may be some risks involved — perhaps scrutiny from colleagues, parents and administration.

But educators are encouraged to persist. The creation of opportunities for failure in the CTE classroom can lead to big successes. With new technology constantly over the horizon and an increasing need to teach critical thinking, now is the right time to ask, “Do I allow my students to fail?”

Rethink how you teach.

The working world looks for people who can overcome failures and setbacks with critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Now is the time to evaluate how CTE educators teach those skills to 21st-century learners. Today’s students use technology to test, represent, replicate and simulate real-world situations. We must design the classroom to act as a laboratory or workshop for new innovations — finding success through failure.

David Damberger, a prominent member of the Canadian chapter of Engineers Without Borders, spoke to the idea of learning from failure in his 2011 TEDx conference address. He talked about using new techniques to create sustainability through engineering in development projects throughout the world. Sustainable is an admirable focus, but Damberger moves quickly to discuss the nonprofit’s failures. Only approximately 40% percent of their projects were still working several years later.

The low percentage is not due to labor, engineering or development issues, rather a reluctance to learn from and correct certain failures. Without admitting the problems, they had no way to rectify them. Conceded Damberger,

“Admitting failure is quite hard, but it can get easier.”

The point is not just to embrace failure for failure’s sake. “We can learn from these mistakes and we can change!” This is the heart of the message.

In years past, Engineers Without Borders has published an annual Failure Report, showing all the ways they have failed, so they could learn and not repeat mistakes. A complementary resource, Admitting Failure, allows other developers to share their failures. Harvard Business Review followed suit and released its own compendium of failure. The issue’s subtitle reads,

“How to understand it, learn from it, and recover from it.”

Now that’s a slogan to put up in our CTE classrooms!

Think of the welding student who recreates welds  to perfect their welding technique. Imagine the culinary student working to create a new recipe because the failures of the past have shed new light on how to make it better.

When students learn to accept failure, classroom management may improve; students may experience lower levels of stress and anxiety. Students and CTE educators, alike, enjoy the opportunity to focus on learning.

We have all failed at some things, but perhaps not enough to become really good at something. It took Thomas Edison a myriad of tries to understand how not to make a light bulb. How many tries will it take our CTE students before the proverbial light bulb goes on for them?

Now that’s a treasure worth making a Hollywood movie about! Let’s make our own declaration of 21st-century learning success. Start now. But you must be willing to fail to get there.

ACTE members can read the entirety of Techniques’ October 2012 issue in the archive.

Jamey McIntosh is product marketing manager for Realityworks, Inc.