Failure Teaching

My daughter’s teacher asked me to help out with a school project, one of the objectives of which is to expose the students to the basic elements of deliberate creativity (before they unlearn everything they know naturally). We started with an exercise about failing. The students were given an easy task but with time pressure. Each time someone failed, we applauded wildly. By the end of the activity, everyone had failed and they all thought it was funny. The bad taste of failure was stripped away, so we could look at it in a new way.

We talked about how in school – often for good reason – failure is something to be avoided. We don’t want to fail our tests; we want to do our best. But that in other situations, failure might not be such an awful outcome, it could even be a positive thing. The consequences of failing could be useful, at the very least we can learn from it.

There is a common belief that most significant learning comes from our failures. And yet there are mistakes that we seem to repeat, over and over again. Is learning from failure overrated? A few years ago, researchers at MIT suggested that we may not learn as much from mistakes as we do from successes. In their study, they observed the brain activity of monkeys when given a two-choice task. The brain cells appeared to react more when rewarded for correct answers than they did to being punished for mistakes. And the monkey’s performance improved considerably after learning about success than after learning about failure.

But there’s other research that insists we learn more from failure than from success, and we retain that learning longer. So, which is it? Do we learn more from failure or from success?

We can learn a lot from both, probably, if we pay attention. This is where deliberate creativity can be particularly useful. There are several very simple evaluation tools, often used to enhance an idea-in-development during the creative process. These same tools can also be used to review the outcome of an event, a product or a project and maximize the learning, whether you’ve failed or succeed. One in particular, we call PPC/O:

Pluses: What were all the positive aspects of the project/product/outcome?
Potentials: What else might result from having done it/tried it?
Concerns: What didn’t work? What went wrong? What could we have done better? What would we do differently?
Overcomes: What could we do (could we have done) to address these concerns?


It requires only a simple debrief, using these prompts as talking points. Except that’s often the thing we skip. It’s easier to move on from a failed project and sweep it under the carpet rather than to linger in the residue of a failure and figure out why it happened. Alternately, if things go really well, why analyze it? Let’s just keep doing what we’re doing.

Innovation involves being deliberate about every step of the creative process, including how we evaluate our creative output and improve our performance. That means assessing our failures with a bit of tenderness, not to point out what didn’t work as much as to explore why and learn from it. It also means reflecting on what went wrong even when we succeed, and making improvements on those weak points before they become major liabilities.

Positioning failure within the creative process isn’t just about learning from our mistakes. I also wanted to convey to my daughter’s classmates that when you set out to be creative, you can choose to designate a certain period of time where you’re trying out new things, taking risks with different ideas and during this experimental stage you might look a little silly and you might fail miserably. The point is not to be afraid of failing, but to play with ideas and see what happens. And then look at what happens and learn from it.

I reminded the class that are times when it’s best not to fail, like when you’re taking a test at school. But there are other times when failing might be just what it takes to get to something new and different.

Inevitably, the mother of one of the students approached me while we were waiting for school to let out. “My son told me that you said it was okay to fail at school,” she said. I explained that actually, no, that was the one place I hoped the students wouldn’t fail. Then I realized I may have failed at making my point to a group of students looking for any excuse not to do their homework. Cue wild applause.


Know Further:

More about studying success rather than failure and on how studying success without studying failure gives a distorted picture. The difference between a mistake and failure, and if you’re going to fail, here’s how. Failure and what you can learn from it. A paper on academic failure and resilience, and 10 easy ways to fail a PhD. Learn from success, but be careful, over-praising can backfire. A web-site designated for documenting failure and learning from it.

The image “Good things could happen too” is a painting by Dan Walker.