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May 18, 2010 / Brent Sears

Not Fear of Failure, but Fear of Criticism

I was recently at a small educational conference with superintendents, technology people, college professors, and college students where I was introduced to a new term: failing safely.  The question was really how do we fail safely in education?

What is failing unsafely in education?  That is doing something that causes criticism from administrators, teachers, or parents.  This is where the real fear is.  It is not in trying a new type of lesson that doesn’t work out, or taking the students on a field trip to a place that was a total flop.  The actions usually are not the problem, but rather what other people are going to say.

Does formal education, at any level, encourage its participants to take risks, do new things, and chart new courses?  (No pun intended.)  No!!!  Let’s look at what every other school is doing first, form a committee to grind down the rough edges, and make sure that every action can be blamed on someone else.  The best way to fail safely is to diffuse responsibility.  That is one of the many reasons why bureaucracies were invented in the first place.

The future is going to take people, at all levels, who are willing to make calculated jumps into new areas, using new techniques, and reaching out to new audiences.  The 20th Century institutions are not ready for that, but they will have no choice.  Expect people who have a lot invested (personally and emotionally) in these institutions and structures to be critical.  It will be a good indicator as to whether you are on the right track or not.

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