I failed at ISTE and it was fantastic! Discovering the Three Laws of Failure

We instill in our children and students the lesson that failing is part of learning, part of life. Failing is good. Failing is real. The action of failing in the classroom has been transformed into an opportunity for achievement. Failures are the building blocks toward success. Michael Jordan failed. Einstein failed. We show examples of the Wright brothers taking a few for the team before they flew. Students, staff, and faculty have heard me say that “Failure is only one of the outcomes resulting from the positive action of your creativity.”

We are applauding failures in the classroom. We cheer when the code our children write does not work. Iteration becomes the norm as students work through their failures in real time. We cheer even louder when one student’s failure becomes another student’s opportunity to help. We go nuts when, at the last minute of class, a student’s redesign, rewrite, and replace results in a successful outcome.

So when was the last time you failed? When was the last time that you were cheered on at every stage of your failure? Can you remember the last time something took you twenty, maybe thirty tries to complete? Have you achieved the prize of failure while you were writing that lesson plan, creating PD for staff, or designing a formal assessment strategy? Granted, failure is best served while being observed. As teachers, we most often assume the role of the observer. As the expert in the classroom, we typically set the pace as such. I have fake-failed to my students to show them what a wrong answer may look like. I have let them correct me when I knowingly did a computation or process wrong. When was the last time you actually failed on your own, when information was new to you, with no safety net, while being observed?

For me it happened at ISTE this summer. Failure happened while sitting in the last row of a room, in what seemed to be the farthest location from the energy of ISTE. Sitting with 12 others in Franklin 11, we began our journey together with Jana Sebestik and George Reese from the University of Illinois Office for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education to Turn on the Lights! using copper tape circuitry, LEDs, sensors and microcontrollers.

I lost count of the failures after a while. Maybe this time… Nope…  What if I do?… Nope…  Oh wait,  If I do this…Nope. We were all struggling. What happened in the midst of our struggles? We began helping each other. I’d look over to see someone either a few steps behind or looking over their shoulder to what I had completed. No one was sitting on a chair for more than a few moments. The class became a fluid, living space of work-arounds, attempts, failures, sighs, and laughter. Borrowing ideas, asking for help, and offering assistance gave us all a view of the student centered activity that we orchestrate for our students but rarely operate in. Each time someone got a step further we all felt good and cheered on their success.

We were being guided brilliantly by the session presenters. It was at that moment I realized that I am actually in a classroom setting that I have been providing for my own students for 20 years! I was in a classroom and I was failing! It was marvelous!

Failure was an option. In fact, it was the option. What wasn’t an option though? Neatness. There were instructions, conductive tape, wires, LEDs, parts and pieces everywhere. Each of our neat, manilla folders, full of materials, given at the beginning of the session, became strewn across 3 feet of table space. I was amazed to see that every single person at this session helped clean up. I don’t mean just our own space either. We we rolling up cords, making sure items were put in the correct boxes. The pride in our failures led to pride in the workspace and the desire to prepare it for the next session.

Getting back to my failure. As the session continued on, I discovered what I now refer to as  “The Laws of Failure”, and they proved true. I have written them in reverse order as my actions revealed them the way they occurred to me. The “Third Law of Failure” is for every iteration made, an equal and positive motivation surfaces. The increase in my motivation resulting from the increase of iterations became the acceleration in relation to the second Law of Failure. The “Second Law of Failure” is that the effort put forth into the project grows proportionately to the pride felt, both expanding constantly as the result of increasing motivation. I found that the “First Law of Failure” is true and absolute. The “First Law of Failure”, is that when at rest, failure is failure….when put in motion and acted upon, failure leads to success. The envelope wasn’t open, the LED did not light, success was not achieved, until I was able to fail.

And then, the LED lit! The world was turned upside down, or inside out, or contrary-wise. Something happened that just an hour before was unimaginable, or unattainable, or unachievable. The light emitting from this LED seemed to be the most powerful light source I had ever experienced. Bathed in this light, I was proud to succeed in this session, proud to be at ISTE, proud of my Ignite, proud of my family. The educator that left that room was more proud of his profession than he could ever have imagined.

I failed at ISTE this year and it was fantastic!

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