Using Design Thinking to 'Teach' the Power of Failure and Grit to Students

At the 99u Conference, innovators and top designers from all over the world took the stage to share their stories of sweat, toil and all-in-all grit that it took to have momentous success: stories of failure, perseverance and a diehard belief in oneself.

Students need to hear these stories and hear them often.

Something that's not so easy to "teach" to kids when teachers only see them less than an hour a day or with a rigid testing system that makes failure out to be the bad guy.

At 99u,

  • Marc Ecko shared his childhood stories in New Jersey full of graffiti and the concrete walls of the fashion world he had to break through.

  • Wendy MacNaughton told the story of her train-ride doodling that turned into ethnographic wonder sketches.
  • Susan Gregg Koger shared the initial days of her Modcloth venture that looked no different than a 17-year old's closet. Now, just sit in a UPS truck for say... five minutes and you'll see a Modcloth package.
  • Seth Godin, Todd Henry, Irene Au, and a massive list of widely acclaimed successes all shared their personal stories of struggle, at-times depressing failure, and perseverance. 
  • These innovators look at failure as a necessary step to creating something remarkable. It is, after all, a natural step in design thinking. So, is it possible to teach failure as a good thing to students if we teach them design thinking?

    Enter the 6 Steps of Design Thinking (which could integrate into any content area).

    1. Understand

    Here students do the meaningful research in a particular subject that interests them. It's important that students try to talk to experts currently in the field of interest. And now that we will live in a world beyond snail mail, students can reach out to the experts of today. 

    2. Observe

    Here lies the perks of being a wallflower. Students watch and observe what other people are doing. Teachers could share 99u and TED talks, for instance.

    3. Define

    Just like a thesis in an essay, students here define a specific question that they want to attempt to answer. For example, "How might we get students to learn the power of failure?"

    4. Ideate

    Roll in the whiteboard and start ideating. The classroom here should look like Einstein's laboratory, full of sticky notes, mind maps, and ideas, ideas, ideas - from the most mundane to even the silliest. Sometimes we just need to bend our minds like play dough to arrive at possible creative solution. 

    5. Prototype

    Here students learn the power of failure. Call it a prototype and all of a sudden, this safe word allows failure to be an option. This is just like a start-up business who uses a sample market to test their product or a scientist who practices in the lab. 

    Here's a tip from Seth Godin: "Fail fast and cheap. Fail often. Fail in a way that doesn't kill you."

    6. Test

    This is the feedback and redefining phase. Just like a writer who revises his writing after the "shitty first draft", as Anne Lamott tells us, here students revise the prototype based on feedback.

    It's funny how many people in the "real world" wish they had a classroom once again in their life. The classroom can be a tremendously valuable safe place to learn failure (Click to tweet this). A classroom can be the place to fail fast, cheap, and often if we design the classroom to do so. 

    Where to start? Ask students to hold up their iPhone and ask, "How many prototypes do you think Steve Jobs and his team failed with before creating this design?"

    Or ask students how many "prototypes" (a.k.a. revisions) there were of Enter Canonical Literary Text Here.

    To learn more about design thinking, here are a couple places to start:



    I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences using design thinking in the classroom. Please share them in the comments below!

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