Why Schools—Not Just Start-Ups—Need to Fail Fast

By Anthony Kim, CEO, Education Elements

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If you’re an educator, the disruptive world of Silicon Valley probably couldn’t seem farther from your local public school system. But what you may not realize is that the techniques that start-ups prize are already changing the way educators across the country implement changes in their school systems. In today’s fraught political and educational climate, schools would do well to look for inspiration wherever they can find it—and one of the most important lessons educators can borrow is from Silicon Valley. In order to succeed, the lesson goes, you have to be willing to fail fast.

We’re familiar with the word “failure” being slung at our schools, of course, but with a much different tone, and in a much different context. The idea of “failing schools” is so prevalent in the media that Huffington Post has an entire tag dedicated to the subject. But is it possible to reframe our view of what “failing” can mean? Might the rhetoric of Silicon Valley—its emphasis on iteration, its embrace of a new type of failure—have something to offer our classrooms? I’ve worked with enough schools to be able to answer definitively: yes.

In a world of success, we’ve forgotten about failure

If embracing failure seems completely counterintuitive, it’s only because success has long been celebrated as the end-all be-all of education: getting an A, crushing the SAT, cruising into college. These are wonderful goals, but an overly narrow-minded focus on success can actually be detrimental to education. Remember the disastrous numbers of No Child Left Behind, when in 2011 half of our country’s schools failed to meet federal standards? The act left our educators both skittish about measurement and glued to end-of-year data as a means of showing success. While high standards can end up inspiring students to work harder, we need to face up to our pervasive fear of failure. Glenn Meeks, author of Creating a Culture of Learning, notes that a reluctance to fail “places schools completely out of sync with how the world works today.”

The usefulness—and even the beauty—of failure has long been something that software developers know about. In his 1997 essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” Eric S. Raymond famously encouraged developers to “release early and release often.” Raymond recognized the truth: we learn faster, work smarter and ultimately create better products when we feel free to make mistakes, open ourselves up to hearing feedback, and embrace changes that drive improvement. In this context, failure isn’t an irredeemable state of descent; instead, it’s an opportunity to test an idea and obtain practical information that can inform your next decision. (Some have called this the “growth mindset,” which includes, among other things, seeing failure as a chance to learn and improve, not as something that reflects poorly on you as an individual.)

What does failing fast actually look like in a school? To answer that, let’s take a look at the Syracuse City School District.

Failing fast is about the journey and the destination

The Syracuse City School District is a treasure trove of diversity with over seventy languages spoken in schools every day, but despite the richness of its vibrant student body, the district has been struggling. It’s consistently in the bottom 36% in the state, and administrators are currently phasing out schools that are just too broken to repair. Syracuse came to me with a challenge: they needed a personalized learning system that was both cost effective and highly adaptable, to meet the diverse needs of its student body.

This was not the moment to come up with a huge, sweeping, comprehensive plan of action with no room for failure. This was a time to iterate, and quickly. The district was moving from an era of outsourcing their worst performing schools into an era of building the capacity within their district to make significant changes in these schools. When outsourcing, failure involves a sharp dichotomy: is this school a failure or a success? When building capacity, failure is far more fluid. And so at Syracuse, I’ve been focusing on two things: charting a course to success, but staying nimble and iterative within that course.

The challenge for me, for Syracuse, and for all other educators is to get away from the false binary that we can so easily fall into: you’re either successful or you aren’t. I’ve started to think of “charting your course” as a way to get away from this binary—a way to fail safely and rapidly, iterating the entire time, and learning from each and every mistake. All without wasting thousands of dollars, of course.

At Syracuse, both the district and smaller school teams look at indicators throughout the year to ensure they stay on track and figure out what hasn’t been working. We’ve even created a Bingo game to help other districts assess their needs and map out a plan for moving forward. It’s an approach that is both collaborative and nimble—a far cry from the sluggish bureaucracy that educators and the media have railed against for years.

Embrace the prototype (and don’t stress about the budget)

At Syracuse, whenever an idea for a product or tool began to crystallize, we got it into a classroom for testing as quickly as possible. Instead of blanketing the district with a handful of products, we left many of the purchasing decisions up to the schools themselves. This meant that schools were given an opportunity to quickly test products and validate their own assumptions and theories on how well the product might work. This also led to higher usage of the products, and helped the district be precise about how many product licenses they actually needed—an important step in an industry where it’s estimated that about 65% of paid student licenses are either never activated or meet none of their usage goals.

On a very practical level, this saved us thousands of dollars. We only needed to produce a small number of prototypes, and were able to improve on them more or less in real time through teacher and student feedback.

Rapidly changing environments full of new products can be hard to work in, of course. To counter this, we developed a personalized learning leadership council with representatives from across the district who gathered up the perspectives of everyone from elementary school teachers to librarians to principals. By doing this, we were able to recognize challenges from all angles—and avoid handing teachers complicated, expensive equipment with no relevance to their needs.

Of course, perfection was never the point of these tests. Instead, we looked out for the bugs and failures, which told us how to get it exactly right. (Incidentally, this is exactly how the highly secretive Google X team approaches innovation.)

Failing fast liberates teachers

I know plenty of teachers and superintendents who have had repeatedly negative experiences with one-stop-shop methods designed to evaluate them and their students. My colleagues and I have watched them appear overwhelmed, despairing, and even furious about these structures.

Perhaps one of the most important things that an emphasis on failing fast can do is make teachers feel like they are free to experiment without being discouraged or even crushed by the looming spectre of inflexible evaluations. Just as ideas are welcome from all levels in an ideal start-up environment, so teachers—not just superintendents—should be encouraged to innovate and given the room to do so, iteratively and imperfectly. Julie Kean, Director of Research and Evaluation at VIF International Education, agrees. “If teachers are expected to design and build innovative learning cultures for their students, it is critical that they learn in trusted spaces that allow them to experiment and fail,” she writes. To achieve an environment like this, three things need to happen: major initiatives need to be broken down into smaller stages so that failures aren’t large-scale, data needs to be available so that we can learn from these failures, and we can’t expect everybody—especially our teachers—to perfectly complete each and every part of the plan. Instead, we have to get comfortable with ambiguity.

It takes a lot of reframing to see failure as something positive—a learning opportunity—and not as, well, a total failure. But in fact, a “fail fast” approach is actually a way to avoid catastrophic fiascos (the type of failures that could collapse an organization, cost an arm and a leg, or get entire teams fired). By reframing the concept of failure as a constructive, relatively low-stakes proposition, we’re able to conduct small, unobtrusive tests that refine products and ideas before scaling up to larger, more expensive products and programs.

Perhaps most critically, this attitude also sets a great example for students. By reframing failure as an opportunity to learn, a chance to accept constructive criticism, and a general way to adapt, we encourage a “growth mindset” among students and model behavior that can help them build confidence and creativity. In failing fast, we set our students up to succeed.

With research assistance from Michelle Delgado of the Hippo Thinks research network.

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