Taking Creative Risks and Failing Forward

By Ben Grossman-Kahn

One of our favorite mantras within the Education department is “Failing forward”. This phrase captures a key creativity lesson- most of us don’t have perfect ideas the first time around. In fact, what we frequently find is that the best ideas come out of our ‘spectacular failures’. James Dyson, the billionaire inventor of the Dyson vacuum, famously spent over ten years and developed 5126 prototypes before achieving financial success with his Cyclone vacuum. Since then, he has gone on to found the Dyson Foundation to encourage design and engineering education. He describes the power of failure below

“…The foundation encourages kids to fail. Or rather, not be afraid to fail: to experiment, test ideas and make something new. Students need an alternative to read-and-repeat. They need to use their heads and hands to identify problems and go about solving them. Taking things apart and developing new ways to do things. Not to be mistaken for playtime, it’s how children develop critical thinking skills and the practical knowledge for how things work. And it’s fun. “

– James Dyson “In Praise of Failure” (Wired UK)

This summer, we ran a workshop for teachers called “Camp WooHoo” that introduced the growth mindset theory made famous by Carol Dweck. During the workshops, we encouraged teachers to explore their own comfort with taking various types of risks- social, professional, artistic. During the debriefings, many teachers expressed the discomfort they felt when they were pressured to produce a perfectly drawn picture, or to follow instructions perfectly. Others talked about the importance of having time to make mistakes and explore the programs they were working with.

As we talked about how these same pressures might be felt by students in a classroom, it became clear that all too often we put these expectations of perfection on activities and assignments. When leading a writers workshop, for example, are you making it clear to students that early drafts are an opportunity to try out different plot ideas and take creative risks? When you introduce a new program or digital tool to students, are you giving them time to play and explore in an open ended fashion before expecting them to complete assignments using those new tools? Woodside Priory, a private secondary school, has made a school wide commitment to “Fail Forward Fridays” once a month, where teachers, students and administrators try out new curriculum, furniture arrangements or lesson plans. Just as valuable as the experiments themselves are the debrief discussions and lessons learned that emerge from these days- we would argue that there is a key distinction between merely failing and ‘failing forward’.

Share your strategies for encouraging risk taking and failing forward in the comments below, then check out these amazing videos of creative legends discussing failure.


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