Creating opportunities for youth to transform their relationship with failure


by Susan Klimczak -

A "What I am reading and thinking about" post! 

Having a positive and playful relationship to failure is an important ingredient in making!  I have some very amusing video footage of our youth discussing the process of creating a perfect pressfit cube, advising each other that it takes at least 20 failures to really understand pressfit and produce a perfect pressfit cube.  (It usually takes 4 or 5, but teenagers enjoy exageration. Smile.)

In Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn's work with youth of color and youth with families that live on low incomes, our participatory research has identified that our youth's complicated relationship to failure often presents a formidable their skill-building, project-building and making.  

While all youth struggle with developing a positive and playful relationship with failure, our youth of color's struggle is complicated by the everyday behaviors and attitudes they encounter in people and institutions that are dysconsciously rooted in racism.  Examples include attending public schools with few resources and low expectations for what they can achieve, relentless negative media about people who look like them, relentless microagressions (and macro-agressions like stop and frisk, high penalties in school for common teenage oppositional behavior), lack of access to maker or geek role models who look like them which often generates an "imposter syndrome" (interesting discussions about this can be found if you google articles about the remarkable success of Harry Mudd college in attracting women to STEM) 

Too often, because of the impact of these behaviors and attitudes, our youth are reluctant to try new things or learn new things if they even think they might fail.  I suspect that this is because the thought of adding one more failure to the constant messages they are up against is just too emotionally painful.

At L2TT2L we have collaborated with youth to create many strategies that give our youth opportunites to transform their relationship to failure.  These ange from developing a supportive and loving culture of near peer and peer mentoring to teaching the engineering design process where failure is a source of insight for improving projects. 

This morning, I read an article that was featured as a link in an OpenIDEO tweet.  The ideas from the Co.Design blog about failure are intriguing. The strategy of presenting youth with opportunities to reflect on these questions around failure is one I would like to try in our daily circle-up reflection sessions:



Sylvia Martinez's picture

Susan, as always, your thoughts and perspective is so interesting. Keep it coming!

I think some of the recent "failure cheerleading" in the mainstream news can be viewed as a modern recapitulation of a traditional approach of invention: "try, try, again"; "practice makes perfect"; "I have not failed, I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work" (Edison); and so on.

However, sometimes I feel there is a recent and more sinister elitist attitude that is embodied by the Silicon Valley saying, "fail early, fail often". What's unsaid is that you are allowed to fail with other people's money and move onto the next new-new thing with no baggage or bad reputation. I don't think that is a good model for learning. and this may be what your students are intuiting - there are people who are allowed to make mistakes, and there are people who aren't. Failure is not a joke when you have zero tolerance and no margin of error. and no VC slush fund.

The other thing I've heard recently is teachers planning for and creating conditions for student mistakes. I think they are misinterpreting the idea of failure. I don't think that's the real power of doing real things with real materials and new ideas. Overcoming hurdles, reimagining, descoping, working with constraints are all learning experiences. But they don't need to be "gotchas" that the teacher has set up. I totally understand that setting up a structured troubleshooting excercise can be helpful and instructive at times, but I think those times should be balanced with students working in real situations.

Finally, I don't see how we can rehabilitate a word with such power in school. To "fail" in school language is the ultimate judgement, with serious consequences. We can't have it both ways.

Susan Klimczak's picture


My mentor Grace Lee Boggs says we are in a time when re-imagining is the most important discipline that we can take up.  If we cannot reclaim the word failure, perhaps we can reimagine a new word.  This is something I think I could playfully take up with our youth as well.  They love playing with language and are word innovators. . .I watch them everyday repurposing language expressively! 

You mention so many important nuances in thinking about failure, especially in who gets to fail without being stigmatized.  Our youth of color are being disciplined in the Foucaudian sense to be fearful --- think of what Ferguson is teaching them right now --- about moving freely through the world and I do believe that has an impact in the maker world. 

However to balance that out, many of our youth are so smart that they have seen through what passes as schooling now and engage in "creative maladjustment" to school so that their inner creativity remains robust and easily accessible given opportunity and support.  They never cease to amaze me and delight me.  That's why creativing a loving and caring learning community and focusing on what our participatory research team called "coilective efficacy" is so important in our youth of color makerspaces.

Thank you for your thoughtful response.  I feel so full after the hard work of one of our most successful years in L2TT2L --- I think that the support and inspiration of the Fab Learn Fellows and our mentoris like you contributed significantly to that success.

Sylvia Martinez's picture

I just saw the new documentary on Grace Lee Boggs and am about half way through her autobiography. What a fascinating person and how fortunate you are to know her!

I think that my reticense with "failure" (the word) is not universal. It's tied to judgement and power. I don't believe that anyone who has the power to judge (grade) work from A-F can also use the word "fail" in a playful way. Pick another word for iteration!

However, when used by others who are not involved in a power relatioinship, I think it's much different. For your kids it may seem that ALL relationships are power relationships. But for example, if a kid says "that was an epic fail!" about their own project, I don't think it carries any of that baggage and certainly doesn't "prove" that now it's OK to encourage failure in a class situation, or that kids will "get it" when a teacher talks about the magic of failing.

Can't wait to discuss all this in person at FabLearn!


Susan Klimczak's picture

Yes, I have been intrigued by the redefining challenge, too, and thinking it through more thoroughly in a stepwise way.  We collected a lot of data on "relationship to failure" as part of our AERA Community Service Participatory Research project last year. I have not looked at it in months, so I will put it together and bring with me so we actually have something concrete to talk with!  

I am always trying to connect with folks --- there is a maker ed research initiative at Harvard GSE where I got my Ed D, so I was trying to connect with them ("Agency by Design" is the name).  They are too busy crunching school data now to connect, but I've been following their twitter stream, which is interesting.  I linked through to the Children's Innovation Project on their lead tonight because one of my college mentors is trying to adapt STEAM for a kindergarten classroom with a really innovative teacher of color here in Boston --- they are calling it KinderSTEAM.  I always go for the theory because of my edgeek side and found their habits of mind section interesting.

They are calling failure. . ."lovlng your struggles and staying with them." While I don't like that grit meme they are modeling it after (that line of thinking needs some serious de-centering around gender, race and income) but I really groove on the idea of creating environments that invite youth to "fall in love with struggle."  

I have thinking about the power of struggle for a long time. . . I began my QP and Dissertation with a poem by Mel King about struggle and its relationship to community:

Sylvia Martinez's picture

Agree with you on the "grit" thing - another thing to talk about!

Agency by Design is interesting, I had some conversations with them a year or so ago and I think everything in this area will be helpful in some way. I liked their definition of "maker empowerment" - 

Maker Empowerment: A heightened sensitivity to the made dimension of objects, ideas, and systems, along with a nudge toward tinkering with them and an increased capacity to do so.

And they may have changed that bit since. But I think the "sensitivity" to technology (which really is everything in the human designed world, not just computers, as schools tend to use the word) captures some of the idea of "mindfulness" that I've been trying to convey in some of my most recent writing. I do kind of find it likeable that they use the word "nudge" which I really like, but is so un-Harvard-like. But it also captures that while you can nudge the learner, you can't take the journey for them. And I like the hopefulness of the "increased capacity" - it's the upward trajectory that isn't a fixed amount and doesn't have an end. You can have an increased capacity no matter where you start (or how old you are).

Shari Tishman's picture

Great post, Susan.  I found it by following Sylvia's link on the Agency by Design post (thank you, Sylvia).  I like what you have to say about helping your L2TT2L students to transform their relationship to failure.  I appreciate how you  frame failure as a 'relationship' because it gets at something I think is really crucial, which is engagement.  One of the really negative consequences of failure is that it causes us to disengage. I like the idea of transforming young people's relationship to failure so that they can experience failures as  energizing and engaging, rather than as dispiriting and terminal.  

Sylvia, thank you for your comments about the word  'nudge.' I like it, too.  We have gotten some pushback on it, because of the term's non technical connotation (I suppose you could consider it a counter-nudge), but we're keeping it, for exactly the reasons you say.