Failure and the 21st Century Learner

Wirtten by Patrick Fitzpatrick

“I’m going to sell rocks out by the side of the road,” my nine year old son quipped.

“Okay,” his mother and I replied.

Neither his mother nor I thought our son would experience much success in this new entrepreneurial endeavor. Surprisingly, and to his and our delight, the pile of rocks sold  quickly.  I can’t pretend to get inside the minds of every buyer, but I imagine that most were just tickled by the outrageous notion that anyone would think to sell ordinary rocks.  Combine that with the “Little Rascal’s” ambiance of a hand drawn sign; the optimistic, over-sized pewter cash collector; and the coveralls, and this ended up being an irresistible draw for most adults who drove or walked by.

And to think…I almost told him it wouldn’t work — that it was a bad idea.  I’m glad I checked myself.  This was a formative experience for him as a boy.  It was also an important lesson for me not only as the father of five, but also as a school leader.

We’ve been discussing the importance of innovation a lot at our school recently in light of our seven year study on teaching to the 21st century learner. This kind of out-of-the-box thinking and doing needs to be modeled by our administrators, teachers, coaches, and staff.  Our students also need to be encouraged and equipped to innovate.  If we’re not innovating, we’re not growing.  This is as true for institutions as it is for individuals.

While true innovation can lead to great improvement, it can also lead to failure.  We can often mitigate or reduce the risk of failure or the scope of failure, but failure needs to be an option or it is not true innovation.  This fear of failure keeps most students, teachers, and schools from even embracing innovative thinking. Who can blame them, really? For decades and decades, schools (and parents?) across the globe have cultivated a distaste for or fear of failure.

Failure is something to avoid at all costs, right?  Wrong. The kind of failing that happens when we innovate is something to be celebrated. Ask any inventor or entrepreneur and you will hear resounding confirmation of this truth. This kind of failure needs to be part of every child’s formative years.  I humorously quipped to my Lower School principal the other day that we could market the idea that at our school “every student fails.” Although that would certainly be an innovative marketing strategy, we might scare prospective families away from the very innovative experiences — failures and successes — that their children need in order to thrive in the 21st century.


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