Archives For COVA

Or if you prefer just the audio you can take in the podcast at –

Fail Forward

Failing forward is the ability to get back up after you’ve been knocked down, learn from your mistake, and move forward in a better direction.
— John C. Maxwell

I overheard a short part of a conversation my two boys had the other day that confirmed the importance of authentic projects, failing forward and having the willingness to explore multiple iterations in the pursuit of a specific goal. Let me give you the backstory…

My two boys are young professional athletes in the emerging sports of Down Hill, Freeride, and Enduro mountain racing. They are also entrepreneurs who are exploring ways of getting paid to continue pursuing their passion of extreme riding, extreme sports, and the extreme performance lifestyle. They share a garage which is not only their biking workshop, but also their workshop where they explore a wide assortment of other ideas that they are experimenting with to support and fund their biking, travels, and lifestyle. Levi recently purchased a dual sport motorcycle to save money on fuel cost while driving around town and to explore opportunities in adventure tourism. The bike needed a fair amount of work to get it to a reliable driving state so he needed the workshop during the repair stage. Caleb also uses the workshop to design and fabricate components for his import sports car which he has also been able to sell to other members of the sports car clubs and to the tuner subculture that revolves around modifying imported cars. Some of these ideas are taking off and Caleb has sold multiple copies of some of his creations and is now exploring manufacturing options. Levi has been accepted into the Enduro World Series (EWS) and has two Enduro races in South America this spring he has to train and prepare for and also fund. The list goes on and on. When you consider all that my boys are doing, life around our household is forever changing and there is no shortage of projects, activities, and experiments that happen in a limited shared space.

Due to the extreme housing costs in North Vancouver, we all share a 3 bedroom house and attached garage so my boys not only work and train together they live in close proximity and it is not uncommon to hear them talk about their projects. It is also not uncommon to hear them resolve the use of the workshop that they share. Caleb has been working on prototyping a new canard (a small bumper wing designed to provide downforce on the front end of the car) with hopes of creating a template for a carbon fiber version for which his tuning community is looking. Since the boy’s workshop isn’t that large they must coordinate its use and Levi was checking on the status of Caleb’s latest prototyping project to see when he could get some space back to work on his latest motorbike modification. This finally leads me to the recent conversation in which I overheard Levi asks Caleb:

…when are you going to be finished with the all the fiberglass work you are doing… I need to get my motorbike into the shop.

Caleb responded:

This current prototype isn’t working out so I am going to give up on it and try something different… you can use the shop once I clean up the space.

Levi responded:

Hey! Remember you never give up on anything you just shift your focus to a new direction. He laughed and added… a good general never retreats he just advances in a different direction.

There were some additional exchanges and laughter between the boys and when Levi came down for dinner I thanked him for reminding and encouraging his brother to always frame failing forward in a positive context. Both of my boys have been exposed to and use aspects of the Design Thinking process so the notion of ideation, prototyping, and testing is a very common part of their lives as they continue to explore ways to create new things and solve problems. While it easy to talk about the iterative process and state the importance of failing quickly so that you can find the right prototype that will finally work, it is much more difficult to live the process. I have watched both Levi and Caleb struggle persistently on projects for long periods and there is no denying that weeks or even months worth of failure in ideation, prototyping, and testing can become discouraging. Therefore, hearing one of my boys encouraging his brother to not view his experience as something that he was giving up on but rather a shift in focus assured me that my boys are going to be OK.

As I have stated in other posts, the continual practice of authentic learning and the lessons learned from all those years of authentic projects have prepared my boys to make their way in a very challenging but exciting world. You can’t teach persistence or grit but you can create the environment in which it will grow. You have to create a significant learning environment in which your learners are given the choice, ownership, and voice through those authentic learning opportunities where the continual iterative process of failing forward and repetition of ideation, prototyping, and testing will bring out that grit, persistence, and determination. It also doesn’t hurt to have someone else around who can remind and encourage you to not give up but to shift your focus to a new direction.

I have been working on finding ways to use technology to enhance learning since the early 1990’s so when I read the Students, Computers and Learning Making the Connection research report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED) I was disappointed and also encouraged.

Disappointed – It Isn’t Working

After so many decades of working toward getting computers and related technology into our classrooms and school systems it is disappointing to see the research that shows:

Overall, the evidence from PISA, as well as from more rigorously designed evaluations, suggest that solely increasing access to computers for students, at home or at school, is unlikely to result in significant improvements in education outcomes. Furthermore, both PISA and the research evidence concur on the finding that the positive effects of computer use are specific-limited to certain outcomes, and to certain uses of computers. (OECD, 2015 p. 163)

While the report confirms that we have solved the acquisition problem of getting technology into our student’s classrooms it also reveals that:

…students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics (OECD 2015, p. 5).

The report’s authors admit that there are many questions that the report has left unanswered but perhaps the following statement may point to the core of the problem that we are seeing when we use technology in the wrong way:

If students use smartphones to copy and paste prefabricated answers into questions, it is unlikely to help them become smarter. If we want students to become smarter then a smartphone, we need to think harder about the pedagogies we are using to teach them. Technology can amplify great teaching but great technology cannot replace poor teaching (p. 6).

I was initially planning to cut the quote after “…pedagogies we are using” because I get annoyed with authors who are quick to blame teachers for the challenges we are facing in using technology to enhance learning. Most teachers are working tirelessly to improve their student’s lives but because they are mired in a system based on 19th & 20th-century practices when they add 21st-century technology to the mix it is no better than bolting a jet engine to a horse cart (Papert, 1993). Perhaps more troubling is that we are still using the 19th-century Thorndikian information transfer model and the recipe and regurgitation of information through a steady diet of standardized curriculum and testing. It doesn’t matter how much technology you add to this mix if you are using a digital worksheet, form, or test you are still simply asking your learner to regurgitate information.

We have known for a very long time that just adding technology to the classroom does not have any significant impact on learning. In the early 1990’s Thomas Russell and several other researchers pointed to the results of a meta-analysis of the research into technology use in distance education and found that there is no difference between technology-based instruction or classroom instruction (1999).

This no significant difference phenomenon is found in study after study. For example, in 1998 the ETS reported a negligible positive relationship between computer use and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores in math for 4th graders and a slightly more positive result for 8th graders (Wenglinsky, 1998). A more expansive multi-year study that involved hundreds of schools and thousands of students by the U.S. Department of Education (Dynarski, et al., 2007) found that “test scores were not significantly higher in classrooms using selected reading and mathematics software products” (p. xiii).

The research over the years confirms that substituting, augmenting or replacing (i.e. SAMR model) passive information transfer paper-based models with digital models of instruction does not improve the learning. Researchers like Hattie (2008) and Fullan (2015) have shown that focusing on the technology as a way to bring about change in the learning environment will not work – the focus needs to be on building the learning first and then using technology to enhance the learning.

What will work?

So if bolting technology onto our antiquated classroom and augmenting the 19th-century information transfer model of standardized curriculum and testing doesn’t work than what does? According to the OECD (2015) report:

Technology can support new pedagogies that focus on learners as active participants with tools for inquiry-based pedagogies and collaborative workspaces. For example, technology can enhance experiential learning, foster project-based and inquiry-based learning pedagogies, facilitate hands-on activities and cooperative learning (p. 6)

The OECD (2015) report also pointed to John Hattie’s research into what contributes to student achievement and confirms that:

Computers were more effective when they are used to extend study time and practice, used to give students control over the learning situation (pacing of material) and when used to support collaborative learning (p. 163).


So this finally leads me to explain why I am encouraged by the OECD report. When we look at the recommendations in the report like active learning, hands-on experience, student control and project-based learning it just confirms that giving learners choice, ownership, and voice through at authentic learning opportunities or what we have labeled the COVA approach can actually make a difference.

If we focus first on creating a significant learning environment in which we give our learners choice, ownership, and voice through at authentic learning opportunities then when we add technology to help with creation, communication, and collaboration we will be able to make a greater difference in our learner’s lives.


Dynarski, M., Agodini, R., Heaviside, S., Novak, T., Carey, N., Campuzano, L., … Sussex, W. (2007). Effectiveness of reading and mathematics software products findings from the first student cohort: report (p. 140). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences,. Retrieved from

Fullan, M., & Quinn, J. (2015). Coherence: The right drivers in action for schools, districts, and systems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.

OECD (2015), Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Papert, S. (1993). The children’s machine: Rethinking school in the age of the computer. Basic books.

Ruiz-Primo MA, Briggs D, Iverson H, Talbot R, Shepard LA. Impact of undergraduate science course innovations on learning. Science. 2011;331:1269–1270.

Russell, T. L. (1999). The no significant difference phenomenon: A comparative research annotated bibliography on technology for distance education: As reported in 355 research reports, summaries and papers. North Carolina State University.

Wenglinsky, H. (1998). Does it compute? The relationship between educational technology and student achievement in mathematics. Princeton, New Jersey: ETS Policy Information Center. Retrieved from