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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).

Encouraging

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.

References

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 https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pdf/20074005.pdf

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.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264239555-en

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 https://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/PICTECHNOLOG.pdf

Constructivist or those who believe that we learn by making meaningful connections and we construct new knowledge when we combine or relate it to what we already know have argued that working on real-world or authentic learning opportunities is one of the most effective ways to learn. Authentic learning is a key component of the CSLE+COVA approach and when we talk about authentic learning or refer to giving learners choice, ownership, and voice through authentic learning opportunities we are summarizing authentic learning in the following way.

Learners are given the opportunity to select and engage in real-world or authentic learning opportunities that enable them to make a genuine difference in their own learning environments. The selection and engagement in these real-world problems that are relevant to the learner furthers their ability to make meaningful connections (Donovan, Bransford, & Pellegrino, 2000) and provide them with career preparedness not available in more traditional didactic forms of education (Windham, 2007). Research confirms that authenticity is only developed through engagement with these sorts of real-world tasks and that this type of authentic learning can deepen knowledge creation and ultimately help the learner transfer this knowledge beyond the classroom (Driscoll, 2005; Nikitina, 2011). It is also important to recognize that authenticity is not an independent or isolated feature of the learning environment but it is the result of the continual interaction between the learner, the real-world activity, and the learning environment (Barab, Squire, & Dueber, 2000). This is also why we stress that in the CSLE+COVA model choice, ownership, and voice are realized through authentic learning and without this dynamic and interactive authenticity, there would be no genuine choice, ownership, and voice (Thibodeaux, Harapnuik, & Cummings, 2017).

The authentic learning aspect of the CSLE+COVA approach maps closely to Newmann, & Wehlage five standards of authentic learning:

  1. Higher-order thinking – learners move beyond the regurgitation of facts to making meaningful connections that transform information and ideas through analysis, synthesis, design, and creation.
  2. Depth of knowledge – learners are able to solve complex problems and systematically synthesizing large amounts of fragmented information into cohesive arguments and explanations that lead to a deeper understanding.
  3. Connectedness to the world beyond the classroom – learners address authentic or real-world and use these personal experiences to apply their gained knowledge and experience.
  4. Substantive conversation – learners collaborate with peers and experts to use higher order thinking to enter into a dialogue that can collectively improve the understanding of the authentic problems or projects.
  5. Social support for student achievement – learner use collaboration rather than competition as the path to developing an environment that promotes, diversity, respect, and inclusion.

By pointing to these five standards of authentic learning we are confirming that the CSLE+COVA approach is not only a synergy of well established constructivist ideas we are also confirming our it is better to build on the positive narrative about improving learning by building on a solid foundation that we emphasize in the following video:

References

Barab, S. A., Squire, K. D., & Dueber, W. (2000). A co-evolutionary model for supporting the emergence of authenticity. Educational Technology Research and Development, 48(2), 37-62.

Donovan, S. M., Bransford, J. D., & Pellegrino, J. W. (2000). How People Learn: Bridging research and practice. Washington D. C.: National Academy Press.

Newmann, F. & Wehlage, G. (1993). Five standards of authentic instruction. Educational Leadership, 50 (7), 8-12.

Nikitina, L. (2011). Creating an authentic learning environment in the foreign language classroom. International Journal of Instruction, (4)1, 33-36. Retrieved from http://www.e-iji.net/dosyalar/iji_2011_1_3.pdf

Thibodeaux, T. N., Harapnuik, D. K., Cummings, C. D., & Wooten, R. (2017). Learning all the time and everywhere: Moving beyond the hype of the mobile learning quick fix. In Keengwe, J. S. (Eds.). Handbook of research on mobile technology, constructivism, and meaningful learning. Hershey, PA: IGI Global. Submitted for Publication.

Windham, C. (2007). Why today’s students value authentic learning. Educause Learning ELI Paper 9. Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI3017.pdf

Jet Engine on Horse Cart
Source: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/4b/80/9e/4b809e7bf3d048ba8f61eef6889fcaaf.jpg

This image would be much more humorous if it wasn’t for the fact that this is an unfortunate and accurate representation of what is happening in our educational systems. Because we have been focusing on the technology and not the learning and have been attempting to gauge the effectiveness of applying today’s technology based on yesterday’s standards we are going nowhere in a hurry. Papert (1993) likened this to:

Attaching a jet engine to an old-fashioned wagon to see whether it will help the horses. Most probably it would frighten the animals and shake the wagon to pieces, “proving” that the jet technology is actually harmful to transportation. (p. 29)

Most people would chuckle at Papert’s example and ask how can anyone or any group be so naive or foolish? Yet, by trying to improve our passive traditional teacher-centered pedagogy with the application or addition of technology, we have essentially strapped a technological jet engine to our classrooms. Perhaps we should be pleased that we are at least not harming the animals (the teachers and students) and haven’t shaken our classrooms (the wagons) into pieces as the ‘no significant difference’ test results would show.

Unfortunately, we have the tendency to make similar mistakes when it comes to curriculum planning and instructional design. We all too often look to the content to be covered, update our terminology to reflect the current trends (individualized instruction, flipped classroom, blended learning, genius hour, 20% time, etc.), and then simply add in some new trendy activities to our well-established routines. We also bolt on some technology for added benefit. In minutes you have a new lesson plan, unit plan, or course plan. If you are fortunate enough to have a text book which chapter headings can be used to structure the content delivery steps—all the better.

However, if you really want to create significant learning environments by giving your learners choice, ownership, and voice through authentic learning opportunities then you have to build your courses and programs differently. You can’t just bolt on new activities to your existing curriculum. You have to look at doing things differently by using the backward design mythologies that require you to start with a big hairy audacious goal (BHAG) which you construct by imagining what your learner will look like, become, or be able to accomplish by the end of the course or units of instruction. I have outlined this process in greater details in the post, 4 Keys to aligning outcomes activities, and assessment.

Be forewarned… this is not going to be an easy process. Leon Festinger (1957) has argued that we seek or strive for psychological consistency and are motivated to reduce the cognitive dissonance that comes from dealing with contradictory information or ideas. It is not uncommon to feel psychologically uncomfortable when we are asked to do things differently than what we are accustomed. We look for ways to conform and align what we are doing with what we believe and if we can’t find this alignment we become uncomfortable. When this happens people will either change their beliefs to align with their actions or change their actions to align with their beliefs.

Fortunately, you get to choose how you are going to deal with this situation. If you are put in a position where you are asked to experiment or apply a different approach to creating your course or other units of instruction you have two choices. You can temporarily suspend your traditional content coverage beliefs about course design and adopt the new course design methodologies at the beginning of the process and then the actions of creating your BHAG and aligning outcomes, activities and assessments will fall into place and your discomfort may be limited or reduced. In contrast, if you maintain your traditional beliefs and choose to focus on content coverage you will find that you will not only be uncomfortable with the new course design process you will also not be able to create a BHAG nor align the outcomes, activities, and assessments that are so important to creating significant learning environments.

If you really want to get the most out of any learning opportunity you have to fight through the cognitive dissonance and experiment with the new ideas and processes to see if they really can make a difference. If you aren’t willing to do this with your course or unit design then you really do run the risk of bolting new more powerful ideas onto an antiquated foundation. Don’t your learner’s deserve more?

References

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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