Should we be dandelions?

This one is old by now (in internet terms, at least. It’s from way back in April), but that doesn’t make it less interesting (and I forgot to write about it when I first watched it).

Author Neil Gaiman gave a talk at Digital Minds Conference on being a writer in a digital age.

You should probably watch it (Jenn Falls even made a full transscript, if you’re more into reading).

Gaiman says many things, that greatly resonates with me and the way I work.

The core theme of the talk is change:

“People ask me what my predictions are for publishing and how digital is changing things, and I tell them my only real prediction which is it’s all changing. I don’t know what publishing’s going to look like five years from now. Anyone who says they do is probably lying to you. I don’t know, neither does anyone else. Amazon, Google, all of those things – probably aren’t the enemy. Big publishing – probably isn’t the enemy. The enemy right now is simply refusing to understand that the world is changing.

Change is not inherently bad, nor is it inherently good. It’s simply change, a condition we need to accept and understand.

As a metaphor for the important ability to adapt to new situations, Gaiman keeps returning to dandelions:

try everything. Make mistakes. Surprise ourselves. Try anything else. Fail. Fail better. Succeed in ways we would never have imagined a year ago or a week ago. I think it’s time for us to be dandelions willing to launch a thousand seeds and lose 900 of them if a hundred or even a dozen survive and grow and make a new world. And I think that’s a lot wiser than waiting for 1993 to come back around again.

Quite often, the major barrier to change is the fear, that we won’t succeed. We could greatly reduce this fear by embracing the idea, that not succeeding is no problem at all. In fact, it’s to be expected in many cases. If we’re so hell-bent on not failing, we’ll probably never succeed.

What does it even mean to succeed? And to fail? Let’s revise our use of these terms.

I can’t help but consider life one big experiment. The same goes for education, society, anything. We keep trying to get it just right, but it can’t be done. There’s no one right answer, no one right way.

Nonetheless, we have to keep experimenting.

Let’s fail more often!

Here’s a small excercise:

Repeat after me:

[blockquote]failure is good[/blockquote]

To support this notion, I could fill this post with quotes from famous researchers, inventors & entrepreneurs, all arguing in favor of failure as a very natural, beneficial, even trivial component of life. I won’t do that, but staying in the realms of popculture, I’ll let J.K. Rowling have a say, quoting her beautiful, touching, deepfelt 2008 Harvard Commencement Address, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination”:

[blockquote]It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default[/blockquote]

In education as well as society in general, we have succeeded in painting a much too bleak picture regarding the implications and meanings of failure. Our current infatuation with grades, exams, testing, assessing, measuring, quantifying, sadly only reinforces the fear of failure. We have this rigid, inappropriate system, where if you fail…you fail & it’s irreversible. Bad grades are potentially with you for a long time, just like a rap sheet.

Our educational systems not only maintain the black & white dichotomy between failure and success, they also seem to make students feel disempowered in their experiences with failure, as described by Ceri Jones:

[blockquote]These students don’t see themselves as in control of their success or failure. It’s the school’s fault[/blockquote]

We want to promote a willingness to fail, but not failure without ownership. We should allow students ownership and autonomy over successes as well as failures.

As a consequence of the current attitude towards failure, people don’t want to fail. They’re afraid of failing. Fear of failing inevitably leads to a fear of trying. Fear of trying again leads to lack of initiative. People remain in their assigned cubicles (metaphorically as well as literally), performing the daily grind.

In Letting Kids Fail Leads to Innovation, Jon Dudas is making this pretty clear:

[blockquote]We need to let kids explore new ideas that support experimentation and failure in the path to learning and innovation. […] We need new thinking, experiential learning and bold ideas to build a path to innovation and economic growth, and it starts with how we teach our kids. Let’s ask kids to try and fail without fear, to imagine the possibilities beyond the parameters within an assignment.  By investing in the innovative learning process with our students today, we are cultivating the problem-solvers of tomorrow [/blockquote]

As is so often the case (when you’re looking for that sort of thing, at least), games can teach us to stop thinking about failure as some final, catastrophic disaster.

Jane McGonigal is talking about “fun failure” in her book “Reality is broken“, arguing that games teach us to consider failure in a new light:

[blockquote]Learning to stay urgently optimistic in the face of failure is an important emotional strength that we can learn in games and apply in our real lives[/blockquote]

Another game designer, Margaret Robertson, has a beautiful account on how playing the painstakingly difficult Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls reminded her, that failure is not only acceptable, but desirable, a component improving the quality of life.

From my perspective, everything is pointing in one direction; we must all learn that failure is not something to fear, but something to embrace. Fear of failure should not stand in the way of initiative. Much can be changed in education, where we can definitely improve on our tolerace for failure, but it requires teachers to be much more willing to fail themselves.

What does it take? How do we challenge status quo, supporting students, teachers & people in general to fail more often?