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Failing=Learning, Failing=Failing. What's the difference?

Failing=Learning, Failing=Failing. What's the difference?

Yesterday I was setting up a new ScoopIt account for HASTAC, and learning how to do so in the process. Sheryl Grant, one of my HASTAC/Digital Media and Leaning Competition colleagues had told me about it, and we were IMing as I set it up and tried to figure out how things worked. Naturally, I made some missteps and boneheaded errors. Sheryl LOLed and smoothed my ruffled feathers by telling me that Failing=Learning. Even Beth Kanter (Beth Kanter!) knows that it's true (see her blog at I know it's true--some of the biggest, some of the hardest, some of the most important lessons I've learned in life I've learned only after failing. Sometimes publicly, sometimes quietly, sometimes repeatedly. But always, failure was key.

So as I was drifting off to sleep last night, after spending a couple of hours trying to help a friend find a public school alternative for her bright, curious 5th grader (another public school fail), it occurred to me that I don't exactly understand what the difference is between the experiences of failing=learning and failing=failing. I can recognize the difference once it's happened, but what sort of experiences lead to this difference? What makes a failure a true failure rather than a learning experience? (I don't mean failure from lack of effort. I mean failure even in spite of effort, etc.) I'm just beginning to dig through the piles of Failure information on the web. If you've got ideas, please let me know!



Sounds like the difference between the perspectives of a scientist and a pre-med student. The former's mindset is (at least to a greater extent) about learning. The latter is more oriented around the specific goal of getting past this hurdle. 


But I was also always the student in grade school who assumed "see me after class" meant I was in trouble. I probably missed a few important learning experiences in my attempts to avoid detention.


Hi Erik--

I think you're right, that much of "failure" is perspective or mindset. But there also larger situations, like public education in America, or the prison system in America, that seem to be failing by almost all norms/perspectives. We could just adjust our expectations, then failure becomes something else--maybe success, maybe something in between success and failure. But I still think there's a difference between failure that ends in failure and learning from failure that isn't just perspective. I guess I need to think about this more....Thanks for your comment!


The tricky thing when it comes to the examples you mention is that they seem to be goal-oriented, but lack a defined goal, or have what a project manager would call "bloat." I don't think we have public education or the prison system because having a building with such words on the side makes our government or society better. But I think schools have a problem in that they have to juggle a mass of often competing goals without any real priority (and assigned often without a thought to how to reach those goals). And prisons ... I still don't entirely know if we're correcting, punishing, creating jobs, or just helping non-inmates feel a little bit better.


I am struggling with this concept now, since [my son] started Middle School this year. They keep saying "let them fail," but I think it is not as cookie cutter as that. I believe people learn to deal with different depths of failure at different paces and in different ways - e.g., one kid may be motivated from failing the first few tests, another may become depressed, lose confidence, shut down and even rebel.Also, some people are not resilient and/or equipped - whether intellectually, emotionally, or physically (learning disability, etc.) for whatever reason (upbringing, social/abuse/bulllying, genetically programmed?, etc.) - to ever effectively deal and learn from with deep failure. In short, you have to not only think about the external factors in learn = fail vs. fail = fail, but also the individual's capacity and potential to rebound at any given time.