Failing to learn from failure

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Dec 10, 2009

There is a compelling commentary in the September 23, 2009 Education Week titled “Failing to Learn from Failure.” Written by Craig D. Hochbein & Daniel L. Duke, the authors make the point that in education, unlike in many other fields, we don’t do rigorous post-mortems on failures.

As they write, “Instead, the fulcrum of many school reform policies and turnaround strategies has relied on leveraging the elusive notion of ‘better.’” This is in line with what I’ve seen—most strategies are incremental improvements to the existing system, or, as they write: “better recruiting, training, and pay of school personnel, better use of academic time, implementation of better curricula, access to better early-childhood education”, and on and on.

They write about how education research needs to be overhauled—and in many cases, the system really needs to open itself up to research period. In doing so, we must learn the real causal lessons of why things happen the way they do, not just things at the level of correlations, which has hurt education research for far too long as we wrote about in Chapter 7 of Disrupting Class.

The writers focus on addressing what are the early warning signs that a school is in decline. I would go a step further; are we asking the wrong question? Rather than ask why aren’t schools performing as they should, perhaps we should be asking why isn’t each student learning? If we changed the question, then what would we find?

Secondly, I’d also focus on another aspect here, which is that taking risks and learning from them is a valuable thing. It’s something we teach all the time, but we don’t necessarily do in education and instead try to stay with the “safe” thing, which hasn’t brought us great results either. Without taking risks in health care and many other fields, where would we be today?

The key is taking smart risks, by which I mean not betting the farm at first, but making small bets to test assumptions, learn rapidly, and then adjust our course. If we find success, then we can scale gradually. Doing so will also make a significant contribution to our body of understanding in education.

– Michael B. Horn

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.