Props to Edison

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. (T. Edison)

We’ve all read plenty recently about how experiencing failure allows our students to build resiliency. A recent article referenced the idea of a “failure resume”, an idea offered by Melanie Stefan (now a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh) as a result of this realization:

“My CV does not reflect the bulk of my academic efforts — it does not mention the exams I failed, my unsuccessful PhD or fellowship applications, or the papers never accepted for publication. At conferences, I talk about the one project that worked, not about the many that failed.”

I truly value failure as a tool for learning, and encourage students to take calculated risks. Personally, I fail regularly in a number of arenas; my contribution to this year’s school cake auction was the very definition of failure. However, I’ve only recently realized how difficult it is for me to put it into professional practice. It is much safer to ‘fake it until I make it’ on those occasions when I mess up. But how are my students supposed to embrace failure if they don’t actually see me fail?

So, I have pledged to fail more enthusiastically. I’m getting better about asking colleagues to explain to me what I don’t understand (today at lunch, it was a discussion about blockchains – still working on that one). And working with a class recently, I did a poor job of narrowing the search terms in my example, ending up with an overly lengthy list of inaccurate results. One of the students was delighted to call me out on it, and was pretty surprised by me being equally delighted that he did so. It led to a wonderful class discussion about how we all get some things wrong, which can help us to move forward. We also touched on perseverance, one of the ‘habits of the heart and mind’ from our school mission. Like you, I have to remind kids that I don’t have research mastered, I recognize the critical role of perseverance in the research process (and life in general).

So persevere, I will….and role model failure, I must.

2 thoughts on “Props to Edison

  1. So true! When I do research skills with classes, I always use a variety to search terms to show students how some succeed in getting the results we are searching for and others fail spectacularly. I make sure I do not know ahead of time what the results will be so that we can discover and learn together. It is an eye-opener for the students that I don’t have all the answers and we have fun exploring together. And, in the process, learn!

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