“I’m going to sell rocks out by the side of the road,” my oldest son quipped.
“Okay,” his mother and I replied.
Neither his mother nor I thought our son would experience much success in this new entrepreneurial endeavor. Surprisingly, and to his and our delight, the pile of rocks sold quickly. I can’t pretend to get inside the minds of every buyer, but I imagine that most were just tickled by the outrageous notion that anyone would think to sell ordinary rocks. Combine that with the Little Rascal’s ambiance of a hand drawn sign, the optimistic, oversized pewter cash collector, and the coveralls, and this ended up being an irresistible draw for most adults who drove or walked by.
And to think, I almost told him it wouldn’t work—that it was a bad idea. I’m glad I checked myself. This was a formative experience for him as a child. It was also an important lesson for me not only as the father of five, but also as a school leader.
Innovation and the Fear of Failure
We’ve been discussing the importance of innovation a lot at our school recently in light of our seven-year study on teaching to the 21st century learner. Out-of-the-box thinking and doing need to be modeled by our administrators, teachers, coaches, and staff. Our students also need to be encouraged and equipped to innovate. If we’re not innovating, we’re not growing. This is as true for institutions as it is for individuals.
While true innovation can lead to great improvement, it can also lead to failure. We can often mitigate or reduce the risk of failure or the scope of failure, but failure needs to be an option or it is not true innovation. This fear of failure keeps most students, teachers, and schools from even embracing innovative thinking. Who can blame them, really? For decades and decades, schools (and most parents) across the globe have cultivated a distaste for and a fear of failure. Failure is something to avoid at all costs, right?
Wrong. The kind of failure that happens when we innovate is something to be celebrated. Ask any inventor or entrepreneur and you will hear resounding confirmation of this truth. This kind of failure needs to be part of every child’s formative years. I humorously quipped to our lower school principal the other day that we could market the idea that at our school “every student fails.” Although that would certainly be an innovative marketing strategy, we might very well scare prospective families away from the very innovative experiences—failures and successes—that their children need in order to thrive in the 21st century.
Practical Application for School Leaders
I asked a number of school leaders across the country for practical ways we can encourage this kind of risk-taking in our students and in our teachers so that our community of learners can—as John Maxwell says in his book Failing Forward—turn failure into moments of learning. Here are some of the ideas they generated:
- Model innovation and the potential failure that such innovation may yield as a welcomed part of the process. Be transparent with your faculty and students about your own failures. Demonstrate through your own strategic risk-taking and innovation the true value of what is learned through failure.
- Unleash the power of true innovation by creating within your school culture a safe haven where the administrative team, faculty, staff, students, and parents feel comfortable asking for help, sharing ideas, and even challenging the way things are being done. Proactively prompt these kinds of exchanges. Until a team really feels that school is a safe place for them to innovate and a safe place for them to fail, they will firmly plant their feet. And, as mentioned earlier, if we are not innovating we are not growing. Employing authoritarian leadership practices will sabotage any efforts to create this kind of culture. Instead, embrace a supportive and/or consultative leadership style.
- Make “Freedom to Fail” a core value for your school and “Take Risks and Learn from Failure” as a vital aspirational goal within your school’s Portrait of a Graduate. Publicly and repeatedly extol the value of failure for personal growth in order to educate parents, students, and faculty and in order to unite your community around this principle.
- Create opportunities for faculty and students to share “failure experiences” and what they have learned from these experiences.
- Encourage faculty to experiment with new approaches and emphasize clearly and often that it is okay if these approaches fail, as long as they and their students are growing and learning through the process.
- Encourage faculty to employ Project Based Learning where students are assessed on the entire process rather than on the end-product so that there is an emphasis on what is learned rather than what is produced.
About the Author
Patrick Fitzpatrick is in his 35th year as a Christian school educator. He currently serves as head of school at Plumstead Christian School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and as the eastern Pennsylvania district representative for ACSI. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Originally published in March 2021 and republished in October 2022.