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Little bets that fail lead to big successes

June 13, 2011

I just finished reading Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries. I’m not sure that there’s enough new information in the book to give it a full-throated recommendation, but it does re-crystalize the need to develop a classroom culture that recognizes and even celebrates failure as the key to learning. And certainly, this needs to be part of my metacognition curriculum.

Here are a few quotes from the book that make this point clear:

Of course the subject of affordable losses highlights a key issue with the little bets approach—it inevitably involves failure. In almost any attempt to create, failure, and often a good deal of it, is to be expected.

By expecting to get things right at the start, we block ourselves psychologically and choke off a host of opportunities to learn. In placing so much emphasis on minimizing errors or the risk of any kind of failure, we shut off chances to identify the insights that drive creative progress.

Successful experimental innovators, as we’ll next explore, tend to view failure as both inevitable and instrumental in pursuing their goals.

But one of the most important lessons of the study of experimental innovators is that they are not rigid in pursuit of that vision, and that they persevere through failures, often many of them.

In other words, when the performers switched from structured music to improvised jazz, the part of their brain responsible for evaluating and censoring their behavior effectively switched off. As respected neuroscience expert and author Jonah Lehrer described the study, “It was only by ‘deactivating’ this brain area—inhibiting their inhibitions, so to speak—that the musicians were able to spontaneously invent new melodies.”

Invention and discovery emanate from being able to try seemingly wild possibilities and work in the unknown; to be comfortable being wrong before being right; to live in the world as a keen observer, with an openness to experiences and ideas; to play with ideas without censoring oneself or others; to persist through dark valleys with a growth mind-set; to improvise ideas in collaboration and conversation with others; and, to have a willingness to be misunderstood, sometimes for long periods of time, despite conventional wisdom.

The book gives a number of great examples of how successful people implement the “Little Bets” strategy, including Chris Rock, who constantly tests out stand-up material in small clubs, making small refinements, until he develops an hour-long routine that will be a success on an HBO special, and Pixar Studios, which has built its entire culture around growth mindset—getting all employees to see that there’s no penalty for offering constructive criticism, and getting everyone to the point of sharing sooner—offering sketches and drafts for feedback, which are more open to criticism, rather than finished products, which seems very applicable to school as well.

One idea I’ve had for how I can work to further develop this culture in my classroom is to devote a part of my classroom walls to this effort. I’m thinking about having a sign that reads “Make little bets on failure to achieve big success.” Then, below this sign, I’d post examples of little bets on failure from both popular culture (Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball team, for example), but even more importantly, I’d like for students to be comfortable putting up their own examples—”I didn’t fully get vectors until February.”

What ideas do you have for helping students to see failure as a critical part of learning?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Lynnae Boudreau permalink
    June 14, 2011 9:57 am

    John, I grapple with this idea of failure every day, wanting to give students enough room to fail, and then recover. I think starts with reducing the threat inherent in failure. It begins with, with, say, class discussion about limits, where any idea is worth sharing, even if it’s ultimately “wrong.” It plays out more in the assessments I give. After reading the chapter “Giving an A,” in the book The Art of Possibility, by Benjamin Zander, I’ve come to see almost every assessment as a rough draft. With the first attempt, we all see where we are, then we go back to learn some more and earn points for that ever-looming grade. I find it takes the pressure off. I also like to assign open-ended projects and award those who take a chance.

    On the way to these final types of tests, I have started giving formative assessments to gauge incremental progress, without any sort of grade. They can come up with an answer and it doesn’t matter right or wrong– they take stock of their own reasoning by checking their work against a posted answer key. Again, reduce the threat on the way to learning.

    I’d like to develop more of an ethos, however, in taking chances and being willing to fail. It’s a hard sell in a high-stakes, college-prep high school. I have gotten as far as these threat reductions, but haven’t achieved a deeper willingness to embrace failure as a learning tool– not in students, or parents, or colleagues– yet. I think it’s a process that takes some time. And the grading system needs to factor in the “success” value of failure, even as grades reflect how well a student understands in the end.

    • June 14, 2011 6:27 pm

      I’m convinced that in order to change the ethos like you talk about, it takes substantial change and constant focus on building this ethos. One way I’ve dong this is try to build metacognition into my curriculum—we read works from Caroll Dweck about growth mindset, Cal Newport about being a romantic scholar, and Geoff Colvin on deliberate practice, and now I think I’m going to add some reading on the value of failure. I think Dweck’s work in particular has a tremendous effect on students. Also, I’ve switched over to using Standards Based Grading which exlemplifies these ideals.


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