November 2017

Failing Forward – The power of NOT YET

Learning is sometimes messy. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who lived well over 100 years ago, called this messy area the zone of proximal development, or the difference between what a learner can do with help and without help. This messy area in between is where learning occurs. If you were to observe classrooms in the Alburnett district, you could expect to see students, no matter the age, in this messy area. They would be in Vygotsky’s zone.

And in this messy area or zone, you would observe students struggling. This struggle is part of the learning process. Think back on all the things you have learned to do in your lifetime – walking, riding a bike, playing an instrument, dribbling a basketball, or whatever you do in your present job. You were in the zone of proximal development. You were struggling as you learned, sometimes in a messy way either physically or cognitively. Your time of struggle may have been very short or very long, but you struggled. You probably failed a time or two, and then figured it out.

Modern day researcher and author Carol Dweck adds to this body of research (the zone, the messy, the struggle) by emphasizing the power of believing that you can improve or that you are just “not there yet.” When we’re in the messy zone there is failure. The learner seeks feedback and say, “I’m not there yet.” We call it failing forward. And yet another researcher, John Hattie, tells us that when adults believe in students’ ability to grow, the effect is four times as powerful as any other typical strategy that produces one year of student growth.

Because of all this, I get excited about what is called a Growth Mindset. The graphic below is from It highlights the difference between believing skills are fixed with the fear of failing and/or looking bad in the eyes of others and a growth mindset in which you can embrace the process of learning and growing. We can see in the graphic how those with each mindset react to effort, challenges, mistakes, and feedback.

So, back to classrooms as Alburnett. You might be thinking…what do you mean you want my child to struggle, even fail?! Yes, and I want the adults in our system to actually create these opportunities, provide students with useful feedback, encourage students to try again – in essence provide students with opportunities to fail forward. Because growth and learning are our absolute focus.

Purple on Purpose means many things, perhaps different for each of us. At the top of my list of purposes is the development of people, which means we will encourage struggle, failing forward, and say, “you’re not there yet.”

Go Pirates!

Dani Trimble