The fail whale, reimagined

The goal: To encourage students to take intellectual risks; to live with the vulnerability of not knowing something in order to learn from the people around them.

The reason: STEAM [read: life] is transformed when we come to appreciate the people around us and the diversity of their interests, skills, and experiences. When the vulnerability of learning is no longer terrifying, the opportunities we have to learn from each other come into focus as the precious resources they are.

The following pictures document my thought process in trying to make this goal a reality in my classroom.

v1.0 – Redefine failure

How can we soften the sharp edge of that vulnerability? Here is one way I won’t do it:


I understand the goal of redefining failure, but I worry that this tagline (or the “Fail early. Fail often.” mantra) are sometimes accepted, dumped into classrooms, and not examined. I worry that these taglines are missing the point and instead are at risk of fetishizing failure.*

v2.0 – Poke fun

So maybe we can poke fun at failure instead of celebrate it. Would that de-stigmatize it? What if we can find a playful way to re-create the Twitter fail whale with our misguided attempts and failures?


No, I don’t think that’s good enough. Instead of redefining failure or poking fun at it, I think I would rather make it irrelevant.

v3.0 – There is no fail

About a year ago I stumbled across Some Rules for Students and Teachers, by (or at least commonly attributed to) John Cage:


Rule 6 made a lasting impression on me. Then just last week I saw that Rule 6 has its own place at the Stanford


And with that bit of validation, I pushed forward with a design of my own:


A square sign to shape positive behavior

Although it took about three weeks to iterate from v1.0 to v3.0 of this idea, it only took a few hours over the course of three days to finalize this design, print it on an oversized banner, post it by the classroom door, and station pens and sticky notes nearby.


Every time students try something new, work outside of their comfort zones, experiment, or iterate to a new idea, they get to add a new sticky note to the sign. One brave step at a time, we will bring this banner to vibrant, colorful life by filling it in with sticky-note-badges of creative effort. (And yes, I matched the colors of the sticky notes to the colors on the sign. I can’t help myself sometimes.)

Can a 4’x4′ sign and a pile of sticky notes help shape behavior? Time will tell. But my hope is that the sign (its size, its color, its message) and the way we interact with it (celebrating the attempt and the learning more than the outcome) will make clear what is important both to those who enter the classroom and those who only walk past.

So far so good

Tonight we invited parents to add the first sticky notes to the sign following “A Night Out in the Classroom.” (A group of 11 parents tackled two quirky design challenges in one hour. We wondered if they would be as creative as their children; they gave us a great answer.)

When students return to campus tomorrow morning, I hope they will see the projects that parents made tonight and be impressed. But more importantly I hope that they see the sticky notes the parents left behind and be inspired to add their own.

* I mentioned this in a post about education and entrepreneurship a few months ago; I also appreciate Bruce Nussbaum’s take on it.


One thought on “The fail whale, reimagined

  1. Pingback: The fail whale, reimagined | Making STEAM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s