If you have never failed, you have never lived

One of the most powerful assignments I had as part of my Masters program was the one I received the worst grade on. I went into the assignment with my partners knowing that it was a risky assignment; an experiment, but felt that I knew the instructor well enough, and had faith that she would be able to see the intent of what we were trying to do, that she would appreciate the fact that we were taking a risk. She did and, even though the grade I received was the lowest of my Masters,  it turned out to be one of the assignments where I learned the most.

I was thinking about this assignment as I read Failure is an Option, the latest article from Faculty Focus, and how failure is just not an option in our society – in school, at work, in anything we do.

But instead of using failure as a valuable teaching tool, education discourages it as, well, a sign of failure. A student is measured at various points along a course on how well they have mastered the material. Since each assignment is graded based on its proximity to success, and the final grade is determined by the aggregate of each individual grade, failure is preserved and carried with the student throughout the course. The result is that students become failure-adverse, demoralized by failure, and focused more on the grade than the education.

When failure is not an option, the stakes are high. And when the stakes are high, no one is willing to take a risk because, well, a risk means there is a chance you can fail. Hello attitude of “I-just-need-to-study-enough-to-pass-the-test”. Hello passionate argument about how that B+ NEEDS to be an A- because that B+ isn’t good enough and will bring down a GPA. Hello, mediocrity.

I was musing about this on Facebook when a friend of mine posted a link to this great little video – a video that reminds me that failure IS an option, and sometimes, it is actually the best option. Because if you have never failed, then you have never lived.


Leveraging the power of the network

School of Fish

I’ve been thinking about the network effect a lot recently, and how this ability to create and leverage a large network of peers is really one of the most powerful affordances of the web that we, as educators, have at our disposal.

I marvel at how someone like Alec Couros can, with a couple of tweets, leverage his network of 12,000 educators to engage with his students, and have them leave comments on his students blogs.  A student taking an education course from Alec gets connected to his global network of educators. Alec’s students don’t have one teacher – they potentially have 12,000.

But it has taken time for Alec to develop this network. You don’t get connected to 12,000 educators overnight by using some kind of automated process. You get connected by engaging with the network, by participating and contributing. That takes time and effort. It’s an investment that is sometimes a hard sell to people who cannot see the benefits of developing a network.

But I’ll bet it is an investment that a group of scientists in Guyana are happy they made.

You see, by making the investment to develop their social networks and connect with other ichthyologist (scientists who study fish) on Facebook, this particular group of scientists was able to tap into that Facebook network and use that network to help them identify 5000 species of fish in less than 24 hours. I’ve added the emphasis.

Last month, a team of ichthyologists sponsored by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History performed the first survey of the fish diversity in the Cuyuni River of Guyana. Upon their return, they needed to identify the more than 5,000 specimens they had collected in less than a week’s time in order to obtain an export permit. Faced with insufficient time and inadequate library resources to tackle the problem on their own, they instead posted a catalog of specimen images to Facebook and turned to their network of colleagues for help.

In less than 24 hours, this approach identified approximately 90 percent of the posted specimens to at least the level of genus, revealed the presence of at least two likely undescribed species, indicated two new records for Guyana and generated several loan requests. The majority of people commenting held a Ph.D. in ichthyology or a related field, and hailed from a great diversity of countries including the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil.

This is such an incredible example of what social networks and networked learning are capable of doing; connecting large groups of people in diverse locations together to do amazing things. I mean, they used Facebook to identified 2 new species of fish! That’s a pretty dang impressive feat.

But this project would not have been possible if this group of scientists had not invested the time beforehand to develop a robust network of scientists within their social networks.

The network is a powerful, powerful thing.

Note: I am not clear as to who the project lead was for this project, it was a bit unclear in the Smithsonian article, but I believe it was Brian Sidlauskas at Oregon State University. And a tip of the hat to All Points West on CBC for this story.

Photo: School of Fish by wizetux. Used under Creative Commons license.