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Failure is Not an Option; Sometimes, It's Necessary

Design Thinking and Breakthrough Change

Last month when I brought up the topic of design thinking, I focused on its human-centered nature and its emphasis on iteration over perfection. Those two core features were reinforced by the opening keynote at  EDUCAUSE Connect: Baltimore last week, when Kevin Jones (see talked about failure as an essential—human—part of success: when children learn to walk, they fall down a lot, don’t they?

When we don’t accept the risk of failure (falling down),
we miss out on the chance to move more effectively
(walking, which leads to running and skipping and countless other opportunities).

When we try to eliminate failure from our work, we may end up comfortable with mediocrity:



The role of risk and failure on the road to success is a pretty good lesson for creating breakthrough change in higher education. To be sure, there are some risks that are not worth taking (the kind that leads to catastrophic failure, for instance). But other risks are actually a necessary part of improving, a necessary part of getting better at our craft.

The breakthrough degree programs supported with NGLC funding are exploring new approaches to delivering higher education:

  • Curriculum driven by competencies not credit hours, and some programs are abandoning the traditional course structure all together
  • Ramped-up support through coaches, mentors, and learning analytics-driven interventions
  • New tuition models that are fee or subscription-based rather than semester or course-based

You can learn more about the efforts of the breakthrough model grant recipients from my colleague Nancy Millichap’s presentation at EDUCAUSE Connect: Chicago held in March.

For the sake of argument, could we call
these new approaches ‘risks-worth-taking’?

They are calculated risks, grounded in learning science as well as research on the needs and behaviors of the population they aim to serve, and designed to address some of the greatest challenges facing higher ed today.

But how do you get to breakthrough solutions like the ones designed by NGLC grant recipients? As I mentioned in Baltimore, this is where design thinking—human-centered, failure-tolerant design thinking—can help. I walked session participants through the steps of the process as outlined in the Design Thinking for Educators toolkit. This freely available resource created by design firm IDEO along with a K-12 school, Riverdale Country School has a K-12 bent, but the approach easily translates to higher ed.

Educators are designers. To get your own taste for design thinking and thus imagine your own breakthrough solutions, I recommend you download Design Thinking for Educators, learn more about the breakthrough degree programs in NGLC’s network, and dive into other resources shared in my session at EDUCAUSE Connect: Baltimore.  

Are you willing to dream big?




Also, hard work does not guarantee success but it does open the door.

Caladia Faulkner

I agree failure is actually an important component of succes.  I applaud the idea of memberships and not semesters and I for one, at the end of my doctoral program am sick and tired of grades! It is time for higher education to think outside the box on some of these issues.  

Couldn't agree more.  Failures are the stepping stones to getting to the top and reaching your goals.

I agree. We always here about the failure of the education system to produce more graduates who are truly employment-ready. There is slow progress in addressing this issue because, I think, some key people and majority of the society are afraid to try changes because they are afraid that their attempts will be failures and they themselves will be failures.

We should also apply this in our lives in school, work, outside and personal. We should not be afraid to fail. We should try doing things even with the risk of failing so that we will improve. Come to think of it, the value of the lessons we learn from failure turns failure into success.