On the front of the shirt there is a very cool NASA logo on the upper left chest to remind the viewer that yes, we, the USA, have put humans out in space, even landed on the moon, and we are serious about maintaining our presence in this endless frontier. Filling the rest of the front of the t-shirt, in large, bold letters, is a famous quote from the movie about the Apollo 13 mission, the one where there was a bit of a problem that arose with the oxygen supply, and the folks back in Houston, most of whom were young engineers, were asked to solve the problem of mating a round filter with a square hole or, the astronauts die. According to Jerry C. Bostick, Flight Dynamics Officer for the Apollo 13 mission, describing the scene in Mission Control to the screenwriters for the movie after being asked if some people had panicked, Mr. Bostick explained that, “No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.” Of course, the scenario entailed coming up with a way to solve the filter problem, in a space capsule miles above Earth’s surface, using only the materials that were available in that same capsule, and if a solution was not found, people died. Period.
Walking through the “E” Concourse of Houston International Airport, on my way home from an incredible week at Space Camp for Educators in Huntsville, Alabama, an experience that I will highly recommend for any educator, regardless of age or curriculum preference, I found myself returning to a vendor cart and purchasing a logo t-shirt that I just had to have.
Carrying my brand new, black as deep space, “Failure is not an option!” t-shirt gave me a great sense of hope and purpose as I continued on to the gate where my plane would carry me back home to sunny Southern California. And yet, there was an awkward sense of uneasiness that came over me while thinking about the statement as I tried to reconcile it with the many different ideas the team I am working with and I have been working on as guiding principles for the new K-8 school we are developing. If we are tasked with producing young adults who are capable of solving real-world problems, in a collaborative environment, working within real constraints, using the resources available, by a deadline, how in the world can we accomplish this if everyone’s attitude toward learning is that “failure is not an option?” Could it be that our culture has adopted this quote without really thinking it through? After all, if failure really was such a horrible thing, why in the world would we, as parents, EVER let our children even attempt to walk? They WILL fall down! Often! Even get hurt. Bump their heads. FAIL! The horror!
Clearly, failure isn’t that bad. In fact, if we were to take another look at the above learning to walk scenario through a different lens we may begin to see what real learning actually looks like. It’s human nature. We long to try things, to experience things, to reach farther, run faster, swim, even fly, all of which involve failures along the way. And it is through these failures that we actually do our better learning. It is through failure that we learn, if we’re paying attention, what NOT to do the next time. Guiding us towards success if we have the mindset to persevere. In other words, if all we do is go through school being shown what will be on the test, and then regurgitating said material onto the test, earning an “A” for quality regurgitation, we have not learned anything more than what a computer can do. Put that same person in Mission Control under the Apollo 13 circumstances and, well, without the solution already in mind because someone had given it to them. . .
While none of us would disagree that failure to solve the Apollo 13 problem was not a viable option, since it would have involved the deaths of fellow human beings, when it comes to educating our children, it seems that we need to remember the lessons of our own early years. We all had to learn to crawl, to walk, to chew, to clap, to run, to ride a bike, and every one of these steps in our lives involved multiple failures. Some even hurt. All of these learnings take place inside your brain, building the neural pathways that will enable you to repetitively perform seemingly impossible tasks like accurately kicking a soccer ball, or completing a 2-½ front flip off the 3 meter board, or playing a favorite song on your guitar, over and over again. Failure is the basis of all of our learning. So, when I go back to school, I’m going to wear my new shirt with pride because I now understand that “Failure is not an option,” it is imperative.