Success and failure in design education….when getting it wrong can be the right thing.

Graphic Products work, the result of the design process in action.

It was one of those conversations that you find yourself having with groups of children, you hear yourself explaining the same thing that you have had to many times in the past and something strikes you afresh.  Often that fresh insight is from the children, almost all of the projects that we run have benefited from the sort of idea that is parked off by a pupil having a good idea.  This particular train of thought comes form a regular unpacking of the National Curriculum which I do with my pupils.  In essence this is the problem, NC design says that designers follow certain ways of behaving to a achieve the desired result, one of which is that they develop design ideas from a moment of inspiration through the nitty gritty of working out the details and selecting the best from a series of options in order to make the finest possible product.  In most cases a pupil who draws an idea and will not modify it at all is a lazy designer, however what about that rare case where an idea comes to you fully formed, you conceive the whole thing in a flash?   You might try to develop it but everything you change makes it worse and not better.

The upshot is that if you do have a genuine moment of inspiration and come up with the killer idea first time then you only get a Level 4 whereas if you change your design through drawing, modelling and discussion you get a Level 5.  Or to put it another way you get better marks for not being as good, see the problem?  We usually agree that we will make sure that our work does show the required development so that we get the desired level but there are all sorts of conversations to be explored about what has the most value; getting things right or getting them wrong.

In unpacking this with a group of children I will usually tell them that the level, a number between one and eight, is of no interest to me.  It is just a number after all.  What I do care about is what they have had to do to get to that level.   It is certainly true that in almost every case the design line or the design process does describe pretty much what I do as a designer.  Sometimes it is a useful set of way points in the process, a way of keeping your thinking moving.  However in my own practice I sometimes skip great chunks of it and often that seems to work.   With my pupils I contrast my own design sketching with a good example of what they need to do, the idea that I am sketching simply as a way of design thinking but that they are sketching both to think and to show their thinking to an examiner to get the marks that will give them the grade seems to go down well.

The larger idea is that you don’t often get it right first time, usually you do need to put in the leg work in order to get the results.  The old adage about 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration is right in so many ways.  The way in which I manage to stay sane, (or at least what passes for sane in my world), is to find ways of teaching what I believe in and value within the framework imposed on me by the government.  My pupils are very happy to engage in a little bit of educational conspiracy in this regard so we take it for granted that I am teaching them two distinct things; how to be designers and how to pass the exams.   But what about the value of failing?  Many colleagues are aware that the accountability issue is creating an unrealistic climate in education.  In order to measure school success we pick a target, ( in the most recent debacle we might call it the Ebacc ),  we tell all schools that their success will be measured by that target and, surprise, the schools all focus on delivering the results that will help them succeed.  Maybe not a bad thing if the target is well thought out but it does rather lead to a payment by results culture and to the kind of market economy where my sister, a university lecturer, would find herself meeting the parents of failing undergraduates whose expectation was, “we have paid for this degree so he should get it”.

So the question is should we let children fail?  For many reasons I would say that we should.  One of the key attitudes that leads to success is resilience, you do not learn that without having to learn how to cope with failure, what value to attach to it and how to benefit from it.  The trick from a teaching point of view is to use failure at the right moment and in the right way to engender the growth of resilience without crushing the learner; being able to judge the moment when a child really should fail and being able to intervene with the right guidance at the right moment.  Rarely we arrive a t the point where we hope a child will fail, because they really need to.  Perhaps to shape their attitudes, perhaps to engender a little more caution or a little more humility.   To bring this back a little to design technology an aphorism that I heard quite often in my youth was that a man who never made a mistake never made anything.  Another lecturer who played a large part in my education once showed us students a very fine cabinet in Ash with twin glazed doors, the student had made the doors with great skill, they were a thing of beauty.  They were also 10mms to narrow for the cabinet!  The lecturer asked us what we thought we could do and a voice from the back of the room chimed in with the phrase, “Bodge it!”    The lecturer agreed but suggested that we call it the art of intelligent repair, going on to show us how the addition of two simple mouldings would not only reprieve the cabinet but actually make it a better piece.    There is hope for us all.

For a related post check out this one.

2 Responses to “Success and failure in design education….when getting it wrong can be the right thing.”
  1. Julian says:

    I find it very sad that there is so much pressure on students to succeed and if anything get it right the first time. Consequently many get creative block and are unable to commit ideas to a blank page. Creativity/innovation involves much trial and error and if done properly many students find this the most enjoyable part of the design process. Aafter all James Dyson “failed” over 3500 times making models and defining ideas/concepts for his DC1 vacuum cleaner until he cracked it.

    Here is a link to an article about a headteachers (not mine!) different approach to failure:

    • Thank you for the link, Julian. There is some interesting research in the States which suggests that resilience coming through learning how to cope with failure and move forward is a key part in the success of students who come from difficult backgrounds and that those for whom life and education have always come easily find this a difficult quality to develop. The knack as teachers is to capitalise on failure to develop this resilience. Not always an easy task.

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