Monday, April 18, 2016

Spring 2016 Issue: Learning from Challenge and Failure

In this issue of the EDC Resource Review, we explore the theme of “Learning from Challenge and Failure”. 

The issue includes reviews of various resources, teaching and educational development ‘failure stories’ contributed by generous members of our community, as well as a list of resources for people who would like to explore the topic further.

Many thanks to our contributors:

Alice Cassidy, Nancy Chick, Eliana El-Khoury, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Isabeau Iqbal, Julie Timmermans, and Crystal Tse


Sunday, April 17, 2016

Resources: Learning from Challenge and Failure

Resources compiled by Julie Timmermans and Crystal Tse, University of Waterloo

The following list includes links to books, articles, blog postings, videos, and TED talks related to "Learning from Challenge and Failure". If you have other resources to suggest, please let us know.


Articles and Blog Postings

Podcasts and Talks

Growth Mindset Resources


Saturday, April 16, 2016

Review: Harvard Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy on Mastering the Antidote to Anxiety, Self-Consciousness, and Imposter Syndrome

Review by Nancy Chick

    In “Harvard Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy on Mastering the Antidote to Anxiety, Self-Consciousness, and Imposter Syndrome,” Maria Popova reviews Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, the 2015 book from Amy Cuddy, familiar to many of us from her TED Talk on body language (the second most watched TED Talks of all time). In her healing after a traumatic brain injury, Cuddy became interested in the ways in which we “lose ourselves,” feel disconnected from who we think we are and want to be. While her case is less common, Cuddy connects to the ways in which our fears prevent “us from showing up for any interaction with our whole, unselfconscious selves.” Popova points us to the familiar experience of thinking of an appropriate response to someone only much later: call it “staircase wit,” “afterwit,” or the 3am comeback, it’s a perfect example of us not being present enough to act with “comfortable confidence and synchrony, and [to] leave with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.”

    I imagine educational developers experience the 3am comeback after consultations, meetings, budget talks, and all sorts of moments when we need to be fully present but are plagued by the fear of disappointing someone, or imposter syndrome, or one of our other mental companions. Connecting with Brené Brown’s work on resilience and Parker Palmer on authenticity, Popova encourages us to read the book to find out how to Cuddy tells us to achieve presence.

Popova, Maria. “Harvard Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy on Mastering the Antidote to Anxiety, Self-Consciousness, and Imposter Syndrome.” Brain Pickings. 28 January 2016. Web. 15 March 2016.

My story: "Killing them with kindness" by Kathleen Fitzpatrick

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Simon Fraser University

This lesson was learned at least 5 years ago. I teach many courses, one of them a writing intensive genetic analysis lab course. The students who take the course vary widely in background; for some this is their first upper division biology lab course and others are about to graduate having already done directed research or a co-op. So each class is somewhat variable in terms of preparation and background understanding.

One semester I had a cohort that was really struggling.  Just helping them through the basics was taking up all of my TA’s time, and my own as well.  Many students were expressing frustration at the workload, and complaining about the course (and me). There were many approaches I could have taken to handle it, but I chose the wrong one. I dropped an assignment, extended the deadline on another and changed the grade distribution. And I announced these changes, explaining my reasons. In retrospect, I think my hope was that they would see that I was really helpful, and responsive to their needs and they would stop complaining about me and my course. This was more aimed at my self-image than their learning.

To my surprise the grades remained the same, despite the reduction in number and scope of the assignment. And despite the extension of deadlines, students were still starting the papers at the last minute and so doing substandard work. I was horribly disappointed, because I really expected the work to improve.  Somehow, I had failed to inspire the class to make a reasonable effort.

In discussion with a very insightful TA, I came to the conclusion that the mistake was actually announcing the changes in the way I had. By dropping some requirements and framing it as a response to the struggles the class was having, I had inadvertently communicated the message that I thought they weren’t up to my usual standards and were not capable of doing the assignments well enough. I had essentially announced to the entire class that I did not believe in them.  So they dropped their efforts correspondingly.

Though mistakes are discouraging sometimes, there is always something to be learned. Since then I have never (I sincerely hope) given the impression that I think a class – or an individual – is incapable of doing the course work. I am sure I’ve made many mistakes since, but not this one.

My story: "Build your own rainbow" by Alice Cassidy

“Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.”*

At the 2012 Educational Developers Caucus conference hosted by St. Mary’s and Dalhousie Universities, I led a session by the same name as this article. Its premise was this:

“What if” the educational development work that you currently enjoy is suddenly “no more”?

I spoke from personal experience. An educational development position I had enjoyed immensely (for 17 years) was eliminated without cause. Bam! Yes, it feels as bad as it might sound. And it sounds like a colossal failure and to some it would be. I was mostly sad, and even now, six years later, can conjure up that sad feeling quite easily.

But I knew it was entirely out of my control and dwelling on it would not help in any way. After a cold beverage on the sunny back deck, I moved into action mode. What are the basics that I need? A computer and an email address were at the top of my list, as was changing some items on LinkedIn. The messages, calls and visits that poured in were much appreciated. It was nice to know people cared. And it reminded me that I have a large network of colleagues from which to draw energy and ideas. I did that.

One step was that EDC session. The focus was on finding a balance between watching for other opportunities and creating your own, through networking, reflecting on what you really like and want to do, and online sleuthing to find out more. To me, this was the rainbow-building. The colleagues who came to the session included those who had lost jobs, or were graduating and looking for a first job, or were retiring and wondering what to do to keep busy. We talked about things like creating an excel file and adding every item that occurs to you, a place you used to work, something you read, someone you met for coffee – add a line for each of these, with columns that help you – what did or might this idea or encounter connect to for possible work? What do I need to do now? Look something up? Call or email someone? What else?

I now have the chance to do some rainbow repair work. Two other part-time jobs I held in the past four years were also eliminated. Restructuring, financial constraint, that sort of thing. Roll with the punches? Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again? Well, in some ways yes, though starting all over again is not something, as educational developers, we really need to do. We can draw on our skills and experience. We can network. We are invincible… okay maybe that is going a bit too far.

I have learned the kinds of tasks or places that I don’t want, which is not something that is often talked about. I have busied myself (as I always did) with a lot of volunteer educational development and teaching and learning projects (My tip is don’t overdo it, keep that balance of volunteer and paid work – or looking for it!). One of the most important lessons I have learned is this:  “You are not your job.”  So, whether you find yourself out of work, or are looking for your first job, or planning how to keep busy once you retire, reflect on what you like to do (and as it comes to you, what you won’t do), what you are good at, what you can learn more about. Most of all, find happiness in all that makes up your rich life. If it is not there just now, go out and find it or create it. Good wishes with building your own rainbow.

*Excerpt from Somewhere over the rainbow, written for The Wizard of Oz. Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. 1939

Alice Cassidy, Ph.D.

My Story and Review: "On Celebrating Our Failures" by Kathleen Fitzpatrick

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Simon Fraser University

Many years ago when I was a lab technician, I reported a mistake at lab meeting.  The mistake was due to inexperience, and I wanted to alert the rest of the “team” to the possibility of misinterpreting the instructions in a protocol. Afterwards, one of the graduate students in the lab took me aside and told me that in her opinion I should never admit to making a mistake or I would lose credibility.   I disagreed and said so; that my intention was to help the group be more effective, and that I might have prevented the waste of expensive reagents. We left it at that. But years later I see that in my undergraduate courses, it is exceedingly difficult to get students to answer questions. Some of them are nearly paralyzed with the fear of possibly being wrong or making a mistake. I connect this with what the student told me many years ago. It seems that making a mistake is seen as a failure, even a disaster.

My approach is to try to help students see both the practice of science and of learning as processes of exploration. It isn’t about being right all the time, it is about figuring something out, understanding how it works. It is about trying, getting some feedback, making an adjustment, and trying again. This necessarily involves deriving information from our mistakes, failures, and negative results, perhaps even more so than from our successes.

That is why I was interested in the article by Jeffrey Kluger, about why scientists should celebrate their failed experiments ( ). The article looks at publication bias – you are much more likely to publish a positive result than a negative one. Kluger reports the results of a study in which it is shown that of published papers in a ten-year time frame, only 20% of them report null results (the effect they were testing for was not observed). One reason that so few null results see the light of day is that they are never submitted for publication in the first place.

Null results are very important –they let other researchers know which avenues have already been explored, and prevent the waste of precious time and resources. Perhaps with the current tendency toward smaller research grants, avoiding blind alleys is especially important. But there is a pressure to be successful and there is a bias in thinking that success means having your hypothesis confirmed.

It is possible that some researchers are plagued by the same attitude shared by my students and former co-worker. An experiment that does not confirm your hypothesis is not wrong; your hypothesis is. This is information, and surely useful. This short, but thought-provoking article has me reflecting more on how to encourage students to stop fearing mistakes and negative results. I will try something out and see if it succeeds or fails. Stay tuned....

Review: Running your own FAILFaire

Review by Isabeau Iqbal

Running your own FAILFaire

Retrieved from:

Written in 2011, this blog post describes the author`s experience of organizing and hosting a FAILFaire for the World Bank.  What is a “FAILFaire?” you wonder. A FAILFaire is an event that recognizes projects, within an organization, that have not worked: “the pilots that never got anywhere, the applications that are not delivering, the projects that are not having any measurable impact on the lives of people, and the cultural or technical problems that arise."(MobileAction NGO, quoted in blog post). The philosophy driving FAILFaire initiatives is that sharing lessons about what doesn`t work can encourage people to be innovative and entrepreneurial because lack of results if a likely outcome of any innovation.

Trucano cautions that these events are not about celebrating failures, but rather about providing “a space in which people can celebrate taking risks and the open and honest sharing of information (even and especially about what doesn't work or isn't working) so that we could learn from these things.” He proposes that FAILFaires have two main objectives:

  • to generate lessons learned from experience and determine how these may be useful to other colleagues working on similar projects;
  • to encourage open dialogue among colleagues about how to respond to professional challenges, in the hopes of addressing these more productively.
In this article, Trucano shares seven ground rules for presenters, many links and also offers other practical suggestions and lessons learned from his own experience.

Prior to reading this post, I had not heard about a FAILFaire. If this idea intrigues you even just a little bit, I would recommend this post for its clearly written content and links to several resources.  Within our educational development community, I see many applications. Keeping the two overall objectives in mind (above), FAILFaire events could include:
  • A FAILFaire within your Centre for centre staff only
  • A FAILFaire at an EDC conference (lessons learned for educational development) or SoTL conference (lessons learned in research design or implementation)
  • Help a receptive department or Faculty organize a FAILFaire in which faculty members and other instructors share their teaching and learning failures
  • If you blog, consider sharing an educational development failure and what you have learnt from it