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Nesta Failure Fest: Education, Innovation and Enterprise

Nesta Failure Fest: Education, Innovation and Enterprise

by Katherine Mathieson

I usually find failure an embarrassing topic: to be discussed quietly among friends or even kept secret. But at Nesta’s Failure Fest on 22nd November, failure was to be shared, talked about – even celebrated.

Claudia Barwell, our confident compere, kicked off the sharing by telling her cringe-worthy pants story. I mean ‘pants’ in a literal sense – it was really about pants, though fortunately not her own. Dawn Hallybone, primary teacher and ICT coordinator extraordinaire, exhorted us to “fail gloriously”. Jim Wynn confided that despite his seniority at Promethean, maker of whiteboards, he’s failed to get his new Raspberry Pi to work (or even to switch on). Rajay Naik revealed that no-one attributed the Frozen Planet series to the Open University – until some of the scenes were found to have been filmed in a Dutch zoo.

Tom Kenyon revealed the real dream behind Jamie’s Dream School. It wasn’t about making TV programmes where naughty children would be a bit cheeky to brainy celebs pretending to be teachers. The real dream was to show the brainy celebs talking with passion and flair about their favourite subject – and to make it all accessible online - a sort of ‘TED for kids’.  But the needs of the TV editors & the online editors were different, insufficient attention was given to what’s already known about films that help learners and in the end, the online content didn’t really fulfil the team’s ambitions.

Most of the seven speakers shied away from offering advice based on their failures. But some patterns did emerge from the stories, particular from Tony Parkin, Emma Mulqueeny and Annika Small.

Tony Parkin (“disruptive nostalgist”) referred us to Failure Magazine which describes itself as “full of humankind’s boldest missteps”. He told an apocryphal story about a college with blackboard-lined classrooms which, when told to improve the quality of learning going on in those classrooms, simply bought more blackboards (the college was later closed). This example illustrates one of the common causes of failure: the very human tendency to address failure by doing more of the same, rather than by doing something different. For example Andrew Drew talks about how cognitive biases affect our opinions and Jeffrey Phillips describes businesses who fail to develop new products because they focus only on loyal customers.

Emma Mulqueeny, founder of Young Rewired State, reminded me about the importance of talking to the target audience about what will work for them – something we try to do at the Association with the CREST Youth Panel. Faced with a miserably low proportion of teenage girls in YRS’s gatherings of young coders, Emma asked her own teenage daughter for advice – and then got on with making the events more appealing for girls.

Annika Small, now Chief Executive at Nominet Trust, based her recommendations on her experience at Futurelab when she had her fingers burned by a sudden change in Government Minister. She pointed out that different people need different kinds of evidence – she suggested finding out exactly what kind of evidence people need in order to do what it is you want them to do.

I enjoyed the jolly mood and I look forward to more events where it’s officially okay to talk about, and thus learn from, our failures. After all, we should take pride in our failures. As Winston Churchill said:

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”.

Join the debate...


Tony Parkin's picture
Can I assure you that the blackboard story was in no way 'apocryphal'! The College in question was South West London College, and the Department was Accountancy on the Garratt Lane site. I'm sure that out there across the world are generations of accountants who can testify to the sad accuracy of the tale. I did once have an HMI virtually in tears in my office after just observing a session. But what a good evening the failure fest was...
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