Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Jim Lovell on Failing

Neil deGrasse Tyson on failure and experimenting:

…it’s not only admitting or celebrating when you don’t know something, but also recognizing the value of failure. You don’t want to fail doing something that has already been done where people succeeded. You want to be able to fail at something that has never done before and recognize that the day you never fail is the day you are no longer on the frontier of anything. So we should celebrate the experiment.

Jim Lovell on Appollo 13’s legacy:

Not landing on the moon was probably the best thing that ever happened to NASA. …it looked like it was so routine that people were not getting interested any more and not realizing the amount of technology and work that had to be done to make those flights safe…. 


Learning Should Be:

From the moment we’re born, and even before , we are learning. Why then do so many of our kids learn to hate school? As an educator, I do not believe it has to be this way. I do believe that approaching instruction with a “Theory Y” approach , trusting that students have existing motivations to learn, can make learning environments more effective by making them:
Engaging, Challenging, Personal, Available, and Continuing.

Learning Should be Engaging

I use the term “engaging” hesitantly because I fear it is too often associated with gimmicks or strategies to trick the learner into learning. At best, this approach will yield only short-term results.

baby food photo
Photo by sully213

Many parents have seen the limitations of this approach when feeding a young child. If the child spits out or refuses to eat their peas, what is a parent to do but attempt to hide the pea in the child’s applesauce? If this works, it is easy to think the problem is solved–the child is eating their peas! But what has the child actually learned? For some, just repackaging the pea in with something they like may be enough to get past the initial resistance to change and help them to like–or at least tolerate–peas. However, for others, what the pea-in-applesauce approach teaches is that peas are so gross they need to be hidden. Then, as more vegetables are hidden, the child may learn that in fact all vegetables are gross. Or perhaps the child will learn that applesauce can no longer be trusted.  Do we not often see the same with, for instance, math?

Just like all children are motivated to eat–if only what they view as the “good stuff”–so all students are motivated to learn. They’re motivated to learn Minecraft, to ride a bike, to build a go-kart, to bake a cake. Armed with this knowledge, a teacher can use the pea-in-applesauce method and swap in a Minecraft example into a math story problem. For a few, this might help them make the connection between something they love and something they don’t understand. However, for others, it can just further reinforce the perception that math is hard or something they just cannot understand even if it is adapted to them.

I believe it is more effective to look for–or guide the student look for–connections to build on to what they already know . While it can look similar at first glance, finding authentic connections–for example,

  • pointing out to a student playing Minecraft that they are using a graph,
  • explaining that how center of gravity makes it possible to ride a bike,
  • taking measurements and drawing up plans for a go-kart, or
  • scaling recipe measurements to make twice as much cake–

will build on the student’s existing knowledge to help them gain understanding of the topic. This of course does not replace pedagogy, but it can certainly enhance pedagogy and make it more effective.

Learning Should be Challenging

Just as believing students are motivated to learn leads to making learning engaging, so believing students are capable of learning leads to challenging them. Dweck calls this the growth vs. the fixed mindset . If we know that students are able to learn, we can and should teach so that students are being stretched enough that authentic learning is happening but not so much that it is demoralizing.

Caution must be exercised here, though; challenging the student continually without recognizing and celebrating achievement can also lead toward a fixed mindset. I believe the best outcome is one where the student needs to work hard to succeed, does succeed, and then is empowered and encouraged to continue working hard and succeeding.

Learning Should be Personal

While I would not advocate abolishing all educational goals and standards, our current education practices and systems often seem to be better designed to produce robots than humans . Perhaps the prime example of this, standardized testing has risen dramatically in recent years, particularly since the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act, even though studies have shown the negative effects, including reductions in subjects taught, quality of education, and even  increased segregation based on ethnicity and income .

Rather than celebrating diversity in learning styles and bents, our system still has arbitrarily determined standards and labels anyone who dares deviate:

  • Can’t sit still and focus on school for 6 hours? ADHD
  • Too focused on one or a few things but not others? Autism
  • Ethnic minority? Low income? At risk

While I don’t discount that there are real mental health issues–in fact, I am in treatment for some now–many of these classifications are used as ways to separate out segments for treatment rather than changing how we educate. We know more than ever about different learning styles and approaches, yet the overwhelming majority of students are still educated the same way.

It was for this reason primarily that my wife and I chose to home school our children. This allows for learning to be more personal, more effective, and more interactive. Obviously, home schooling is not practical for every family, but we need to reversing the trend for education decisions to be made at higher and higher levels of government will allow instruction to be more tailored to a state’s/community’s/classroom’s/student’s specific needs rather than completing a federal government spreadsheet.

Learning Should be Available

Also, as control has moved more national, opportunities for the most advantaged continue to increase combined with small increases for the lowest income brackets, while opportunities for those in between have decreased . Ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented as well; for example in Illinois, black men in 1999 were about seven times more likely to be released for prison for drug offenses than to earn a bachelor’s degree (Alexander, p. 190). I believe moving control more local will also help decision makers to more easily identify and address problems with educational access.

Further, I believe that technology is changing and will continue to change the paradigms. Never in history have we had access to as much information in as many different formats as we do today. Anyone can watch a how-to video, take an online course, or ask a digital assistant for a trivia answer. The role of teacher as a gatekeeper of information may eventually go away, but the role of coach for how to seek, process, and analyze that information will grow more vital. This also “evens the playing field,” giving low-income and minority easier access to information that had previously may have been only available to the more privileged.

Learning Should be Continuing

If learning is engaging, challenging, and personal, and available, I believe it follows that learning will be continuing as well. When we assume that students want to learn and focus on removing roadblocks to learning, the result will be a continual cycle of learning; it will just become a way of life because, well, it’s fun!


COVA and Maker Mindset at Google

Brian Basgen of Emerson College sparked a great discussion on of one of my learning networks (Educause CIO Constituent Listserv) about what people are reading , and Luke Fernandez’s response really got me thinking. He recommended The History of Google from the Internet History Podcast , which is a terrific exploration of the origins and history of the internet behemoth Google. As I read it, I picked up on a lot of themes related to the maker mindset  and the COVA (choice, ownership, voice, authenticity) model .

Because Larry and Sergey were given choice in their authentic learning experiences, they took ownership of their ideas and created a company imbued with their unique voice. They are icons of the maker mindset and as a result were able to make an impact by building arguably the most influential internet company of all time.

Following are a few selected quotations from the article, but it’s well worth a full read (or listen):


Larry and Sergey both grew up to respect research, academic study, mathematics and, especially, computers. And it turned out they both had inquisitive minds that believed in the power of knowledge to overcome any obstacle, intellectual or practical. Each had been inculcated into this spirit of intellectual fearlessness at a young age.


“You can’t understand Google,” early Google employee Marissa Mayer has insisted, “unless you know that both Larry and Sergey were Montessori kids. It’s really ingrained in their personalities. To ask their own questions, do their own things. Do something because it makes sense, not because some authority figure told you. In a Montessori school, you go paint because you have something to express or you just want to do it that afternoon, not because the teacher said so. This is baked into how Larry and Sergey approach problems. They’re always asking, why should it be like that? It’s the way their brains were programmed early on.”


“It wasn’t that they [Page and Brin] sat down and said, ‘Let’s build the next great search engine,’” said Rajeev Motwani, who was Brin’s academic advisor. “They were trying to solve interesting problems and stumbled upon some neat ideas.”


Part of this was simple frugality, a habit that would serve them well when the dotcom bubble burst in a few short years. But a lot of it was Page and Brin’s ingrained Montessori philosophy: they never met an engineering problem they couldn’t solve themselves. Google didn’t take pages from the established Silicon Valley playbook because, in a way, they had never bought into it. They didn’t try to Get Big Fast. Instead, Page and Brin were almost manically focused on endlessly iterating and improving upon their Big Idea, making sure it was the most comprehensive, reliable and—most importantly—speedy search engine in the world. 


Reflection and Failing Fast

While reading some articles for class, I was struck by the similarity between the Reflection Cycle  and another similar cycle I’ve run across often related to in continuous improvement and user testing for websites. I have often seen the PDSA (Plan Do Study Act) Cycle, or one of many slight variations referenced as a model for how to improve a product or design . Having identified a problem, one can plan a test, perform the test, study the results, and then make changes based on the results. The cycle then repeats, studying the effectiveness of the change.

It is not surprising to find essentially the same pattern in learning; what we are accomplishing in continuous improvement cycles is learning about our users and our topic. Portfolio websites provide a mechanism to reflect on the topics we are discussing, gain feedback and alternate viewpoints, and then revisit the topics again with greater understanding.

Which leads me to another model from the software development world, “failing fast.” The idea is that, instead of writing software that can hide errors, the developer should write programs that show errors very quickly so they can be easily found and corrected . Of course a developer wants to be sure they are not shipping the product with those errors, so it is important to flush out as many of those errors as possible while the stakes are low, within a group that shares the same goals. Again, the portfolio process allows us to “fail fast” and among peers while we work through ideas and grow.


Why do we Lose Creativity? 

Last night my son started dragging our old vacuum cleaner up the stairs, asking me to tear it apart so he could see how it works. That way, he could get started inventing his anti-gravity machine with enormous vacuums at the top and bottom. Of course, I was happy to oblige.

It made me think, why do we tend to lose that creativity? How can I, as an educator and father, encourage, protect, and even reinvigorate that spark? 

Grand Prix Cars and Growth Mindset

It’s Awana Grand Prix time, so that means it’s the time that I need to become an amateur (very amateur) woodworker. I’ve always tried to make sure the kids are as involved as possible, but every now and again it comes back to bite me.

This year, my oldest’s design included a “t” with a slant. It was fun to work through it with him as we tried to figure out what tools to use and how to make the cuts. After I’d made the initial cuts, I asked him again if he really wanted those slants.

“Is it going to be too hard for you?” was his response.

Hit me right in the ego, he did. “Well, it’ll be hard, anyway,” I replied. The challenge had been issued.

Maybe it was because I was trying to hurry up to get it done in time for class, but it made me think of the growth mindset we’ve been talking about. A fixed mindset approach would’ve just said, “I don’t know how to do that” and been done with it. But, even though it was primarily ego-driven, I had an opportunity to show my son an example of growth mindset.

“It’s hard, but I can figure it out” may be one of the best lessons I can teach my kids.


Based on the amount of growth I have observed in myself thus far in the Digital Learning & Leading (DLL) program, I am very excited to see what is coming in the rest of the program.

Teaching and learning must start with an attitude conducive to learning. Studying the growth mindset and developing a growth mindset plan serves as a persistent reminder to focus on the learning process and making sure it it meaningful. Developing this plan also led me to see the connection between the growth mindset and the maker movement . I intend to use making as a basis for my innovation project, so its focus on the process and allowing failure to be a catalyst for learning.

Making also values creative problem-solving, teamwork, and other “soft skills” which are increasingly important, yet undervalued in our society . Creating a learning manifesto helped me to focus on the issues that are important to me in education both broadly and in my own context that and what I can do about them. This has been, and will continue to be, tremendously valuable for me, as I had to formulate and articulate my “why,” the guiding principles for my learning and my impact going forward .

Finally, collaboration–another core value of the maker community–is vital to fostering creativity and valuing diversity. Researching and joining new learning networks will help me to connect with peers who have different perspectives on some of the same problems my institution faces and open me up to new solutions.

Underlying all this is the COVA learning  approach . The choice I have been afforded in this course has allowed me to take ownership of the learning process in a way I had not before. Having taken ownership, I am beginning to develop a voice–my unique perspective on the topics we are discussing in the program–that will carry forward as I develop my ePortfolio. Since the ePortfolio will be authentic to my specific context and in my own voice, it will be useful outside and beyond the DLL program.


Learning Networks

Present Learning Networks

I’ve worked for many years as a one-person web development department, learning networks have been tremendously important for me–especially since professional development and travel budgets seem to be the first to go when budgets tighten. Most of these have been pretty technical, how-to boards, but those technical discussions are often the catalyst for broader discussions when I get to meet those people in person.

Hannon Hill Client Community

The most important network for me up to this point has been a user forum for the content management system my college uses. When I was learning how to use the program, I searched and browsed through the forums looking for answers and, if I couldn’t find any, asking questions myself. A few years later, as I became more proficient, I started to realize that I was able to start answering questions as well and started to contribute more in that way. I viewed it as a way to give back to the community that had helped me learn. A couple years later, I noticed that they waived the conference fee for people who speak at the annual user conference. Since I figured that was the only way I’d be able to get my college to send me, I submitted a proposal and it was accepted. I was surprised how strong the connection was among these people with whom I’d only exchanged technical information. I spoke a few more times at the annual conference, and that community has been very valuable for me in developing a professional network.


Another beneficial network for me has been the Higher Education Web Professionals association, or HighEdWeb. I’d followed conference hashtags for a couple years on Twitter to glean information and ideas and later was able to attend the national conference one year. After that, I joined the member community and was able to interact a bit more. I also spoke at a regional HighEdWeb conference. This community was a nice balance in that there was a more even mix between some technical information and some broader education or research-focused discussion.

EDUCAUSE CIO (Chief Information Officer) Constituent Group Listserv

As I was moving into my current position, my predecessor recommended that I join this listserv. At present, I’m still at the stage of being a “lurker,” but as I get more comfortable and confident, I imagine I may have more to contribute. There are a few other listservs at EDUCAUSE I follow, but this has been the primary one thus far.

New Learning Networks

I do want to find some more networks, especially ones with a more specific educational focus. Here are some new networks I’ve found and joined.

Maker Ed

I’m involved in a project to create a maker space at my college and I’m hoping to start some youth clubs (primarily so my kids can be in them), so this looks like a great resource and community. I’m also following them on Twitter (@MakerEdOrg), along with Make Magazine (@Make) and Maker Faire (@MakerFaire).

Update 5/13/2017: I haven’t used this much, yet, but I’m sure I will as the projects move forward.


Came across this in the class discussion boards, and I was initially really interested in the Learning Spaces PLN, but that’s only with the paid level of membership. I’ll hang out in the free section for a bit to determine whether it makes sense to bump up to a membership.

Update 5/13/2017: I haven’t really seen much come through or followed up much with ISTE, so I think I’m just going to let this one drop off, at least for now. It seems like there isn’t much to be gleaned from the free version.


Edutopia was another one that seemed popular in the discussion boards, so I checked it out. It looks like it is a good community, I started by following the Learning Environments and School Leadership topics.

Update 5/13/2017: I’ve found really great resources from the Edutopia communities I’ve followed, I’m sure I’ll be mining the back catalog for this one.

Growth Mindset Plan

Growth mindset is Dweck’s idea that people are better able to learn and adapt to learning environments when they believe they can learn as opposed to a fixed mindset, where people believe they have a limit to their intelligence and ability to succeed . There are several ways I can help to encourage growth mindset in myself, my department, and my college and community.

In Myself

I often find myself in an inner dialog, where part of me is still stuck in a fixed mindset or slips back into it, even momentarily. “You aren’t a ____.” “____ is just something you’ll never be good at.” “That person won’t ever change.” In those cases, applying Dweck’s four steps essentially amounts to countering those thoughts with positive statements that affirm a growth mindset. The most important thing I can do for myself is to be alert and watching for those fixed mindset attributes so I can address and counteract them with growth mindset alternatives.

In My Department

In my department, I can help my team work together by fostering a growth mindset. I have noticed on a number of occasions some signs of fixed mindset, for example:

  • “I’m just not not good at that,” or “I can’t do that,”
  • Struggling with changing because they just don’t think they can, or
  • Always focusing on someone else’s faults and refusing to accept their progress

In these cases, again, I will directly counter these kinds of statements immediately with growth mindset rejoinders, perhaps just by adding the word “yet,” to reinforce that change is possible.

I can also be proactive about promoting growth mindset by taking time to promote and even watch and discuss resources that promote or are in keeping with growth mindset. For example, we could have a monthly TED Talk, and I could email an article of the month to keep growth mindset and ideas compatible with growth mindset.

Perhaps the greatest contribution I can make for my team, however, is to create a failure-tolerant environment . I will do this in the following ways.

  • Praising employees for well-planned risks, even if they aren’t successful.
  • Redeeming failures by analyzing them to find what went wrong and learn from them.
  • “Taking the heat” myself for failures while praising team members individually to my superiors.
  • Being transparent about my own failures to set the example.

In My College/Community

In my current position, the most direct connection to students at my college is in my ability to advocate for and help provide positive learning environments. I will help to encourage growth mindset in my college and my community in the following ways.

  • I will coordinate with our instructional technologists and learning commons areas to create computer labs and collaborative areas that remove barriers to learning or force students into an inauthentic approach. For example, our computer labs tend to be rows of computers lined up, factory-style , which can subtly reinforce fixed mindset ideas in students by intimidating and alienating students. Even something as simple as exploring other ways to arrange furniture to make spaces more inviting and comfortable can help create an environment where growth mindset won’t be stifled.
  • I will pursue creating a maker space at the college and/or in the community. The maker movement is closely tied with growth mindset , allowing students—and non-students—access to a community that encourages “can-do” thinking.
  • Related to the maker space, I will work on starting some robotics/maker youth clubs. This is a way I can help foster growth mindset in area children and help to counteract the many forces reinforcing a fixed mindset.


Learning Manifesto


As an information technology administrator and former web site developer for Sauk Valley Community College in Illinois, I have very limited direct contact with students and instruction. I do, however, have significant opportunities to impact learning environments and access for current and potential students.

I have dedicated my career to using technology to improve efficiency and enhance collaboration. While technology does not hold the answers in and of itself, I sincerely believe that the improvements in productivity and collaboration technology affords will allow educational institutions to better face their challenges and find ways to thrive even in the most uncertain of times.



Unequal access to educational resources is certainly not a new problem in education, it is not a lost cause, either. Unfortunately, the trend may be moving in the wrong direction. Opportunities most advantaged continue to increase combined with small increases for the lowest income brackets, while opportunities for those in between have decreased (Dahill-Brown, Witte, & Wolfe, 2016). Ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented as well; for example in Illinois, black men in 1999 were about seven times more likely to be released for prison for drug offenses than to earn a bachelor’s degree (Alexander, p. 190). While many good efforts are in place to provide everyone access to quality education, a great many are still left behind.


A contributing factor to unequal access to education is likely dramatic increases in tuition costs due to decreases in per student public funding. Since the 2008 recession, nine states’ per student funding is down more than 30%, and two states’ funding is down by more than 50%, which has required institutions to radically increase tuition while also reducing services (Mitchell, Leachman, & Masterson, 2016). Even where public per FTE funding has rebounded slightly from its 2011-12 low, it appears that rebound may be due to decreased enrollment as opposed to increased funding (College Board, 2016). 

In Illinois, which has been operating without a state budget since 2015, the funding situation is especially dire. Even community colleges, who pride themselves on access and low cost of attendance have had to make draconian cuts coupled with large tuition increases. Decreasing enrollment–due in part to rising tuition costs and uncertainty about the future of colleges–further exacerbates the problem (Rhodes & Thayer, 2016).

Many states, including Illinois, have adopted performance-based funding as an answer to this problem, theorizing that tying funding to completion rates or other metrics will incentivize colleges to improve performance. Studies, however, have repeatedly shown that this approach does not actually improve those metrics (Hillman, 2016). Instead, institutions are essentially forced to “teach to the test,” regardless of whether those tactics are most effective for their context.

High-Stakes Standardized Testing

Again in efforts to ensure  that public funding is directed to the most deserving recipients and desired results are being achieved, standardized testing has risen dramatically in recent years, particularly since the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act, even though studies have shown the negative effects, including reductions in subjects taught, quality of education, and even  increased segregation based on ethnicity and income (Knoester & Au, 2015). Though some decision making was later moved back to the states (Layton, 2015), standardized testing results still largely dictates the level of funding educational institutions receive.

While standardized testing–and perhaps even government-mandated testing–serves a purpose, it also consumes increasingly valuable administrative and instructive resources and makes it more difficult to adapt the learning experience to local contexts and individual learners. Finding a balance between complying with federal and state regulations while also providing excellent, adaptive learning experiences will become increasingly important and difficult.


As discouraging as the challenges can be, I would not be in the field of education if I did not believe the opportunities were as plentiful as the challenges. We live in an amazing time when technology is proliferating at a rate never seen before. The Internet has made information available to nearly everyone, mobile devices put that information at our fingertips, and social media allows us to broadcast information instantly. I believe technology, properly applied, can help educational institutions adapt and thrive in the face of these and other challenges.

Never in history have we had access to as much information in as many different formats as we do today. Anyone can watch a how-to video, take an online course, or ask a digital assistant for a trivia answer. The role of teacher is shifting as a gatekeeper of information may go away, but the role of coach for how to seek, process, and analyze that information has never been more vital. This also “evens the playing field,” giving low-income and minority easier access to information that had previously may have been only available to the more privileged.

Information technology also assists the prospective student with access to higher education. Institutions have for many years used their web sites to provide prospective students information about college. More recently, however, large data sets and application programming interfaces (API) allow institutions to provide up-to-date career information, success and completion rates, and more, with relatively little effort. For example, at Sauk Valley, I redesigned our program information pages (e.g. Economics) in 2016 to include related career profiles from Our new home page design (to be released in April 2017) will contain a tool allowing users to compare colleges on cost, debt, retention, and earnings with data from College Scorecard.

Technology also plays a vital role of improving efficiency, so responsible application of technology resources will enable institutions to continue to offer excellent educational opportunities even in the face of decreasing funding. Innovation and competition often even make it possible to access new opportunities while reducing expenses. As an example, increased innovation in the phone sector have made new features such as videoconferencing and virtual extensions available at a fraction of the cost. At Sauk Valley, I am exploring systems that can connect our students with faculty and staff in ways never before possible while reducing expenses by 90%.

Finally, collaboration is enabled by technology in many ways as well. Whether in a traditional or virtual classroom, collaboration tools allow students to apply creativity to learning environments and to hear diverse thoughts and experiences. At Sauk, we are exploring turning some lounge and information display areas into collaborative spaces, allowing students a places gather and work together on projects. In addition, we are exploring online meeting software in conjunction with our communication platform and learning management system to allow students to communicate with one another and with instructors for discussion.

While these examples may not seem like the most exciting examples of educational innovation to many, I truly believe that my role on the administrative side of the institution helps enable the institution, instructor, and learner to be successful.