Failing forward: Why twists and turns toward learning transformations are valuable

May 25, 2018 | by Jenny White

Lighthouse 800 x 400Last month, the Christensen Institute co-hosted the annual Blended and Personalized Learning Conference with the Highlander Institute and The Learning Accelerator in Providence, Rhode Island. Prior to the main conference, we held a 2-day Advanced Practitioner Summit during which on-the-ground experts joined in discussions around problems of practice and emerging tactics to solve for them.

One highlight among those conversations was a session called “Failing Forward”, where four leaders from across the country each bravely took the stage to talk about a point in time when their journey to personalize learning at scale took an unexpected turn. Their stories reminded the audience that building better systems in which all students learn and succeed means inevitably taking steps both backward and forward along the way. Two of those stories are highlighted below and reveal some of the ups and downs while leading transformation at the school- and classroom-levels.

A school culture turnaround

When Yanaiza Gallant joined East Providence School District’s Orlo Avenue Elementary School as principal it was categorized as a “priority school” in the lowest-achieving five percent of Title I schools in the state. And at school community events, she noticed low participation rate from families. Gallant knew she had to awaken a positive culture of learning in the school and among families to ensure first and foremost that students succeeded, and over time that teachers and parents could be proud to be part of this community.

Gallant started with a simple ritual. The administration held a daily morning meeting for students, parents, teachers, and staff with the goal of sharing any and all positive things happening at inside the school. Leading by example, Gallant spoke of these small successes with a growth mindset, and students began to feed off that energy day after day. With encouragement, teachers began to adopt a growth mindset as well. They wanted above all to get to know their students’ needs – socially, emotionally, and academically. This spirit drove more teachers to start looking at student data and understanding more precisely how they could effectively support student learning.

“Teachers became learners,” Gallant said. “Staff meetings [now] look the same as classrooms. Teachers share goals, positive thinking, and growth mindset. Students have choice, voice, and an understanding of their goals.”

Gallant ended her talk by displaying a photo from a recent school event. The schoolyard was packed with students, families, teachers, and staff – smiling and holding up handwritten signs. Gallant said, “We were one of the worst schools in the state. Now we are a true community hub.”

A shift to student-tracked learning

In Vista Unified School District, Jessica Borah teaches 6th-grade math at Rancho Minerva Middle School. By the start of her sixth year of teaching, she was “in the groove” in her classroom. Then, her school introduced 1:1 iPads. She tried to embrace the new technology. She started with playlists to give students a choice of resources. But Borah quickly realized that students were spending precious learning time using the chat box in Google Docs rather than engaging with the math playlists. As a result, she became the monitor of the devices.

Borah then had a light-bulb moment: she was the only one with the data on students’ performance. Her students didn’t know how they needed to improve nor did they understand their specific strengths and weaknesses. “I had to stop hoarding student info and start sharing with students,” Borah said.

In 2016, Rancho Minerva became a Summit Learning school. Off the bat that school year, Borah gave students access to what they knew and didn’t know. Making learning transparent was part of the solution for a student-centered learning environment. Yet, she found something was still missing. “My playlists flopped before because they were digital worksheets with no end goal; they were just activities assigned by the teacher,” Borah said. “It turns out that knowing what to do with our data is another critical thing for student ownership of learning.” Borah has landed on student-directed learning cycles, which encompass reflection, goal setting, planning, and demonstrating their learning.

“I am now always thinking: How can I leverage tech to make learning transparent to students? How can I empower them to make their own decisions in their learning?”


Failing forward is part of the innovation process. At the Institute, we continually aim to learn from K-12 education leaders about the twists and turns of adopting blended- and personalized-learning approaches. Is your school enacting positive changes despite the odds? Share your stories and insights with us in a classroom, school, or district profile on the Blended Learning Universe.

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