Learning Agility: Harnessing the Power of Failure

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Think about your adjustment period when you first entered the workforce: colleagues driving you mad with their opinions, work-life balance challenges, micromanaging bosses, team meeting tangents, fire drills—and so much more. Add to these challenges the fact that today’s market requires fast, nimble response to market demands through new processes, systems, or technologies. Our global marketplace thrives on change and innovation but offers little time to learn what is needed to achieve either! How do we prepare students for a workplace that demands consistent performance in spite of these challenges?

Of course, academic development matters, but the realities of today’s fast-paced work environment fuel the need for what researchers are calling “learning agility,” and the implications are huge for traditional K-20 learning environments. The Harvard Business Review defines learning agility as “a mindset and corresponding collection of practices that allow leaders to continually develop, grow, and utilize new strategies that will equip them for the increasingly complex problems they face in their organizations.”

Essentially, learning agility correlates with emotional intelligence, but it is exemplified by learners who are not afraid to take risks, to fail, and to quickly incorporate feedback into their next step.

Perhaps most important, agile learners are not defensive. To be open to learning, they can’t be closed to feedback. But, how do we begin to teach the idea of “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do?” And how do we infuse learning agility into our curriculum and our teaching practices?

I believe that teaching learning agility goes hand in hand with student agency. It’s about letting our students generate new ideas, take risks and fail, and then guiding them, through feedback, to recalibrate, try again, and grow resilience. Speaking of feedback, how about we teach our students to ask for it, or even better, teach them to see the value in a 360-degree approach to feedback? What if we teach our students to offer and receive valuable feedback from their teachers, their peers, and from tech-based learning systems? From there, what if we coach them to avoid a self-justifying posture? Think about it. These are skills than many adults have yet to master, yet they are critical to surviving the continuous change foisted on us via a globally connected, ever-evolving world. We need to foster classroom cultures that value the continuous improvement necessary to survive such a world. We need students, and eventual employees, who are insightful and curious, who do not feel pressured to give perfect answers, and who have the resilience both to keep learning and to apply what they are learning as they go.

This kind of learning is powerful…it’s authentic.

And it isn’t going to happen with a uniform instructional approach where we ‘teach to the middle’ in a classroom of 25ish students. Cultivating learning agility demands out-of-the-box, meshed-up learning experiences. I think my favorite aspect of learning agility is that it reassures students who beat to their own drums. When we value agile learners, we value “different” and understand that innovation doesn’t always come from status quo or standard responses.

Insert the hard part: measuring learning agility. This is inevitably difficult to implement. It is the opposite of linear progress and well-defined content areas. It is ambiguous and relies on the emotional intelligence needed to generate students who can put themselves into uncomfortable situations for the very purpose of growth! It requires the learner to want and know how to look at a problem from multiple angles. That kind of learning requires confidence, learning agile instructional frameworks, teachers, and administrators.

But if the outcome leads to a pioneer-like workforce capable of continuous cycles of learning and confidence-building to realize success, count me in to help translate learning agility into our education processes and systems.

Just thinking about how messy it is to teach like this jazzes me because it offers opportunities to let go of presuppositions and teach in the moment. Even more significant – it compels us to focus on student-centered teaching. Instead of moving on to the next set of objectives because that’s what the lesson dictates, teachers who value learning agility capitalize on failure and encourage students to pivot from the original plan and harness the value of the failure before moving on. The changing landscape within the workforce demands agility and it will likely start with educators and educational leaders themselves becoming more learning agile. So teachers, why not get our agility on in the classroom?

i. Improve Your Ability to Learn by J.P. Flaum and Becky Winkler, June 8, 2015, Harvard Business Review