On failure in educational research

A few weeks ago I sat got in a session presented by a professor in the Faculty of Education entitled Education as Analogy. It was the beginning of a possible research trajectory for the professor, so most of what he shared was conceptual and based on his own reflections and interest in the topic of analogy. The goal of the session was to inspire further dialogue and that goal was easily met. My own reflection took a few conversations and time to process, but now I want to enter the dialogue.

He began his presentation sharing two analogies he had mapped onto education (his words): Education as Aeronautics and Education as Architecture. In some ways, these analogies map quite well to education. In others, they don't.

Personally, I wondered about the difference between using the word metaphor versus analogy. Metaphor feels like a way of being and seeing in the world. Analogy feels too restrictive, a little too antiseptic.

Regardless, the conversation at the end of the presentation meandered and landed onto the topic of publishing the failures of educational research. At first the question was posed: do we publish our research failures? Second, should we be publishing our research failures? This notion of sharing or not sharing failures seemed to sidetrack the question and answer period for awhile. There was some fiddling with terminology, e.g. failures or mistakes, but the assumption was made that there was such a thing that could go by the name of failure/mistake within the context of educational research.

At first, my reaction was: Of course. Of course we should be sharing our research results that fail to meet our expectations! Think of all those quotes about needing to fall down, think of those scientists they always quote as talking about how they failed over and over and over again until they found success.

Let's pull apart what we think of as failure, though. We have research projects guided by research questions. These research questions lend themselves to some form of expectation for the results of a study. In quantitative research we'd call these hypotheses. Hypothesis 1 = Nothing happens out of the ordinary. H2 = Something is significant.

Specifically, in educational research we're looking at whether some program or project or grant was successful or effective (let's not worry about defining those elusive terms for now). Even if a study doesn't have an official hypothesis, there exist expectations that, yes, the lesson was helpful because of this or that. Or nothing happened, what was expected didn't happen. Point - do we share this in scholarly publications?

Of course! And here's why.

Failure is a word, a value-laden categorization made about something. Failure doesn't exist, we as human brings label things or events as failure. The research study did not fail. Something either happened or it didn't. That's it.

If we step back a bit from our research, we can see that we originally began with a question and through our inquiry we arrived at an answer. Is the answer right, or is it wrong? Is it a success or is it a failure? Our work is to share what happened, to share our results. We are the ones who interpret the findings, the results; we ascribe meaning to the data. Label it a failure? It's a failure. But the results themselves are just results. They do not exist as a valued state.

Returning to the original question: should we publish our failures? This becomes funny when we understand that failures aren't really failures. It doesn't make sense to ask: should we publish our results? Of course we should!


  1. The word failure has been all twisted around to mean you did wrong, thus you are wrong. What it should mean is this method, this thought, this concept didn't work. And that should be shared with the world, so that we can all learn.

  2. Great Article. Thank you for sharing! Really an awesome post for every one.

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