This bank of examples is provided as a resource for instructors, students, or anyone interested in learning about the failures, missteps, obstacles and accidents that have contributed to many notable inventions, innovations, and discoveries.
The examples treated here are compiled from several fields, including medicine, ecology, technology and materials science, toy and consumer product development and food science. A final section notes twists and turns in the career trajectories of a variety of accomplished public figures. The range of examples surveyed is deliberately broad; the intention is to offer accessible examples that might appeal to the diversity of student interests and experiences and that might be easily transferable across courses and disciplines.
In teaching contexts, examples may be used to spur initial student engagement/discussion on the topic of failure and learning, or further developed into low-stakes assessments or applications. Suggested applications include (but are in no way limited to): class discussion; written or oral responses to metacognition/reflection prompts; think-pair-share exercises; research and short presentations or reports on further examples of failure in scientific experimentation and discovery (or in other fields of experimentation, including the arts); science/writing/art process log entries documenting student experiences through various stages of a given project/experiment.
It remains critically important to recognize that power, privilege, and access to resources greatly influence one’s ability to bounce back from missteps and uncertainty. Privilege makes it so that individuals belonging to dominant groups in society not only have more opportunities to try, fail, and try again, but their endeavors are often more celebrated within mainstream historical narratives. Instructors and students are encouraged to actively reflect on questions of representation when consulting this bank of examples and to contribute additional examples from marginalized voices and histories.
These examples are offered as a starting point for reflection, critical discussion, and further inquiry. We hope they begin to highlight the ubiquity of failure across processes of inquiry, experimentation, learning, and development, and thus work to reduce some of the stigma associated with it.