NIU STEAM strives to change the way we think about failure

When Kristin Brynteson and Newt Likier sat down to think up a topic for a new NIU STEAM podcast back in 2019, failure was an obvious choice.

“We talk about failure a lot,” the co-creators of the Failure Bites podcast agree.

“Failure-based learning is big around here,” Likier says, referring to the project- or problem-based learning style that is central to the mission of NIU STEAM. “You can’t succeed until you’ve failed along the way because that’s just how learning works.”

While NIU STEAM is dedicated to a project- or problem-based approach to learning, where trying, falling short and revising are understood as part of the learning process, Likier and Brynteson believe everyone needs a reminder that failure is an unavoidable part of life and that how we react to failure is what matters. (Little did they know how important those lessons in resiliency and adaptability would become in 2020!)

 “Sometimes they’re big failures, sometimes they’re smaller, but I think people need to know that we’ve all been through it, that everybody – even the most successful people you know – have had these experiences. What differentiates the successful from the unsuccessful is how they deal with it, how they recover and how they see it as part of the process and not the end.”

Since the podcast began, Failure Bites has become the basis for lesson plans – and even a summer camp – to teach essential employability skills to high schoolers. These essential traits – such as perseverance, responsibility and work ethic – are essential to every career and academic path, but they may seem difficult to teach. That’s where the focus on personal stories comes in. Hearing the stories of successful people who overcame failure allows students to explore important questions.

“Why are some people more resilient than others? Why do some people recover from failures or face challenges differently?” Brynteson asks. “We listen to these stories from a wide variety of people, and we talk about what they learned through their struggles, whether it was one big life-altering catastrophic change, or a series of small challenges they had to overcome to push towards a goal.”

Brynteson, who has taught about failure in K-12 schools and educator professional development workshops, says this reframing of failure is often the biggest lesson students, parents and teachers take away from the workshops. “For so long we’ve always thought, if you failed, you failed, and it’s done. But actually, failure isn’t the end of the process – it’s just the beginning. Once you strip away the stigma, it’s fun and liberating to talk about failure and to know failure’s something everyone experiences.”

Check out our Failure Bites podcast for lots of cool stories of failure and the path beyond it: https://www.northernpublicradio.org/topic/failure-bites or wherever you get your podcasts.