#KeyLIMEPodcast 270: You Can’t Always Get Want You Want…But If You Fail Sometime…

Jason hits the gang with an interesting statement: does “failure” have a role in advancing the scholarship of health professions education? In this think piece, the author explores the idea that the failure of a well-designed study can actually be beneficial.

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KeyLIME Session 270

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Young M. The utility of failure: a taxonomy for research and scholarship Perspect Med Educ. 2019 Dec;8(6):365-371.


Jason R. Frank (@drjfrank)


You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.  -Wayne Gretzky, hockey’s The Great One

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career…And that is why I succeed. -Michael Jordan, NBA

Failure. Failing. Failed. Ouch! Avoid! Fail, fail, fail! Anyone else got PTSD from past professional endeavours that didn’t work out as planned? My list is long, in large multiples to any public achievements. Why is it that the giants of human activity among us keep saying that failure is part of success? Aren’t we just supposed to share the scholarship that worked? I know, I keep espousing and striving for a personal growth mindset, but failure is hard. Perhaps failure is human. But does “failure” have a role in advancing the scholarship of health professions education?


Enter Meredith Young from McGill, writing in Perspectives in Medical Education (an important young journal). In this paper, Meredith riffed philosophy of science concepts and on Firestein’s book called Failure: why science is successful (Oxford Press 2016) and explored the idea that failure of a well-designed study has benefit. She set out to:

  • provide language for describing scholarly failures,
  • promote learning and interpretation from failed projects, and
  • support discussions of the value of failed scholarly projects (p.366).

Key Points on the Methods

This paper is a kind of quasi-editorial, or what some might call “a think piece”. Young operationalizes failure in this paper as both a “lack of success” and “unexpected findings”.

Young drew on Firestein’s book, reflection on her own scholarly failures, and the 13 papers in the Perspectives journal that articulate “failures/surprises”. She developed a taxonomy of 3 types of scholarly failures and 4 main conclusions.

Key Outcomes

Young identifies 3 types of failure of scholarly initiatives (p.367):

  1. Innovation-oriented failure – when a practical application of meded design doesn’t work as expected, providing an opportunity to enhance the innovation (relating to CQI).
  2. Discovery-oriented failure – when a theory or hypothesis is tested at its limits and novel findings point to new directions.
  3. Serendipitous failure – unexpected findings open up whole new paradigms (aka “happy little accidents”).

Key Conclusions

Meredith Young concludes 4 main points that are intended to elevate our community’s capacity to truly engage with scholarship…

  1. Failure is an integral component of research and scholarship, despite our community’s habit of portraying scholarship as a series of planned linear achievements.
  2. Effective scholars should purposefully engage with the opportunities failure provides.
  3. We must publicly engage with failure to enhance the advancement of the field of HPE.
  4. We must humanize and normalize failure.

Spare Keys – other take home points for clinician educators

This is a different kind of paper for us to consider for KeyLIME, but sometimes “think pieces” stimulate true paradigm shifts (sorry for the overused phrase) in our collective thinking.

Access KeyLIME podcast archives here

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