Big F vs. Little f

This week I have the opportunity to spend time learning at IDEO in San Francisco as part of an externship for educators. IDEO is a global design company committed to creating a positive impact. They use design thinking to solve complex problems and design innovative solutions for a wide range of challenges in various industries.

Within moments of walking through the door, I saw the company’s values posted on the wall. They included…

  • Collaborate
  • Take ownership
  • Embrace ambiguity
  • Talk less, do more
  • Learn from failure
  • Make others successful

As I read these words, I knew I was in the right place. Paloma, our host for this week and Business Development Associate, spoke about how these values impact their work. My favorite thing she articulated as she toured us around the building was the difference between the big F and the little f. She said that one of their most important values is “learn from failure.”

She said that the “little fs” are the small failures that happen along the way as you create, iterate, and innovate. These little fs are learning moments. They allow people to rethink, adjust, and learn from other perspectives as they work and develop a concept so there are fewer big Fs, or large fails.

I love this contrast between the little fs, or small failures, and the big Fs, high-stakes failures. These are not failures to be feared but failures to be embraced. The more comfortable students are with the little fs, or small failures, the more likely they are to avoid the big Fs.

Too often our students see all failure as bad and don't value the small failures as opportunities to learn, grow, and improve.Click To Tweet

This is a distinction I plan to emphasize as I dive into the new school year. I want to celebrate the little fs and make that part of our classroom culture.


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5 Responses to Big F vs. Little f

  1. Anchen Schulz says:

    Thank you, Caitlin!! Wise observation and a terrific challenge for all of us to embrace this year. It’s going to be a great new year!!

  2. Phan Nguyen says:

    Hi Caitlyn,

    Thank you.

    I have been following your blog for 3 years and your wisdom always encourages me to expand my horizon whenever I reach a creative block as a teacher. I run an education company in Vietnam and I do hope to have an opportunity to speak with you and discuss teaching philosophy and approaches. Most of my students plan to study abroad in boarding school or university in US, so it will be of huge benefit for them to learn from you.

    Kind regards,


  3. DeLindy Wootton says:

    My son will be entering high school this year at WHS and has chosen the N.E.W core. At first I just read about the core on the school web page and wasn’t sure if this was the right path. I was hoping for College Honors or STEM. So today I dug in and started doing more research. I found an article on KQED News dated 4/19/17. I also found this blog. I must say after reading some of the post on this blog and the KQED article I believe he made the right choice and wee are looking forward to the new school year. I am going to have him read that KQED article today so he will have a some info of what to expect. Maybe that should be a summer assignment. If I may make a suggestion if WHS would reference the KQED article I am sure this would help quite a few parents understand the program, as I was originally skeptical, but no more. Ready for High School

    • Hi DeLindy,

      That’s a great idea! I’ll see if I can get the administration to add a link from the school web page to the article for other parents who want to read about the program. I’m also building a website that I hope will serve as a nice introduction to the program.

      I know you mentioned wanting your son to potentially pursue the college honors course or STEM. He can interview for honors in English, history, and/or science if he wants to pursue honors. In the college honors core, students take all three course as honors. In NEW, he can select the specific class or classes he wants to take at the honors level.

      I’m glad to hear you feel more comfortable about his decision after reading the article and exploring my blog. I look forward to working with him.

      Catlin Tucker

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