The late Alvin I. Brown never met Teachers College’s Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, Professor of Cognitive Studies, but he surely would have admired her work.

Brown, who died in 2010 at the age of 94, was a self-made Washington, D.C.-area home builder and developer who served in the U.S. government’s Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner to the CIA known for its derring-do. He became Construction Chief for the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion during World War II and, after co-founding Aldon Management Corp. with his brother, Donald, helped revitalize the construction industry to meet the enormous demand for housing in post-war metropolitan Washington.

“For Mr. Brown, mistakes and failure offered great opportunities for innovation,” says Lin-Siegler, who recently received a five-year $1 million grant from the Alvin I. & Peggy S. Brown Family Charitable Foundation, Inc. to further her “Learning from Failure” research initiative. “Learning from mistakes with compassion and using failure as valuable information for better decision-making might be the secret of Alvin’s successful life.”

That is precisely the outlook that Lin-Siegler believes teachers and students alike must embrace – particularly in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).  A much publicized 2016 study that she led found that high school students who learned about the personal struggles and failed experiments of great scientists such as Albert Einstein and Marie Curie often improved their science grades.

“Learning from mistakes with compassion and using failure as valuable information for better decision-making might be the secret of Alvin's successful life.”

— Xiaodong Lin-Siegler

“When kids think Einstein is a genius who is different from everyone else, then they believe they will never measure up,” she said of her findings, which were reported on NPR, PBS and the BBC, and which she has since discussed in keynote addresses at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and other prominent organizations. “Many students don’t realize that all successes require a long journey with many failures along the way.”

More recently, Lin-Siegler spearheaded “The Success of Failure: Perspectives from the Arts, Sciences, Humanities, Education, and Law,” a conference jointly sponsored by Columbia University’s Center for Science & Society, The Heyman Center for the Humanities and Teachers College. At that event, a cast of leading researchers from different fields addressed the value of failure as an educational tool – for teachers as well as students, and for learners of all ages.

“People often talk about failure after they’ve learned something, but we don’t even allow people to finish the learning process,” said Lisa Son, a Barnard College psychologist who spoke at the event.

“Failure is the key reason why innovation has occurred in science,” said Stuart Firestein, Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University and the author of Failure: Why Science is So Successful (Oxford University Press 2016). Firestein will be the Co-Director for the “Learning from Failure” research initiative hosted at Teachers College.

Though Alvin Brown never attended college, he and his wife, Peggy, who died in 2016, were lifelong supporters of the education of others, say daughters Patricia and Donna Brown.

“He was a self-taught man, he read a lot and stayed informed throughout his life,” Patricia Brown says of her father. “He never went to college, but he was self-educated. And he believed education was the factor shaping the future. Children are our future and they need to be educated.” 

Patricia Brown serves as President of The Alvin & Peggy Brown Family Charitable Foundation, which her parents launched during their lives. The Foundation has funded a science center, petting zoo and many other charitable endeavors. Lin-Siegler’s work joined that list after she and Donna Brown met in 2016.

Over time, “I realized that teaching people to learn from failure really is an important educational tool,” says Donna Brown, a Santa Fe artist. “And even though ‘success from failure’ can sound narrow, it really applies to kids of all ages. A lot of kids who fail later in life just didn’t learn that.  Learning from failure or mistakes, to me, is the foundation for education.”

In contrast, that lesson was one that Alvin Brown seemed to have been born understanding, say both Donna Brown and Chuck Harab, long-time Chief Financial Officer for Aldon and Executive Director of the Alvin I. & Peggy S. Brown Family Charitable Foundation, Inc.

“Solutions were always there, you just had to keep thinking and searching for them,” Harab said in describing the man he called his mentor and second father. “Part of his sage advice was the thought that inventions are born by thinking of solutions to every day practical problems.”

Lin-Siegler and Firestein, former Chair of Columbia’s Department of Biological Sciences, will direct Brown Foundation funding toward:

  • Development of “new curricular materials.”
  • Advancing research on the psychology of science and innovation.  
  • The creation of an archive featuring people from different walks of life sharing their thoughts on failure as important information and a stepping stone to the pinnacle of intellectual and academic accomplishment.  

Lin-Siegler says she is grateful for the opportunity to advance her work, but even more excited about the potential outcome. “My hope is that our findings will bring the benefits of Mr. Brown’s sage wisdom to future generations of students and teachers.”

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