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How do we teach effective failure?

April 18, 2011

A few posts and ideas from the internet have got me thinking about how to really make effective failure a more integral part of classes, and my own approach to improving my teaching.

A recent interview with the physicist Lawrence Krauss summarizes the problem perfectly:

“In the real world, most problems are not solvable exactly, and there are many competing demands. And you have to often change course in the middle in order to meet sociological issues as opposed to technological ones. And it’s very difficult for us to implement that in our teaching. But I think we do a much better job and a much better service to our students if we try and teach our students to fail more effectively.”

Similarly, everything I read about startups and the internet world tells me that learning to fail is one of the keys to success. In sort of classic tech startup hubris, the article presents this quote: “Failure lets you move on, mediocrity stalls you and keeps you from reaching your potential.”

Finally, Kara Kotter wrote a beautiful reflection on the value of failure in today’s edu180atlbeta. And she raises a great question? Where does the obsession with avoiding failure begin? And how are some people able to transcend it?

I don’t have a lot of answers, but I keep coming back to a couple of blog posts by Mark Hammond and Kelly O Shea about their efforts to make mistakes a more regular part of their physics classes. I think these are a great start.

One final thought about failure—I think we may need to reclaim the word failure. One thing that struck me today was how one student jokingly said “fail!” to another student when he made a mistake, in the very way that “fail” has become a sort of fun adjective to use poke fun at seemingly “stupid” mistakes that has become almost epidemic at my school and probably many others, thanks to failblog and other banalities. I’ve taken a pretty hard line against this in my own classroom (and yet this taunting still comes up), but I think I could do more to define and embrace effective failure in my classes.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2011 11:54 am

    Trying to kick back against the use of the word ‘fail’ (and other such follies) would be akin to protesting against Facebook or demanding Twitter be immediately dismantled. I think that particular ship has sailed! You can’t fight the whole world from your classroom, John and don’t overestimate your influence – it’s minimal.

    • April 20, 2011 11:10 pm

      I don’t pretend to think I could reclaim the word fail for every student, but I think just by asking the question to students about what they mean when they shout “fail” at one another, and discussing the value of failure, it may make a difference for a few students.

  2. April 20, 2011 8:52 am

    Your last paragraph just made me grimace! I, too, battle this stigma of failure in my classroom, and I shudder when I hear students say things like, “fail!” or “Yeeeessssss, I got a C!” As if trying to conquor imperfection by mocking it.

    At our Edusalon chat last night, we started talking about failure and grading. It was an englightening discussion because it brought up the ways that we let our children fail in small bits but often not in larger ways on a frequent basis. For example, Kate told of a student who failed 5th grade and had to repeat it. Obviously, this was a big deal emotionally and socially for this child, one of the reasons being that only a small percentage of students actually fail a grade. He had to do 5th grade over, but without success. Despite the fact that he was still essentially “failing” fifth grade, he was going to be passed on to 6th grade anyway because the rules stating that a student is “not allowed to fail twice.” Frankly, I think this is wrong.

    What if there were a school where a student might stay in 5th grade Language Arts for 3 years, but might have moved on to 9th grade math? What if the child were in several different grades at once based on the child’s learning strengths in each subject ? Perhaps then the stigma of “failure” would not be there.

    If we are going to hold any integrity in the teaching profession, we’ve got to hold our students to standards. If the student does not meet the standards (all of them), then she shouldn’t be allowed to move on until she does. Is there a way to implement something like this in education? Is this kind of integrity to standards even possible in our school system? Or will I continue seeing seniors in high school who don’t know where to put a period? Who read on a third grade level?

    • April 20, 2011 11:15 pm

      Peyten, this is an awesome insight, and I’m sorry I missed the rest of the conversation. I really like your insight that students might be trying to conquer (or dismiss?) their imperfections by mocking them, and it makes me wonder if this is a sign of insecurity that might go away if we were to really teach students the value of failure and prototyping.

      I completely hear you about the idea of holding students to standards, and the implications of not meeting those standards. But, I’m not an expert on this, but my understanding is that the social stigmatization of holding students back does considerable harm, and at least in very traditional schooling, these harms outweigh any benefit that is gained from repeating a year.

      But it is very interesting to imagine a school where students really can learn at their own pace, and I think you are right—this might mollify the stigma of failure. Could it be that this is what the one room school house was like, or is that just the fantasy I take away from Laura Ingles Wilder?

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