Ed Buzzword: Failure

Seems like everywhere you look these days there is an article, a book, a motivational speaker or educator who is slinging a slogan for the power of failure. From Tavis Smiley’s “Fail Up” to Silicon Valley’s “iteration”, the buzzwords and slogans for the power of failure are myriad these days.

Interestingly, Peter Thiel made a comment going against the grain of the conventional wisdom on the power of failure in an interview with Vox.com recently. He said, “One of the ideas I’m very skeptical of is that people learn from failure. I think, in practice, failure’s really demotivating. Hopefully, you have the character to persevere and keep going, but I think the default is that failure is powerfully demotivating. But success is very motivating.” Mr. Thiel is obviously talking about adults and specifically called out the need for “character to persevere” through failure and “keep going”. Thus, I’m going to assume that Mr. Thiel would agree that it is very important to explicitly and transparently teach character through both failure and success in schools and from a young age.

On that note, I am going to share two more readings on failure!

The first is a wonderful piece written by the eminent educator, Rick Wormeli, entitled, “Failure Preferred, Actually”. In it, Wormeli identifies thirteen ways for teachers to “make failure a valued route to learning” in their classroom. Here are some highlights:

    • “Failure can teach us in ways that consistent success cannot.” In other words, the only way we know how to instill grit and perseverance in a child or adult is through overcoming obstacles. If a child never struggles through something, never experiences failure, there is a world of empathy and coping skills that may remain under developed.
    • “Students should feel safe and invited to experiment and fail in the middle of class or at home as they learn new material…One of the most vivid ways to do this is modeling our own struggles to learn something new.” This is a huge leap for many teachers to take, especially considering the accountability education reform movement. Do most teachers really have the latitude to try and fail, iterate a lesson or unit, or even create a culture of experimentation in their classroom? And Wormeli does acknowledge this by writing, “One of the worst perpetuators of an unhealthy avoidance of failure is the pressure we feel from state or provincial testing.”
  • “Frequently relate the stories of famous figures in history, science, sports, politics, entertainment, and other professions who failed in some way but learned from the experience and grew as a result. Students are consummate story-receivers; they’ll remember the lessons learned.”
  • “Create a ‘Wall of Failure Success’ in which you identify students (with their permission) who failed at something initially, but learned from the experience and eventually became successful with that skill or topic. Be specific in telling their stories.”
  • “…acknowledging that we do not know everything is a good model for students. It builds empathy for what they are feeling as we ask them to take risks.”
  • “Make it possible for students to ask more questions in class than you do. If they’re asking the questions, they’re doing the learning.” I really like this because it is a clear whole group indicator of the learning, the curiosity and the engagement of your students. And this is easy to assess, you can tell when you are leading the students to the water and when they are leading themselves.
  • “The consequence for not doing the learning is the doing the learning, not escape from the learning.” That is a classroom slogan that I will be using soon! As Wormeli says, if we allow a student to skip an assignment or not re-do bad work or we refuse to reassess a student on an improved task, we are signaling to them that specifics of that piece of knowledge or skill is not important, that it’s okay for that student not to learn this thing.

 

Second, the TeachThought website had a great article on a design framework to help students fail successfully.


Framework for Failure

The framework is most concerned with definitions; redefining the meaning of failure based more on the tech world’s notion of iteration and “progress over ‘finishing’”. For example, Terry Heick writes, “If understanding is about making meaning, then failure is always only temporary. Making meaning is a present participle that indicates an ongoing process. It’s indefinite, if for no other reason than we can never fully and completely understand anything.” This is philosophical in nature, while Wormeli’s piece on failure is much more practical. The two compliment each other in ways that are unintended but are extraordinarily inspiring and useful to me as a teacher!

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