Should we teach students to embrace failure?

Today’s post was written by a 2015 Ed2Save Fellow, Jessie Mouw. Her Fellow’s Project is to promote and redefine the importance of failure as a natural and important part of the learning process. Her words follow: 

The Case for Failure-Friendly Schools

     Failure has become the subject of much consideration in roughly the last decade, as its undeniable link to greater innovation and creativity has been highlighted. As a culture, we are reminded that everyone from Michael Jordan, to Steve Jobs, to J.K. Rowling, to Thomas Edison, has faced innumerable failures, and became a success not despite them, but because of them. Organic movements to speak failure aloud, in the form of FailCon and Failure Clubs, have grown around the world. Websites like AdmittingFailure.org or The Failure Project on Tumblr exist as virtual clearinghouses for stories of stumbles and outright face-plants in the arenas of business, learning, and life. Behavioral psychologists study the power of what social psychologist Carol Dweck has deemed a “growth mindset.” Businesses are encouraged by consultants like Fail Forward to conduct and publish “failure reports” and start-ups in Silicon Valley riff adverbially on the concept with mantras like “fail early,” “fail often,” and “fail fast.” With such a warm embrace of failure developing among professionals, we can be sure that same trend must be taking hold in our educational institutions, right? Sadly, our schools are failing at failing.

At present, our educational system struggles mightily under the weight of many monolithic structures which declare that “Failure is not an option.” High stakes standardized tests and college admissions processes are held up as the hedge over which the rest of a student’s life lies. Increasingly competitive sports programs and extracurricular activities are becoming selective at ever younger ages. On the other side of the coin, school science fairs are being rebranded as expos, in which nobody wins, so that nobody loses. Under this unyielding pressure for excellence, and the constant debate about how to hold educators responsible for the success of the students, it’s no wonder that schools are clinging to the version of failure that exists solely to be avoided. In his book, Failure: Why Science is So Successful (Oxford University Press, 2016), scientist Stuart Firestein argues for the powerful kind of failure that borne out by history:

Failing to include failure [in education] is what a culture of testing begets. In a test, you don’t ask for the 10 wrong answers that preceded, necessarily, the right answer. But those 10 wrong answers were a matter of reasoning. We talk about teaching critical thinking to our students, but then we give credit for memorized answers, not thinking. Critical thinking develops when you understand why people thought the wrong thing for a long time and came to the correct answer only by slow increment or sudden insight. And, really, I should say the currently correct answer, because there is almost surely a better one to come. (74-5)

Sweeping educational change at the institutional level may not arrive in this generation or even the next, but schools can choose to speak above the cacophony of the Cult of Excellence. Educators can and must adopt guerilla tactics in a campaign to show our youth the real failure in all of its glory: inescapable, informative, uncomfortable, and so very necessary for growth. That campaign involves a three-pronged approach in which schools: 1) Identify failure; 2) Model and normalize it; and 3) Encourage it in the classroom and community.

In my role as an Ed2Save Fellow, I am creating a toolkit of strategies, large and small, for use by educators who are committed to this campaign and to creating a failure-friendly culture in schools. Gertrude Stein, herself no stranger to the art of failing forward, mused that “A real failure does not need an excuse. It is an end in itself.” Ask yourself: what’s holding your students back from “real failure”? What “currently correct” answers will they surpass, if we only just give them the tools to do it?

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Categories: Ed2S Fellows, News and Trends, Stage 2: Joyful and Efficient, Testing and Assessments

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1 reply

  1. Hello,

    I am a pre-service Spanish Teacher Education major and found this article very interesting. As someone that is still a student today and understands the very real fear of failure, I can relate to the “failure not being an option” claim.

    My question to you though I think would have to be: if this type of mentality/thinking continues in the educational world, where standardized tests are so vital, do you think there will ever be a time when failure in classrooms will not only be encouraged by educators, but more importantly embraced by students?

    Thanks in advance if you are able to provide a response to this!

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