The Over-Promotion of Failure

Originally published at https://usergeneratededucation.wordpress.com/2017/04/30/the-over-promotion-of-failure/

Almost daily I see posts on social media by educators promoting the benefits of failure. It often seems that there is a push to intentional embed failure into instructional activities. This always rubs me the wrong way. Failure has almost universal negative connotations. It doesn’t feel good and sometimes it is extremely difficult, if impossible, to recover from big failures.

For the past several years we’ve been bombarded with advice about the “wisdom of failure.” Books by business giants and self-help gurus tout the importance of learning from mistakes. The problem with the focus on failure is that failure is a weak process when put up directly against its counterpart: success.
I want to be clear that I’m not against learning from failure. It’s certainly useful that humans have the rare biological luxury of being able to learn, non-lethally, from our failures — we can remember them, share stories about them, even laugh about them. And all the stories and lessons about what you can learn from failure represent real opportunities to do better. The problem is that none of the advice and literature on failure fairly compares learning from failure to learning from success.
We have to ask how abundant or common are useful failures compared to useful successes? If opportunities for learning are rare, it’s hard to make a practice out of them. Unfortunately, truly useful failures that change our thinking (as opposed to merely stupid failures that just confirm what we already should have known) are relatively rare. (http://www.businessinsider.com/we-learn-more-from-success-than-failure-2014-6)

Focusing on success in practice does not translate in attempting to craft learning experiences into ones whereby learners have no struggles; achieve success or desired results on first attempts and iterations. In fact, I believe that authentic learning experiences should require multiple iterations prior to their successfully completion. This mimics real life learning.

The expectation then becomes that learners will struggle with their tasks, that they will focus from what went right and build upon these elements to have increasingly successful iterations within their process of learning the given task. I reframe the idea of failure, that oftentimes occur in open-ended projects, as things didn’t go as originally planned. It is just a part of the learning process. I explain to my learners that they will experience setbacks, mistakes, struggles. It is just a natural part of real world learning. Struggles, setbacks, and mistakes are not discussed as failure but as parts of a process that need improving. The focus becomes on what went right and on how learners can increase those aspects that were successful. The underlying learning principle becomes success breeds more success.

Learning from success is an active process that needs to become part of an organization’s culture. You just need to ensure that at least some of your “after action” reporting is dedicated to what went right. Even an event that was largely a failure probably has some small successes that need to be shared. (http://www.businessinsider.com/we-learn-more-from-success-than-failure-2014-6)

Within this framework, learners then reflect on their learning experiences coming from a place of success with questions such as:

  • What specific actions did you take that were successful within your learning task?
  • What did you do to decrease your liabilities during your learning task?
  • What personal and social resources did you draw upon if and when you reached an impasse with your learning task?
  • What strategies did you use to self-regulate your setbacks and frustrations if and when they occurred during your learning task?
  • What did you see as your major strengths during the learning task?
  • What aspects of your learning will you take into future learning experiences in order to increase your chances of being successful with similar tasks?