Failing Toward Success

“If you’ve never failed, you’ve never tried anything new”

There’s a lot of hype around making it ok to fail. The theory is that if we make failure unacceptable, we discourage people from trying something new or hard. As a teacher, I know how fear of failure (or being wrong) keeps certain students from offering their ideas or engaging in the discussion at all.

On the other hand, if we make room for failure, we make it safe for students to take risks, to offer a creative new idea, to try an experiment.

So, I’m on the “ok to fail” bandwagon (and in fact wrote about failure here).

But

Failure in and of itself is not the goal. Making it ok to fail can have an unintended consequence. I used to work at a school that uses a Pass/Fail system as opposed to letter grades. The idea is that we didn’t want to focus on rankings and GPAs. We knew students came from varying levels of experience and ability and that each person’s best was different. Failing a class wasn’t a huge deal; we didn’t want it to mean everything. We wanted students to be able to bounce back from a failure.

Much of that is great and takes power away from the fear of failure. But for many students the result was an acceptance of “good enough.”

A Culture of Mediocrity

In the name of de-risking failure, we often reward effort. “It wasn’t great, but you tried, so ‘pass’” (in other words, “A for effort!”) At my school, we had created a culture in which students learned how to do just enough to pass, to pat themselves on the back for trying, and to shrug of a failing grade.

While I was more than happy to remove the pressure of grades and their unfortunate ability to focus students on points instead of learning, I found myself equally sad to have created such a dearth of motivation.

Making it safe to fail is supposed to encourage thinking outside the box and innovation. What to you do when it encourages mediocrity instead?

Failing with a Purpose

It’s not enough to accept failure. Failure must have a purpose and that purpose is to learn from it.

First, we must assign projects that matter. If we give students busy work, there’s nothing to learn from the failure and even if there is, students aren’t gonna care enough about it to bother. So the work needs to be important.

Second, we have to guide the aftermath of failure. When a student tries something that doesn’t work, or turns in a project that isn’t good, we have to think carefully about our message to them. “Aw, oh well, that didn’t work, but good idea” is very different from “dang, that idea didn’t pan out; what would you do differently next time?”

The former gives students an easy pat on the back for trying and sends them on their way. After years of that, students learn to put in minimum effort, get a nice “good job” from the teacher, trash the project, and go back to watching TV.

The later message asks the student to think and tells them that this project meant something. “You tried an idea, it didn’t work, let’s talk about why. In fact, this project is important enough that we’re gonna iterate on it and try again.” Let’s not just pay lip service to learning from failure, let’s actually give students the opportunity to learn from it and try again.

Failing Toward Success

Failing without purpose sets up a culture where students sit comfortably within the bounds of their abilities and are never pushed to the limits of their potential. If de-risking failure is to have its intended effect of encouraging innovation, it must be accompanied by school work that matters and a relentless focus on learning from the defeat.

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