Allowing ‘Failure’ in the Classroom
We care about performance. The means justify the end grades and rankings. No wonder students are afraid to fail. In any way.
My mom was shocked when I revealed I was a serial cheater in high school. The fact she never thought I could cheat is a clue as to why so many people do it. We want to see the shinny prize at the end, process be damned. What matters the most are the grades, the high G.P.A, the awards, etc. We claim that we want to do this ethically, but in honesty, we don’t care. Show me the honor roll, and I don’t care how you did it. Results!
If we really cared about what students were learning, schools would look a lot different. There would be less standardized tests used for rankings. There would be less rote memorization. There would be more problem solving. There would be more deep learning. But as a society we don’t really care about learning. We care about performance. The means justify the end grades and rankings. No wonder students are afraid to fail. In any way. If you don’t deliver the results, or perform at a high level, people start sounding the alarm. Colleges will run away, scholarships will be lost, you’re future will be ruined! I have siblings that stayed up all night multiple times a week to complete high school assignments. They couldn’t get anything less than an A. They had G.P.As well over 4.0. Wow!
What we lose sight of in our performance mania is that it is perfectly normal to fail. Humans make mistakes. Nobody is perfect. While I don’t want people to be failures or get report cards full of “F’s”, I think we need to foster safe spaces in school where students CAN fail, preferably in temporary chunks. And then after students fail, they can try a new path, ask a bigger question, and actually learn from their mistake. Students can learn how to persevere, to overcome trials. Students can focus on learning how to learn (metacognition) rather than learning how to best cram trivial information and knowledge into their heads only to forget it in seconds.
I played soccer in high school. We had a player on our team who made every single penalty kick in practice. During playoffs, our coach picked him as one of our shooters for a sudden death shootout. When the moment came to participate, he refused. He said he didn’t want to miss. I learned a valuable lesson that day. The coach said, “If you want to succeed, you need to be prepared to fail. You can’t truly succeed if there is not an opportunity to fail.”
If we want young people to take appropriate academic risks and chances, we have to allow them safe spaces to fail. If we want them to think outside the box, we have to be okay with learning that takes time. If we want them to innovate, we need to remove the punishments for trying to do so. If we want them to invent new rules to the game, we have to sacrifice the sacred and rigid education regime we created. Innovation is not following a script. It is a willingness to try something bold and to look at the world differently. We claim we want these abilities in our students, but setup contradictory incentives.
This is the appeal of pedagogies like project based or inquiry based learning. As students work through real world projects, problems, and issues, answers are not found in the back of a text book. When students are integral designers of their own learning there will be hiccups. When there are multiple ‘right’ answers, students will need to considers a variety of options. The first road they choose may end in a detour. That is fine. Take what you learn from the first road and move to the next. Genius hours allow students to study passion projects. When students work with concepts they are deeply interested in, they are more willing to persevere, try new approaches, and work through difficulties. Embedded in many of these approaches to learning are consistent opportunities to asses, reflect, and reiterate ideas or work. This turns ‘failure’ on its head. If teachers work with students to formatively assess work, ‘failure’ becomes an exciting opening to correct assumptions and create new possibilities.
There is much talk about growth vs fixed mindsets in education. In short, a growth mindset emphasizes effort and growth. A fixed mindset emphasizes natural intelligence and ability. The more we emphasize a fixed mindset, the less we acknowledge the power of failure and frustration. This does not benefit the learner in the long run. A growth mindset leads students to embrace challenge. Why? If someone with a growth mindset fails, it does not reveal a character flaw, it reveals a temporary road block, a road block that can be moved with effort, support, and collaboration. Growth mindsets cannot be achieved in a climate that is obsessed with perfection. A school or classroom culture emphasizing a growth mindset sends a wonderful message to students. It calls for educators to accept all students for who they are and where they are at because all students have the potential to improve.
Great administrators can support teachers who build safe spaces for children to fail. How? Administrators can model a growth climate with their staff. They encourage their staff to try new things, to share their learning, and to actually innovate. Exemplary administrators realize that mistakes occur. They also realize this is okay. These administrators set up a safe space for faculty to fail by supporting them in their own professional growth. In this way, teachers can make mistakes and learn from them. Teachers are also willing to share their learning with colleagues and ask for help. Asking for help is not seen as a weakness, but rather the mark of a proactive professional.
Each time I write a post, I know I may fail. I may make a grammar mistake, say something people disagree with, or write an unpopular post. It can be difficult and stressful to press the publish button with an attitude like this. On the other side of the coin, I have learned so much about myself, my practice, and my colleagues from each post. I continue to learn even when I misspell a word or get an unfavorable comment. I might get frustrated for a few minutes when I see low read numbers, but I carry on. Small failures are just tiny obstacles. This is an attitude we can foster with our students as well.
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