Failure is always an option

Last month, at John Seeley Brown’s evocative DML2012 keynote, I was reminded of the notion of failure in education. Failure: what happens when students don’t complete work or don’t submit quality work. Failure: what happens to students when they don’t try hard enough or just cannot cut it.

But JSB, along with hoards of neuroscientists, remind us that failure is an essential part of learning. As Jonah Lehrer eloquently noted, “education is the wisdom wrung from failure.”

So I am wondering: Why is failure in higher education the end of learning, rather than the beginning of learning?

I propose that we reframe the notion of failure in our classes and our universities. I propose that we reframe failure as what happens when you try, when you experiment, when you make, when you get creative, when you push boundaries, when you learn.

What does this mean for our teaching?

In teaching, the reframing of failure means that we have to give students more opportunities to fail without destroying their chances of success in the class. This notion moves us away from high-stakes testing where failure is a by-product of not effectively recalling factoids, and toward learning activities that encourage students to try, fail, and keep trying until they succeed.  This seems easiest to do in fields like Computer Science, where students could engage in programming activities that require trying out code until it works.

But what about in Humanities? Perhaps opportunities for failure in Humanities may emerge out of classroom assessment techniques (CATs), those low-stakes assessments that allow faculty to give early and formative feedback to students on their work. A minute paper, for example, in which students are asked to respond to a prompt by writing for a minute, may give the students that much-needed opportunity to fail and receive appropriate guidance from the faculty member (or their peers) on how to learn from that failure.

What does this mean for learning?

For many students, the notion of failure is so terrifying that they will go out of their way to avoid learning for the sake of demonstrating achievement (see Mueller and Dweck’s description of achievement motivation). I remember years ago, my students in Early Childhood Education classes that would memorize the textbook so they could demonstrate to me that they knew the development theorists (achievement) but, after the test over that information, the students could no longer recall, much less apply, extrapolate, analyze, or create anything using the information they had  previously memorized. That’s not learning.

The fear of failure is so great that learning becomes too high-stakes. In Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck’s well-known experiments with children, they found that children’s mindsets about learning– either viewing intelligence as fixed and unchangeable or viewing intelligence as a result of a personal investment in learning– affected how likely they were to tackle difficult problems. That is, those children who had a fixed mindset about intelligence avoided tackling problems that might illuminate their struggles with learning (Read a lovely analysis by Jonah Lehrer on this and other research on mindsets: Why do some people learn faster?).

So, how do we change students’ fears of failure? This may be our greatest challenge, since distaste for failure is socialized from a very early age and, in many ways, is against our nature as humans. I think trust is essential. Opportunities for failure will be viewed at “gotchas” unless the instructor builds trust with students. Feedback, too, is key. Students will not be able to accept their failures unless the failures are sidled with rich and useful feedback that decreases the likelihood of future failures.

It’s not enough to build opportunities for failure into courses; we must also teach students how to learn from their failures. As I said in the previous paragraph, feedback is key to this learning, but we also need to help students learn to learn from failure even without feedback from a guide or mentor.

What does this mean for higher education?

Yikes. I hesitate to try to respond to this prompt for fear of getting tired head. I just read a blog post about a K12 girls’ school in the UK that instituted a “Failure Week” to teach students how to deal with and make the best use of failure. The school’s emphasis was the development of resilience and they wanted to create a safe environment for the girls to experiment with their learning. The school featured videos of famous people who had failed repeatedly in their journey toward success. Now, I am not sure if Failure Week is something universities want to or should replicate, but I admire the UK school’s willingness to tackle this issue head-on.

In higher education, perhaps because of our intense collegiate sports culture and academic assessment (i.e., accreditation) culture, a culture of failure for learning seems anathema. And, of course, we don’t want to create a culture of failure that does not also foster hard work toward success. Perhaps what is needed is for universities to create informal and formal learning opportunities that teach students how to learn from failure. I am reminded of the San Francisco Exploratorium’s monthly Open Make, a place where kids and adults can tinker with materials, create, play, and fail. Perhaps what we need at universities is Open Learn opportunities, where students are encouraged to tinker, play, try new learning opportunities, make mistakes, and learn from their failures.

Further, I think that faculty need to be more transparent with students about the failures in their own learning and research. What faculty member hasn’t experienced research design failures, assumption failures, and other types of failures? Helping students see that failure is the beginning of learning can start as simply as discussions of failure in the classroom.

I would love to read your thoughts on this in the Comments section! Happy St. Patty’s Day!

By the way, if you haven’t noticed, I am a big fan of Jonah Lehrer’s writing on neuroscience and what we know about learning. His new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, tackles the concept of failure along with an examination of where creative ideas come from and the importance of remixing great ideas (in light of current patent and copyright laws). Don’t miss this book!

ParentsPstcrd_111209  image from FlickrCC user Carolyn_Sewell, used with permissions of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

One Response

  1. Fail Week! What a great idea. I wonder how undergrads would respond to the announcement of a Fail Week in a first-year English course. Thanks for the idea!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top