No, not that f-word. I’m talking about failure — though, in the education world, I’m pretty sure the word “fail” elicits more horror than its four-letter counterpart.
Everything about the way we structure school communicates that failure is the opposite of success. You either pass a class or you fail a class; and that pass/fail determination is made on a rigid timeline and leaves a permanent mark. We have narrowly defined success and failure, and we have attached real and lasting consequences to failure. Particularly in the era of high-stakes testing and hyper-competitive college admissions, failure is a non-option. According the rules of school, failure is to be avoided at all costs.
Contrast the failure-averse world of school with the real world. Failure in the real world is not only unavoidable; it’s essential. Outside of school, failure is not the opposite of success; it’s part of the process.
If a doctor sees a patient with perplexing symptoms and makes an initial diagnosis that turns out to be incorrect, that doctor doesn’t just give up and move on to a new patient, hoping to do better next time. If an engineering company develops a new design that doesn’t pass all of its safety or certification tests, they don’t simply scrap the design and move on to something totally new. They analyze what went wrong, make adjustments, and try again.
So little of what humans produce is good on the first pass. Success in the real world is heavily dependent on honing performance through failure, reflection, and iteration. Virtually everything we celebrate as innovative or trust to be safe has undergone countless iterations and suffered plenty of failures along the way. The key is learning how to leverage failure into a useful learning experience — the idea of “failing forward.” We know it’s important, but we don’t really teach it.
Buzzwords like “grit” and “growth mindset” are all over the educational landscape nowadays. Many a classroom sports the poster with Edison’s famous quote: “I haven’t failed, I’ve just discovered 10,000 ways that won’t work.” We know that if we want to prepare kids to be successful in a complex and challenging world, that we need to teach them to be resilient and innovative. We want them to be able to bounce back quickly from failure, learn from it, and keep moving forward.
But what we say to students about failure and how we treat failure in school are painfully mismatched, and it should come as no surprise that students prioritize what we do over what we say.
If we really want to prepare students to be successful in the world beyond school — to teach them how to “fail forward” — then we need to overhaul our approach to failure. We need to design learning around letting students fail and teaching them how to learn from and leverage that failure toward future success. We need to stop paying lip service to the value of failure and actually make substantive changes in how we assess it.
We can’t teach kids to be resilient just by talking to them about it. To borrow a quote from an excellent Forbes piece: “Like most character strengths, it’s something that cannot be learned intellectually, but experientially.”
There is immense value in experiencing real failure — the kind that actually stings — and being able to lick your wounds, update your strategy, and try again. But many students, often the most successful in school, glide through 12-16 years of school without ever experiencing real failure or setback — and that’s a problem.
Inevitably, as those high-achievers go on to pursue challenging careers, they will get things wrong. And if we never teach them how to handle failure productively — to wrestle with the intellectual challenge of determining what went wrong, why, and what to do about it — then we haven’t prepared them for the world of work.
So what might it look like to be intentional about teaching failure?
This is still relatively uncharted territory, but one effective approach I and other teachers at Hawken use is the Korda Method method: let kids learn by trying to solve real problems for real people — with support along the way. There are plenty of real problems that are meaningful and accessible to students and offer rich opportunities for learning and failure.
Now, not just any “real world project” is going to give students a meaningful learning experience or an opportunity to develop their ability to fail forward. Not all projects are created equal, and I’ve seen and presided over my fair share of empty projects. In my own iterative pursuit of meaningful projects that teach the important stuff, I’ve learned that there are some key ingredients to success:
Problem-solving and innovation are messy, inefficient, and nonlinear processes. We can’t expect kids to really practice these skills if we try to shoehorn our “projects” into a day or two at the end of a unit. And they definitely aren’t going to learn grit and perseverance over a two-period time span. Doing real problem solving well requires extended time (the sweet spot seems to be about three weeks) to allow students to really grapple with a problem and have the opportunity to stumble, fail, and improve along the way.
Support (the right kind).
In addition to giving students adequate time to work on a problem, we need to give them good support. The key here — and the most challenging part for us as adults — is to be intentional about the kind of support we give. We instinctively want to give students directions, suggestions, and steps to take. But doing so takes that valuable decision-making process away from the students. We perpetuate the myth that there is a “right” way to do something and the adults already know what it is. We also remove lots of rich opportunity for failure.
The best support comes in the form of feedback. Let students find their own way and test out their ideas (however half-baked they might be). Allow them to discover for themselves how successful those ideas are. Our roles as adults should be to offer thoughtful questions and feedback along the way. We should help guide students to think through their choices and reflect on their failures, keeping in mind that the students should be the ones doing the thinking and reflecting.
Reflection is another activity that we severely undervalue in education. We view reflection as that small piece at the end of an activity. But good reflection is an active and ongoing process. If we really want to maximize students’ ability to “fail forward,” then we need to make ongoing reflection a habit. Good problem solving involves reflecting on every decision – Why this option over the alternatives? Why didn’t that work? Why was that successful? Could it be more successful? This type of reflection is not something we do instinctively (it’s a lot of work), so we need to actively guide students to do it. This involves setting aside a lot more time than we might be comfortable with to reflect.
Culture of Trial and Error
Finally, if we want students to be skillful and persistent problem-solvers, we need to erode the myth that there is one correct answer and one best way to do things. In fact, most of our best innovations are the result of strategic trial-and-error. Tim Harford has a fabulous TED Talk on this topic that I highly suggest everyone watch.
Unfortunately, this mindset is deeply ingrained in our education system (and really, our whole culture). In school, we often penalize students who use a trial-and-error approach to problem solving and instead promote the idea that there is a “correct” or “best” approach. It’s true that some methods are more efficient or reliable than others, but students will understand that best if they arrive to that conclusion on their own.
We can’t offer the kind of meaningful experiences with failure described above if we continue to punish failure. The current structure of school — grades, strict timelines, jam-packed curricula — work against the goals we want to achieve with students.
School is designed like a conveyor belt, a steady progression in one linear direction. We know that kids develop and learn at different rates, but we still expect them all to learn chemistry or precalculus concepts at the same rate, and we evaluate them based on whether or not they are “keeping up” with the pacing guide we’ve developed for a given course. And worse, that evaluation is often final and cumulative. If you can’t solve trigonometric equations by January, tough luck. We’re moving on.
Even as more teachers adopt practices like standard-based grading and allow students to keep working toward mastering specific concepts in a class, we still impose deadlines at the end of every semester. So how do we jump off the conveyor belt?
A well-crafted mastery credit system might be one answer.
If we shift our focus away from covering content and instead toward mastery of skills, we have the flexibility to engage in this kind of learning. Additionally, working toward earning mastery credits instead of receiving grades naturally reinforces for students the ideas of iteration and improvement toward success. This gives students the freedom to fail without fear of lasting damage to their GPA. Designed to be more like the real world, this system lets us frame failure as part of a continuing process rather than a final judgement.
Beyond grading, we need to think critically about how we structure time in the school day and the school year. We know that students don’t develop and learn at the same rate, so we need to look for ways to build more flexibility into school to accommodate those differences — without stigmatizing them. This requires a cultural shift as well.
We tend to celebrate those who get the “right” answer the fastest, regardless of process. What if we recognize that those speedy, always right students are actually missing out on valuable learning? They’re missing opportunities to build their perseverance and creative problem-solving skills. They might miss out on some valuable insights that could only be gained by doing something wrong. If we stop celebrating the “correct destination” and shift our focus to start celebrating interesting processes, we can communicate the value of failure and redefine what it means to be a “good student” at the same time.
Schools are increasingly recognizing the value of celebrating failure. A prestigious school in Australia hosts a Failure Week, where teachers share personal stories of failure and students perform very newly acquired skills in order to desensitize them to fear of failing in public. Professors at Olin College of Engineering — a prestigious and relatively new school that runs a bit like a start up — are open with students about their own failures and the iterative process of teaching and good course design, going so far as to declare a moratorium on classes and re-launch their first semester when they realized they were driving students into the ground. Olin also explores alternative assessment structures such as “experimentally graded” courses in which students receive instructor feedback that does not map onto an ABCDF grading system or GPA calculation.
If schools can offer carefully designed learning experiences that allow students to fail and iterate, and if they commit to overhauling the way they assess and communicate about failure, then they can focus on more effectively preparing students for success in the world beyond school. Unfortunately these are not simple changes. They’re going to require bold new initiatives and — unsurprisingly — there will surely be plenty of failures along the way. But that presents a perfect opportunity for us to practice what we preach to students and show a little grit.
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