Friday, July 20, 2012

Learning From Failyour

“I’ve never made a mistake in my life”, he said quite proudly.
“Then how do you know how good you could be?” came the reply.

I’ve been thinking a lot about failure lately. Not just my own occasional mistakes, but instead in the broader sense and how we approach failure in our schools today. The above scenario played out at an event I was presenting at and gave me pause to reflect on why we often seem more interested to explore success than failure. A recent keynote by Mary Cullinane (Executive VP for Corporate Affairs and Social Responsibility at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) highlighted this for me when she expressed a reluctance to attend one more “best practices” conference. Instead, she wants to attend an “oops” conference where people share their failures and the learning that happened as a result. I think that would be a fabulous event!
Our schools and educators appear to be trending more towards the safe and cautious approach while lamenting the lack of engagement by students and the lack of teaching enjoyment by educators. Less risk taking and more covering of “important ground” has taken away the joy for both ends of the teaching-learning equation. Engaging in assessment practices that are more punitive than formative only exacerbates the problem. My visits to kindergarten classes are always a joy and I love the responses I get when I ask them what they want to be later in life. The options are endless and none are outside the realm of possibility to their young minds. The same question to a graduating class yields more puzzled looks and a reluctance to venture many options outside of a perceived strength. What has happened during the school years to limit possibilities and avoid taking the risk associated with pursuing something unknown?
Perhaps the solution lies in having our students learn to embrace failure as a learning experience by demonstrating our own frailties and highlighting the growth we experienced. Cullinane also asked why our school walls are often filled with excellent examples of products but rarely show process. I know it would be a challenge to display incomplete work or assignments that indicated improvements needed but is there a method teachers could utilize that would allow for failure to simply be redefined as a step along the way to quality outcomes? Our struggling learners become stigmatized by the notion of failure and our most able learners don’t venture into the realm of failure and instead practice those skills they already know (and often receive “bonus marks” for) thereby limiting their own potential growth.
          Whatever process we follow or steps we take, it ought to be with an eye towards nurturing and protecting our students’ capacity to dream about the infinite possibilities that exist for them. Every student is a success story waiting to be told. Some of the pages of their respective stories may speak to the struggles faced along the journey and the people who reminded them that failure was just part of the process. As Vince Lombardi said, "Failure is not getting knocked down, it's not getting up again."   


  1. Hi Tom!

    Why do we call making mistakes 'failure'? Not getting the 'right' answer 'failure'? Failure has an incredibly negative and finite connotation that in my mind is the wrong term that people continue to use and refer to as some sort of necessity for success.

    I disagree. I do not want children to fail. Failure happens when a child quits, and I would argue that in that instance, the child has not 'failed', we have. I want them to experience the appropriate level of challenge that makes them want to come back and try again tomorrow if they do not achieve the objective today. But this should not be confused with failure, and I think that too many posts use the term 'failure' interchangeably with 'making mistakes'.

    I agree with the premise of your post, but still feel that we should be careful if we see failure as a part of learning. Making mistakes yes, but not failure.

    Thanks for your post.

  2. Thanks Cale. I think we are talking about the same thing and I don't want to get hung up on semantics. The literal definition of failure is "the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective", which is what can provide an opportunity to learn. The notion of making it finite is what I see as problematic. That's putting a more negative value on the term which results in it being such a powerful word.