Failure 101 – Teaching Students to Think & Do Hard Things

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” – Thomas Edison

Failure 101We’ve all read or heard this quote at some point, but how might it inform how we go about creating high-impact learning communities? This article is part two of a short series about how to teach students to think deeply and do hard things. In the first article, I described Mindset 101, the power of nurturing a growth mindset in students. In this one, I will write about the importance of flipping failure, turning it into something that is welcomed, even celebrated, in a learning community where deep thinking and doing hard things is valued.

When I first started spending time studying educational entrepreneurship and startups, I noticed something strange. People talked about failure differently. Failing with a startup was often described in terms of lessons learned, even as a badge of honor at times. It wasn’t something that you hid, but rather something that demonstrated your ability to try something new, take risks, push boundaries in pursuit of something great.

Contrast that with most schools. Failure is almost always described in negative terms. It evokes shame, disappointment, and embarrassment. Letter grade systems have a way of doing that. Students talk about tests in terms of passing or failing, and the latter is never good. I can only think of one exception in my childhood memories of school. I remember participating in the Junior Engineering Technical Society in high school. Once I won a competition with a 50 or 60% on a computer programming test. None of us had never been exposed to the language, so getting what was considered a failing grade in most classes was an accomplishment in this setting. Nonetheless, apart from a few odd exceptions, failure was a bad thing in my school experience. Failing tests was frightening, and failing in competitions was embarrassing.

If we want to encourage students to think deeply and do hard things, that means flipping failure on its head, looking at it and treating it differently, truly trying to apply the famous Edison quote to our learning communities. Here are five ways to get started.

1. Emphasize Experiments

Experiments are about discovery, learning, even play. To have a failed experiment is to learn something new. Why not apply that to every content area? What if we framed challenges and tasks in terms of experiments? Instead of being tested, we test ideas, concepts, theories, assumptions, and more. We turn the class and the world into a laboratory, and we are the mad scientists trying to make the next discovery. Along the way, we fail more than we will succeed, but we will likely think more deeply than we’ve ever experienced before, and we will find ourselves willing to take the risks inherent in trying to do hard, maybe even impossible things. Most of the time we’ll fail, but we will learn or gain new perspectives. Occasionally, we’ll have a breakthrough success, the sort of thing that sticks with us for the rest of our lives. Now this sounds like a classroom or community where students learn to think and do hard things.

2. Emphasize Feedback and Debriefing over Grades

Scan my blog and you’ll find plenty about my take on grades, but regardless of your opinion about traditional grades, they are not the most effective means of nurturing deep thought and hard work. For that we turn to feedback and  debriefing experiences. Feedback breeds intrinsic motivation. It adds interest and a desire to use that feedback to adjust, improve, or take the next step. Debriefing activities and experiences draw us into thinking about the lessons behind the experiences. They drive us to extract meaning, discover new insights, and identify valuable lessons.

Often we complete activities in school and just move on to the next thing. It is just marking off a bunch of items on a checklist. At the end of the year, what have we retained or learned? Slow down. Build in times to reflect, get feedback, and give feedback. Invite students to use this feedback and reflection to grow and improve. This is one way to go deep and the lessons learned will better equip us to progress toward increasingly larger and more difficult tasks.

3. Celebrate Failure and Risk…when Combined with Persistence and/or Discovery

What if we took every “failure” and turned it into a chance to learn something, take what we learned, and get closer to success the next time? You don’t learn to read a book, ride a bike, play a piano, or doing almost anything of interest without tons of little failures. You don’t necessarily think of them in such a way. You just see them in terms of practice, progress, and/or persistence. Why not run our classes and learning communities in a similar way?

4. Involve Students in Goal Setting

I remember this debate with my high school history teacher. He suggested setting stretch goals that are also achievable. I agreed, but I also suggested that I liked to set completely unreasonable goals as well. I rarely achieved them, but by pursuing them, I often achieved more than I ever thought possible. I know this is not what the research says about effective goal setting, but it is what got me interested in the process of setting goals, something that I do to this day. Goals give us a target. Inviting students into goal setting helps them establish ownership and to infuse their learning with intrinsic motivation. They will sometimes fail to achieve those goals, and that gives us a wonderful opportunity to mentor, encourage, and even do a bit of celebrating of failure as we help them see how much they learned along the way.

5. Study Failures of Great leaders and Inspirational People

The web, books, films and the people around us are filled with powerful, inspirational and educational stories about failure. We read about the litany of failures in the lives of many (even most) who achieved great things in life. In doing so, students learn that life is not about piling up little successes, but that failures, setbacks, and challenges are stepping-stones to future accomplishments. It gives them a perspective on the realities of life (like failures) that produces hope, character formation, maturity, and the grit that it takes to think deeply and do hard things.

Failure 101 is not just about creating a high-impact learning community of thinkers and doers of hard things. This is about character formation that will serve students well for the rest of their lives.

Posted in blog, education

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.

2 Replies to “Failure 101 – Teaching Students to Think & Do Hard Things”

  1. Bernard Bull Post author

    Thank you for the comment and the thoughtful contribution to the conversation. The word failure has such strong connotations in academia that I think it is difficult to imagine what it would look like to think of it differently. Perhaps it is more helpful to think of what I am advocating in terms of embracing more formative practice and feedback, multiple drafts, emphasis upon progress and not perfect performance on a first attempt, on chances to learn through iterations of experiments, etc. The college class that bases the grade on one paper, a midterm and a final (with little to no feedback on progress) strikes me as a system that sets people up for failure with little to no chance to learn from it, adjust and improve. So, the comment would not be that “it is alright because Edison messed up too.” Instead, it would be more like,

    “Remember that Edison persisted through many failed experiments before making the big discovery.”

    “If you persist and practice, you will find yourself improving or getting closer to your goal.”

    “It is only in the movies that people master complex skills in minutes. Excellence comes through practice, failed attempts, learning from those attempts, and more practice.

    It took me years to achieve my running goals, and that included many failed attempts at those goals. When I first started playing guitar, it sometimes took a hundred attempts to play a song with few to no errors. As an academic, I know that scholarly publication in the top journals is an exercise in persisting through failed attempts. There are so many such examples in our lives that it seems to make sense that we re-imagine learning environments accordingly. If not, more schools risk becoming more about weeding out than drawing out the best in people.

  2. Learning Technology (@learningtech)

    I certainly agree with several of your points. Experimentation is central to knowledge production: we should involve students in that process in a very real way. And rather than grade each and every utterance a student makes, we should involve our students in a discussion of and reflection on what they are learning, as well as involving them in defining their own goals.

    But it’s hard to imagine how we can re-frame failure as really a good step in the right direction without coming off as Pollyanna’s. We won’t do anyone any favors by still identifying something as failure and then trying to say “it’s alright–Edison messed up a lot too.”

    Sadly, I don’t think popular movies help us in this direction, as the “hero’s journey” narrative is so well-ensconced in popular media, that every on-screen failure lets the audience know that the underdog really will triumph. This is surely not a good model for students, as life seldom follows a mythic structure, or not so neatly.

    Is it too old-fashioned to propose we use the notion of scaffolding? Or of “high challenge, high support”?

    To my mind, the point is not to reframe failure: it’s to help students succeed by involving them in authentic tasks which we carefully sequence so that each one builds on the prior one. These tasks may be challenging, but we know the students are ready for them. And they can also support each other and form communities of inquiry.

    Dweck (whom you mention in your earlier post) is almost certainly channeling (or re-branding) Bandura’s notion of self-efficacy. But Bandura is very clear that this sense emerges from experiences of mastery over significant challenges. Failure does not promote the sense of mastery, no matter how much we reframe it. Yet neither does succeeding over trivial challenges.

    The hard part for teachers, I would argue, is not reframing failure, but rather creating opportunities that are challenging while also providing the support that enables students to master those challenges.

    The learning communities you point to seem a very good way to do that. But the role of scaffolding and good curricular sequencing cannot be subordinated to the power of positive thinking.

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