Teaching Tip: Fail Early, Fail Often

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently”
Henry Ford

Your midterm grades are in (I hope) and some of your students are about to get a wake-up call about their performance in your class. You may be somewhat depressed about the number of students who are failing or close to it. But many highly successful teachers, entrepreneurs and researchers believe that failure is a critical part of the learning process. It’s what students think and do about failure that makes the difference.

Student responses to failure are shaped by several factors; one of these is their attitude toward failure. Students who come in the door believing that intellectual ability is fixed and cannot be changed (entity theorists) see failure as a confirmation of their lack of ability. If this is what you believe, why would you try again? Students who believe that intellectual ability can be increased through hard work (incremental theorists) are more open to seeing the inherent challenge in a failure.

Entity thinkers focus more on getting that A because they see it as a confirmation of their ability – how many of you have heard “but I’m an A student, how could I get a B (or C!) in this class?” Students who truly believe they can’t do math or philosophy or economics because they lack some essential mental quality are going to give up the first time they see a low score.

Our society and our schools often foster entity thinking, without necessarily intending to do so. I think it’s one example of John Tagg’s dichotomy between espoused theory (Take intellectual risks!) and theory-in-use (Do it right the first time because you won’t get another chance!).  If you’re faced with a classroom of entity theorists who play it safe to avoid failure or give up after an initial failure, how can you encourage them to embrace failure?

Tell failure stories – lots of them. Students need to hear about the failures of famous people they know and well-known people in your field. They also need to hear about the mistakes you have made, how many drafts you wrote or projects you tossed. Even better, take some risks in your class, and when one of your ideas doesn’t work, use it as an illustration. The technology doesn’t work today? Show them how to cope with failures that aren’t even your fault! Students need to see models for how to cope with failure graciously, how to analyze failure and learn from it. It’s one of the most useful life skills you’ll ever teach. Talking about the process of trying, failing and improving also normalizes failure and makes it less threatening and more of an opportunity. Sometimes talking quite directly about these types of attitudes and asking students to think about their own beliefs can help them begin to let go of these attitudes.

Help students practice learning from failures. Have students analyze their performance in your class. Why did they do poorly on a test? What made the paper they wrote a C or D instead of an A or a B? Don’t let them say “I didn’t study/work hard enough” and stop there. How did they study? How long, what did they do, when and where did they do it? How could they have improved? Who could they talk to about learning better ways to study? Have them re-write answers to test questions (for partial credit), re-submit or critique their papers. Videotape their presentations (the CTE has mini-video cameras!) and ask them to watch and analyze them.  Critiquing completed works is good, but it’s even better if there is the opportunity to apply the critique to improve the work.

Encourage failures in class. My music teachers have always said that it’s better to make a mistake confidently and loudly rather than refuse to make the commitment. This is true in class discussion, problem solving and all kinds of creative projects. Give bonus points and praise for a risk taking students even if (ESPECIALLY if) their idea goes down in flames. Encourage other students to see questioning and risk taking as admirable. And do not subtly excuse failure – “that’s a really hard one”. These kinds of statements are meant to be reassuring, but they also imply that the student can’t do hard work. Better to say something like “this one takes awhile to figure out – keep at it.” This tells the students that if they are willing to do the work, they will get there. And that it’s completely normal not to figure out a problem or answer a question on the first try. If you are feeling playful you could even have a competition for the biggest and best mistake of the day!

Now, I know that some of your students fall more easily into the category of passive failures – their motivation, their readiness for college, or maybe their personal problems are getting in the way of their success. Their attitudes towards failure may not have much to do with their current problems. Dealing with student failures, like dealing with students, is not one size fits all. But helping all students learn to embrace failure as a necessary part of learning and life is a goal well worth seeking. Think about the rest of the semester. How could you incorporate more failure in your course?

If you’re interested in further reading, Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion was written for k-12 audiences but has applications in post-secondary education and beyond.

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