Saturday, September 10, 2011

On Failure

Having finished the first week of school as a teacher of novice students of French, this post (that has been percolating in the draft pile for weeks now) seems very timely.  All learners benefit from this message.  I've often seen the message "Failure is not an Option" as a motivational bumper sticker/poster type message designed to raise expectations, but the fact is, that failure MUST be an option in order for learning to occur.  This blog is normally intended for the audience of educators passionate about making the changes they have the power to make in order to transform education, but I am writing this also to share with my students, because I believe it is a message they need to hear.

I am normally confounded by the alphabet soup that edjargon has become, but I've seen this acronym tweeted numerous times in the last several weeks, and it really touched me:

FAIL:  First Attempt In Learning

Thomas Edison said:
I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.
Brad Flickinger expanded on this philosophy in his blog about how great ideas are born from failures.  Learning can be increased -- perhaps exponentially -- when failure is embraced as part of the process -- something to be analysed and transformed.  Like Henry Ford said:  "Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently. "

My favorite point from Abhijit Kadle's blog is how he puts failure in to the context of video gaming -- a concept most of our students understand quite well.  If you've ever played a particular video game for any length of time, reflect on the number of failures required to move from level to level.  Probably the first two or three levels can be moved through rather quickly, maybe even failure-free, but as you move forward, you may be stuck on a particular level through numerous failures until you finally succeed.  Put in the context of learning content in a classroom.  Some concepts come to some students very quickly, others require numerous failures, but boy what a great feeling when the success eventually happens.
Alina Tugend quoted a teacher in her post on Edutopia as lamenting that students have become "victims of excellence".  They have become afraid to fail.  Teachers have the responsibility to reassure them that

1.  It's Ok not to know something, as long as you are willing to find out

This is one of the most powerful things a teacher can model.  We are not the "keepers of the knowledge".  It is guaranteed every class we walk into that every student has something s/he can teach us that we didn't already know, so when we say "I don't know.", we make it OK for them to do the same.

2. It's Ok to take a while to learn

This is a particular point with me, and it bears repeating.  Students need to be allowed to learn at their own pace. When we allow them that comfort, it may come to bear that the pace picks up as students gain confidence, and realize they will not be shamed or penalized for taking a little longer to absorb the information

These excerpts from this post by Scott Dinsmore sums up the message I'd like to send with this post.

It’s ok to not be the best at something.

In fact there’s huge power in being a beginner. Here are a few:
  • Keeps you humble
  • Gets you out of your comfort zone
  • Removes expectation or comparison
  • Connects you with people on a new level – gives a window into their world
  • Gives you a chance to find something that lights your heart on fire
So, for a dual audience, a dual challenge:

Teachers:  I challenge you to tell your students directly that failure is part of the learning process.  Make your classroom a place where failure is embraced as a mile marker on the road to success, not something cloaked in shame.

Students:  I challenge you to play Angry Birds, and the next time you feel like a failure in French class, remember Angry Birds.  Remember how many failures it took to get to that next level.  The, remember how great it felt when you finally got there.

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