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Effective Failure: Teaching Students The Power of Mistakes
In the classic storybook “The Little Engine that Could,” the little blue engine’s self-doubt when challenged to climb a steep mountain turns to triumph when, with hard work and confidence, it succeeds. The little engine’s “I think I cans” turn into “I thought I coulds” as it sails down the far side of the mountain.
What if the little engine learned from its mistakes?
In the classroom as in life, however, sometimes the best lessons are not learned by completing a challenge. What the book fails to support is the idea that there is as much, if not more, opportunity for learning and success in mistakes and failure.
One marker of success identified by several researchers is a student’s ability to persist – and occasionally fail. Both Malcolm Gladwell and Amanda Ripley point to a student’s commitment to trying to solve a problem on their own, without knowing if they’ll prevail, as a key element to their overall future success in education. As educators, a key to our students’ future achievement may be teaching them to struggle and be willing to fail.
Teaching students it’s okay to try again
To get students who are willing to fail, we have to create a classroom culture that values effort as well as success. When discussing the importance of classroom culture to encourage effective failure, third grade teacher Jen Saul says, “You have to normalize error. They have to know that it’s okay to try and try again.”
Saul’s process of encouraging both persistence and effective failure starts with individual student work on problems, followed by group work, followed by student-led solutions. This personalized learning allows students to see each other struggle, to clarify and explain, and to see their peer group as active participants in their education.
The process of trying, failing, learning, and trying again is an essential piece of life. As education moves from rote memorization toward a focus on critical thinking, it is even more important to arm our students with the capabilities to try, fail, and learn something from that experience. Looking at the normalization of failure in classroom culture could be an opportunity to learn how to expand effective failure to the primary and secondary education arena.
How to add effective failure to your syllabus
In his college composition courses, professor Edward Burger actively rewards students’ failure by incorporating routine reports of failure into students’ final grades. This grading strategy rewards risk and persistence while helping to support a classroom culture that embraces failure as a part of the educational process.
For their “quality of failure” grade, Burger has his students contextualize their failure as a part of the educational process. Students excitedly share their failures along with their triumphs as a class-wide learning experience. This allows them to see their peer group as active participants in learning.
A Stanford course designed around learning from mistakes
Some college classes are even designed directly around the process of making failure effective. Stanford engineering students who take Mechanical Engineering 203 spend their semester turning an idea for a final project into a variety of prototypes.
Because students are not yet trained specialists, their prototypes often succumb to failure during testing and are then redesigned and retested. This process helps encourage students to take on the unknown, persist with the challenge, and learn something from every turn – exactly the sort of qualities we want in tomorrow’s innovators.
Incorporating and rewarding such experimentation and failure in our own students might be difficult to work into the lesson plans, but will pay off in the long run. And before you get too anxious about trying, remember: if (or when) our assignments or in-class exercises fail, even that is an opportunity for learning.
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.
Rebecca Zook, Malcolm Gladwell on Math and Persistence, Zook Tutoring
Annie Murphy Paul, Likely to Succeed, New York Times
Persistence in Problem Solving, Teaching Channel
Edward Burger, Teaching to Fail, Inside Higher Ed
Bjorn Carey, Learning from Mistakes: Stanford Engineering Course Builds Students’ Confidence by Encouraging Them to Fail, Stanford University