Having an Epic Fail

I recently went to the Teaching Professor Technology Conference. It was my first time going (I did not present), and I found it to be pretty worthwhile. I definitely got some ideas for my spring courses. But that’s another post.

On the last day, we had a morning strategy swap session. The morning speaker had cancelled, and so the idea was we could go to a table on a designated topic for 30 minutes, swap strategies on that topic, and then do the same thing at the second table. Tables were on things like blogging, podcasting, wikis, using technology in face-to-face classes, and so on.

For one of my swaps, I ended up at a table on group work strategies. I really did end up there. I was looking for the blogging table but gave up and just sat down because we were starting.

As you might expect, the focus of our talk was on sharing strategies to use with group work in our classes. Unfortunately, I didn’t take away any new ideas from this particular swap session. However, I was struck by something one of the members said.

This person was talking about having students work in groups and how she often lets her students self-select groups. However, if someone has what she called “an epic fail” then they were not allowed to work together in class anymore even if they wanted to.

struggling and strengthI don’t know what an epic fail looks like in her classes. I am not judging her. Maybe if we knew the whole story we would agree with her decision. What struck me though is that I actually am ok with my students having an epic fail (and I probably mean epic fail in most any reasonable scenario you could come up with). I think there is something to be learned from a fail – and I actively try to put my students in situations where they will experience struggles and some cognitive difficulties. Additionally, I encourage my students to take risks and ensure that they will not be punished for doing so. An excerpt from my syllabus says:

My goal in this class is for you to take risks in your learning. When we take risks, things often do not go as planned (but we often learn a great deal more than when we play it safe!). I do not want you to be consumed with getting a specific grade. Instead, I want you to be consumed with engaging with the ideas and tasks at hand. 

Some students embrace this right from the start. Others struggle with it and are uncomfortable with it (good! go ahead and be uncomfortable. learn from it).

As this piece points out, Western culture often views struggling to learn as a sign of weakness whereas Eastern cultures struggling is considered to be a normal part of learning. It’s expected.

I fully side with the Eastern point of view by the way. I don’t get what all this big deal is about struggling.

So back to the epic fail. In an epic fail, I would imagine there would be a great deal of struggling going on. It could even be something as simply (so to speak) as struggling to read the assigned texts (due to comprehension difficulties, time management skills, any number of things). And these struggles could result in one failing or falling below par.

But isn’t there something to be learned about the experiences that occurred within the struggle? What if students were taught how to think through their struggles, their epic fails, and draw out what they learned from it and how to apply what they learned next time. That’s not an epic fail at all – that’s just the end result looking different than anticipated.

And I’m fine with that.