The Importance of Failure

Recently, I came across this article which discusses the importance of normalizing failure as a part of the learning process. Failure, the author argues, is a part of the learning process. However, from the moment we first enter schools failure is treated as something to be avoided at all costs. It is something to be ashamed of as a student. If you are a teacher, you can be seen as a poor one if your students experience failure.

And yet, as both students and teachers, we all experience failure. If handled appropriately, we can always learn from it and grow.

As a professor, I have experienced students at every level simply want to reproduce whatever it is they think I need to see in order to get an A. I understand that. At this point in their lives that’s what they’ve been conditioned to do. Additionally, the higher your GPA the more access you have to other opportunities. A great GPA in high school is needed for college. Another is needed for grad school.

So I get it. And I cannot change this system.

On the flip side, if I take a risk as an instructor, and it doesn’t pan out, then I am at risk for students giving me low evaluations which could have a negative impact on my job (see my posts here and here). In this case, no one (in my experience) is interested in contextualizing the evaluations. No one is going to try to understand what new idea I am working on and how I am, in light of the experiences I just had, attempting to refine it.

And yet, we have to get over this fear of failure, and we have to help our students get over it as well. We have to normalize it, but we also have to set up a system so we don’t penalize it.

Failure in Teaching

Failure in teaching is a pretty strong statement. What I mean is we have to allow for us, as educators, to try out new methods, assignments, and so on. For example, when I decided to apply the concept of gamification to my teaching that was a pretty huge risk. I spent all summer long working on it (and since I am on a 9-month contract this means I did it, technically, without pay). I researched it. I skyped with people about it.

Was it perfect straight out of the gate? Of course not.

Were there things I could have done better? Absolutely.

My teaching evaluations from the first few rounds of this were actually fine, but I was prepared for them not to be given the drastic change in how students experienced my course. There were things I did not like about the course each time I taught it, and I worked to improve those elements either in the moment or the next iteration.

I decided to take on the challenge of gamifing my courses simply because I wanted to. I had read about it, found it interesting, and thought it would help me rethink teaching and learning, and it did. Without our higher education system, we have to give educators lead way to take risks in their teaching – however it is they want to challenge and push themselves to improve. And we cannot penalize them if their evaluations come back low. What we can do is have conversations about the teaching and where it’s headed. If you know your limitations, and have ideas for how to improve, then that makes you a good, if not great, educator. I don’t care what your evaluations say.

If all you do is stay the status quo, never change, and always get fine evaluations, what does that mean? Are you really better than someone who pushed the envelope and maybe had a few falls along the way?

I tend to think the people who push themselves have something to offer us. They can educate us about their approaches – which includes the failures and the struggles. Knowing where another struggled and fell is useful to me. I can look for it in my own teaching. We need to set up systems that reward this kind of risk taking. Or maybe we don’t need a system at all. Maybe what we need is a culture that values us to challenge ourselves as teachers and re-conceptualize what we do now and then.

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