Failure is an Option

…not mindless failure, of course.

Situations without the potential for failure do little to foster learning. Instead, growth happens when students -and by “students” I mean “humans”- are given opportunities to stretch themselves, to feel challenged, to wonder, to hope, and to strive to achieve goals they aren’t sure they can reach.

When, after working through a period of productive struggle, we do achieve the results we want, we learn. When, after that struggle, we don’t get the outcome we were aiming for, we learn. We learn if we’re willing to learn.

It’s that second sort of learning that gives us our biggest challenge in education and our greatest reward. Not only do we need to be willing to see that short term failures are just steps along the way to longer term successes, we must also keep a mindset that reassures us that we can learn, we will improve, and we are not defined by our struggles.

Henry Ford, a man who knew failure as well as success, said that “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” He knew that failures happen. Failures happen to talented people. Mistakes, foiled attempts, experiments that blow up in our faces, these are all part of the process of learning, improvement, and discovery.

Good teachers know that helping students take academic risks helps to create creative learners. I was in a science class today and the teacher invited students to develop a procedure regarding saline solutions. With the smile of a veteran educator he told his classes: “Come back tomorrow and if it fails we’ll revise. Come back tomorrow and if it succeeds …we’ll revise.” Students knew that the focus was to be on the process, not a single answer that could be found in the back of the book. This teacher helped his students know that experiments don’t always work. If they did, they wouldn’t be experiments, not experiments worth conducting anyway.

When teachers model divergent thinking and risk taking in the classroom the results aren’t always pretty. Sometimes they bring with them awkward silences or outbursts of laughter. Sometimes we’re left with egg on our faces; sometimes we come up with an omelette we can share.

As a teacher there were many times I picked the proverbial eggshell from my hair, and other times when grand experiments yielded something delicious and unexpected.

I felt, when I taught, that it was my responsibility to let my students see me take chances in the classroom in the spirit of the risk taking I hoped they would bring to their own educations.

When I spent hours taping yards of butcher paper to upturned tables and bringing in a bank of fans to create a wind tunnel in my classroom (part of a lesson on cultural misunderstanding that warrants its own post sometime down the road), I not only wanted my students to understand how environment shapes culture; I also wanted to inspire in them the belief that putting their whole heart into a wild scheme had the potential to be wonderful.

Sometimes these experiments in teaching worked. Sometimes they didn’t. I believe my students may have learned as much from the failures as successes. When things didn’t go as planned, I was honest about it and my students were overwhelmingly kind.

I’m certainly not saying I enjoyed the flops, not in the moment anyway, but the principal I’ve now become finds it easy to raise a glass to the gumption of my momentarily defeated younger self standing in the middle of a stage amid a pile of feathers.

Now I work with teachers whose own sense of educational risk taking I hope to encourage. Thinking creatively and trying new ideas in pursuit of something great energizes teaching and learning.

I don’t want the teachers or students at my school to believe that “failure is not an option.” I want them to understand that failure is an opportunity.

One great teacher I know takes it a step farther. On math projects, I’ve seen her give students a paper on which they’ll write their answers with room for “attempt one,” “attempt two,” and “attempt three.” Stressing the importance of making inferences, learning from what works and what doesn’t, and revising their answers, this teacher gives her students the gift of knowing failure is more than an option; it’s an expectation. So too is perseverance, adaptation, and improvement. Her encouragement and her smiling invitation for her students to inhabit a growth mindset is inspiring.

I hope in my conversations with teachers and students and my celebration of purposeful risk taking in the classroom I can help to inspire a culture where failure is just another part of genuine learning. I’m blessed to work at a school with an adventurous spirit, and the good work I see in classrooms every day inspires me as it inspires the students. Dynamic learning doesn’t happen by accident; it springs forth when teachers and students are willing to open their minds, take a chance, and try something that stretches them to find out more.

I’ll end this post with a line from a man much wittier than I’ll ever be. Will Rogers asked “Why not go out on a limb? That’s where the fruit is.” In education, when teachers provide students with the freedom to go out on those limbs, the results can be delicious.


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