Most successful people have gone through at least one experience that they would deem a failure. Before Harry Potter launched J.K. Rowling into the stratosphere of the rich and famous, she stated that “by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.” She faced career setbacks, personal hurdles and a very large pile of rejection letters. She’s not the only one. Steve Jobs was fired from Apple long before he became its billionaire CEO. Einstein struggled with speaking clearly until the age of 9. Oprah was fired by a producer who deemed her unfit for television, and Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor who told him that he lacked imagination.
It shouldn’t surprise us to hear that those who achieved great success overcame great adversity. The world is filled with these stories. Outside of our classrooms, these failures are viewed as opportunities and cherished as valuable learning moments.
This reality exists for our students as well. Millions of young people embrace failure as part of their learning and engage in repeated practice until they successfully learn a new skill. Tom Chadfield’s Ted Talk 7 Ways Video Games Engage The Brain speaks to the fact that the built in reward schedule and progression of difficulties in video games is designed so that players enjoy working through a series of progressively more difficult tasks. In games, failure is temporary, multiple attempts are rewarded and success is often only a matter of time. When gaming, students often exhibit the growth mindset absent in our classrooms. This is because video games are designed so that failure is a necessary component of play whereas our school system has taught students that failure is an end in itself.
If we want students to embrace failure as a tool for learning, than it needs to be embedded into everything we do in our classroom. Failure needs to be an expectation just like literacy and numeracy. It needs to be taught as a normal part of the learning process.
Establishing a culture that values failure can be immensely challenging for teachers. We all teach in climates where standardized tests are omnipresent and 6-8 week reporting cycles race towards us at warp speed. We struggle with new curriculums often with limited (if any) time for collaborative planning while also struggling to support our students social, emotional and academic needs. It is a lot. However, despite these valid concerns, there are still things that we can do in our classroom to incorporate and embrace failure.
In the last few years, I have started my classes by telling my students that I have failed far more as a teacher than I have succeeded. However, as a teacher, I get to try again. Many times these failures have made me a far better teacher.
Often, students don’t get that. For them, assessments and tests are one and done. So how do we change that?
If a student fails a test or an assessment, shift your focus to viewing this as an opportunity for learning. Conference with the student and give them an opportunity to showcase their learning. A colleague I work with, Darren Abenstein, orally conferences with students who struggle on written assessments. This allows him to assess their thinking skills apart from their written communication skills. This is important. It flips the assessment so that it is designed to find out what students have learned versus focusing on what they haven’t. It also allows him to tap into their learning while identifying specific areas that they need support in. Alternatively, I know some Math teachers who use tests as a starting basis for assessment. Tests are marked and returned to students. Then students are given a specified amount of time to correct their mistakes and write out or create a video explaining what they learned from the correction process. Both tools are used to determine a student’s final mark on the test.
Another tool to consider is student-teacher negotiated assessment marking. This requires a bit more careful time and planning and the ability to have courageous conversations. In student-teacher negotiated marking, both the student and the teacher separately mark the student’s assignment using the same assessment tool (i.e. a rubric). Afterwards, the teacher and the student meet to explain their rationale behind the mark they assigned. Through conversation, probing questions and reflection the teacher and student strive to achieve an agreed upon mark. I tried this in my Grade 12 Politics class and was extremely nervous about this process. However, prior to doing this, I had built a rapport with the class, established norms for challenging conversations and practiced both peer and self assessment. Despite this, it was uncomfortable to give up some of my ‘teacher control’ and enter assessment as a co-learner. What surprised me the most was how detailed the student’s feedback was for their own mark. Oftentimes, it was a couple of pages and they were often far more critical than me. Part way through the process, I realized that this marking exercise was incredibly worthwhile if for no other reason than that my students were looking at their work through a reflective metacognitive lens that helped them to understand their own achievements better.
More than anything, as educators we need to make failure a mindful experience for our students. Where possible, it shouldn’t be the end to their learning but a starting point to a deeper conversation about how to move their learning forward. A failed test or assessment should never be returned without a student-teacher conversation attached to it. We may not all be ready to gamify our classrooms yet, but we can create learning environments that facilitate multiple opportunities for learning, provide real time feedback and values failure as a necessary tool for authentic learning. If we teach students to view failure as a necessary component of learning than we can remove much of the fear that inhibits authentic learning in our classrooms.