Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Failure: The Greatest Learning Tool

We ask students to take risks.  We encourage students to take classes that will be a challenge.  We tell students that learning is more important than the grade.  When we say these things, we mean them.  School should be about learning and growth.  It should be about pushing yourself and growing.  Growth and learning both come from failure. Tim Harford writes in his book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, that "success comes through rapidly fixing our mistakes rather than getting things right the first time."  Albert Einstein once said "failure is success in progress."  Failure is crucial for success.  Mistakes lead to understanding.  This learning happens throughout life:

  • Touch a hot stove--->learn that will burn
  • Fall off your bike--->learn to get up again
  • Lose the starting position on your basketball team--->learn from mistakes
  • Fail to get a job--->evaluate your effectiveness in current job

Failure is the greatest learning tool when the stakes are low.  Bob Ross from The Joy of Painting would say, "We don't make mistakes, just happy little accidents."  When mistakes can be painted over, we take risks and learn to love painting.  Those who feel pressure to be perfect the first time will struggle to become great artists.  Perfection is truly our enemy when it comes to the messy process of learning and growing.

Do schools discourage the greatest learning tool?

Our very policies directly tell kids that learning is a competition.  Competition is good in many cases such as athletics.  Competing to do your personal best is good.  Competing to determine a winner and loser has no place in the learning process.

If a student knows that the homework (learning) is being graded, it follows that it will effect GPA.  Class rank is a competition.  We tell students that scholarships and college admittance will be determined by class rank.  With these high stakes, we deincentivize students desire to challenge themselves.  We encourage a very cautious approach to learning where students fear failure.  In many schools, getting one B+ essentially ruins your chances of being the valedictorian.  If we have a valedictorian, we are showing that we value perfection, not growth.

Providing quality feedback on the learning process is important.   Studies show that once a grade is put on the paper, the feedback's importance is gone (Dylan William).  Students will look at the grade and not even read the feedback. Creating growth minded instruction encourages students to take risks and challenges by creating a safe to fail environment.  Creating an environment that encourages failure as a part of the learning process must allow experimentation and curiosity to blossom.  We must not suffocate our students with fear of "losing" the game of school.

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