Monday, August 26, 2013

Failure is not an option...

... it's a necessity.

As a teacher, I enjoy the freedom to try new things, adjust my ideas on the fly, and refine my skills. There is such a liberty in being able to decide how to deliver content, how to get students to demonstrate their understanding of concepts, and how to encourage students to take their learning beyond the classroom.

Back when I was a student, I found school fairly easy. Understanding came easily to me, and it was only in grade 10 that I got my first taste of failure. I failed a math test. I had never failed anything before that, and I remember the shock of seeing that grade on my paper. I couldn't believe it, and I felt a profound sense of shame. So much so that I worked incredibly hard, and ended up aceing the next test.

In my case, failure was a bit of a "wake-up call" and it motivated me to work harder, but there are a few things that I've learned since then. Life lessons that I think can be applied in the classroom.

First, failure is a necessary part of life. Without the possibility of failing at something, where's the challenge? If there's no risk, the potential reward is diminished. You have to be willing to fail in order to take pleasure in your success.

Now, to be fair, that's not failure exactly. That's only potential failure. That means that failure isn't a necessity; it just needs to be considered as an option.

But failing at something also gives learners the opportunity to learn persistence. In order to do so, that requires a particular flavour of failure. Failure as a stepping-stone rather than a destination. Let me give you an example:

This summer I decided to take on an ambitious project. I really want motion-controlled music-synced lights. But I don't want to just go out and buy some. I want to build them myself. I play with electronics as a hobby, and I thought this would be an interesting project. Fast forward to four months later, and I've got a pile of parts that don't work. It's close to working, but all it does right now is sit there and shine at full brightness. If you were to ask me today if I succeeded at that challenge, the answer would not be "yes." Not even close. I have clearly failed at my goal of getting this project completed before the end of summer.

But my answer wouldn't be "no," either. Okay, today it might be a failure. But ask me if I succeeded, and my response would be "not yet."

Failure is a step on the path to success at any sufficiently challenging project.

How can this apply in the classroom? I have two ideas. The first comes from my grade 13 Algebra and Geometry teacher. Mr. Doerkson, thanks for the idea. On our final big project, we had to give an analysis of math that's a part of something. Anything. And if you wanted to give an example, that was good.

My project was a flight plan calculator using vectors. It never worked properly. But it didn't have to. Mr. Doerkson encouraged us to explain why it didn't work, and what it was supposed to do. I actually did fairly well on the project because although it didn't work, I was able to figure out why. The next step in the process would have been to correct the error, but that went beyond the scope of a high school math assignment.

Identifying problems is an important part of improvement.

And that segues nicely into the second possible application of failure in the classroom. As a teacher, I comment on student assignments and give feedback when grading. But I want students to actually read these and think about it. When a final grade really is final, there's little motivation for students to care about what I've written. So I encourage students to look over the comments, make changes and improvements, and actually resubmit their assignment. They can improve their original grade if they make the effort. This way, students can look at what they've done, identify improvements, then actually implement them. This doesn't require failure in order to be effective, but it also lessens the stigma that failure usually carries. Failed it? Okay, no big deal, just fix it.

So the idea that failure is to be feared? That if you failed it means you should give up? That's not how life is, and in my opinion, that's not what students should learn from school. Students should take the risk.

But it shouldn't just be students who are willing to fail. As a teacher, I'm willing to risk trying something new with my class. A new app, an new assignment, or a new lesson idea. If it succeeds, I'm thrilled. And if it completely fails, I think about what went wrong, and how I can fix it. What could I change that might make it better the next time? Where did the wheels fall off? What was I trying to achieve, and how was the end result different?

So as a teacher, I'm not afraid to fail. I'm also not afraid to admit that things didn't go as planed. I can admit that to colleagues, parents and to my students. I want my students to see that not only can I fail, but I can improve because I failed. Failing is not a reason to give up - it's a reason to work harder, longer, and to persevere until you've turned your failure into an opportunity to achieve greater success.

Failure is not an option, it's a necessity, but it shouldn't be a destination!