Failure is not an upbeat subject. Now, as the school year begins, even in this strangest of school years, few of us are likely to be thinking, “OK, let’s go in there and fail!” And yet, I’ve been thinking about failure a lot.
First, of course, I’m thinking about failure because it is the last in the series of Habits for Creativity suggested by Modeli, a model of innovation from The Henry Ford museum. The list includes:
Learn from Failure.
Persistence in the face of failure—and the associated risk taking—are often linked with creative pursuits. It is important for students to understand that people we view as successful have plenty of flaws and failures: Dickens needed editing, Edison failed repeatedly in trying to develop a light bulb, and Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first TV job. One of my earliest blogs was titled Failure 101, about my early mosaic efforts, followed shortly thereafter by Failure 102, When is Failure not Failure, and Stand on Your Failures. In each case, I’ve emphasized the importance of creating a classroom in which failure—especially in creative endeavors—is viewed as an essential part of learning.
Since I’ve already written about creative failure, today I want to think about plain old ordinary “I don’t get it, this is too hard, I feel stupid” feeling-of-failure, the kind that can accompany any challenging learning task. Why am I thinking about that feeling? Recently, I’ve experienced a lot of it!
For the last few years I’ve been taking short French classes from our local school’s “Rec and Ed” program. I’ve enjoyed them enormously and learned a lot, despite the nearly 50-year break since my last French class. Rec and Ed classes are designed to be recreational and the stress is minimal. This winter I decided to try something different and enrolled in a more advanced French class through an adult language school. There, I’m experiencing something I’ve never experienced before: life at the bottom of the class. To be fair, I have much less experience with French than my classmates, who are kind and generous as I stumble. But the only times I don’t perceive myself as markedly worse than the rest is when everyone else is struggling, too. Today, after a particularly challenging pronunciation assignment, it was clear that nearly the whole group was discouraged, just sure that as soon as we opened our mouths, something else would be wrong. In a situation that is nearly ideal—motivated adult students, a kind and enthusiastic teacher, and supportive classmates—we could all hit a point where another attempt felt futile. But the truth is, we weren’t actually failing at all, it just felt that way. But the feeling affected our learning and our willingness to try. We definitely were not ready for any creative risks!
The experience has made me think a lot of the students for whom that “why try again” feeling is a familiar refrain, not just in an optional weekly class, but day after day in school. If we want to have a classroom in which students will take the risks in creative activities, it also needs to be a place in which we minimize that sense of hopelessness. If students believe they can learn, they can. If they believe the classroom is a safe place to make mistakes, they will do better in both basic learning and creativity. It is not enough to help students understand failure is important. We must also help them minimize failure experiences and have the emotional resources to deal with failure-feelings when they come. How do we manage that?
Some of the answers are the same as I’ve written about previously: teach about the challenges of successful adults, teach students how much can be learned from thinking about a “good wrong answer,” create assignments in which multiple options can all be successful. But we can also take some lessons from the assessment literature that will help our students feel failure less frequently. I suspect it is much easier to learn from failure when it is not an everyday occurrence. So, consider some of these.
- First, of course, to the degree that it is possible, match learning tasks to students’ skill levels. In large groups of young people, this is so difficult but so critical. We would never berate a toddler for not walking by a certain date. How is it that we somehow believe that every child should learn to read or be able to multiply in sync? When differences are considered normal, everyone is more likely to both be and feel successful.
- Remember the importance of formative feedback. Specific information about what needs to be changed gives students direction and greater confidence in their ability to move forward. Global comments, whether they are “Good” or “You can do better,” don’t provide help or information beyond “You were successful” or “You weren’t.” This is why grades—while required for most of our jobs—are not necessarily helpful. They impact students’ emotions but don’t give them help improving.
- On the other hand, don’t allow yourself to become buried in formative feedback. If you try to explain every problem to every student every day, two things are likely to happen: 1) You will be overwhelmed with the workload and be sorely tempted to move back to simple numerical scores and 2) Students, faced with details about every error, are likely to become overwhelmed and discouraged as well. Be selective. Decide on your goal for a particular assignment and give feedback just on that. If you are focusing on students’ descriptive language, you don’t need to analyze every grammatical error as well. For regular writing assignments, such as student journals, you don’t need to read every one every day. For students, hearing thoughtful feedback once a week is more helpful than a check mark every day.
- Remember the importance of small victories, what Teresa Amabile calls the “Progress Principle.” When we feel ourselves making progress in meaningful work, even when the progress is small, we are more likely to be both motivated and creative. When I hear that I pronounced my French “t” correctly, I see myself making progress, even as my vowels continue to be wrong. Praising small victories requires tact, and sometimes is best done privately, to avoid having students perceive comments as insincere or embarrassing.
- And while you are at it—especially this fall—apply these principles to your own work. All of us are teaching in a new world, many of us teaching in new ways. We are working with students with exceptional levels of stress, while teaching under exceptionally difficult conditions. So, tackle one goal at a time. Recognize your small successes. Don’t expect your efforts to be the same as anyone else’s. Ignore outside voices (like mine!) when they don’t fit the reality of your teaching world. Keep yourself and your students safe and be grateful for the small steps. We are not failing. We are doing hard things. And in case you are having a hard time, enjoy one of my favorite singers, Carrie Newcomer. We can do this hard thing!