Can failure be a good thing?

Fail Better
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Failure is something I’ve been thinking more about lately. I’ve written about it previously, thinking about failing in a digital world. I’m not the only one thinking about failure though. Joe Bower wrote recently about whether kids learn positive things from failure. He notes that failure as a teaching tool has gained a fair amount of attention. (The counterpoint comes in issues of parents who contact university professors to argue for their child’s grade.)

After reading Bower’s post, I agree. Setting kids up to fail is a really bad idea. Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru aside, it’s generally a bad idea to set your students something that is impossible. That is not really what I think of when I think of useful forms of failure.

When I think of failure, I think of science. I think of experiments. I don’t think of failure as the end, I think of it as a temporary setback that requires adjustment.

With that in mind, I am more and more learning towards giving students chances to revise, to change, to try doing it differently. Not everyone gets it right on the first go and maybe that should be okay. If we want to talk about the work place, about training them for the future, let’s consider how many times we ourselves find ways to improve upon what we’ve done before, how many times we get to fix things, do it differently next time.

I could be qualified as a failed PhD Candidate. I will never finish the PhD that I started and, in that sense, I failed. Or did I? I looked at where I was at, evaluated, and made an informed decision to do something differently. I learned a lot about what matters to me, what I value. It is hard to consider that a failure, although I have met people who would.

I don’t think of failing as something done to instil a work ethic, I think of it as a chance to look at teachable moments and critical analysis. Not everything worked out right. What did not work? What did work? What will you do differently? What did you learn? Those are important questions. As an assistant instructional designer, I have to always be thinking about those questions. I have to be helping others think about them.

So I would argue that it is worth thinking about it. We don’t have to teach students to fail gracefully. We need to teach them to see when failure is the end and when it is just a step along the way. We need to teach them how to go forward if something did not work, because that’s going to happen, but to make that experience into something valuable. It’s easy enough to learn to try again. It is much harder to learn how that failed attempt is just that, an attempt. There will be more attempts.

I’ve been on a gaming reference kick lately but trust me. Games embody this. The game that has permanent death is rare. Most games accept that you will fail. There are consequences, but they are minimal. If you are interested, you will keep trying. If it’s possible, you will keep attempting it. Yes, there is a frustration threshold (I’m only going to die so many times attempting to defeat a monster), but that threshold is often higher because by the time you are really challenged, you have been attempting easier things too and you have successes under your belt.

So if we want to use failure, we also need to use success. We need to make some balance. We need to look at failure in a new way and start giving it multiple names. Not all failures are equal.

How about you? What failures have you learned from? Do you use failure in your teaching? How does it work?

2 thoughts on “Can failure be a good thing?”

  1. Kristen, what a great comment about failure. Last year for another class I attempted a project. It didn’t go too well, and I was disappointed. However, this year, I pared it down and it was better. I realized later I needed to teach the students to synthesize their findings, but each time I attempt something, I learn to reassess and do it better the next time. This year is the first year I’ve been teaching Creative Writing. It’s not quite going as I had hoped, but I am sure there will always be next year. That’s what I like about my job. I can always scrap it or do it better next time. I think the point is that I took a concept and tried it.

    1. Glad to hear I’m not the only one who has rethought failure! I think one of the biggest things we can do for ourselves and our students is to define the type of failure we experience. As you said, you get to try it again. This isn’t a failure of the idea itself, it’s something you can fix and change. Learning to know the difference is so important! Failure can be a sign that you should do something totally different or just a sign that you need to change part of it. 🙂

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