This post is part of a series on hard lessons to teach in schools. When I broached the subject of failure with students I really expected them to be more negative, fearing that school had probably sold them on the line that failure is to be avoided at all costs. In the end I was pleasantly surprised. I started by writing the question “Is failure good or bad?” on the board, and baited the trap with an offer of free chocolate for good ideas (I generally don’t go in for treats as bribes, but happened to have some on hand).
As well as the usual suspects, a few new students got in on the discussion, sharing some good ideas. Right from the outset it was made clear that failure can be something that we learn from, helping us to do better next time around. One student pointed out the difference between the types of failure that help us to learn, and those other failures that result in needless death and destruction. This paved the way for a discussion on how we judge the value of failure. One student posed the moral dilemma inherent in the question “is it right to kill one person in the development of a vaccine that could save millions of lives”, which is naturally impossible to answer but interesting to consider.
In the end I tried to sum things up by noting the often-complex nature of failure (giving the example of the many, varied missteps leading to the Apollo 13 disaster, although I got some details mixed up with Apollo 1: a little failure of my own). At one point a student had hinted at this, noting that individuals often amplifying the same failures over the course of their lives, failing to ever learn, destined to a life of misery. Finally I tried to explain that failure is great, even if it does not often feel it. I wish I had been more eloquent here, but I wasn’t. I really want students to feel that failure is vital for success, and without it, success has little meaning or value. Failure keeps us humble, it makes us better. A little of this came across, but not enough.
I came away with the feeling that some of my students are, in theory, well prepared to make the most of failure. I wonder though, what the effect of all of our grading really does to their willingness to take risks. All the while some students remained steadfastly silent: the next challenge is how to get more out of them.
Credit: thumbnail image is shared under PD.