Eduporium Weekly | If You're Going to Fail, Fail Forward

  • Posted on: September 2, 2017 - 8:09am
  • By: alarmand

Wouldn’t it be nice if students got everything they needed to know perfect every single time? Things would run so much more smoothly and everyone would be happier. Right? Wrong. Failure is an absolutely critical part of student learning especially in today’s hands-on, STEM-focused atmosphere. Students need to make mistakes in order to discover how to not solve problems just as much as they need to learn the right way. It’s time to start celebrating failure in education and important for educators to preach the wonders of failing forward.


Failing Forward so that Students can Succeed


Let’s first take a second to acknowledge the fact that students are going to fail at some point and that this is both important and okay. Great, now we can start. No student is perfect and failure is a key component of learning in any grade level. While it’s not the goal of teachers to have students fail classes or tests, they should be reinforcing the notion that it’s more than okay for kids to fail. As long as they fail forward. Failure is undeniably a valuable tool that kids can use to fuel success. The overall goal of going to school is to learn - whether it’s new concepts, skills, or ways of doing things. Luckily, students learn as much from failing as they do without it and, oftentimes, a great deal more.


Ask any professional athlete about failure, for example. Most of them fail more than they succeed. Heck, in baseball, if you fail seven out of 10 times, you’re a Hall-of-Famer. If you fail six out of 10 times, you’re a legend. Failure is an unmistakable part of success and solidifies the fact that failure itself is not an end; it’s merely access to a new beginning. As long as students remain open to learning, they’re going to have to remain open to failing. In almost every activity they do, students will fail at at least one aspect of it. It’s at this time that teachers must step in and ensure that the student understands why they failed. Did they miss a step, forget to take something into account, or did they maybe miscalculate something? All of these potential errors can be used as ways to improve on similar processes in the future.


Some of the things we know about failure can be used to help students spin it into a positive thing. The first is that we define failure ourselves. Who says that one particular outcome should be designated as a failure? Even it it’s not exactly what was wanted, there was undoubtedly a lot that was learned in the process. The next thing is that failure is not a conclusion. It’s just a chance at a new beginning. It’s important to maintain a growth mindset and not let failure get in the way of the overarching goal. Finally, students must accept that failure is a necessary part of success. The insights that they gain from failing are incredibly valuable. It’s inevitable, but it’s also an opportunity to build greater success in the long run.


The Importance of Failing Forward in Education


If you’re going to fail (and you probably will at some point), failing forward is the way to go in any profession and at any task. This is perhaps no more true than in the educating years of a child’s life. Today, students are faced with the pressure of developing optimal skill sets for success in our tech-heavy economy. One of the greatest problems with this is that the ones teaching them don’t always have these skills themselves. Experts continue to underscore the importance of molding problem solvers, critical thinkers, creative questioners, collaborators, and those who are willing to try something outside the box while failing forward if they fail at all. The need for innovation in education all but certainly will come with student (and teacher) failures, but, as long as they’re learning from what they do wrong and continue progressing towards their goals, the failures will be very valuable.


The problem is that most academic systems are not set up to promote and reward failing forward. Most school systems require their teachers to teach for the test and this requires them to cover the same certain concepts each and every year, leaving little room for experiential education. There’s also the misguided notion that all failure is bad. By the same token, these traditional methods of teaching don’t always adequately prepare students for all that they will need to be able to do. A different approach and one of the best ways to promote failing forward is through project-based learning. This kind of learning encourages kids to work with their hands as well as with technology and gives them plenty of opportunity to fail, rework their approaches, and do better the next time.


When we think of innovating in schools and creating the conditions for failing forward, we tend to instinctively think about using technology. This may not be the only approach, but it is one of the best since this helps students replicate some of the projects they will be doing later on in life whether it’s with coding, 3D printing, or something else. Of course, they will not know how to code or use a 3D printer the first time they set out to, so it’s with practice that students begin to perfect these skills. Any kind of hands-on learning that encourages critical thinking, risk taking, and collaboration is usually learning that will come with some forward failure. And, that’s what schools should be striving for - not creating the perfect students who never fail, but creating the perfect students who see failure as something valuable, look for ways to improve, and grow throughout the process.


Helping Kids Get Comfortable with Failure


As educators, it’s fairly easy to see the benefits of failing forward in the classroom. Kids, however, might not see failure as a beneficial experience. They are conditioned to desire success in everything they do and telling them it’s okay to fail from time to time might take some getting used to. Kids think of failure as being defined as any result that does not meet their expectations. We know this, however, to be untrue. Even in failure, there is plenty of success to be had. Trying and failing should no longer be seen as an unfortunate occurrence; it’s merely a useful step in the overall journey towards achievement.


While they’re in school and even once they’re a part of the workforce, today’s students are going to experience failure on a fairly regular basis. It’s important, however, that their teachers drive home the fact that failure is okay and should even be encouraged in order for them to learn more during the problem-solving process. People who rarely make mistakes have probably never really tried anything new. And, that’s not what we should want from today’s students. We want them experimenting, innovating, and creatively engaging in trial and error so that they have the chance to learn new things through experiences and through failures. When every assignment is weighted with the looming presence of a grade, however, students tend to be more cautious and take fewer risks. Instead of helping them learn, in many cases, school assignments are crippling the creative process.


Despite the notion of failure being equated with negativity from a very young age, teachers can take steps to actively reverse this way of thinking. Perhaps one of the best ways to help this renaissance become more effective is to use technology to encourage creativity, innovation, and failure. Technology helps them see that it’s not about getting to the finish line as quickly as possible. It’s about embracing the failures and learning how to better navigate to the finish line the next time around. Using EdTech also allows students to take as much time as they need to demonstrate that they’ve mastered a concept rather than being forced to rush through a test. It’s a different world than it once was, but technology is a tool that should be valued when it comes to preaching the importance of forward-facing failure.


Forward Failure Helps Schools Innovate


Not only does forward failure help students learn in a different way, it’s also been known to be an effective way to promote innovation within school communities. A lot of the time, it takes a number of failures for students to truly explore innovation in their education. In chasing down innovation that is often elusive, both students and teachers will likely fail while they are trying to discover new things. During this creative experimentation, as long as they are learning, they are failing forward. And, as long as they are failing forward, they are innovating. Aha, light bulb. Innovation and forward failure tend to go hand in hand.


Teachers can start out by informing their students that they want them to fail a lot this school year and, though they will be skeptical, once the reasons are explained, kids should be able to see why this is a valuable exercise. It may not work out exactly as scripted as first, but as long as the attempt to get kids to fail forward fails forward, teachers can refine the lessons and activities they use and smooth things out as they go. In the classroom, if students can’t get something to work, there’s probably a reason why this is the case. This is the time for them to break the problem down and find the barrier to their success. After failing, they’re then ready to, once again, move forward.


A lot of the time, innovative approaches to learning are met with resistance because of the propensity for students to mess things up a bit. It takes this kind of creativity, however, to get students exploring new concepts in meaningful ways. When they don’t have the fear of negative repercussions that associate with failure hanging over them, children are much more free to experiment and take advantage of the creative process. By using forward failure and classroom innovation together, educators are better able to find common ground between the two. The failures that come with trying something new are no longer seen as impediments, but rather as learning experiences that help students take on their next challenge in a different way.


Why We Should Encourage Students To Fail


It may sound weird, but, teachers, we want to challenge you to try something new this school year. Well, we’d love it if you’d try a lot of new things, but there’s one thing in particular we want as many teachers doing as possible. How’d you know it was promoting forward failure in your classroom? You’re good. In learning, failures are considered to be anything other than the specifically sought-after result students are looking for. We know that even if they don’t arrive at the exact result they want, they still probably learned a lot, though. There is nothing wrong with looking for X, but discovering Y in the process.


Students have to realize that there are very few endeavors in life that have a clear cut right way and a clear cut wrong way. If they discover something brand new to them, their classmates, or their teachers, but it was not part of their goal, how can we classify that as a failure? You may have heard the phrase ‘failure is not an option; it’s a requirement.’ Many teachers - specifically STEM teachers - have adopted this motto in their classrooms in order to better challenge their students and keep from spoon feeding them the knowledge they could get in other, more effective ways. More often than not, students will arrive at the answers they need to find, but getting there on their own and trying new approaches when others fail is sometimes needed.


Students think that if they can’t immediately grasp how to solve a problem or why a particular concept works the way that it does, then they have failed. Heck, I’m sure plenty of adults feel this way, too. The goal of failing forward is to eliminate or at least reduce this way of thinking as well as the impulsive reaction to either give up or immediately ask for help. Failing forward is oftentimes pretty fun and kids need to experience this kind of freedom for themselves. It will only help them in the future as the real-world problems they’re going to have to solve will not come with a set of clear instructions or maybe not even include a specific outcome to shoot for. It’s more about the learning journey than the final result and making sure students are failing forward - not backwards.


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