No one likes the ‘F’ word, but the benefits of failure are a valuable part of the learning process.
Inventor Thomas Edison famously stated, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”
It’s not surprising that Edison had a few words to say on the topic; as an inventor, he failed regularly. Failure is an inevitable outcome of being human, but it’s something that most of us are taught to fear from a young age. Unfortunately, that fear can stand in the way of progress and innovation.
One of the benefits of failure is that it isn’t usually black and white. Sometimes new discoveries come from experiences that seem like failures. Invention thrives on failure, because it provides the feedback necessary to move forward. In her INBOUND talk on the importance of failure, business innovator Ekaterina Walter talks about how photo sharing site Flickr was originally meant to be a gaming site. The gaming site failed, but Flickr’s creators realized that the photo sharing element was popular and decided to build on that knowledge to arrive at success. Science especially is based on failure because even a “failed” experiment provides new data.
Below are a few tips to help students fail productively in the classroom:
1. Practice Positive Criticism
Learning to handle criticism can be an incredibly difficult process for people of all ages. Words that attack or belittle are never helpful, but truly constructive critique is vital to the processes of creation and invention. One of the benefits of failure is that it provides us with opportunities to learn. When assigning an exercise that involves students giving feedback to other students, take a moment to address how to properly give and receive criticism. What are students basing their opinions on, and what kind of language do they use to express them? Is their criticism respectful or degrading? Do they back their statements up with facts and data?
2. Incorporate Project-Based Learning
Asking students to design or build something means that they have to implement previously abstract ideas in real life. Anyone who has ever tried to start a business knows that sometimes ideas that work well on paper turn out quite differently when we actually act upon on them. Project-based learning gives students a chance to experience the importance of failure in the learning process for themselves, and to develop strategies for handling it.
3. Encourage Second Attempts
If something doesn’t work out the first time around, that doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement. Offer opportunities for second chances, perhaps with the added incentive of extra credit. If going back over incorrect answers helps a student learn from his or her mistakes on a low-scoring assignment, it’s not a waste of time or effort – and you’re not giving points away for no reason. Grades should reflect a student’s work and level of understanding as a whole, not just at a specific point in time.
4. Be Open about Your Own Failures
Speaking openly about the importance of failure is one of the best ways to move past it. Students may become upset by the prospect of failure because they connect academic achievements with their sense of self worth. Set an example for students by showing that failure is only a small part of life, and that a mistake (or many mistakes) doesn’t need to define who they are or how they perform in the future.
A fear of failure can lead to STEM anxiety. Read on to find out more about STEM anxiety and how to deal with it here.