Failure, when done well, can lead to tremendous success. The experience can be enlightening: It can lend perspective, provide actionable feedback and be the impetus for students’ drive to do better. But failure can also be a crushing emotional experience that cripples motivation. As educators, we can do a lot to see that our students take their inevitable and wonderful failures in a learned, optimistic state of mind. Teaching students to fail gives essential character while it changes a classroom to a more participatory, less fear-driven culture.
Teaching Students to Fail: Character Education
When talking about failure, there are two names that come to mind — Levin and Seligman — though neither are losers. David Levin is one of the founders of the Knowledge is Power Program and the author of Work Hard. Play Nice. Martin Seligman is a psychologist whose book Learned Optimism is often given as a flotation device to college students drowning in work (thanks for the positivity, Nana). Putting these ideas to work in your classroom is often referred to as character education or building non-cognitive skills.
Character education should be a thoughtful component in all content areas. The provocative title of this post is perhaps misleading: The goal is not to stop at teaching students failure but encourage their sense of grit. This attribute, a commonality among high-achievers, is integral to perseverance. Grit is the answer to the question, “Why do some individuals accomplish more than others of equal intelligence?” (Duckworth et al, 2007). Indeed, the first principle in teaching students to fail is appreciating that grit can and should be a taught in a classroom setting.
Remember that optimism is a learned trait that your students need to practice.
Teaching Students to Fail: Games
We have explored gamification in this blog extensively for its potential to change perspectives. Students can more easily bounce back from failure in a game than failure in a traditional academic setting. Thankfully, there are aspects of games we can study, extract and reuse to create a more resilient classroom.
Clarifying Big and Small Goals
Learning targets are a must. Every lesson should have an achievable, measurable goal that incrementally moves students toward a broader unit goal. The clarity this offers students is worth the effort alone. But its impact goes far beyond building a concept map students can navigate; it helps with teaching students to fail. Students can more easily maintain optimism if they can identify a specific subtopic that is causing setbacks as well as describe targets that have already been achieved.
Daily learning targets are critical in gamification. They are the determining factors of “leveling up” within a given curriculum and must be clearly marked. Of course there’s more to a game than the goal, or even a thoughtful set of goals.
Components of a Game
1. The goal or outcome
2. Rules with limitations on how the outcome can be achieved
3. Feedback on how close players are to the goal
4. Voluntary participation
(Nahl & James, 2012)
ExitTicket can be used as a way to blend assessments with games. Looking at the list, the first three features of a game are easily captured by ExitTicket’s functionality (especially if the Learning Targets app is active). The final component is a challenge.
This requires further investigation: Does an optional game-like assessment produce more failure-resilient participants than a required educational game? Does a class-wide vote on what activity to do next actually qualify an ExitTicket competition as voluntary? To test this with your students, send out a Quicket asking if students would like to repeat the activity. If it was a tough assessment but students are willing to hop back in the saddle, you’re on to something, and I urge you to share your story.
Remember to identify the goal of every lesson and how it relates to the larger course objectives. Keep students informed of their progress along these standards. Experiment with ways to introduce fun but tough assessments that students are willing to retry after poor results.
Teaching Students to Fail: Modeling
Perhaps the most powerful instructional strategy in teaching students to fail is modeling. Bringing in guest speakers to share their stories of perseverance as well as role-playing scenarios are both proven strategies (Shepard, 2004). A teacher with a strong rapport with her or his class can share a personal account of overcoming failure that has lasting effect. This is a controversial statement of course, but teachers should always try to weave a genuine account of their personal lessons learned into their instruction. The relationship we have with students is too influential not to use it for character education.
Remember to speak to your students about your own failures and share with them the joys of getting it right the second, third or nth time around.
- Conditions Under Which Assessment Supports Students’ Learning
- Implicit Theories, Attributions, and Coping: A Meaning System Approach
- The Significance of Grit: A Conversation with Angela Lee Duckworth
- What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?
- Students’ experiences of ability grouping— disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure