Teach students to learn from their failures

By the end of this post, there’s a good chance that you may fail to get the point.

That’s because the education world — and society in general — falls short on understanding failure. Dictionaries define it as “not meeting a desirable or intended objective.” Thesauruses list it as an antonym to success.

Business and science, on the other hand, have a different take. In those worlds, trying something without succeeding is not failing — it's merely one step in the journey to ultimate success. It’s also creating a whole new American mantra in boardrooms across the world: Fail fast and fail often.

Aspire to screw up

Many think that this new attitude toward failure should start in the classroom. But instead, the traditional classroom structure may be sabotaging successful failure.

Take the recent tendency for state boards to grade doctors on the traditional A-F scale. Once well-meaning folks started rating the results, it introduced an allergic reaction. When the Journal of Political Economy published a study in 2003 that compared coronary bypass surgeries in two states with mandatory surgical report cards against the rest of the country, it revealed that the report-card state doctors cherry-picked patients. Because few were willing to take a risk on high-risk patients, the results were a matter of life and death, with the sickest population drawing the short straw.

The new attitude posits that people who rarely make mistakes have never tried anything new. Perhaps no story illustrates that more than the legend of Thomas Edison, who didn’t quit after failing 10,000 times to create a filament for the light bulb. "I have discovered 10,000 things that don't work," he explained.

Unfortunately, classrooms are set up more like the hospital assessment than Edison’s lab, educators say. Every assignment is weighted with points, and the cumulative score determines the grade, so each assignment can hurt you.

“The grade results from the average of all of your successes and failures, so those with the greatest background come out the highest, not the student who progressed the most,” points out Doug Kiang, a computer science teacher at Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii. “We need to take the sting out of failure.”

How to right this wrong

Technology may be the best tool yet to teach resilience and risk-taking. For instance, the entire foundation of game design is built on failing repeatedly because of all the things players must try before beating the game. That’s why modern games allow you to save at any point. Students can save their games, take a risk and then restore it to that safe spot if they fail. After all, the goal of most games isn’t about getting through the room successfully the first time. It’s about learning how to get through the room.

Tech also offers answers on the grading front. For instance, you can mimic grading that reflects MOOCs and self-paced online courses that give students as much time as they need, but they must complete the work to move on. They can also level up similar to a video game: Students who keep trying could continue to gain points, and nothing they do would drop them below, say, a Level 3.

Kiang suggests playing with the Socrative and Kahoot! programs to test students and get feedback regularly, but anonymously, during a unit.

Other approaches include:

  • Allow high school students to self-test on their own against a standard to skirt social stigma surrounding failing.
  • Encourage kids to create informal learning communities with past students from your classroom using tools like Google Plus to encourage support from each other as they do the coursework.
  • Teach kids how to use Google Docs to give each other feedback — in other words, to use peer coaching — before they turn in an assignment.

Finally, to make the most of their mistakes, walk students — and yourself — through these questions whenever your efforts produce something that doesn't work:

  • What have I learned about what doesn't work?
  • Can this explain something that I didn't set out to explain?
  • What have I discovered that I didn't set out to discover?

That’s a mindset that never fails.