If you’ve been hanging around any educational chats in the last while, you have likely read, discussed or posted your own thoughts on developing risk taking in students. Whether you have called it grit, building perseverance skills, one of the cute FAIL acronyms (Fail=First Attempt In Learning, etc), or development of problem solving capacity, it all boils down to the same thing. We are all extolling the benefits of letting kids fail in their learning.
Well, let me tell you, even if it is good for you, failing sucks.
This year, I jumped on the #OneWord bandwagon and set my goal for the year. You can read about my thinking back in January when I set the goal, here:
The word I chose to represent my goal this year was stretch. It’s been a busy six months, but as I reflect on how I’ve done on my goal, I find that I have failed far more than I have succeeded in stretching to meet the specific tasks within my goal.
Wait, did I say fail? But that can’t be! We don’t really fail anymore, do we? Besides, the year is only half over. There is still time to succeed. Many goals need tweaking along the way once you get into them. There were extenuating circumstances that affected my progress.
These consoling excuses are all true, but I still have to admit that I have failed.
Much like the experience of our students, I’m not really used to failing. I was a successful student in school. I have excelled in the extra curricular activities I choose to pursue (of course, who chooses to pursue the ones they aren’t good at?). I pride myself on successfully completing my to-do lists. I even feel guilty when I abandon a book I don’t like. Failure, as society has conditioned us to believe, is not an option.
So, as I sit back now and lick my wounds, I have to reflect on where I go from here. I still have half a year on my goal of stretching. Some of my failures are things that I still intend to pursue further armed with some new knowledge, new strategies and from new angles. Others I am going to admit are currently beyond me (not an easy admission to make) and I’ll spend some time thinking about whether they are things I need to work on at another time.
It’s interesting to note that, in reading over my One Word blog post, I assumed success. Even though the goals were a stretch, I assumed that I would succeed because I usually set goals for myself that I am eventually successful at.
Now the question is, can I use my failing experiences to help better prepare students to fail too? (You don’t know how weird it was to write that. We really ARE conditioned to avoid failure, aren’t we?). I think so.
- Failing still feels like, well, failure. If we are preparing students to experience it, we need to prepare them to know that it doesn’t feel great. Giving them a FAIL acronym or pat them on the back for developing “grit” doesn’t adequately acknowledge the emotion or frustration they will feel when they fail.
- Teach students that there will be some goals that are beyond them, some that are well within their reach, and others that they will have to chip away at to succeed. Learning that not every goal is achievable is a key, although maybe controversial, lesson in critical and reflective thinking.
- Admit our own failures. We provide students with role models in everything else, failure mentors shouldn’t be any different. Using ourselves as those mentors is probably more meaningful to a student than telling them how many times Alexander Graham Bell’s communication inventions failed before he finally placed that first phone call. If we are their mentors, we can walk them through the ups and downs of failure.
- Celebrate the successes within the failure. When I now sit back and reflect on one of my colossal failures this year, I can see glimmers of good stuff within it. I learned how to do things differently, I made a difference to this person, I changed a practice for the better. Those are the things I need to build on. The same would be true of our students when they fail. We have to do this carefully, though. Glossing over the failure entirely and only focusing on the good may protect them from the hurt of failure, but may not teach them how to get over it. We can’t teach students to avoid failure altogether.
Stretching is still my goal for 2016. Some of my original goals are things I’m still working on. Others are shifting as conditions have changed. And some, I have failed. But I will learn from those and find new ways to stretch.