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People are Born to Succeed not Fail

September 26, 2013

Last week, in preparation for my weekly blog post, I asked questions about fostering leadership qualities in students. One idea that Jason Wiks, an Associate Principal with Alberta Distance Learning Centre, suggested that one leadership quality students should possess is the capacity to fail well; the ability to “pick themselves up saying that didn’t work, trying again.” I was interested by this comment as I never considered the capacity to manage failure as a leadership quality. But, reflecting on it further, this idea has a great deal of merit. However, I also believe that in order for students to see failure as a positive component of learning, we need to do some work around what it means to fail.

I chose to modify Henry David Thoreau’s quote as my title as I believe it encapsulates a common western belief about failure. We are taught from a young age that failure is bad. When you score less than 50% or receive a D, that is failure, and failure is unacceptable. Our society encourages success and celebrates success, while failure is seen as a character flaw and a sign of weakness. Our school systems perpetuate this belief. All you have to do is ask a student to define “fail.” Most of them will tell you in no uncertain terms that failing is a bad thing. But, failure doesn’t have to be seen as a negative component of school.

We have a ten year old son who loves video games. He could sit for hours, if we let him, in front of his game, failing over and over again. While his lack of success in completing a level in his game creates frustration, he doesn’t give up. He keeps at it and tries new avenues to complete his level. He does so because there is no downside to not succeeding. He may need to restart his level but there is no penalty. This child does not bring the same tenacity and commitment to his work at school. If he does not succeed, he often gives up, as he is scared to fail and be penalized. I am not necessarily advocating the gamification of learning. I am, however, suggesting that the education system needs to embrace failure as a positive step to learning.

Shawn White (@swpax, http://www.swpax.us) wrote a post about this a few weeks ago. His suggestion is that the word fail should be an acronym which means Frequent Attempts In Learning. We should encourage our students to take academic risks and not worry if they do not succeed in their first attempt – they will have many other opportunities to try again. Of course, our role then will be to conference and help students reflect upon the processes they went through and the steps they took. It will be our role to help them develop a new plan and then test that plan. If it isn’t successful, we work through the process again. To me this embodies the idea of learning, unlearning and relearning. As well, it is not an idea that is revolutionary in any sense. Coaches do this with athletes all the time. During practice, the expectation is that athletes will have multiple opportunities to try new plays, new moves or new strategies. The coach will work with them to identify areas they can improve upon and they will try again. So why don’t we do this in our schools? What’s the barrier?

If we want students to learn how to fail well and pick themselves up to try again, we must embrace frequent attempts in learning. We need to have the courage to say to our students, their parents, and our colleagues that failing is not a bad thing. After all, how did you learn to ride a bike? Did you get on the bike and ride without assistance the first time? Or, did it take frequent attempts to learn how to balance and pedal? I’m willing to bet you didn’t just get on and ride – you needed frequent attempts to learn. So do our students.

Thanks for reading. Comments and feedback are always appreciated.

Have a great day,

Sean

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3 Comments
  1. Hey Sean- This is a hot topic. We have been chatting about a an “Open Badge for Failure” in the badge posts: http://wiobyrne.com/open-badging-systems-and-the-failure-badge/

    After some reflection – I wrote about Terry Fox – http://www.openclassroomonline.com/terry-fox-leader-inspiration-what-badge-would-he-get/

    And Deirdre Bailey http://savouringtheish.blogspot.ca/2013/09/when-winning-is-dominant-discourse.html

    I would say – it’s not so much failure that we promote as educators – but perseverance. How can we encourage our students and our own children to – persevere? Because no matter what, they will fail…but it’s how they “see” success, “feel” success and are guided by “success” that will really help develop their learning paths.

    I really enjoy your blog.

    Verena 🙂

    • Verena,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. I agree that teachers need to promote both perseverance and success. I also believe that in order to encourage these qualities in our students we need to ensure they feel comfortable and safe in not succeeding the first time out – or the eighth time, etc. The process in learning, unlearning, and relearning are what I see as significant. I agree it is important to understand how students see success but I believe it is equally, if not more important how they see failure. I see education as encouraging the students to make frequent attempts in learning, and help them reflect upon that processes. Take a look at David Truss’ posting about it: http://pairadimes.davidtruss.com/learning-and-failure/ and Shawn White’s post: http://swpax.us/5-365/ and Lance King’s article: http://taolearn.com/articles/article87.pdf

      Thanks again!

  2. Great links – thanks Sean.

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