A social media interaction with a school board trustee clarified for me why we need teachers who fail. I suggested that we should be encouraging a more innovative culture in our schools. The trustee snarled “Parents don’t send their children to school to be experimented on” at me. “We need to use proven methods, not just make it up”.
His attitude symbolizes a significant contradiction in schools today. We want schools to be world leaders, and use the latest most effective methods. Simultaneously, we don’t want educators to take chances, to try something new and unproven. However risk and failure are essential for learning.
We know intuitively that failure is necessary for learning. The first time a child tries to walk, they fail. After repeated failures they take their first step. “Iterative learning” is evident in everything babies do. Through repeated trial and failure they learn how to feed themselves, control their impulses, communicate and thousands of other tasks.
Eventually we understand that failure means a lack of mastery, and we start to feel shamed and to hide our failures. Students don’t raise their hands in class because they’re afraid of looking incompetent. The older a child gets, the more they work to hide their failures.
When we’ve reached adulthood, we’re supposed to know what we’re doing. This is especially true of experts. We don’t want incompetent doctors, police officers, politicians, educators or any of the other important people we rely on. The wrong order at the drive through annoys us, but an incompetent professional scares us.
This is misguided thinking. Professional expertise is based on understanding, but knowledge is growing exponentially and it’s impossible for anyone to keep up. Professionals encounter ways to better understand and do their work on a daily basis. Because of the explosion of information we are all in perpetual beta, and that’s why the belief that teachers shouldn’t fail needs to end.
Classrooms and schools using the best and newest practices are going to have some failure, and that’s good. Failure is a sign that we’re taking risks and trying new things. That’s exactly what schools should be doing, because the downside of staying safe is greater than the cost of a few failures.
I often challenge myself to take risks in my teaching, and I understand now that my failures are unpredictable. One time, the new approach I try works perfectly, and I am surprised and feel like a genius. The next it falls flat and I have to stop everything, apologize to the class and walk us all back to safer ground.
There was a time when having a lesson fail would have killed my confidence, leaving me with recriminations and admonitions. That changed when I stopped pretending I knew exactly what I was doing. When I removed my ego and accepted that I wasn’t in charge of the learning process, but instead just a part of it, teaching became more fun.
Now classes unfold like a mystery novel and I’m fascinated to see how they turn out. I see failed lessons the way skaters see the scars they gained perfecting a new trick. They’re badges of honour. A spectacular flop is more exciting than a resounding success, because there’s way more learning in failure.
I’ve slowly brought my students into the process. I admit to them “We’re going to try this, I’m not sure it will work. Let’s try, and tell me how it goes”. When something doesn’t work I admit to them “Wow! That didn’t work at all, did it?” And we discuss what happened.
Sharing my thinking helps them manage their expectations and understand that the goal isn’t perfection. It also models the importance of taking risks and learning from failure in their own learning. As their teacher I ask them to take risks in learning all the time, to do things they aren’t comfortable with. Shouldn’t I also model for them what that taking a risk and sometimes failing looks like? Shouldn’t I show them what it looks like to persevere after a set back? None of that is possible without risking failure.
If we want our educators and classrooms to be cutting edge, we must welcome failure in our teaching and learning. Our students deserve the latest, newest ideas to maximize their learning, and we can’t use those methods unless we’re willing to risk failing. In our fast changing world things move very fast. The proven, safe ideas, are already out of date.