A Lesson on Failure

One of the first messages that came through to me loud and clear when I began my teaching studies is that failure is okay.  This is an important message that applies just as strongly for teachers as it does for students.

Just as you need hatred in order to understand love, you need failure in order to understand success.  I believe in these polar opposites as being integral tools for gaining perspective and insight into your own learning.  By making mistakes, you can plan, form goals and reflect upon mistakes made so that you may improve for next time.

In my classroom, I have been told, don’t worry about making mistakes or about having terrible classes – they will happen.  This is not to say that you should move on past a terrible class and forget that it happened, but use it as a learning exercise.  Even talk to the students about why that lesson did not go well and why you each believe that was the case.

Last week I gave one of my top-performing classes a test – however, the moment I handed it out, I realised it was testing them in the wrong way.  Instead of providing a set of questions that asked for a clear demonstration of skills, the test included challenging questions within too short a time frame.  In theory, most students would have been capable of solving all the questions, but given the allocated time, speed was prioritised over ability.  I have decided that since I would like students’ score to be a true reflection of their ability, I will talk to them about whether they would like to spend some more class time to complete the test.

While the structure of the test has reflected a failure on my own behalf, I must be careful to communicate to students that their own mistakes in the test do not indicate a catastrophe.  A student may fail the test, but they are not failures.  The distinction between being a failure and failing – a term that I do actually avoid using in case of confusion – is crucial. Much in our society is ridden on success, and constant progress.  If our students are only fed this mantra then it is all the more difficult to take imperfections in their stride and appreciate that failure is a natural part of life.

What I am trying to encourage students, and to display through my own practices, is that much can be learned through the habit of risk-taking. Risk-taking allows the individual to be autonomous in their learning, whilst also confronting challenge and potential fall-backs.  A thought to contemplate some more later: is risk something we are losing in our education?