Let’s Reframe “Failure” to a Learning Process for Students
May 1, 2020
learning process for students

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.” ~ Confucius

Failing is scary. We often resist trying something new because we fear we might fail. Our culture has created a false reality defined by high-stakes victories and failures. Our sports-dominated view of success has one champion at the end of the season. Social media builds on this impossible standard with numbers of likes and friends equaling victory. These are artificial win-lose realities that our students mistakenly use to define what success means.

It’s time we reframe what failure looks like and what it means for our children.

Imagine how much healthier it is to frame our efforts in terms of a process instead of a product. Albert Einstein had a unique approach to failure. When a reporter once asked him, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

“Great success is built on failure, frustration, even catastrophe.” ~ Summer Redstone

Luckily, there are models in schools that support process over product and encourage higher-level thinking over a one-size-fits-all definition of a successful final product.

Design Thinking

Project-based learning, the act of students exploring rather than the teacher lecturing, often includes design thinking. John Spencer and A.J. Juliani have created one of many design thinking models used by schools today, one of which is The Launch Cycle, outlined in their book. The cycle allows students to learn deeper by doing the work themselves and exploring the results at every stage.

Processes include multiple attempts versus one product with success or failure as the binary results.

How LAUNCH Works in the Classroom

Let’s look at how using a design thinking system for any classroom assignment or project can create authentic learning and decrease the feeling of terror so many students feel when handed a traditional assignment.

1. The first step is to look, listen, and learn. Students spend time pondering and gathering information alongside teachers. Oftentimes students feel like there is one correct answer that they need to be able to figure out and demonstrate. What if we were all learners together? What if we were all trying to figure out the key elements of the problem together?

2. That leads to asking tons of questions. This takes the teacher away from being the expert and empowers everybody to go broad and deep. If all questions are valued, there is no failure possible. Teachers need to moderate this process and be curious learners along with the student.

3. From this base then students can begin to understand the process or problem. When we take time to create these initial steps, students take ownership and it becomes a puzzle that everyone tries to solve versus a trick students feel teachers are imposing, one with only one right answer and a huge chance of failure.

4. The fourth step, navigating ideas, is all about taking the ideas and seeing which ones make sense, which ones need refinement, and which ones need to be tossed out. Again we dismiss the binary failure or success equation. Students craft their learning and explore multiple possibilities.

5. Once students have sorted out which ideas make sense for their problem or process, then they create a prototype. The very definition of a prototype: a first, typical, or preliminary model of something, especially a machine, from which other forms are developed or copied, lets the student know that they won’t fail. They will obviously have to refine or dismiss a first or preliminary model or process. Again, this is not high stakes win or lose thinking. In fact, it goes beyond that to higher-level thinking as students create, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize, and reflect.

6. Step 6 is the best! Students to highlight the good and to fix the parts that are not working well. Fixing and refining are a lifelong skill. No failure here; just opportunities to improve the product or process!

The beauty of the design thinking process is there is an audience who gets to share in this creation process. Students take their process and results to a specific audience and present their findings. Just like scientists, findings may have supported a hypothesis or have disproved it. Since design thinking is a process, amazing higher level thinking has gone on and the emphasis on success or failure has been greatly diminished.

Teach Students a Healthier Mindset

In addition to using design thinking to model failure as a natural part of any creative process, three ways teachers can help students have a healthier process mindset are:

Explore “failures” of famous people

Knowing that others have “failed” and come back to great success helps students put into perspective the process that they must go through to see success. Seeing that someone they recognize has persevered through adversity and challenges shows them that overnight successes just don’t happen. For example:

🔸 27 publishers rejected Dr. Seuss’s first book, To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.

🔸 After his first audition, Sidney Poitier was told by the casting director, “Why don’t you stop wasting people’s time and go out and become a dishwasher or something?” It was at that moment, recalls Poitier, that he decided to devote his life to acting.

🔸 Beethoven handled the violin awkwardly and preferred playing his own compositions instead of improving his technique. His teacher called him “hopeless as a composer.” And, of course, he wrote five of his greatest symphonies while completely deaf.

🔸 In high school, actor and comic Robin Williams was voted “Least Likely to Succeed.”

🔸 Van Gogh sold only one painting during his life. And this to the sister of one of his friends for 400 francs (approximately $50). This didn’t stop him from completing over 800 paintings.

🔸 In 1944, Emmeline Snively, director of the Blue Book Modeling Agency, told modeling hopeful Norma Jean Baker, “You’d better learn secretarial work or else get married.” I’m sure you know that Norma Jean was Marilyn Monroe.

Make it a class activity for students to find out about the successes and “failures” of three famous people. Let’s normalize the design process and banish the high-stakes false success-failure model!

Call out your own mistakes

Teachers can call out any failures they are making so that students become aware but this is a human phenomenon. If a teacher misspells a word on the board or forgets to hand back homework, a laugh and a comment, “Oops! it looks like I made a mistake!” goes a long way toward modeling mistakes.

Mistakes are opportunities for learning

Create a culture that views mistakes as an opportunity to learn, not as a failure. Celebrate these opportunities. One teacher I know stands up on a chair and has the class cheer along when a mistake is discovered. It is celebrated as an opportunity for learning and thinking to go deeper. The classroom culture applauds mistakes as an opportunity. No shame here!

We get to define what we value in our classrooms. If exploring, discovering, and evolving are our priorities, let’s redefine negative concepts such as failure, to free our students to focus on being fearless and active learners.

For more ideas on how to engage students–both in the classroom and virtually–download our 7 Hacks for Remote Learning Engagement.

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