Failure

When my campus returned to school yesterday, our administration planned a speaker for us. His name is Dr. Adam Saenz and I would highly recommend hearing him speak if you have the opportunity. He talked a lot about how teachers make a difference in students lives in ways we do not and, possibly, will not understand. The presentation got me thinking about something we do not let our students do often enough: fail. It may seem odd for a teacher to think failing students is a good thing, but stay with me on this.

To put it simply: failure is a great teacher. Oprah Winfrey is quoted as saying, “Failure is a great teacher and, if you are open to it, every mistake has a lesson to offer.” As educators we are charged with helping our students find success daily, but is this  realistic? As adults, are we successful each day? How do we measure successes and failures?

In the classroom, the term “failure” is often associated with a failing grade in a course. I have seen the videos and read the papers advocating changing the term from “failing” to phrases like “not yet”. I love this idea, yet I think failure occurs well before a final verdict like a six weeks or semester grade is rendered. People need to understand as we teach our students each day, some of them will fail. Some will fail to grasp the presented concept, some will fail to ask the important question that will bring clarity, some will fail to complete an assignment, some will fail to pay attention and so on. A teacher’s job is not to prevent a student from failing, it is to help them learn from that failure.

I like to use mathematical concepts as my example. Math concepts build upon each other throughout the course of a school year. If a student fails to understand one concept, it can lead to failure in other concepts, starting a downward spiral of failure. As a teacher, it is acceptable to allow them to fail the first concept, but we must work with them to determine why they failed and how that failure can be corrected. What did they learn from their failure and how will they grow from it in the future? Over time, this should allow students to learn from small failures and lead to greater successes.

So where can we start?

The first place to start is at home. Parents never want to see their children fail. I can say this as a parent myself, I hate to see my son struggle. When he starts to struggle with something, and it can be anything, from an academic issue to a video game, I want to help him. However, I am doing him a disservice by helping him all the time. All I am teaching him by helping him every time is when he has a problem, go to Daddy. He is not learning the concept of critical thinking. By allowing him to fail and become frustrated, I am allowing him to learn from his failure. Granted, failing at a video game or something small is not quite as life altering as failing a course in school, but by starting small, he will know what to do when it really matters.

Parents forget that we failed at things. We want better for our children so we help them find success in everything, forgetting the lessons we learned when we were not successful. If we do not allow students to fail on occasion, they will not be able to function as well on their own later in their academic careers. Students who never fail do not problem solve, they have to ask for help out of fear of failure. This fear of failure leads to a lack of innovation. We put students into boxes saying, “Do this and you will be successful. Try anything new and you could fail.” This is not the best lesson to teach our kids. Kids are better out of the box thinkers than adults and by removing their innovative tendencies we are missing out on the benefits of failure.

“Benefits of failure” may not be something many people latch on to, but think about this, Elon Musk’s SpaceX company was not successful on their first attempt. He released a great video on YouTube showing all his spectacular failures. I have included it for your watching enjoyment.

Even with all these failures, he and his engineers did not give up. Their failures informed their current success. This is how we can help our kids today. We should allow them the small failures that can allow them to find success. We have to let them make mistakes to learn from them. It is a difficult path for any teacher or parent, but for our students to grow and become productive citizens later we have to let them fail more.

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