Pedagogical Autobiography: Failure

I try new things. My class is never the same year to year. That is not to say that students would not see pieces that they would recognize. My friend and the camp director that I worked for, who was an assistant principal, told me that the best thing he could have done for education was to throw out all the file cabinets. There are new kids in front of you each year. Listen to them and see where they need to go. 

This means failure. I have to apologize and give credit for work that did not go the way I had planned. I have to ask kids to finish lessons and labs that are not meeting my goals, simply to see how badly they end so that I know all the improvements that need to be made. I say the wrong thing when answering questions. I make mistakes.

Luckily for me science is all about making mistakes. And so is good teaching. 

It is hard to imagine that failure should be a part of what and how we teach. And I am not just saying this in the sort of pithy way that entrepreneurs who have millions of dollars in the bank fail at new ventures, but still have millions of dollars in the bank. Failing at things means three things. You are comfortable with the people and place that you are with. You are reflective about what you have done. You are trying something that you did not know how to do before. 

Because I am willing to try new things, I think my students are as well. It welcomes them to the club of science where we try things, and sometimes they work and sometimes they do not. By club I mean Frank Smith's idea of club, "all the different groups with which we identify ourselves." (page 10) School as we know it in America does not tolerate failure. Students are in a constant fight with each other for position in class ranking, GPA, grades and test scores. They know that what helps the others in their classes might not help them. To get them to then be willing to try something that they might not suceed at will only happen if they feel like they can recover from what went wrong. I hopefully allow all of this to work together to bring them to a place where trying and failing is comfortable.

The second thing you need to be to fail well is to be reflective. I will often have students who do not know why they have failed. This is not an easy thing to figure out. You need to be reflective to understand your short comings. Modeling this helps. I can model it both in an experimental way, by looking closely the work they do and reflecting on it with them. I also model it, without trying to, by showing how I recover from my educational experiments. Each of these offers insight to the learners of how the larger world works. 

Finally, I want my students to try new challenges. I like to challenge their ways of looking at school, learning and the world. I want them to think big thoughts about how to solve the problems in front of them, in their own unique ways. This takes time, real class time, and attention to what is happening. It takes listening without interrupting or even reacting. It also takes some tolerance for students who are not working while others are not even close to done. I am still unsure of what to do with these students. 

Failing is a big part of trying new things and living in the world. Reacting to it in reflective, positive ways is a life long lesson that I have learned as I watch my students. I am not naturally good at failing, not even remotely. They have taught me much of what I know about it and I will be forever indebted to them for these lessons.

2 responses
The idea that teaching and learning involve failure seems inconsistent with our values as a society and certainly our ways of evaluating students. Is it really okay to fail? Should we reward failure? Have you imagined or do you use an assessment system that honors 'not knowing' or the process of coming to know, which of course assumes not knowing?
I never thought of a rubric of failing. Asking what students did not know by the end of an inquiry.Asking about roadblocks they came to but overcame and more importantly how they overcame them.