The Challenges of Incorporating Failure into the Curriculum

When I was in elementary school, failure was considered a bad thing.  If you did something wrong, you failed and were considered a failure.  My teachers made me feel as though I was incompetent if I made mistakes or got the wrong answer.  School for me was about always being right at any cost.  This culture of correctness fostered an atmosphere of cheating in and out of the classroom.  Students cheated off of my tests and occasionally, I would look at my friends’ worksheets to copy the answers.  School wasn’t about learning for me, it was about getting the right answer and finishing work.  I learned very little in school.  I’ve learned more since I’ve been teaching than I ever did as a student.  Funny how that works.

So, as a teacher, I make it my duty to make school about learning, exploring, failing, and retrying.  Genuine learning comes from understanding one’s mistakes and how to rectify them.  It’s about problem solving and new ideas.  Thomas Edison accidentally happened upon the phonograph when he was trying to make something else.  When he made mistakes, he realized he had created something else.  Mistakes and failure lead to new ideas and solutions.

However, the process of transitioning students to this model of learning can be difficult.  Most of our students come from public schools where failure isn’t usually an option.  Students are told to have the right answer the first time.  Generally, during the first half of the year, when students revise their work based on feedback, they start to see the benefit of improving upon their work much like an artist or athlete improves upon his or her craft.  Learning is a fluid process and not a destination.  However, when some students receive feedback and need to improve upon or clarify their work, they struggle to understand that learning isn’t about one and done.  We often see tears and frustration at first.  Some of the boys even become defiant when we have them alter their work.  They don’t realize that the learning process is dynamic.  While these issues usually dissipate by the spring, getting there can be quite a bumpy ride.

Today provided a snapshot of this challenging journey.  In STEM class, the students worked on their chemistry investigations as they prepared for Monday’s science fair.  The boys, working with their partner, worked on finishing their lab report and organizing their presentation board.  They practiced coexisting effectively while being self aware of the requirements.  Most of the groups worked very well and accomplished much.

One student, however, had difficulty seeing learning as a process.  As he completed his lab report, he did not review it with his partner, nor did he check it over against the project requirements listed on the Haiku STEM Class page.  Because of this, his explanation of his group’s results lacked a scientific explanation.  How does stomach acid work to break down food?  When I reminded him that he needed to answer this question, he guffawed a bit, but, he did eventually revise his lab report based on what he thought I had said.  Then, he had me review it again.  While he had added some information to the conclusion based on my feedback, it still lacked the scientific vocabulary to explain the process of digestion.  So, I praised him for adding to his conclusion but reminded him that he still needed to answer the question I previously asked.  He huffed and puffed a bit more and started to cry.  I feel for him and wanted to console him, but I also understand that this behavior is how he deals with frustration.  He had a hit a wall.  Once he works through it, which he will, he will learn so much.  He will learn about the power of perseverance and problem solving.  He will also learn that making mistakes and not being correct the first time are all a part of the learning process.  Yes, it’s difficult to watch while some of the students react to failure in different ways, but, by the end of the year, they will eventually understand the power of learning from one’s mistakes.  Teaching students to embrace failure as part of the learning process is crucial to helping our students grow into effective global citizens.


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