In-Class Assignment: Rethinking Failure

assignment, failure, in-class activities, pedagogy, readings

When I told my students that we were going to spend the class period talking about failure, they immediately started responding with tried and true platitudes. “Failure is not an option!” Their enthusiasm for college success is bolstered by such claims.

The truth though? Failure is not only an option, but often a likelihood.

Bad Grade

Teaching developmental classes, we’re all familiar with the oft-cited bleak statistics regarding failure and our classrooms. Figuring out ways to help our students collectively succeed is an important goal for those of us who work in developmental education, but so is figuring out ways to help our students individually fail.

In-Class Activity: Building a House

At the beginning of class, I broke the students into three groups and gave them each a packet of construction paper. They were to build a house. I told them I would read the instructions once and only once. The directions were complicated. If the roof was yellow, the base had to be red; if the base was blue, the roof had to be green. There had to be a certain number of windows and the windows had to match the door but not the chimney, etc. I read them once at a medium pace. Then I set two pairs of scissors (for three groups) and some rolls of tape out and told them they had twenty minutes.

To my surprise, one group actually met all of the requirements (so if I do this again, I’ll try to make it a little harder). Most of the students were confused and just started building a house without even trying to remember what I had said about it. All of them did way more work than the actual project required.

After they finished, I told them that this was how some of them were writing their papers. They didn’t re-read the assignment sheet. They didn’t ask questions. They did work that wasn’t asked of them. They didn’t ask each other for help (one group was very territorial over their scissors). Then I asked them to reflect on what went wrong. Why had they failed?

In-Class Discussion: Failure

I opened the discussion on failure by talking about my own experience. I had gone through high school without much struggle. I had never received a failing grade. I was valedictorian and feeling pretty good about my chances for success in college. Then I took a British poetry class that knocked the wind out of me. I came into class on the second day and realized that there was a quiz over ten poems I hadn’t read. They’d been on the syllabus, but I didn’t know to look at the syllabus for assignments.
I failed. I cried. I panicked.
I went back to my dorm room and reasoned with myself. “It’s just one quiz. You know to read the syllabus now.” The next class period, I had read all of the poems. I was feeling good as the professor announced we’d have another quiz. As he read the questions, dread started in the pit of my stomach and spread outward until it reached my fingertips and the blank piece of paper in front of me. I knew none of the answers. I failed again.
I almost dropped the class, but I decided to go talk to the professor first. He gave me some strategies for studying better and urged me to stick with the class. I ended up with an A, and it was the proudest I have ever been of a grade.
In this post, Mark Clements talks about the importance of reflection in education:

This is precisely why reflection is so important. Although it’s a cumbersome and time-consuming practice to teach to kids, without reflection it is almost impossible for actual “learning” to occur. Faced with increasing demands to “cover” as much material as possible to prepare for state tests, teachers often forego teaching students to reflect on their work, electing to instead “cover” the material. We often accuse kids of having “forgotten” material they “learned” the year before, but in reality, they never really learned it at all. The teacher “covered” it, perhaps the students memorized it for the short term before being lost forever. Reflection is a key ingredient to move knowledge from short-term to long-term memory.

Clements’ post is aimed at educators, but I assigned it to my students to read so that they could think about the importance of reflection in their own learning goals. Most often, organic reflection is sparked by failure. It is not until we reach an undesirable outcome that we take the time to stop and think about what we did to get there.

This notion of failure as a springboard to greater success is highlighted very movingly in J.K. Rowling’s address to the Harvard graduates of 2008 (video available here):

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

Failure is also a core component of Diana Laufenberg’s TED Talk on rethinking education.

The main point is that, if we continue to look at education as if it’s about coming to school to get the information and not about experiential learning, empowering student voice, and embracing failure, we’re missing the mark. And everything that everybody is talking about today isn’t possible if we keep having an educational system that does not value these qualities, because we won’t get there with a standardized test, and we won’t get there with a culture of one right answer.

I showed my students these videos. I told them my story of failing those first two quizzes in British poetry. I had them read about the importance of reflecting to really learn something. Then we talked.
As we talked, the message of “Failure is not an option” began to fade away. Students admitted to personal failures, academic and non. Students talked about divorces and F’s on papers and having to re-take classes. Students talked about disappointment and shame and anger.

Then we talked about what to do with it.

It was one of the most animated discussions we’d had all semester. Once we pulled back the curtain and admitted that failure was not only an option, but (as Rowling says in her speech) an inevitability for anyone who is really living life, we were able to stop seeing it as the end of an attempt and start seeing it as the beginning of something else.

Discussion Questions

  • Name a time that you failed. What did you learn from it?
  • How can reflection help us grow as learners?
  • Is there ever a time when failure is not an option? How can you make sure?
  • There is a saying that to be successful you need to “fail early, fail often.” What do you think about this? If we fail early, do we learn faster? If we fail often, do we learn more?
  • Can you live your life without any failure?
  • If you never fail, how will you know your own limits? How will you know how far you can go?
Do you talk to your students about failure? How do you frame it?
Photo: Robert Hruzek
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3 thoughts on “In-Class Assignment: Rethinking Failure

  1. I have been reading a lot lately about Game-Based Learning Theory and thinking about how to incorporate some of the insights into my teaching, including into my developmental classroom. I like to do an activity with my students early on that I actually learned about from conducting a tutor training for peer tutors about how the brain learns. I ask everyone in the classroom to write down one thing that they learned how to do outside of school- such as a sport, or learning to play an instrument, or my own example playing video games. Then they have to list, step by step, how they learned that skill. We put the steps up on the board, and nearly always they all basically progress through the same series of steps. One of the most important steps on nearly everyone's chart is always failure (though not described in those terms usually) followed by practice. They don't step out on the field at the big game and kick the soccer ball for the first time; they kick it at practice, wrong, then they adjust their strategy, and try again and again until it goes into the goal. Or, in my own video game example, they try a level, die, come back to life, adjust their strategy, and then eventually succeed and pass the level. This is how the brain learns a skill; we try out a strategy, see what works and more importantly what doesn't, adjust and try again, until we find what works. What I find though is that increasingly there is little room for failure, adjustment, and trying again in the classroom. My students often feel like if they fail a paper, they should give up and drop the class, that or they stick the paper in their notebook and write it off, and insist they'll “do better next time” without ever taking the time to understand what went wrong this time and how to make those adjustments to fix it. Consequently, I am trying to build in opportunities for my students to fail in my classroom, but structured in a way that when they do, they must go back reflect, revise, and keep trying, over and over again if necessary, until they find a way that works, while convincing them that failing at something is a part of learning. I am curious how others handle this in their classrooms, and (as always), Michelle, I am thankful for your great posts and discussion!

  2. I can't edit my comment, but I realized I never connected back to the Game-Based Learning Theory comment at the beginning of my post. I was going to say this is one reason why games are increasingly being used in the classroom, and many times very successfully too; when well-designed, they build in failure as well as incentive to adjust and keep trying.

  3. This is such an excellent way to talk about the need for failure! I really like your strategy of writing down the steps to learning something outside of the classroom, and I think it has the added bonus of often being a hobby or something that the student likes doing and feels invested in. I'm definitely going to use that the next time I have a discussion about this with my students.

    I'll have to do some more reading on Game-Based Learning Theory, too!


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