Failure and Academic Relationships

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One of my favorite experiences in teaching is when a student realizes what personal growth truly means.  Joel was in world history with me as a Sophomore, he failed the first semester.  During second semester he created a personal plan for success and breezed through the course.  Joel needed first semester to meet state requirements to graduate, so he had to retake it.  As a Junior, however, he could pick any teacher he wanted.  To my surprise, he chose to take my class again.  This was not the norm, so I asked Joel what motivated his choice, his response sounded something like this: He knew he was a capable student, but he felt he had to prove it to me that he wasn’t a failure.

It was one of those moments in education you can’t plan for.  I wanted to tell him that I respected the heck out of him and he had nothing to prove to me, but the power structure of a classroom and perceptions of student-favoritism persuaded me otherwise.  I ran into Joel between his deployments with the US Army and I shared my perspective on this story with him.  We didn’t talk about world history, I thanked him for his military service, we caught up as friends, and he told me about his life after high school. This experience reminded me that often-times subjects in school are simply vehicles for greater learning experiences.

Running into former students like Joel inspires me to reflect on successes and failures, that day I reflected on the latter (probably because Joel messaged me when I was in the hospital).  I challenge you to do the same.  Off the top of your head, how many times did you fail in your educational setting yesterday?  How many times have you experienced failure in the last week, month, or year?  Did you let those failures define you or did you do what Joel and so many other students have done, and find ways to learn from those failures?

In a previous blog, I shared with you what I perceive to be my greatest personal failure and that’s just the most extreme example, less extreme failures you can think of, I’ve probably failed at those too.  My inspiration for curriculum and instruction studies, Dr. Eliot Eisner, envisions the learner as his or her own work of art, so failure is part of the learning canvass. Without personalizing failure, how would it be possible to know the meaning of personal achievement?

In my nearly fifteen years of teaching in public education I’ve witnessed numerous types of student failure.  What happens in the classrooms that I’ve taught in is only part of the story.  Students are tasked with overcoming socio-economic issues and many struggle with this problem.  Some students have learning, mental, or emotional challenges that create unique conundrums.  Most learners try to make sense of various types of relationships and they cannot.  Many students have troubles with making sense of losing competitive situations – sports or otherwise.  It is fair to say that every student experiences failure at one time or another in their formative years.  It is unfair to think that adults know what those failures mean to the student or we understand how they feel.

A key realization is that, no matter how hard we try and try we must, teachers cannot know student perspective.  If we ask about it, some students will tell the truth and others may not.  So, if failure is bound to happen to a student and teachers cannot truly understand it, what is a school or teacher supposed to do when a student does experience failure?

In a brilliant article about the value of learning in education Shauna Smith and Danah Henrikson (2016) explain, “when it comes to creativity, it is clear that anyone who succeeds creatively must be willing to try and fail-and to learn, regroup, and try again.”  The authors go on to argue that integral parts of the growth mindset (like resilience, tolerance, and ambiguity) cannot be fully learned without the presence of failure.

Is the point to intentionally create failure for the students?  Absolutely not.  In my experience, creating an equitable playing field for all students is the best way to minimize failure.  Practices like teaching, modeling, and validating expected outcomes is a great way to start.  Creating, publishing, and distributing clear and consistent grading procedures prior to assigning work helps too.  Identifying, labeling, and building recognition of “goal-disconnectors” calls attention to questionable actions and choices.  Scheduling availability for students to choose to access additional assistance allows for more contact time between some students and teachers.  Situational differentiation for extenuating circumstances is something to consider as well.  Essentially, minimize failure by making failure the outcome of sustained negative actions, choices, and behaviors.  Failure should be very difficult to accomplish; but, still entirely possible. If it does happen, work with the student to keep the failure in perspective and learn from it – it’s not the end of the world, though the student may feel like it is.

It is important to recognize that a teacher’s definition of success might be the student’s definition of failure and a teacher’s definition of failure might be the student’s definition of success.  These differences might give students and teachers something to talk about and could become a building block of the relationships necessary for student validation, recognition, and ultimately success.

There are some students (and parents) that will blame the teacher for a student’s failure, that is not new in education.  Historically speaking, there are probably some teachers who have deserved that blame.  Ask yourself this, though, would you rather have a student walk out of your class a content expert, a problem solver, or a self-proclaimed failure?  Maybe a handful of students who walked out of the 10th grade world history classes that I taught went on to major in history in college but all of them probably failed at something during their Sophomore year. I like to believe that these students used their failures to adopt strategies that allowed them to solve problems that they never knew might exist.  I also hope that they built and used their own understanding of the growth mindset which encouraged them to do things that they never thought they could do or to accomplish things that others told them they could not.

When placed in the context of 21st century considerations for learning, mastering of content is no longer urgent due to the prevalence of the internet, memorization of processes is now assisted by technology; so, the ability to be creative and solve problems has moved to the forefront of what humans are expected to be able to do.  Failure and the ability to overcome it through problem-solving is not only necessary for personal success and optimal learning, it is also a key component of the growth mindset and a cornerstone of positive relationships with teachers.

Works Cited
Henriksen, D. and Smith, S. (2016). “Fail again, fail better:
Embracing failures as a paradigm for creative learning in the arts.” Art Education, 69(2), pp. 6-11.

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