Learning and Failure by David Truss

Failure can be very unproductive. It can stem from a lack of effort, resources, support, knowledge, and reflection. Failure can also be an amazing tool for learning, and perhaps one that every student should experience before graduation. Stephen Whiffin, who conceptualized the Inquiry Hub, suggested that every student should have ‘My Epic Failure’ as part of their high school portfolio.

Every student should try something audaciously big, and meaningful beyond the classroom walls. Even if they fail, they will have a tremendous learning experience in the process. Besides, we owe it to students to show them what it takes to overcome the failures they face.

Think of this: If students (regardless of skills and abilities) have only ever met success, and accomplished every task, assignment and project they have needed to do for school, then they weren’t pushed hard enough. In this case, it is the program that is the failure, because the students were not challenged as much as they should have been.

The learning potential of failure is significant. If the work is meaningful enough, there can be more learned from an epic failure, than a marginal success, where the measure for success was set too low.

 [Learning Potential and Failure image also available on Flickr.]

44 comments on “Learning and Failure

  1. Thank you David for sharing this interesting perspective that I agree with. When I was learning to downhill ski, my trainer would put me through a variety of drills, including how to fall safely. John, my instructor would push me on to runs that exceeded my skill level. And yes, I would fall. He would say that if I didn’t fall, then I wasn’t challenging the skis, the mountain, or myself enough. My skill and confidence grew, along with my enjoyment of the sport. I am thankful for those opportunities to fail gracefully with guidance.

  2. Robert,
    What a great example to share! I’ve been skiing for a while and with age, I’m more hesitant of falling and definitely losing my edge. You’ve reminded me of another aspect though… I really should get some lessons, to build my knowledge and help me improve where I can’t see for myself that I need improvement. Of course, just the nature of the student/coach relationship can often be a great push too… On the slopes, and in the classroom! 🙂

  3. Hi Dave, I really appreciate your thoughts. We in the school system give way too much emphasis to mastering content and rewarding high levels of accuracy and low levels of risk-taking. The only thing I would add to your thoughts is that students who have “epically failed” really need to be supported by an adult in order to truly learn from the experience and not be overly traumatized by the experience. I suspect you agree with this. Great graphic by the way!

    1. Completely agree Murray,
      You’ll notice on the graphic that failure that does not have ‘High Learning Potential’ lacks the following:
      Effort, Resources, Support, Reflection, and Knowledge.
      I put Lack of Knowledge on the cusp because really, that is one of those things that you don’t know that you don’t know… until you get stuck. People don’t go into a failing attempt believing they are going to fail in advance, so often the whole idea of something being a failure that you can learn from, starts from a lack of knowledge.

      All that said, doesn’t take anything away from your point that the failure can and will hurt (could be traumatizing) if support isn’t provided.

  4. I wonder how many teachers have been able to share their failures with students, I’m sure this would also open up students minds about failure being part of learning. Thanks Dave.

  5. Well I have to say that on the occasions when I have told my Juniors or Seniors that I dropped out of Warwick University after my first year as a student there because I did not do any work the conversation becomes that much more focused. “What was that like?” “Why did you do that?” “What happened next?” My Epic failure acknowledges the existence of the possibility and although not a constructive example it does lead to constructive discussion about choices and always brings up the intensity of the fear students have in response to the idea of failure. I think on reading through your blog David what strikes me is that we tend to avoid Failure because there is so much fear in relationship to it and talking honestly and openly about constructive failure (or otherwise) would let the energy out from the Fear Bag and perhaps support more risk taking.

    1. Sean,
      I think you touch on a very important aspect of failure in schools… educators don’t really like sharing their failure. I used to manage a Starbucks and read hundreds of resumes of possible employees. When I work on resume writing with students, I tell them how a good exaggeration on my resume got me a job, and how a bad exaggeration on a job got me fired! ~ Students usually can’t believe that I was fired from something… and that story hooks them in and make a point like no other could.
      We need to be open to sharing moments of failure… thanks for sharing yours!

  6. Teaching students that it is okay to fail is one of the hardest ‘lessons’ I’ve tried to teach. When students walk into my French classroom, they aren’t comfortable failing. One of my biggest challenges is creating a classroom environment in which they feel as though they CAN fail…but no one will judge them (or laugh at them) but will instead help them learn from their mistake.

    My current MYP French students are going to receive the results from their first summatives soon. They’ve already told me they can’t receive anything less than a 5 (out of 8). Most students will be receiving 3s and 4s. Helping them to be comfortable with that grade and understand that they are working towards the 8 at the end of the year…is incredibly difficult!

    1. What I like about your comment Lissa is that it reminds us of the pressures we place on students not to fail. It is such a difficult task! If your students all walked in with ‘8’s already, would they even need the course, or you as a teacher? No. Simple fact is that if they all walked in with an ‘8’ then your class wouldn’t be challenging enough… and yet, students put such great pressure on themselves to be already successful before they even start.
      You are right, we have a lot of power within our classes to create the right culture and make failure (on the way to success) a valuable lesson in and of itself.

  7. Mr. Truss,

    This is a great post and I could not agree with you more. I am a student in EDM310 at The University of South Alabama and I can honesty tell you that I had not been challenged enough to fail really until I started my college career. From challenge and failure, my learning has been more authentic, deeper, and more meaningful. While reading your post, I could not help but think of Dr. Randy Pausch’s quote that says: “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” Even though we might not achieve something at the level we wanted, we are always growing and learning!

    1. Great quote Daniel, thanks for sharing!
      I recently told a friend of a great lesson my sponsor teacher gave me on a lesson during my teaching practicum. I was absolutely bombing a lesson during which she was observing me and taking notes. I looked at her at one point of the lesson, she looked back at me, showed me the observation paper, then ripped it in half. Then she left the room. I had to recover from a very poor lesson I planned on my own.
      That was such a powerful lesson that taught me more than her observation of poor lesson ever could. And her trust in me to leave the room was pretty powerful too. She didn’t need to be there watching me struggle, and I needed to learn how to recover.
      It was a powerful lesson and made for a great debrief when we next spoke.
      “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

  8. Hi David,

    Our fear of failure has its roots from when success was linked to our worth. Ironically, we may have picked up these powerful associations from times when we were successful and received praised. We then, looked at the inverse of this and concluded that failure must be an indication that we’re really losers. We’ve become chameleons changing according to our environment. (That explains why I ran to towards humanities & music and dropped PE, math & physics as soon as I was able to. Now, I am challenging those old voices that said I was a loser at sports (long story…hope to blog about that). I see the beauty of math (absolutely fascinating and especially when linked to nature!) now that I’m no longer stressed about my math grades.

    Failing at something is not the same as being a less-worthy human being and it’s not easy trying to disconnect the two in our minds and in the minds of our students. Society isn’t so kind and generous about failure.

    I try to teach my students and my children that they have intrinsic worth. There is nothing they can do or not do to change that. With that immovable foundation under their feet, it shouldn’t be so risky to attempt something and to risk failure on the way to greater learning. Let’s focus on the learning and the achievement that we’re hoping for and not the challenges along the way.

    If we as parents and teachers can change our speech about their successes and failures, we give them permission to risk, to fail, to try again, and to finally get it in the end.

    It’s easier to change our speech about their failures. It’s not so easy to change how we react to their successes. I’m still trying to figure that one out: How to praise and validate what they’ve done without linking their achievement to their inherent worth. 🙂

  9. David,
    Brittney again! I have always looked at failure as a good thing. If we don’t fail, then how are we suppose to learn from our mistakes? Growing up, my parents would always tell me, “Brittney, it doesn’t hurt to fail every once in awhile. You just have get back up, learn from what you failed, and give back something even bigger and better!”
    I agree that everyone should fail at some point before graduation, and if they don’t then it isn’t their fault, it’s the programs (or sometimes the educators). We have to pushed to our limits in order to learn something new, and a lot of times we will fail before getting it right!
    Also, I tried to comment back to you, and thanking you for sharing that article with me, but it wouldn’t let me for some reason. I really enjoyed that article! I was always told never to tell a child that they were really smart, and I never knew why, but now I know why! Who knew there was so much research on this, not me! Thank you for sharing that with me!


  10. Great post, David, and so very true. I love using the “FAIL” acronym (First Attempt At Learning) with teachers when I work with them on technology PD. As educators, I think we need to be comfortable failing (maybe not epically all the time, but certainly on smaller things) so that we can model a willingness to problem-solve, troubleshoot, look for information and try again!

    We recently had a TEDxYouth event with Kamloops students as speakers. One of our students talked about failure. She did an amazing job. Less than 6 minutes – watch if you can…. you won’t regret it! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1bTJqfbQEQ

    1. Great video, thanks for sharing!
      I’ve never been a fan of ‘First Attempt At Learning’ and so came up with ‘Failure Always Invites Learning’. Why? I believe that in doing something epic, there could be many iterations, trials, attempts and ultimately failures, before finding real success. So ‘first attempt’ doesn’t work for me. Failure can come at the 2nd, 5th even 25th attempt… They all invite the opportunity to learn. That’s my bias, I openly admit it’s a bias, and I could be wrong! 😉
      Thanks for taking the time to comment and again, thanks for the video, your student rocked!

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