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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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One of my favorite things to say when doing strategic planning with teachers is that the plan has a 50 percent chance of success and a 100 percent chance of teaching us how to get "smarter" about delivering on our mission.

I love saying this because it conveys an essential truth: Failure is not a bad thing. It is a guaranteed and inevitable part of learning. In any and all endeavors, and especially as a learning organization, we will experience failure, as surely as a toddler will fall while learning to walk.

Unfortunately, in education, particularly in this high-stakes accountability era, failure has become the term attached to our persistent challenges. Wholesale problems, such as the achievement gap and the high school dropout rate, are labeled as "education failures." We argue over how to "prevent" more failure. Increasingly, failure has come to mean something terrible, something to be avoided, and shunned.

Why Failure Is Important

Early educational reformer John Dewey said it best: "Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes." At Envision Education, we embrace Dewey's notion of failure, believing it to be essential to learning. I'm not talking about dead-end failure, the kind that results in loss of opportunity, regression, or stagnation.

Instead, we see failure as an opportunity for students to receive feedback on their strengths as well as their areas of improvement -- all for the purpose of getting better. When reframed as a good, constructive, and essential part of learning, failure is a master teacher.

In Envision Schools, failure is an intentional part of our school design and, consequently, our culture. It has to be. The majority of our students enter ninth grade with a strong personal -- and negative -- understanding of failure, based on a chronic lack of school success.

To help these kids make the kind of gains they need to master the Common Core State Standards as well as Envision's competencies and leadership skills, students must learn to receive feedback and also how to use it to improve. As such, "failure" -- not achieving as highly as they are capable of -- becomes a close friend on each student's journey through high school and college.

How do you make failure students' friend? Set a high standard and don't be afraid to tell students that they haven't met it. But in the next breath, give detailed suggestions on what they can do to improve. And, most important -- though so often given short shrift -- allow students the time, space, and support to make the revisions. In such a culture, failure does not mean, "You lose." It means, "You can do better. We believe in you. Here is some feedback: revise, and try again."

One Student's Story

Meet one student whose story illustrates the power of seeing failure as a friend. Tiana is not only the first in her family to go to college, but also the first in her family to graduate from high school. Although she came to Envision at eleventh grade, a lack of credits required her to repeat tenth grade.

Tragically, at the beginning of her first year at our school, her mother passed way. Her teachers and advisor visited her at home to see how she was doing and offer support to her and her family. She came back to school determined to work hard to succeed. She persisted, and reached her senior year with enough credits and a grade point average that qualified her for California State University.

To graduate from Envision, she still needed to pass her senior year portfolio defense. And here, she failed her first attempt. She delivered a defense presentation that fell short of the high standards her teachers expected of her. But with targeted feedback, support, and coaching from the same teachers who visited her at her home, she was well equipped to do better.

She revised, prepared again, and eventually delivered a high-quality portfolio defense that demonstrated her readiness for college. Today, she is attending Sonoma State University and majoring in education so that she can become a teacher.

In this video, learn how Envision students work with their teachers to prepare for their portfolio defenses:

Over time, Envision teachers have come to see that the students such as Tiana who don't pass on their first attempt are, in fact, the fortunate ones; what they learn by persisting and maturing through failure pays off down the line.

And because this reframing of failure is modeled so publicly and systemically by the portfolio defenses, our teachers, convinced of its power, tend to recreate similar cycles of failure and redemption in their day-to-day classroom instruction, where school culture lives.

Educators need to be intentional about designing and building schools where students are friends with failure. Such environments truly prepare students for transformative success, in college and beyond.

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Betsy Lenae's picture

Failure continues to be one of the most highly avoided F words, despite all of the positive media highlighting the importance of failure to building tenacity and creating life-long learners. I appreciate the emphasis in this article on the importance of immediate and pointed feedback as a crucial component to providing students guidance toward the value of failure. Feedback and specialized coaching is the difference between failure defined as an end-point or as part of a process for reflecting, improving, and moving toward goals. This, after all, is how the real world works. When we are engaged in a work project, we don't receive a score, only to have that be the end of it before moving on to another subject. We always use results to help set goals, adjust strategies, and apply our learning to future endeavors. The importance of continuing to publish on this topic can not be stressed enough because this process of failure, refining, and reapplying is actually at the core of the learning process.

pkcc1's picture
pkcc1
Program Manager, Digital Learning & Communication

I know that smart failure is a different creature. A critical capability is the ability to understand the change knowledge required and to use meta-reflection. I am interested in the focus on problem finding before problem solving. The shared narrative of this is what I did, this is what happened, this is what I will keep doing, stop doing and explore also makes the smart failure idea more palatable to me. Using a plenary process of why are we doing/learning this, how are we progressing, what do we need to do less of/more of as part of every lesson provides a construct for smart failure as a part of learning.

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
I am Bullyproof Music

Being a naturally chirpy person, it's hard for me to completely grasp what the word "failure" is supposed to feel like emotionally. I believe some natures go more towards "eek!" and "oops!" and "oh, drat!" We may be failing, but we're often lost in a kind of humorous clumsy-feeling denial. I LOVE this topic.

In my own classrooms, I have been surprised over and over again to discover that my song "Messy" speaks to kids as young as fourth grade. They sing"Messy" lyrics like old souls, with SO much enthusiasm. But what do fourth grade kids know about life being messy, I ask you - they're still tykes!
I guess no one likes to skin their knees.. at any age.

I say, "bless our mess!" Life is for learning. "Failure" is just a silly word. Please keep doing what you are doing. This concept is awesome sauce.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

Hey AlexF322! What if you had your kids intentionally fail at a variety of tasks? Maybe if that is the expectation, they will have fun with failure, and then you can all talk about what they can learn from it? Kevin Brookhouser has his students brainstorm all the worst possible ideas they can think of in what he calls the Bad Idea Factory... and then they talk about why they are bad ideas and how they can come up with good ideas. Seems like a great way to introduce failure in a non-threatening way. Check it out here: http://www.iteachithink.com/2013/09/the-bad-idea-factory-2013.html

JJ059's picture

Great article. It's inportant to teach young kids that failure can be a motivation for success. In fact Gangly Sister is coming out with a digital comic book that teaches this lesson, with the Purple and Nine comic book series. Purple and Nine solve everyday issues through their love of technology. And if they get a result that they did not initial intend to get to in order to solve their problem, they do not look at it as a fail, they look at it as "that was interesting " and try again. This needs to be instill into our kids from when they are young. Check it out at www.ganglysister.com

a.percy's picture

I enjoyed this article because it challenges the conventional belief that failure is absolutely something to be avoided by teachers and students. Of course failure elicits a negative reaction on the surface, nobody really wants to fail, but upon further review and discussion one can realize the value of struggle. I think that's one thing that this posting beautifully highlights.

What I most enjoyed was how the video demonstrated the process, showing that is in-fact a process, not an outcome. Tiana did not pass the first time, but she understood that this was not the end and she was not a "failure". Her teachers supported her through meaningful feedback and continued guidance and support. In the end, she passed and graduated, and likely appreciated the experience, while getting more out of it than if she had passed the first time.

I think this is a key skill, knowing how to fail and rebound, for not only school, but life and in your own career. Rarely does a project or task go from start to finish without redesign as a result of feedback from a boss or colleague. These students understanding and synthesizing this at a young age prepares them for the experience that is inevitable later in life. Process is key to achieving the desired goal in the end.

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AllyD's picture

I really enjoyed reading this blog. Failure is an option for people to grow, get feedback about things that they need to improve upon, and to shine like Tiana did. I can't imagine what it would be like to lose your mother at a critical stage of development and then have to start over. Becoming a "friends with failure" should be a motto. In fact, I would love to see teachers make failure part of the grading process. Failure is something that everyone is typically afraid of, but what if teachers programmed failure into their daily curriculum? Being graded on failure, and then how to fail effectively (meaning that you would be able to execute the feedback into the project, etc) would be pretty powerful. Planned failing may be a great way for students to break the ice in new, harder concept courses.

Ally

Marie Garrido, LiteracyLightBulb!'s picture
Marie Garrido, LiteracyLightBulb!
Instructional Specialist for Secondary Literacy

This entire blogpost rings true for me! My favorite lesson is a lesson I teach on the first day of school and refer back to throughout the school year. I tell my students, "Most teachers talk about how to be successful the first day, not me--I am going to teach you how to fail!" I based my lesson on Carol Dweck's Mindset theory--very much in line with the info here. Check out the lesson here: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Motivation-Mini-lesson-Minds...

Lhaslem's picture

I can truly appreciate the emphasis this article has on accepting failure. This life-long lesson is not only important for students to learn, but it is also important to remember throughout our journey in life. Recently I have learned the importance of leading by example. I have found that educators who lead by example are more likely to have a positive influence on their students and the larger student community. That is, when a teacher takes risks in the class, their examples tend to influence others. In order to build a community of risk-takers one must first see the connection among risk taking, learning, and leading. Although risk-taking may lead to failure, our students must learn to recognize how failure is "an opportunity, -- all for the purpose of getting better". Therefore, it is vital to provide our students with the necessary feedback to learn from failed attempts. Failure must not be viewed as a dead-end, rather an open door of opportunity. "If anything is worth doing, it's worth doing badly (at first)" -Chesterton
Lissette Haslem

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Rizza Mae Arpon's picture

Love this article ! I am a person who believes that failure is the first step to success. You can never know what success feels like if you haven't experienced failure. Failures should always be handled with an optimistic point of view and the will to go on. In the case of learning, failures are really inevitable. It is said that learning is a deliberate process;it doesn't just happen. One should know how to take risk in able to learn and taking risks means being prepare with the outcomes whether it would be a success or a failure.

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