The Freedom to Fail

One of the challenges of the college classroom is showing students that they can learn from failure, writes Nate Kreuter.

October 7, 2011

I want all of my students to fail. Not to fail my class, and certainly not to fail at life, but I do want them to fail.

What I really mean though is that I want my students to take risks in their academic work. And the bigger the risk taken, of course, the greater the risk of failure. I would rather see my students fail spectacularly and catastrophically to achieve an ambitious goal than to see them succeed timidly and safely at an unambitious goal. But I’ve found creating an environment in which students feel safe to fail to be the most difficult pedagogical goal that I have ever undertaken. A paradox that I’ve found in encouraging students to take risks and flirt with failure is that I too must be willing to risk my own pedagogical failures in order to cultivate a classroom-wide ethos of bold, ambitious, and sometimes even reckless risk-taking.

In our own personal and scholarly lives many of us have anecdotes about how from the ashes of some spectacular failure arose some much greater success than the one that we had originally been aiming for. The history of science is filled with such stories, when an experiment goes hopelessly wrong, but in the failing reveals another, unanticipated discovery. I find it remarkable that even though many of us in academe have lived through, time and again, success-from-failure moments, we often neglect to reveal this "secret" to students. More problematically, we let down our students when we neglect to allow for, and even encourage, certain types of ultimately productive classroom failures.

When we forget or refuse to explain to students how our own successes have so often arisen from seeming failures, we damagingly reinforce the mistaken notion that brilliance strikes suddenly, the mistaken and fabricated image of Romantic poets who suddenly spout timeless, first-draft poetry upon seeing an inspirational sight, when in fact the poem was secretly drafted and revised for weeks and months. Brilliant insights rarely arrive in lightning-bolt epiphanies. Instead, successes of every type are more typically the result of unending hounding, and won through stubborn siege. Faculty achieve their own successes only through persistence, and often only after persisting through an initial failure, perhaps multiple failures. Sometimes we only succeed because of a prior failure.

Along with the misleading myth that important insights arrive in sudden, Archimedes-yelling-"Eureka!" or Newton-bashed-on-head-with-apple moments, a high school culture of testing, increased anxiety about finding a job after college, and fears of appearing "silly" or "dumb" in the eyes of classmates or instructors all inhibit students from taking the sorts of intellectual and academic risks that might lead to failure, but that might also lead to grand insights or lofty successes. In short, from my own unscientific observations at both a state flagship university and at a regional-comprehensive university, students from all backgrounds are, on the whole, terrified of the prospect of failure, even within the relatively safe confines of the classroom. I don't know if this aversion to risk and failure is new to academic culture, or if it is an age-old pattern. But the answer to that question doesn’t particularly matter, or even interest me, because it doesn’t get me any closer as a teacher to convincing my students that my class is one in which it is safe to take seemingly enormous risks.

Convincing students that it is safe to fail in my classes is perhaps the most difficult but also most important element in cultivating what I happily refer to as a "classroom culture of failure." Indeed, the very phrase “safe to fail” initially appears insanely self-contradictory to most of my undergraduate and even graduate students (who stand to rescue even greater gains from initial bouts with failure). I’ve found that the only way I can successfully cultivate a "classroom culture of failure" is to first establish that my classroom is a sanctuary.

When I lived in Iowa City one of my favorite bars was named "Sanctuary," which is quite possibly the greatest name ever for a low-ceilinged, dimly lit bar. But more important than its aptness as a bar name, the principle of sanctuary as a form of political asylum arose in medieval England, and under the laws of sanctuary the pursued could take refuge, or sanctuary, in certain holy grounds, where they were free from the threat of arrest. Quite similarly, I view the classroom as an intellectual sanctuary, where, ideally, students and instructors alike can experiment with new and risky ideas, confident in the knowledge that classroom experiments contain room for failure.

The "real world" of life after college will provide plenty of disincentives for failure. While they’re in my class, though, I want students to shift, or at least begin shifting, their attitudes toward failure. One of the toughest but best interview questions I have ever been asked was, "Describe a time you failed at something, and what you did about it." I would love for the students who leave my classroom to be able to offer a compelling answer to that question.

The value in allowing and even cultivating classroom failures only extends as far as our ability to reflect upon, diagnose, and learn from the "failure." I use scare quotes here because I am skeptical that an experience that compels us to reflect upon our purpose (an academic one, in this case), to understand it and its parts through diagnosis, and to synthesize this hard-won information for future reference and use really is a "failure." Building into our classes reflective structures that encourage metacognition, that encourage students to think about their own thinking, is simply pedagogically sound. And there’s more to reflect upon when an assignment or experiment or ambition goes haywire. But such times for reflection, whether they occur in student self-evaluations, post-assignment reports, class discussion, or individual conferences, have the added benefit of encouraging students to think differently about failure not only in our classes, but after they leave our classes as well.

I am certainly not the only teacher (or researcher) thinking seriously about the upside of failure. I know of at least one other, and there are probably many others as well. I can say though that when I am able to convince students to take risks, big risks, failure-flirting risks, those students derive more from my courses, and teaching becomes more rewarding. But I have to admit, it’s taken me plenty of my own failures in the classroom to get to this point, where I am comfortable encouraging students to fail, have designed courses such that students are not penalized for the sorts of failures I see value in, and where I am able to convince students that failure ain’t all bad.

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