Teaching to Fail
What can we conclude when undergraduates bemoan, "How did anyone ever come up with this stuff?" Although the students might feel confused or bedazzled, there’s one thing for certain: the instructor jumped over the requisite missteps that originally led to the discovery at hand. This type of intellectual revisionism often depicts weighty concepts and conclusions as slick and sanitized, and, as a result, foreign and intangible.
In reality, every idea from every discipline is a human idea that comes from a natural, thoughtful, and (ideally) unending journey in which thinkers deeply understand the current state of knowledge, take a tiny step in a new direction, almost immediately hit a dead end, learn from that misstep, and, through iteration, inevitably move forward. That recipe for success is not just the secret formula for original scholarly discovery, but also for wise, everyday thinking for the entire population. Hence, it is important to explicitly highlight how essential those dead ends and mistakes are — that is, to teach students the power of failure and how to fail effectively.
Individuals need to embrace the realization that taking risks and failing are often the essential moves necessary to bring clarity, understanding, and innovation. By making a mistake, we are led to the pivotal question: "Why was that wrong?" By answering this question, we are intentionally placing ourselves in a position to develop a new insight and to eventually succeed. But how do we foster such a critical habit of mind in our students — students who are hardwired to avoid failure at all costs? Answer: Just assess it.
For the last decade or so, I’ve put my students’ grades where my mouth is. Instead of just touting the importance of failing, I now tell students that if they want to earn an A, they must fail regularly throughout the course of the semester — because 5 percent of their final grade is based on their "quality of failure." Would such a scheme provoke a change in attitude? Absolutely — with this grading practice in place, students gleefully take more risks and energetically engage in discussions.
And when a student (say, Aaron) makes a mistake in class, he exclaims, "Oh well, my quality of failure grade today is really high." The class laughs and then quickly moves to the serious next step — answering: Why was that wrong? It’s not enough to console an incorrect response with a nurturing, "Oh, Aaron, that’s not quite right, but we still think you’re the best! Now, does anyone else have another guess?" Instead, a mistake solicits either the enthusiastic yet honest response, "Congratulations, Aaron — that’s wrong! Now what lesson or insight is Aaron offering us?" or the class question, "What do you think? Is Aaron correct?" Either way, the students have to actively listen and then react, while Aaron sees his comment as an important element that allows the discussion to move forward.
I often refer back again and again to someone’s previous mistake to celebrate just how significant it was. If we foster an environment in our classrooms in which failing is a natural and necessary component in making progress, then we allow our students to release their own genius and share their authentic ideas — even if (or especially when) those ideas aren’t quite polished or perfectly formed.
After returning a graded assignment and reviewing the more challenging questions, I ask students to share their errors — and the class immediately comes to life: everyone wants to show off their mistakes as they now know they are offering valuable learning moments. What’s more, in this receptive atmosphere, it’s actually fun to reveal those promising gems of an idea that turned out to be counterfeit.
More recently, I’ve asked my students to intentionally fail — in the spirit of an industrial stress test. I now require my students to write a first draft of an essay very quickly and poorly — long before its due date — and then have the students use that lousy draft as a starting point for the (hopefully lengthy) iterative process of revising and editing. When the work is due, they must submit not only their final version, but also append their penultimate draft all marked up with their own red ink. This strategy assures that they will produce at least one intermediate draft before the final version. Not surprisingly, the quality of their work improved dramatically.
When I consult with or lead workshops for faculty and administrators, they are drawn to this principle of intentionally promoting failure, which inevitably leads to the question: How do you assess it? The first time I tried my 5 percent "quality of failure," I had no idea how to grade it. But I practiced what I preached — taking a risk and being willing to fail in the noble cause of teaching students to think more effectively. I passionately believe that assessment concerns should never squelch any creative pedagogical experiment. Try it today, and figure out how to measure it tomorrow.
In the case of assessing "quality of failure," at the end of the semester I ask my students to write a one-page reflective essay describing their productive failure in the course and how they have grown from those episodes (which might have occurred outside of class — including false starts and fruitful iterations). They conclude their essay by providing their own grade on how they have evolved through failure and mistakes (from 0 – meaning "I never failed" or "I learned nothing from failing" to 10 – meaning "I created and understood in profound, new ways from my failed attempts"). I read their narratives, reflect on their class participation and willingness to take risks, and then usually award them the surprisingly honest and restrained grades they gave themselves. To date, I’ve never had a student complain about their "quality of failure" grade.
To my skeptical colleagues who wonder if this grading scheme can be exploited as a loophole to reward unprepared students, I remind them that we should not create policies in the academy that police students, instead we should create policies that add pedagogical value and create educational opportunity. And with respect to my grading failure practice, I found no such abuse at the three institutions in which I have employed it (Williams College, the University of Colorado at Boulder and Baylor University). On the contrary, if implemented correctly, you will see your students more engaged, more prepared, and more thoughtful in class discussions and in life.
Beyond the subject matter contained in the 32 to 48 courses that typical undergraduates fleetingly encounter, our students’ education centers about the most important creative feat of their lives — the creation of themselves: Creating a mind enlivened by curiosity and the intellectual audacity to take risks and create new ideas, a mind that sees a world of unlimited possibilities. So we as educators and scholars should constantly be asking ourselves: Have I taught my students how to successfully fail? And if not, then: What am I waiting for?
Edward Burger is the Francis Christopher Oakley Third Century Professor of Mathematics at Williams College, and is an educational and business consultant. Other practical ways to fail and inspire students to make productive mistakes can be found in his latest book (co-authored with Michael Starbird), The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking (Princeton University Press).
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