"If you want to increase your success rate,
double your failure rate."

-Tom Watson



Sometimes you pick up little nuggets of wisdom when you least expect it...


I'm sitting in a hotel room in Williamsburg, VA.  Tomorrow is the start of the annual VASSP conference.  I ate dinner at Sal's Ristorante (lasagna - not bad, but not great) and decided to read a little before going to bed.  I picked up one of the books that I've been reading lately, John Ortberg's If You Want to Walk On Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat - long title, but excellent book.


While Ortberg's book is not specifically about education or the classroom, it deals a lot with fear and failure - 2 topics that do play a major roll in education.  On page 148, Ortberg writes the following:


...another important part of failure management - taking the time and having the courage to learn from failure.


A book called Art and Fear shows how indispensably failure is tied to learning.  A ceramics teacher divided his class into 2 groups.  One group would be graded solely on quantity of work - fifty pounds of pottery would be an "A", forty would be a "B", and so on.  The other group would be graded on quality.  Students in that group had to produce only one pot - but it had better be good.


Amazingly, all the highest quality pots were turned out by the quantity group.  It seems that while the quantity group kept churning out pots, they were continually learning from their disasters and growing as artists.  The quality group sat around theorizing about perfection and worrying about it - but they never actually got any better.  Apparently - at least when it comes to pottery - trying and failing, learning from failure, and trying again works a lot better than waiting for perfection.  No pot, no matter how misshapen, is really a failure.  Each is just another step on the road to an "A".  It is a road littered with imperfect pots.  But there is no other road.


The AFL principles just jumped off the page at me.  This story obviously applied to an art class - or any other class in which something is produced - but I really think it applies to every single classroom in our schools.  Failure is a tool for success.


This story brought the following questions to mind:

  1. Do you give your students enough practice?
  2. Do you give your students enough opportunities to fail?
  3. How could failure (from trying) help your students?
  4. Do you ever try to prevent your students from experiences failure (from trying)?
  5. How could you better explain to your students the importance of failure (from trying)?
  6. How could you better explain to your students' parents the importance of failure (from trying)?
  7. Does your grading system allow for students to learn from failure?
  8. Does your grading system penalize students for failure?
  9. How could you help your students learn from their failures?
  10. Along with opportunities to practice, do you also provide appropriate feedback students know if they are failing?
  11. What could you do to create a culture of failure - (risk-taking and trying) - in your classroom?


I want to encourage you to consider how, in the spirit of AFL, you can embrace appropriate failure in your classroom.


Any thoughts?

How can or how does the concept of a Culture of Failure relate to your classroom?

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  • From Anika Armistead, Helen Price, Beth Cook, Sarah Karpen, Wes Lester, Shirley Huff

    When there is opportunity for failure with an ungraded assignment, students are more likely to be open to it and learn from it; however, many students are not motivated to do things that are ungraded.   We talked about several other points as well but Mr. Habeeb is asking us to move so we'll post more later....

    • Sorry to rush you guys :)

  • We feel that we give students a variety of challenging activities in our courses to enrich their learning.  This includes assignments that build on each other and allow the students to see how they're growing.  The challenge to us is this: How do we provide enough external motivation to those students who stop trying as soon as they fail.  We have a lot of kids who shut down instead of trying to master the content.

    • I don't have a perfect answer, Susan, but it may involve not trying as much external motivation.  Perhaps all of us intentionally focusing on some life lessons could lead to more INTRINSIC motivation.

  • Paxton x2 / Hartless - There are two distinct types of failure.  Failure from trying and not being there yet, and failure from lack of effort to try at all.  We need to differentiate how to approach the two differently.  Encouraging students to TRY and be comfortable with failure in the attempt, and to learn more and try again.

  • This is from Robyn H., Sarah T., Jeff L., Pam C., Thad S., and Justin H.:

         We all agree that practice is important.  We all involve practice in our daily routine, and some of us are working to increase the amount of practice we use.  We understand the principle behind this discussion, but it is still difficult to make students understand "failure" and use that "failure" to inspire them to work harder.

    • I agree, Justin, about how hard it is to help kids understand the importance of failure.  I think that's why we need to be VERY intentional about it.

  • Erin Stenger and I discussed how we think in math, some teachers are inclined to give 30 of the same types of problem as a homework assignment.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, some teachers only give a handful of problems as practice.  We think both scenarios are bad.  Finding the balance is a difficult thing to do - honestly, we don't have the answer as to what is appropriate in the math classroom. 


    We also discussed helping students to learn from their failures.  As a teacher, you have to be able to recognize exactly what a student is struggling with in order to get the student to focus their time on that issue.  For instance, on a graphing equations quiz, I will write "incorrect y-intercept" or "incorrect slope graphed" on their quizzes.  This lets them know where their mistake was.  I continue doing that throughout the year, as graphing is a HUGE part of Algebra!

  • As current and former special educators, our students experience a great deal of failure, often regardless of the quality of teaching. Some of them resign to failure, and some are motivated by it. It's the students who resign themselves to failure who are the most important for us to serve.

    Smythers, Casey, Caudill, Martell, Maynard

  • I am not involved in grading, but I know I have failed at things (as we all have) in my lifetime.  Failing allows us to grow.  Maybe sometimes we fix things too quickly for students to prevent the "experience" of failing and the growth that comes from that.  Just a thought...

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