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‘Failure is not an option’, or is it?

IB World explores how teachers encourage mistakes to give students confidence in their learning abilities

“Failure is life’s greatest teacher” as the saying goes. It develops creativity, persistence, problem-solving skills, and self-awareness.

Author Carol Dweck’s work on the ‘growth mindset’ highlights the importance of overcoming obstacles by learning from mistakes to avoid repeating them.

According to Dweck, students with a ‘growth mindset’ believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through hard work, persistence and dedication – they feel encouraged to take risks and not cower away from failure, but instead see it as necessary to success. However, those with a ‘fixed mindset’ believe qualities like intelligence or talent are unchangeable traits and are likely to avoid developing their qualities, meaning they avoid failure at all costs and remain static.

While the benefits are clear, the connotations associated with ‘failure’ are negative. A fear of failure can cause a negative attitude towards learning, according to research by the British Psychological Society. In some cases, students might go to extreme lengths to avoid failure, such as plagiarism and cheating.

Nonetheless, IB teachers around the world are helping their students understand that failure is essential for success, and encouraging students to take risks.

Positive failure

One teacher in Georgia, US, introduces failure on the first day of the school year.

“I begin my English classes with an introductory analysis activity that asks students to make observations, inferences and claims about an image that I project on the board. The brief instructions that I give before the activity include the request that they ‘fail boldly’,” says Noah Brewer, IB Diploma Programme (DP) Coordinator, Theory of Knowledge (TOK) and English Teacher, at Carrollton High School.

Of course, this directive raises some eyebrows, and it creates an opportunity, very early in a challenging course, to begin a discussion of what it means to fail.”

This activity gets students talking, validating their ideas and helps them develop the courage to vocalize these in class discussions and in writing.

He adds: “I share with students my favourite quote from Samuel Beckett: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ And we talk about the difference in a culture that celebrates ‘success’ and one that celebrates a ‘better failure’.”

I use technological progress and scientific discovery as examples of areas where ‘success’ has no real meaning. For example, if the iPhone 6 was such a success, why did we need the iPhone 7?”

For younger students, a ‘mistake board’ is a way to introduce the concept of positive failure. Students at Southpointe Academy in British Colombia, in Canada, keep a tally of their teacher’s mistakes, and discuss what could be learned and done differently next time.

Primary Years Programme (PYP) Teacher Tobin Hammerberg, says: “We recognize that mistakes and failures are part of the learning process. I am more than happy to share my mistakes with my students, as it first humanizes the teacher and allows the students to make mistakes.

“We talk about the fact that nobody is perfect and I don’t expect perfection. I expect hard work and reflection. I’m continually telling my students that I expect mistakes from them, as mistakes are evidence of learning and trying new things.”

Memorable lessons

Beyond the first day of school, Brewer works to integrate failure into lesson design and the student reflective process.

The ‘Black Box Problem’ activity within the TOK unit on ‘Knowledge in the Natural Sciences’ encourages students to work in teams to investigate – through sense-perception, inference, and deduction – what’s inside a black shoe box.

Students then present their ideas and conclusions, and Brewer decides which group has presented the best possible conclusion grounded in reasoning and evidence.

“This is a hard lesson on failure, and on the provisional nature of all conclusions because I do not reveal the actual contents of the box. I tell students, ‘In science, as in most areas of knowledge, you don’t get to open the box.’ This frustrates the students, but it also convinces them in a way that they don’t forget.” Students also regularly reflect on their strengths and weaknesses and share these reflections with their classmates.

When students realize everyone can improve, they stop measuring themselves against their peers and focus their energies on personal, purpose-driven growth.”

Hammerberg agrees that reflection is important. “My favourite part of the IB Learner Profile is ‘reflective’. It helps us think about our mastery of skill, knowledge and the areas we want to continue improving in.  I couldn’t think about those areas, or reflect deeply, if I have only achieved success.”

Parents have been very receptive to positive failure at Southpointe Academy. “I use personal examples often to highlight a point. I’m an avid backyard gardener, and I tell my students about the times I’ve put out the tomato seedlings too early, or picked the apples before they were ripe. These are lessons that I’ve learned from, and then it is my choice to make them again or not.  I can reflect and learn or I can choose to make conscious mistakes.  My first mistake is free, but after that it is my choice to continue making the same mistake or not. Parents have been supportive with this approach to education and reflection.”

Creating an open culture

ACS Egham International School in Surrey, UK, prides itself on having a “culture of support and encouragement”, according to Caroline Hazel, ACS Egham’s Middle Years Programme (MYP) Coordinator.

The school discusses the concepts of failure, resilience and ‘growth mindsets’ in assemblies and follow-up sessions as part of a wellbeing programme.

As part of the programme, students learn that “nobody is perfect, it’s okay to ask for help, and how to embrace challenges as opportunities, and appreciate the process of assignments rather than just the end result,” says Hazel.

MYP student at ACS Egham, Kathryn Gruner-Hegge has learned that failing is just as important as succeeding, if not more so, she says. “You can get great grades but if you never fail you won’t know the important things,” she adds.

Students should look at their mistakes as opportunities to learn what’s really important, rather than as disappointments. Because no matter how well you do in school, you cannot learn the important things solely through good grades. Kathryn Gruner-Hegge

For students at Carrollton High School who are still a little uncomfortable with the concept of failure, Brewer rephrases the mantra: “if you ain’t failin’, you ain’t tryin’.” He says: “I remind them that if they found the course easy, I would not be doing my job, and neither would they.”

Balanced learning

Failure is an inevitable part of the learning process, and teaches vital skills. But it is important that teaching that ‘failure is a part of learning’ is balanced with students working to the best of their abilities.

Brewer says: “In a class that celebrates success, students who are less than successful suffer their weaknesses in silence. When the child who got a perfect score is getting all the praise, the one who did more poorly is hiding in the corner, hoping nobody notices. By celebrating risk and making failure safe, I think I create an environment where critique is no longer viewed as a private affair.”

But there is much more to be done to improve attitudes towards students’ failures, particularly in terms of grading, which Brewer says “harshly” punishes risks that don’t pay off.

When students are allowed to be less-than-perfect, when they are celebrated for their willingness to try anyway, and when they are given the vocabulary and the reflective space to make honest critiques of their own work, they will work hard to improve for themselves.”