I Want My Students to Fail

Amy Mann - Failure

By Amy Mann
Environmental Technologies Department
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

As a student I was taught that failure is not an option. I spent my educational career avoiding failure and chasing the “A”. The feedback that I received from teachers was all positive and strongly supported my efforts to avoid failure. This failure avoidance paralyzed me during my senior year of college when I began working on a laboratory research project.

I was trying to model contaminant transport underground and ran into all sorts of issues throughout the process. Each time my experimental design didn’t work or a piece of equipment wasn’t set up properly I was incredibly frustrated and wanted to quit. I hadn’t yet learned that failure is necessary to good design and should be embraced for the learning opportunities.

As a teacher I see many students who are like me, paralyzed by the idea of failure. Just this semester a student in my class commented that he wanted to drop my class because he failed the first test. With one taste of failure he was willing to give up on the course.

This fear of failure has significant repercussions for our students and our industries. As adults with some life experience under our belt we all know that failure happens. It is an inevitable part of the human experience. Our ability to roll with failure and learn from it is what takes us to the next level academically and professionally. In How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough (2013) asserts that grit, the tenacity to rise above circumstance and failures, is one of the single biggest indicators of how successful a child will become as an adult.

Grit is an American ideal. Our heroes are people like the Wright brothers, who wouldn’t give up on their concept of a fixed-wing aircraft. It took the Wright brothers more than three years and many crashes before they developed a successful design. Each “failure” was a learning opportunity that they used to refine their aircraft. If they had been afraid of failure, they would have given up after the first crash and aviation as we know it may not exist. American folklore is full of people with grit and the ability to embrace failure.

As instructors we should encourage early failure in our classes. During my first sixty minutes I tell my students that failure is a necessary part of the design process and is expected. I explain how homework and in-class work is a “safe place to fail” and should be embraced as a learning opportunity. I also read my students a children’s book called Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty (2013). It is a story about a little girl who tries to design a contraption to help her Aunt Rose fly. Her flying machine works for a moment and then crashes to the ground. Rosie is ready to give up on her dream to be an engineer, but her Aunt Rose tells her

Your brilliant first flop was a raging success.

Come on, let’s get busy and on to the next…

Life may have its failures, but this is not it.

The only true failure can come if you quit.

I explain to my students that it may seem silly to read a children’s book in college, but that the message is essential to their success in school, as an engineer, and in life. As instructors, let’s shift the paradigm and start encouraging failure as a learning experience. It will help our students develop grit, which is a big indicator of success in life.

References

Beaty, A. (2013). Rosie Revere, Engineer. Abrams Books for Young Readers.

Tough, P. (2013). How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

2 thoughts on “I Want My Students to Fail

  1. Amy thanks for your insightful idea about failure in academics. Yes, it is a good idea to encourage students take risks in experimenting their learning. I sometimes think those students who tried innovative and different approach to solve a problem based on a learned concept but failed while trying their new ways of doing things should be given credits or bonus. Those who do solve problems by replicating an approach exemplified by instructors should of course be given credit for their good work but they should also be pushed further to experiment another way of solving the same problem which may be risky but rewarding.

    Like

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