Rethinking the Option of Failure After #LHRICTLI

Tuesday, April 11, 201710:02 AM

Failure is a natural part of the learning process. We don’t always know the answers and have to struggle productively through failure to achieve real learning and growth. But our schools aren’t made for failure. How do we balance the world of grading and standards with a culture of risk taking, innovation, and intellectual failure? As a teacher, it’s a challenge to deal with any failure, and even more so to determine the reasons behind it. Failure as the first attempt in learning is a great thing, but how can we be sure about the difference between that failure and failure from effort, care, or completion. And how should we respond differently? Or should we?

These are some of the questions and issues I’ve grappled over the past few years as my policies and philosophy on student failure and revision has evolved. In short, I’ve tried to emphasize the learning process over the product by focusing on peer and self editing, reflection, and growth. Students can revise any and all work, earn the highest grade possible, and demonstrate their best learning--but only after coming to extra help.

Overall, this policy has led to more and more students coming to extra help and showing real growth in what they know and what they can do. But if a student doesn’t turn in work, doesn’t come to extra help, or doesn’t meet the basic requirements, they do not earn credit. Overall, I like this policy and have found it effective. Students are doing more, have more ownership over their learning, and are more accountable, too. But what happens to those students who don’t turn in, show their learning, or have that growth?

#LHRICTLI Responds to Failure

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending my local technology conference, LHRIC’s Tech Expo. The event featured around thirty presentations from local educators sharing their best practices and challenges. The keynotes for they day were Kevin Brookhouser and James Sanders, and I was so excited to learn from them. Throughout their keynotes and the day’s sessions the topic of failure came up again and again. I’ll share some keynote highlights through participants’ Tweets below.

Kevin spoke about failure in #20time projects, discussing our need to create and iterate. Failure is a natural part of the learning process. James spoke about his own failures in the classroom, all of which he learned and grew from. Without embracing failure, #BreakoutEDU would not exist.

These conversations led me back to my questions above: how can we embrace failure in our classrooms? And not just in the big philosophical idea, but in our day-to-day practice as classroom teachers?

Failure is an Option

“Failure is an option. Failure to turn in is not.” Kevin Brookhouser shared this idea in his keynote, which was complemented by James Sander sharing, “Done is better than perfect.”

These ideas are so antithetical to our traditional education system; I’ve heard them a million times but still need to write this post to process them. I’m all for embracing failure and helping student improve and grow through the learning that’s “done” but how do we overcome the challenge of failure to turn in? How do we create a culture of learning where students aren’t missing assignments, or where teachers aren’t okay with the idea of failure to turn in? And how do we hold everyone accountable to that new world?

Right now, I have 40 Of Mice and Men essays to read and respond to on Google Classroom. I know that there are 2-3 that aren’t ready yet: they don’t follow directions, have major issues with writing, or have some problematic ideas. But they’re done. They’re turned in. A week ago, I might not have responded to these until the students came to extra help. And if they don’t come to extra help, the essay might hang in a grading limbo.

I believe in these ideas but am stuck on how to move forward with them in the schools that exist today. If nothing else, Kevin and James motivated me to rethink that response and to celebrate the work that’s turned in, but is that enough? I’m not looking for perfect--but still struggle with the massive leaps between turned in, done, and successful work.

In the end, though, it’s conversations like these that lead to purposeful growth and evolution in our practices, teaching, and learning. I appreciate these ideas for my students and wonder if in five years, I’ll look back on this as my own failure in learning and growth. Until then, help me to help my students by commenting or responding on Twitter with your ideas on failure.

How should teachers respond to failure? How should we respond differently to failure from failure to turn in? And how can we overcome the failure to turn in so that we can truly embrace meaningful failure? Please share your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter @MrSchoenbart.

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  1. I'm with you Adam! I can relate to every little single tiny thing that you said. For me, I just want students to turn something in so that they can see growth. We often have RTI meetings where they ask how a student is doing, and the teachers will respond with something like, "I think they're doing okay, but they don't turn anything in. We just don't have a complete picture." I feel like turning in work is a habit, and once it becomes a habit, then students may start turning in better and better work. Is it a confidence thing? Who knows... but great blog post! You made me think :)