Permission to Fail

Want to succeed?  Learn to fail!

In a competitive and driven world, failure is not accepted.  Those at the top are expected to be the best always and rank of scores is highly prized.  Education becomes a competitive sport, something to be conquered instead of enjoyed.

Making the Grade

Grades are a perceived reward for the job of learning.  As our focus on education, in modern times, has become more and more centered upon formal schooling, grades have gained importance as an indicator of what was achieved by a student or an entire school.

We equate high grades or marks with success and learning.  However, the two are very different entities. High grades may reflect a level of success, albeit they do not measure true learning. Just because the answer was correct does not mean the student actually learned.

By putting more emphasis on grades, GPAs, and standardized scores, we are creating a climate where failure of any kind is unacceptable. Success, completion, and perfection are prizes above the process of development. This degrades the value of education provided through school by seeing it as a means to an end instead of a process and experience.

Learning to Fail VS Failing to Learn

If the sole goal of an education is the right answer, how much is really learned? Every great discovery and invention has been the product of a long series of attempts, failures, questions, and reattempts.

In an anecdote relayed by Thomas A. Edison’s assistant, we can see the journey of failure needed to succeed:

I found him at a bench about three feet wide and twelve to fifteen feet long, on which there were hundreds of little test cells that had been made up by his corps of chemists and experimenters. He was seated at this bench testing, figuring, and planning. I then learned that he had thus made over nine thousand experiments in trying to devise this new type of storage battery, but had not produced a single thing that promised to solve the question. In view of this immense amount of thought and labor, my sympathy got the better of my judgment, and I said: ‘Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?’ Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: ‘Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.’

Edward Burger, a math professor at Williams College, has a unique approach to not only calculating grades but inspiring failure.  He requires his students to fail in order to further discussion and discovery within his class. In fact, in order to earn an A, the highest bar of success gradewise, students must learn to fail. Five percent (5%) of the final grade is based on how well students fail.

The failure in Professor Burger’s class propels students to take risks, it inspires them to ask questions and get involved with discussion even when they may not be 100% sure that they have the correct answer. The freedom to fail, gives them wings to soar. At the end of the semester, each student is required to write an essay on their failure experience and grade themselves on how well it went and what was learned.  In this way, Professor Burger is igniting the flame to continue to learn and promoting true and lasting education.

If at First You Don’t Succeed

In nurturing education for our children, community, and self, we must never put perfection and results above the process.  Learning that is authentic and meaningful cannot simply be assigned a right or wrong answer, nor is it a linear, clear-cut experience.

Giving students permission to fail, frees them from the constrains of having to perform and lets them develop innovative and creative ways to solve a problem. Even when the “wrong” answer is reached, there is great value in the step taken to get there that will feed deeper understanding and greater appreciation for the subject. In an innovation and technology driven world, failure is the key to creative success.

To become a lifelong learner, one must be willing to try and fail. As was mentioned in Burger’s essay, if you get onto a bicycle and never fall, you have learned nothing.  Like a small child who toddles and falls, we must trudge on realizing that education is not a linear race, but a sorted journey or twists, turns, and set backs. It isn’t in the success that education and innovation are gained, but in the grueling process of figuring out how to get from A to B and starting over when plan A, B, C, D, and even F backfire.

How have you failed to learn or learned to fail?

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