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Teach Students How to Succeed at Failing

As a teenager, I frequently went skiing with my dad. I was pretty good at the sport but didn’t like it much when I fell, let alone wiped out and had a complete “yard sale.”  For the non-skiers out there, that’s when all of your equipment falls off and is scattered around the mountain.  Let’s just say it’s not a graceful fall!  When I expressed disappointment in myself, my dad explained, “if you’re not falling, you’re not trying hard enough and you’re not learning anything new.” Around the same time, I remember my gymnastic coach telling me I needed how to “learn to fall correctly” so I wouldn’t break my wrist.

Fast forward about 35 years. When I found this piece on Mike Reading’s blog, “Teach your Students How to Succeed at Failing,” it struck an important chord. Mike’s article encourages us to re-think our perceptions of failing:

I’m not sure who came up with the idea that ‘failure is not an option’ but I don’t think they lived in the real world!

Life is all about failing and learning from our mistakes.  Hopefully as a teacher you are willing to try new ideas and strategies out in your classroom.  I am constantly looking at ways to improve on my classroom practice.  In reality probably 8 out of 10 things I try fail or at best don’t work out as well as I had hoped.  Does this make me a failure? I don’t think so I think that makes me a better teacher.

Over the last few seminars on How to Motivate, Manage & Engage Your Students, I have been taking an increasing amount of time to explore the concept of how to teach our students to fail forward.

Have you ever wondered what it is about a computer game that is so engaging? Why is it that a student will be playing a game, fail and then go right back to the beginning of the level and try again repeating this process several times without giving up or becoming disengaged from the task at hand?  Why won’t that same student attempt a task in class that is too hard with the same level of commitment and enthusiasm?  The answer has got nothing to do with technology.  We have all had students give up on a research task or try and get away with playing a game when they should be creating a presentation!

The answer is that the game has built into its design the 3 fundamental building blocks of intrinsic motivation.  In gaming mastery is the most important of the 3.  All of us want to be masters of something.  Gaming simply allows the gamer to learn from their mistakes and then use that new found knowledge to advance further in the game.

Often in class the opposite is true.  A student will have one attempt at a test or assignment.  They will hand the paper in and then receive a mark and then never have the opportunity to re-sit the test or redo their assignment and resubmit it for marking.

Now I know there will be some cynical teachers who will be thinking – ‘Even if I gave them the option to resubmit they would not do any better.’  Maybe this is because we have taught our students that school is all about being a ‘one shot wonder.’  If we want to truly engage our students in their learning we need to do away with the end of year exam an allow them to become successful at failing forward; after all isn’t what successful people in life do?

What ways can you build into your teaching to allow students to become masters of the content and ultimately learn to be a person who successfully fails forward?

P.S Good luck to all the year 12 students sitting for their HSC exam in NSW Australia in 2 weeks!  If only your futures didn’t hang on your capacity to remember facts under pressure in a one off exam!

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