I am a big fan of mistake making. Well, not the making of the mistakes part so much but of the learning from mistakes, expecting mistakes, embracing mistakes. What if we flip the narrative on failure and, since we know mistakes happen, we anticipate them and respond to them with enthusiasm?
Okay, stick with me here. Enthusiasm may be a little . . . enthusiastic?
Looking back on a 20 year career in education, I see so many mistakes, of course, and some outright fails. I’ll never ever forget the time I, with four other teachers, took 32 4-year-olds on a bus field trip. Left the school, counted everyone multiple times, went to find my seat with my buddy, only to realize he was still sitting in the exact spot – AT THE SCHOOL – where I asked him to wait for me. We turned the bus around, of course, and raced back to him (he was still waiting patiently) but I could not shake that off. Even now it haunts me.
Some mistakes are bigger than others. Every last one is a learning opportunity.
I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by mentors and colleagues and friends who embrace my failures with me, who lift me up, who help me see the learning opportunities presented in my failures. I’m currently in the midst of my biggest professional failure yet. In that failure, though, so many opportunities have developed. Opportunities for growth, for challenge, for learning, for teaching, for building resilience, for growing my network, for failing out loud so maybe others can do the same. Failure also, of course, invites self doubt, shame, embarrassment, to name a few. So, as I reflect on my own mistakes, missteps, shortcomings, and failures, I often consider how our interactions with learners shape their relationship with failure. How did I learn how to fail and how am I teaching others about failure?
Well, it’s a delicate balance, right?
We want to embrace failure as a part of learning. Einstein said, (according to the internet) “You never fail until you stop trying.” We want to build resiliency in learners. We want our learners to always be willing and ready to try try again. We know perfectionism puts limitations on learners’ willingness to take chances, ask questions, seek creativity. However, we also don’t want to embrace mistakes to the point where we accept failure. Failure has to sting a little in order for it to motivate us, right?
I teach and learn with college students. Say what you will about this generation of young people but I will defend their work ethic, their creativity, and their dedication to my last breath. I see a fear of failure in them, a fear of risk taking, a fear of creative problem solving, though. Not because, they want their hands held, but because the consequences of any mistake have been so so steep. My coursework is ungraded, due dates are flexible, engagement and iterative feedback is essential. Students find this terrifying. They struggle to trust that I won’t come with a guillotine on the last day. Mistake making and embracing failure requires trust.
Teaching and learning depends on trusting relationships. Full stop.
How do you build learning communities with high expectations, meaningful and trusting relationships, and a willingness to fail out loud?
We must be someone students can trust to launch them from failures into learning. In what ways do you fail out loud with your learners and help them do the same?
Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??). I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.