I’ve been doing some reading on failure. Yes, I know, depressing subject, but it’s our need to avoid failure that makes it such a distasteful topic. We—and the reference here is to teachers and students—need to orient ourselves to the learning potential failure offers.
When a student fails an exam, what are the typical responses? “The test was too hard,” “It had problems we never worked in class,” or “It didn’t ask the questions I’d studied for.” In other words, “It’s not my fault.” Or, there’s failure avoidance—stop coming to class, or drop the course. And what do students say to each other? “I didn’t study.” “It’s a crummy course.” “It’s a gen ed; who cares about the grade.” Some students give themselves a bit of a pep talk: they’ll work harder and study more, and there’s still time to get a decent grade. Although these responses help students save face, they don’t do much for learning.
How is failure processed internally? How do we feel about it? We can hypothesize about students’ feelings, but I know precisely how failure makes me feel: stupid. “Everyone else can do the technology; why is it so hard for me? I’m an idiot, too old to learn.” It’s not the sort of self-talk that leaves me feeling uplifted, optimistic, and proud to carry on.
What we do know about students who are failing is that those most in need of help are the least likely to ask for it. We know that firsthand—who do we see in the office or hear from after an exam? We also know it from Stuart Karabenick’s excellent work on help seeking. Some of what prevents students from getting the help they need is that in our culture generally and education specifically, it’s hard to admit that you’ve got a problem that you can’t handle on your own. Doing so engenders feelings of inferiority. In addition to that barrier, there’s the fear that even with help, you won’t get it—you can’t learn it. And if you’re there in the presence of help and still don’t understand, then you must indeed have a very small brain.
All failing an exam shows is that what a student believes about studying isn’t correct. It’s a knowledge problem, not a mental capacity issue. The objective is to move past the emotional aspects of the failure to interrogating beliefs about studying, or technology, or playing soccer, or baking bread, or facilitating discussion. A clear vision of what didn’t work allows the learner to start focusing on different ways of studying, improving teaching, or whatever needs to be done better. This is where the learning starts: from taking what the student knows about studying or the teacher’s understanding of ways to handle discussion, it’s possible to think up or find out about new study game plans or different discussion techniques. The new approaches or different options build on prior knowledge and previous experience at that same time as they transform what the learner knows. If the alternatives make sense, look promising, that’s what motivates putting them to the test.
Unfortunately, repeated failures that aren’t addressed have cumulative effects. They provide more and more evidence of incompetence. There’s less and less motivation to dig into the failures and look for alternatives, until finally the motivation disappears. And so we have students who arrive in courses and announce with absolute certainty, “I can’t write,” “I can’t do math,” or “I can’t draw.”
We don’t want to ignore the complexity involved here because students and the rest of us can do some things better than other things. We have natural abilities, and we work hard to turn those abilities into sophisticated skills. It’s amazing how effectively that “can do” belief motivates effort. Maturity involves accepting what we’re good at and no so good at. And most of are okay with having a range of abilities. But most of us don’t have a positive attitude about failure. I’m not suggesting we fall in love with it, only that it shouldn’t render us helpless and then hopeless. We—again, teachers and students—fail not because of incompetence but because we haven’t yet explored that failure, sought alternatives, and moved from what doesn’t work to something else that might. Yes, it’s complicated, but the stripped-down version is straightforward. We’re talking about what it means to learn from our mistakes.
Karabenick, S. A. (1998). Strategic help seeking: Implications for teaching and learning. Lawrence Erlbaum.