I can just imagine the quizzical looks as fellow teachers think to themselves, “You want your students to do what?” In the world of education, the word “failure” is almost as bad as a curse word. It’s full of negative connotations and it can be a heavy burden to bear for most students.
The education system has created a generation of students who are afraid to get things wrong. They have been trained to believe that there is only one right way to do things or there is only one right answer. I know that I have my fair share of students who frequently ask questions like, “Did I get this right?” or “Is this what you wanted?” My son is one of those students. The fear and anxiety of failing and not doing something exactly how the teacher wants it done is absolutely paralyzing for him. This isn’t right, and as educators it is our responsibility to change this harmful dynamic.
So, what can we do to encourage students to be creative with their learning and not fear failure? How can we encourage reflection and experimentation? How can we empower our students to be self-directed learners? The answer is not a simple one, but there are a few things that I have experimented with in my classroom and with my son that are yielding positive results: encouraging ownership, providing resources, and multiple attempts at learning.
In order for students to truly benefit from learning, they need to have personal ownership of it. I’ve often seen well-meaning teachers swoop in and “help” when students fail at a task or make a mistake. I know I’ve been guilty of doing the same. We want to help, but unfortunately, this often robs a student of an opportunity to learn. Instead, we need to get out of the way and allow students the opportunity to problem-solve. Encourage personal ownership of their own learning by providing open-ended questions to push them to think (ex. Why do you think that happened? Have you tried other approaches? Where do you think we could find that information?). This can be an incredibly powerful tool in allowing students to own their own learning.
Empowering students to be self-directed learners does not take place overnight. It’s a long process that requires a teacher’s guidance. One process I use in my classroom is to provide a source of information, or resources. These can range from textbook pages, instructional videos, websites, to people or community organizations. Resources are everywhere. My role as a teacher is that of a facilitator of learning. I will curate these resources for lessons or units, but my ultimate goal is to create an atmosphere where finding the answer together is valued over getting the answers from the teacher.
I am a firm believer that failure is a powerful learning tool. In his book, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough suggests that students shouldn’t be protected from failure but taught how to cope with it and manage it. He discovered that the “grit” and character that children build through experiences with failure are more common to successful people than a high IQ.
Historically, students have received the message that it’s not ok to fail. Most often, teachers grade everything. This doesn’t provide a safe environment for students to practice, fail, and learn. There is pressure to get it right and get a good grade. Instead, we should be providing opportunities for multiple attempts to learn and revise before demanding high-quality evidence of learning. In my classroom we do weekly checkpoints that students are able to complete as many times as they need to. This practice of their skills helps them to prepare for their final task (real-world application of knowledge).
One of my favorite quotes, which can be applied to teaching, comes from Carol Dweck, “If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.” My challenge to us all is to reexamine how we educate, from curriculum to assessment and instruction. Let’s allow for empowerment instead of always getting the answer right.
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