One of the most challenging sales job that we as educators may ever have to make is related to the idea of productive failure. Productive failure is included in our tenets of effective assessment practices as a component of a learning rich culture along with risk taking and celebrating success. Failure seems to be hard-wired into our brains as a negative and something to be avoided at all costs. Our job as educators is to recognize this perception and work to correct it.
Even the value of collaborative learning can be tainted by fear of failure. An article by Redding, James, and Gardner describes how student collaboration in secondary schools can often give way to unethical practices, often because of the overemphasis on high achievement and avoidance of failure. The benefits of collaboration and cooperative learning most certainly outweigh the fears when it comes to cheating and we must make certain that students are aware of the expectations and parameters. We must devote an equal amount of energy in making certain that our classrooms feature those learning rich cultures we describe in our tenets that emphasize taking risks and the value of failure.
The high stakes nature of education is certainly contributing to a culture that fears failure. Whether it’s the educators facilitating the learning or the students sitting in the desks, there is an air of risk in far too many classrooms. Teachers and administrators fear the hammers of accountability which have been featured in scary news stories around the country that include closing of schools, replacement of staff members and negative labels in the media. Students of all ages describe feeling the pressure to do well for their teachers, for their schools, and for themselves as placement in classes, GPAs and scholarships all seem to hang in the balance. It is small wonder that students work together to help each other, as well as themselves.
One of the most valuable concepts that we can emphasize to encourage productive struggle or productive failure is the concept of the growth mindset. I first encountered Carol Dweck’s work on this subject many years ago after reading about it in a business magazine. It was intriguing to me and our school staff dug deeper into the ideas as we worked with students. Accountability was certainly a reality for us and a source of stress for many. We chose to talk with our students about a growth mindset and worked on setting individual and group goals to show students the value in believing that they could improve.
It has even been a subject of discussion around the dinner table in my own home. We have always had high expectations for our children, but I did not believe that I had sent messages about intelligence and learning that aligned more with a fixed than a growth mindset. A few conversations made me realize how wrong I was and that my sons believed that intelligence was fixed and that failure was something to be avoided. We continue to try to use language to communicate our expectations while helping them recognize that learning requires moving from not knowing to knowing.
Truly embracing the idea of productive failure will take no less than a culture shift in most of our classrooms and schools. It is not something that can happen with a poster, a single conversation, or a motto. It must be lived and reinforced in such a way that it permeates all of our language and actions. That must not dissuade us from starting the journey.
Dweck, C. Mindset. Ballentine Books, 2007.
Redding, A.B, James, C., and Gardner, H. “Nurturing Ethical Collaboration,” Independent School, Winter, 2016.