Teaching students to fail

1 Theme 4 Topics View

Emma Kennedy on why one of the most important skills we can teach our students is how to fail productively.

On Wednesday 20th April I attended the University of Roehampton’s 2016 Learning and Teaching Conference. I learned so much from each workshop and presentation that I’ll be writing multiple posts which emerge from the conference, but I’m going to start with some thoughts on the keynote – which also provided the theme of the conference.

The conference started with a thought-provoking keynote by Professor Ron Barnett, entitled ‘Becoming a twenty-first century student’. Prof Barnett touched on a great many themes, but they all centred on the vital question: what does it mean to be a young person in, or just out of, university in 2016 – and how can universities help give young people what they need in this age?

One of my favourite phrases from this paper was ‘pedagogy of strangeness’, which Barnett spoke about in the context of the ever-changing, increasingly complex world into which university graduates are going. We can’t predict the skills they’ll need in the future – and more importantly, neither can them. What we need to do, therefore, is to encourage them to be courageous; to be comfortable with the unfamiliar, to adapt where they can and to put themselves forward for challenges rather than settle for an easy life.

But how can universities strike the balance between helping students develop these skills and giving them the space to progress as far as they can? We need to support students to deal with change, but we also need to let them experience failure and unfamiliarity, so that they have the chance to reflect on these and learn from them.

This got me thinking about the issue of failure: how we talk about it and measure it in universities, and how students might think about failure as a result. As The Guardian reported last year, exam regimes in secondary schools put their pupils under increased pressure to do well – so students enter university having been pushed to breaking point, and in the mental habit of putting huge stress upon themselves. Naturally, they bring this pressure with them to university, afraid to try and fail – as this shows.

So it’s worth thinking – how do you deal with failure in your classroom and in your courses? Are your students afraid to speak in class in case they get something wrong? Think about the dynamics in your classroom. Have your students ever seen you get something wrong? Do you talk about your weaknesses, and the things you do less well? The key here is not to erase the fear of failure – that’s going to be a constant for all of us, no matter what we do in our lives. The key is to fail productively. Of course doing well still needs to be the goal – nobody needs to let go of academic standards. But you can have high standards while also encouraging the failures which might be necessary to get there. In fact, encouraging students to fail helps them move beyond the fear  which might force them to ‘play it safe’ and stay mediocre.

That’s why I was so heartened to see the “CV of Failures” published by Johannes Haushofer, a professor at Princeton University. Haushofer notes that “failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible”. This is particularly true for those of us lecturing – we might give students the (often inaccurate) impression that we sailed unimpeded from undergraduate to academic, without a pause or stumble on the way. (This is not to deny the many kinds of privilege possessed by academics; but even the most privileged academic rarely gets to their position without a hiccup or two).  To a student who is struggling with a basic concept, this can give them the feeling that we are ‘above’ them, never fail and that we might consider them stupid.

Hopefully, nothing could be further from the truth. But do your students know that? Talking honestly to your class about things that you find hard, still find hard or don’t know offhand can help create an atmosphere where it’s OK to admit to ignorance. You can then demonstrate just how a successful, knowledgeable person deals with failure – by admitting it and then making it right. Forget a key fact or date in class? Admit it and ask if anyone else knows; look it up together to show students how someone with subject knowledge might navigate the maze of available information. Did you once struggle with a concept considered basic? Share your experience, along with strategies you might have developed or learned from others.

This doesn’t mean that you have to bare your soul to your students, and there will undoubtedly be some experiences that you want to keep private. It also doesn’t mean dragging yourself down with self-deprecating speeches (fellow British people, I’m looking at you). Be proud of your strengths and achievements (and encourage students to do that, too) – but don’t be afraid to admit that it’s normal to fail along the way.

Blog post by Emma Kennedy, May 2016