Oct 16, 2010

Failure, healthier than you thought

Well, the term is in full swing, and I am amazed at how often students realize the same things from term to term. The frequency of these realizations remind me how profound they are.
Take the idea of failure, for instance. Most students I know don't want to fail. Sure, some of them play it cool, pretending they don't care if they don't do well (usually the ones who haven't done well in the past). But despite all the bravado to the contrary, they love it when they do succeed.

Failing to meet project requirements or specifications (specs) in some of the in-class engineering projects is a matter of course. Statistically speaking, it is to be expected, considering the restricted materials and time students have to work on the project. We work through the "failure" with them: Students report what they did; which specs they achieved and which they didn't; and what they will do next time, or if they had more time. Learning from failure is important, not only for their final project, but for themselves. As the Harvard Business Review cited, tolerance for failure is an essential attitude for countries that want to create an innovative culture.

Funny thing, my education majors in particular don't like to fail. One burst out recently, "I have a real problem with being less than perfect. Am I the only one?" No, others reassured her, they, too, had that dilemma. We, the instructors, reassured her as well; many students have made similar exclamations at some point.

These are great "teaching moments". These same students will exclaim at the end of the course that we helped them learn to make the impossible possible. But that happy ending starts with the uncomfortable first step of learning from failure. Only then can they start to chip away at the impossible.

More importantly, for them to become good teachers, they needed to experience the failures and find the lessons from the failures for themselves. Only then will they be able to offer real advice (maybe even wisdom) to their little guys and gals.

Why can't we just talk about it? Spare them the inner conflict that comes from "failing"? Sadly, because children know when they are being lied to. Consider a teacher who never learned the lessons of failure. When that teacher tells a kid that it's okay to fail, the message will sound like a platitude--well meaning, but with something missing. On the other hand, consider a teacher who has experienced failure. Saying "Ah yes, I remember when I made that mistake..." will actually mean something.

Come to think of it, one person's "failure" is another person's "goofy trial". You know, those things you do that make you say afterwards, "Huh, well that didn't go well" or "I guess, now we know." It's all a matter of perspective. Failing, and sharing the lessons from failure, might actually be a good thing, not only for an individual, but for many others. As a recent engineering graduate said to me, "It's okay that I lived through some bad times, but if I can help someone through those lessons, then it makes it worthwhile." Since a good teacher practices what she preaches, I'll share some of my greatest failures and goofiest trials in future blogs in the hopes that the stories help someone else in some small way.

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