So much is written about the necessity of failure in education — that is, that students must experience failure to learn deeply. I am convinced that this is true. As an actor and director, I have another name for failure when learning: rehearsal. In the four- to five-week rehearsal process for a professional show or for the roughly three-month process for a high school production, one realizes that failure isn’t something that gets in the way of creation — it is the tool of creation. An actor might make an entrance, speak a line, and then stop and say, “ugh, let me do that again.” She knows, right then and there, that a choice didn’t feel right. The director can be a wonderful collaborator — a teacher, I like to think — who helps to keep creative artists moving through failure on the way to discovery and, eventually, to a sense of success. Indeed, the success one feels is often transformative, for it comes at the end of a creative journey that has so many necessary bumps in the road.
In a short essay published on the Web site, Inside Higher Ed, Edward Burger reminds us that
every idea from every discipline is a human idea that comes from a natural, thoughtful, and (ideally) unending journey in which thinkers deeply understand the current state of knowledge, take a tiny step in a new direction, almost immediately hit a dead end, learn from that misstep, and, through iteration, inevitably move forward. That recipe for success is not just the secret formula for original scholarly discovery, but also for wise, everyday thinking for the entire population. Hence, it is important to explicitly highlight how essential those dead ends and mistakes are — that is, to teach students the power of failure and how to fail effectively.
Burger is eloquent on this point, and I’d like to think that all learning could stand for more failure, but it’s a hard sell. Teachers understand, in theory, that failure is good, and perhaps some students do, too. But there is a point, maybe in middle school and certainly in high school, where failure just doesn’t feel like an option for students. In a high-stakes era in education, each quiz, paper grade, and test can feel like an “accept” or a “deny” at one’s first-choice college. Self-imposed and parental pressure can make every assessment seem like the most consequential moment — until, that is, the next test comes along.
And yet, colleges seek students who have experienced failure and resilience; they make for better learners. Employers want a team that has gone through this journey as well, for they make for a better company. But thoughtful teachers meet with frustration when trying to show why failure can be valuable.
What to do?
Burger, who is also the co-author of the book, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking (Princeton UP, 2012), offers a solution. He writes, “Just assess it.” And “it,” here, is failure itself. In this way, he leverages the power of the grade to get students to fail in a meaningful and regular way. Students know that, to get the best grade they can, they must lay an intellectual egg on a sort of steady basis. This is a good idea, and I think many students can benefit from this.
I have been thinking lately about other ways of creating learning environments that provide high stakes for students and can coax them to do their best, most engaging work. Grades, as Burger and so many teachers know, wield lots of influence, but my fear is that they drain too much energy and cognitive power away from learning itself (one can hear variation on the old questions, “Mr. Smith, did I fail well enough? Did I?”). Better, I think, to seek additional mechanisms to achieve the same goal where the focus is on the work — the learning — rather than on the grade of that work.
So what is it? I return to my image of the stage performance and to the power of formative assessments that emerge from the conditions of the rehearsal room. Here goes —
So maybe let’s admit that the opening night of a show is (though this comparison feels icky) sort of the “exam” — the summative assessment of all our work. But let’s also admit that the dozens of rehearsals leading up this opening night/exam look and feel a lot different than quizzes. Unlike quizzes, which, at worse, are like little skirmishes on the way to the Battle of Agincourt, rehearsals are scheduled sessions of failure/discovery/success. But why do rehearsals work so well? Well, the sum of it all — the play that appears in front of an audience — is authentic. Like a football game, the seats are full of people watching, and the need for a person to do something, to perform, is a magical enticement for one to do one’s best. If one is an actor, one can hardly be passive! But it’s not just that final “exam” (or the opening night review) that pulls out the best in a performer. It’s the laboratory atmosphere of the rehearsal room where peers simultaneously rely on you, support you, and — yes — occasionally judge you that continually call on your best efforts to push forward into failure and then into success. Over time, one simply gets accustomed to this rhythm as process.
But if an actor got a grade on every failure in rehearsal, he would only focus on each “win” or “loss,” and the real object — the art — would take a back seat. Rehearsals work because the cast and director take the long view and know that the success of an opening night isn’t the average of a D+ and a B- and and A: it’s the A only (or it’s the B- only, if that’s as good as it gets). The production, then, is the accumulation of failure and success — not the average of it. My colleague, Tim Fish, and I were talking about this subtle-yet-seismic difference. I believe that if learning is always assessed as the average of the process, students really won’t take risks and glean the benefits of failing and succeeding; it’s just too risky in their and their parents’ eyes.
Accumulation. This is what’s on my mind. I plan to keep thinking about failure as a tool, but not as a punitive measure that must be averaged into opening night. What do you think?