Failure: An Exploration (Part 1)

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?


About kcosta380

Kevin J. Costa is the Director of The Curiosity Shop at McDonogh School (Owings Mills, Maryland), the school's Community for Teaching & Learning. He is the founding director of the school’s Institute for Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies, an interdisciplinary program that explores the plays and history of Early Modern England through a scholar/practitioner approach. Kevin is also education director for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in Baltimore, MD. He holds a PhD in English with a concentration in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, and drama, and has taught at the secondary and postsecondary levels. Kevin has trained in classical theater at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, and he was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities award to study the teaching of Shakespeare at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, where he now serves as a teaching artist for the Library’s National Teacher Corps. Active on stage and as a director with the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, he is also a proud member of the Shakespeare Theatre Association, an international organization of Shakespeare theater companies.
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6 Responses to Failure: An Exploration (Part 1)

  1. Elizabeth says:

    This post completely reminded me this “Faculty Focus” article from 2011.

    In addition, an article that is more ammo for the intellectual weapon that are PBL-oriented classrooms or interdisciplinary “minimester” type projects based on student curiosity, this line really stands out in defense of the NEED to allow for error: “If you program a robot’s every movement, she says, it can’t adapt to anything unexpected. But when scientists build machines that are programmed to try a variety of motions and learn from mistakes, the robots become far more adaptable and skilled. The same principle applies to children.”


  2. Wendy V says:

    I am so happy to be a part of this discussion because I was definitely a student who was more focused on straight A’s than what I was actually learning, unfortunately . (I thought the world would end when I got my first B in 11th grade physics!) I think students with this mindset are really missing out on the “art”, as you put it, in this case meaning the process of learning. Well into my 20s I learned the value of taking risks and of failure, however, this was something I wish I’d been talked to about in my K-12 education. McD students are lucky to have educators who are talking about this.


  3. kcosta380 says:

    Thanks, Wendy, for your comment. I’m afraid I was that student, too. The “A” is a powerful lure, and everything feels so high stakes.


  4. Nancy L says:

    The most meaningful lessons in my life are the failures where wounds are turned to wisdom and those who guide me through – my most cherished teachers.


  5. Jon Aaron says:

    Kevin- I shared with you a thought from Samuel Beckett: “Fail better.” This gentle command suggests a continuum of risk-taking on the way to the “best” work one can do or that a group can do. As an 8th grade teacher, I think I might begin by taking the kids where they are and inquire what “fail” means to them (after all, “epic fail” is part of their everyday vernacular)…maybe use a visual where they can brainstorm the downside of failure on one side and the upside on the other.

    I also love your strategy of posing a problem and not providing all the tools…leaving “space” where they can discover a range of solutions combining the knowledge they have with research to be done with imagination to be activated. And “space” reminds of my early days coaching soccer when I discovered the value of space– send the ball into an open space on the soccer pitch and the expectation is that a teammate will run “onto the ball” (a notion unique to soccer, I think). And even more of an epiphany in those early coaching days was the concept that going BACKWARDS (yes, intentionally moving the ball toward one’s defensive end) was a strategy designed to create space that soon might create a scoring opportunity at the other end of the field. The “back ball” in soccer is the positive “fail” we are trying to articulate.

    I am interested in your (and others’) thoughts on how to articulate the “accumulation” rather than the “average” in our curricula.


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