Testing and Failing

I’m a big believer that failure is not a bad thing. I actually think we need to be encouraging students to embrace failure. Now I’m sure you’re thinking what’s wrong with me. Who wants students to fail? Well I do. But let me clarify, I don’t want students to fail classes and eventually get kicked out of university. What I want, is for students to realize that failure is part of learning, and that if you’re never failing, you’re probably not learning as much as you could be.

I’ve written a couple of posts before that talk about failure (like What video games can teach us about failure). I think this is a topic that is much ignored when it comes to teaching and education discussions. We want to focus on how to get students to succeed, and we want the word failure to be continually associated with a very negative context. I think this has already started to harm the way students learn, and I strongly believe it’s a trend that needs to change.

Think of a toddler exploring their world. They have one of those toys that’s a ball with different shaped holes and a bunch of pieces that each fit only in the hole that matches its shape. They’ll try over and over again to get the pieces in the correct hole. Sometimes focusing on the wrong hole for a piece, but continually turning and manipulating the piece to see if it will fit a different way. Really, every time they match a piece to the wrong hole or incorrectly position a piece for a hole they are failing. But we don’t think of it that way. Instead we realize that they are exploring, and testing, and learning. That each time they “fail”, they are making new observations about the world and how things work.

Somehow, over the years, (and I partly blame schooling) we are taught that failure is bad. There is absolutely nothing positive about failure, and it must be avoided at all costs. What happens, is this mentality becomes so ingrained in our attitude towards school, that we can’t handle putting ourselves into positions where we might fail.

During my lab, I’ve asked the class to try and explain what a simple (about 4-6 lines) program is trying to do. I can see them working it out, but no one is willing to attempt to explain it. I ask them what the output will be given a specific input. They’ll type away on the computers, run the program with the given input, and still be afraid to answer in case they’re wrong. In these instances, their fear of being wrong is far outweighing their ability to learn and push themselves to try new things. Of course, we watch them in these situations, and then wonder why they can’t complete simple tasks or answer easy questions. Somewhere along the way, they lost the ability to see failure as something that often happens on the path to success.

One of the steps I’ve taken as a TA, is when a student asks something, to sometimes say (especially if it’s true :P) that I don’t know, and why don’t we look for an answer. Or suggest to them to try x and see what happens, did that get them closer or farther from their solution? I try to get the students to focus on testing and experimenting (and ultimately failing) without ever using the word fail. Instead, change the focus from students just stating that “that’s wrong” to a more positive focus: “Okay, well now we see that doing x causes y but we need to cause z. What if we change x to…”

How do you deal with students (or your own) perceptions/misconceptions about failure?

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