Since I won’t be in class this evening, I wanted to respond to a couple points that Sarah and Anke have made in their latest blog posts, as well as input a couple of my own thoughts into the conversation.
As Anke explains, students likely have a difficult time equating the academic goal of failing with good grades because they have serious concerns about GPAs, scholarships, or what have you. I think that these completely legitimate concerns must be addressed. As individual instructors, it is potentially dangerous to teach our students that risk taking is a worthwhile pursuit because other instructors might have very different thoughts on the matter. We need to be clear that our classrooms are safe learning environments, but other classrooms might not follow the same guiding principles.
I wonder if trying to encourage students to fail is fighting an uphill battle. Sarah and Anke both expressed interest in discussing whether or not a group’s relationship to failure is culturally specific, but whether the struggle with “Failure” is strictly U.S. American or not, we certainly need to address the fact that [most of] our students (and quite likely ourselves as well) do not view failure as a positive pursuit. For me, this leads to a question about language: would it be better (read: faster and more effective) to just re-frame the objective in different terms rather than try to reclaim a word that is loaded down with baggage? When we use phrases like “fail better,” we understand that the goal is risk taking and innovation. What we seem to mean is that we shouldn’t be afraid of failure because new ideas, thoughts, processes, technologies, etc. arise out of testing and development. However, aren’t we then arguing that the multiple iterations that it takes to achieve something more worthwhile are steps in the process rather than failures? And if these steps in the process are not failures because they help lead to the next thought or development, why are we encouraging failure?
Ultimately, we do not want our students to fail in the sense that the word implies. We want them to rethink what failing means. We do not want failure to be in opposition to success. Perhaps it’s just a small linguistical concern, but language is powerful and combating failure’s negative connotation might be a struggle we won’t be able to win over the course of a single semester. I’m pretty sure the capitalistic machine’s notions of failure are going to outweigh our own.
(For the record, I also see the benefit of using the term “failure,” but I think it worthwhile to play devil’s advocate.)
Perhaps a scientist in the classroom can help me with this final point … As educators, we should be trying to constantly improve our approaches and methods. Each new class we teach or assignment we develop is a pedagogical experiment. After an experiment has been completed, do scientists label their results as either success or failure? Shouldn’t we instead avoid connotations and simply discuss our findings and conclusions? Why this obsessive need to classify? Doesn’t every assignment have something salvageable even if it didn’t have the desired or anticipated results?