Freedom to Fail


No one likes the word “fail,” but bare with me here for a few minutes. Sometimes, we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. Failure can help us learn the right skills for the right situations. Failure helps us build resiliency. Failure even motivates us; cognitive science shows that we experience a “near miss” on something that matters to us, we’re more likely to perform better the next time we encounter the same situation (see Rekart, “The Cognitive Classoom”). Like the Harvard Business review says, “The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible.”

Yet no one likes to fail, especially not in a college course. And we as educators don’t like to see our students fail. It can be tough to watch students flounder. Often, I have the instinct to reach out and help a student with an immediate problem, so that they won’t become frustrated or discouraged. As animals, we’re built to avoid risks and as humans, we’re built to help others avoid risks. It’s a great natural instinct to have.

How can we step back from that instinct and give students the space to fail, and fail constructively? Group work. Group work is an awesome place to experience failure. It’s one of the (many) reasons that Dartmouth uses group work in so many of its courses, and one of the (many) reasons that you as Learning Fellows are critical for the students in our courses. In group work, we act within a community. There is no individual singled out for a failure. Ideas can be tested. Skills can be practiced. Feedback and change are constant. When failure does happen, there is a support system in place for evaluating the failure and trying again.

“Failure helps us build resiliency.”

Sometimes, group work is a place where failure is expected and even embraced. You may have noticed that some of the group activities in our courses are designed to fail. Those activities can teach us important concepts like breaking points, theoretical impossibilities, resource exhaustion, or tipping the scale. All are valuable concepts that can be applied to many aspects of our lives, academic and otherwise.

Next week, many of our huddles will be processing group reflections from their students. This is an exciting time when we see how groups are operating and how students perceive the group work in their courses. It can also be a challenging time as we learn pieces of new information, which we might not expect and might not immediately know how to interpret. For Learning Fellows processing assessments and also those who are not, I encourage you to practice a little “freedom to fail” this week. Let’s pat ourselves on the back for jobs well done, and let’s embrace those moments when we seem to have (temporarily) failed. Let’s take a few more risks than we usually do and forgive ourselves when the risks don’t play out as we expect. Let’s try – just for one week – to think of failure as a good thing. Or at least, a thing with good potential.

I’ll end with a quote from one of the Learning Fellows in our Math 3 huddles. It’s originally from Adventure Time, a cartoon I’ve never seen. But I love the sentiment embraced by a character called Jake the Dog:

“Dude, sucking at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.”


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