Learning

Failure Is An Option

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So often, the sentiment above is what echoes in our minds when we start something new. But what if it wasn’t? What if instead we focused on the idea that failure was an option – as long as we fail well?

The keynote speaker at the AGIS (Association of German International Schools) Conference was Lance G. King: a fellow New Zealander with a dry sense of humor and a passion for failure. His keynote often referenced the work of Carol Dweck with regard to establishing a growth mindset over a fixed mindset.

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His talk, however, primarily focused on the ideas of failure and resilience. In his research he noted that the key difference in the success of students was not that one group failed and one was successful, it was that one group failed well and the other failed badly:

*All slides are from Lance King’s Website: The Art of Learning

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So, how do we encourage students to fail well? King shared the following ‘Failure Cycle’ in which teachers actively guide students in the process of considering their actions, taking responsibility for what was done (or not done), and setting in place a plan for doing something differently the next time around:

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Lance is an advocate of skills based teaching and has taken a lead role in the re-development of Approaches to Learning for the new MYP curriculum. In addition to content acquisition,  he demands a focus on skill acquisition with the role of the teacher being one of guiding students through the process of successful failure.  He (ironically? sarcastically?) asks the following of teachers:

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Well? This is the reality for many people, yet has our teaching changed? Like Sal Khan, I believe Lance King is not suggesting that we replace teachers with computers.  What they are both suggesting is that we embrace the power of technology and elevate the role of the teacher from content deliverer to skills guide or even failure coach.

Some questioned Lance as to wether the notion of supporting failure amongst students would not simply lead to apathy and lack of effort on their part: “My teacher says it is ok to fail”. If this mindset were to develop, we have done the students a disservice in not putting emphasis where it belongs.  It is not ‘just’ failure we are embracing but failing well. If you were to review the cycle (above), you will see that it actually takes quite a bit of work to fail well. We are in an age when we are seeing ideas, innovation, solutions to problems that don’t even exist yet. We won’t get where we need to be without first embracing, accepting, and even celebrating our failures, first.

Like most things, this approach of embracing failure is going to take some educating amongst parents, teachers, and students in order to be successful. There seems to be such an emphasis on success that is direct, clean, linear.  But rarely is this the case:

Last year, I shared this video with my fourth graders and had them draw their own version of success.  I asked them to think about a time they were successful at something and then to think back as to how they got that way.  Did they just wake up and be a brilliant skier? An amazing artist? A super reader? What did the journey look like from not knowing to being successful?

All of the twists and turns and bumps and gaps along the way point to the resilience each student developed in order to make their way to ‘success’.

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Not giving up, looking for new solutions, believing in yourself, pushing yourself beyond what you think you know.  These are all characteristics of resilience that can be summed up in this humorous clip that your students will get a kick out of:

So how do we get here?  As Lance said in his presentation at the IB Conference in Madrid, “The most motivated learning is self-regulated”. This is something we have all seen to be true: passion, interest, and curiosity driving learning. As teachers, we would need to develop a classroom culture that supports self-regulated learning (SLR):

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So, what now?

My suggestion would be to look at the Approaches to Learning and start thinking about how these skills can play a more prominent role in your classroom.  One way of doing this (or easing in to this if this is totally new to you) would be to take a look at this reflective blog post from Mags Faber, in which she tries out split screen teaching in order to draw attention to the skills she is trying to focus on.

How do you build resilience, allow students to self-regulate, and teach your kids to fail well?

Innovation, Learning

1000 Pinholes

Two weeks ago, I went to the opening of the Matisse Cut Outs Exhibition at the Tate Modern.  It is the largest collection of his paper cutouts ever assembled and included a couple of fascinating movies of the artist at work, culminating in his magnificent paper cut outs transformed into stained glass windows – breathtaking.

Henri Matisse is the embodiment of persistence.  After becoming ill and no longer able to paint and sculpt, Matisse turned to his scissors.  His work shows the transition from the fluidity of the brush to the more definitive slicing of paper.  Undeterred by the change in medium of expression, Matisse would simply cut and cut and cut, adding layers and shapes to his cut outs to achieve the desired look.  He would pin his work in place before gluing it down.  One of his pieces had more than 1000 pinholes in it as he continued to arrange and rearrange to get the desired outcome.

1000 pinholes.

Persistence.  It is something we talk about, encourage in our kids, hope to embody in our own lives.  Sticking with something until it’s done – whatever that looks like to you.  Matisse had persistence in spades.  He was often commissioned by philanthropists and art lovers to create bespoke work and during this process, would often have his designs and colors perpetually rejected.  He embraced this rejection.  Embraced it.  An elderly man, in failing health, and he chose to live his life having his work critiqued and rejected, offering him the opportunity to put together different colors, shapes, patterns – all with the goal of finding a palate and design that was perfect for his client. He was inherently persistent.

So how can we build this in our kids?

I think one of the things we need to be doing is continually pointing out the gains that are being made as learners – even when these ‘gains’ are not necessarily directly related to the acquisition of knowledge. What do I mean?  Say you had asked your kids to write a persuasive essay.  Your student works hard but ultimately their work is not meeting the agreed upon criteria.  If all of your focus goes on the product (the essay) the motivation to persist in the face of perceived “failure” may be quite low. If, however, you were to employ Guy Claxton’s Split Screen approach, you would still take time to evaluate and discuss the essay, but then you would ‘split’ your time by discussing the process. What tools would have helped more?  What questions could have been asked?  What was good about the way the work was initially organized?

Split Screen

By “splitting” between process and product, students can see that they ARE making progress and growth in their learning.  The skills you help them see that they have developed can be transferred to the next task.  They will be more likely to persist when they can see the possibility that exists within themselves.  As teachers, we have to help shine a light on that possibility.

Inspired

*I have written previously about Process-vs-Product.  Check it out here.