Failure is good!! Failure is great! Let’s fail all the time! This seems to be the message in progressive education in the past few years. Warren Berger discusses the rise of this concept in his book, A More Beautiful Question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. He notes how the idea shows up in a commencement speech by Oprah Winfrey in 2013, and “has been a popular credo in Silicon Valley.” (2014) It’s easy to find disciples of this trendy idea. A quick Google search yields articles such as Why Failure Is Good for Success (success.com), Lessons on Success: 3 Reasons Why Failing is Good (monster.com), Failure Is Good (psychologytoday.com), and Why Failure Is Good For You (Even If It Doesn't Feel Good) (bustle.com).
I understand the sentiment: let’s destigmatize failure, and see it as a learning opportunity instead of a cause for distress. Learn from your mistakes. Build on your failures. Generally, I don’t disagree. Particularly when targeted at adults who have experienced and felt real failure, this concept is valuable and powerful. What I worry about is bringing this mantra to our young students. Failure still has meaning, as a word and as a concept. Failure does NOT achieve the stated goal, and can have serious repercussions. Daniel Altman began to question this “Failure Fetish” in his article on the website Big Think (2013). He defends the value of careful consideration and thought instead of simply aiming to “fail fast.” My concern is related, but particular to the world of education. Creating an educational world where failure is spun as a positive comes with a few notable challenges.
My theory is this: the mantra of “failure is good” diminishes the value and power of failure. The “nounification” of the word fail (“That’s a fail.”), and the exponential growth of phrases such as “epic fail” indicates that the idea of failure is being employed at a micro-level in the lives of our students. Any slight misstep suddenly becomes a “fail.” Failure, by nature and definition is a terminal concept. A failure comes at the end of a process, when the final efforts fall short of the goals or expectations. Creating a world of micro-failures creates opportunities for students to a) tear each other down in a continual stream of microaggressions throughout their day, and b) diminish the value and meaning of the concept itself. It also seems to be related to the era of the short-attention, immediate gratification, 140-characters or less way of navigating our world. If an “epic fail” can happen on a first try of a meaningless task, how seriously are they taking the concept of failure? We can learn from our failures, but if students are seeing themselves “failing” hundreds of times every day, how many of those micro-failures are they actually likely to try to improve on or learn from? Fail. Move on. Next thing.
My suggestion is that we move away from the “failure is good” mantra in education. Instead, we reframe what we’re currently calling failure as simply a first try, an iteration, a draft, depending on the context. In the vast majority of cases, what students are referring to as “a fail” is not actually a failure. Nobody has failed yet, because there’s no reason that the process should be terminal yet. It’s simply a first try! Rather than pointing to a sub-par first iteration as a “failure” and talking about how much we can learn from it, we should assume a second iteration and ask instead, “How are you planning to change or improve it for your next iteration?” If students don’t feel like their failing, we have no need to reframe this idea of failure as a good thing. In the much less common cases when there was a legitimate failure, we can talk about how to move on and grow. Let’s not make everything a failure.
Berger, W. (2014). A More Beautiful Question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.
Altman, D. (2013, June 11). The Failure Fetish. Retrieved August 16, 2018, from https://bigthink.com/econ201/the-failure-fetish
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Nate is the Director of Technology at the Roxbury Latin School