The Harvard Business Review highlighted this guest blog post a few weeks ago. In the article, Jeff Stibel discusses his experience creating a 'failure wall' at his corporate headquarters with the instructions, "Describe a time when you failed, state what you learned and sign your name."
This failure wall celebrates the learning that takes place when one makes a mistake or falls short of a goal. Highlighting quotes about failure, like Winston Churchill's commentary, "Success is going from failure to failure without the loss of enthusiasm", inspires those within the corporation to think about their own lives and the situations that have spawned personal growth.
Last Friday I was invited to observe Lynne Bartlett's biology class as they discussed natural selection. A seed gathering lab focused students on the investigations of which beak features would best serve the grasping of a specific seed type. As students experimented using different grasping devices (as seen in the video below), they quickly discovered which tools were most effective given the task at hand. Failure was simply unavoidable with some tools.
(If this video does not appear on your screen, try this link.)
While Proctor's students do not face the same natural selection pressures finches faced when they first landed on the Galapagos Islands, the process of trial and error repeatedly enters their lives as adolescents. Learning from mistakes becomes a necessary, and valuable part of the educational process, both in the classroom and in the community.
Navigating a high school experience can be challenging. Students will, at times, fall short of the mark set for them. They will make mistakes and feel they have failed. However, we must reframe these 'failures' as merely a path to success by following Stibel's advice and working proactively to identify mistakes as, "The predecessors to both innovation and success."
Interestingly, Stibel notes that this type of behavior must be modeled, "This kind of culture can only be created by example — it won't work if it's forced or contrived. A lively culture is nebulous, indefinable, ever-changing. Try to package it in a formal mission statement and you just may suffocate it."
This post from a few weeks ago touches on how teachers at Proctor embrace this mindset, but we must also ask ourselves: How do we ensure students are learning from their failures? How do we create classroom settings that encourage students to not only risk failure, but to critically evaluate their own actions in a way that will create change in their own lives? How do we restructure our assessments to incorporate this self-reflective piece of learning?
The biology lab from which the above images and video were captured allowed students to see which tools succeeded and which failed in grasping small seeds. As these ninth and tenth graders continue on their academic journey at Proctor, they will 'use the wrong tool' from time to time and we must be sure that we are there to tell them its the wrong tool, show them other options, and keep them excited about developing new tools as learners, as this article discusses.
However, in order for this entire process to happen, we must set clear, consistent, challenging expectations. Without consistent accountability to our expectations as a community, we miss out on the teachable moments available from processing failures, and in turn, conduct the only unacceptable failure: a failure to embrace opportunities that allow for both personal and community learning.
(Thank you to Chuck Will for images)
Last week's biology lab investigated which beak types were best suited for specific seeds. Some 'beaks' failed miserably at the required task.
For Proctor students, 'failures' can occur in the classroom, on the athletic field, or in residential life, but when properly framed, these failures can be turned into tremendous learning experiences for both individual students and the community.
Our goal as an educational institution is to become fully aware of these moments of failure and to consistently gauge community learning as we move on from these moments.