Failure is everywhere, we’re always talking about it, but we’re never willing to do it or encourage it.

Last week I ran a faculty development roundtable here at Baruch called “Invention in the Classroom.” Many interesting things came out of it, but one in particular has been sticking with me over the past couple days: the importance of failing, failing publicly and epically, including in the classroom.

After the roundtable, a few of us continued talking about failure, noting especially that our New York City public school students are brought up thinking that if they fail in an assignment or a test, they’re failing themselves, their parents, their teachers (whose careers are now increasingly linked to their students’ test scores), and their schools (which might even get shut down if they fail too epically, or even just a little). If our students are taught to always stick to the rules and never take a risk — to never fail — they are going to fail epically where it counts: in being inventive, inquisitive people.

At the college level, we often ask our students to “be creative” with an assignment. Here’s one example, from my course blog, of me asking that of mine:

Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 4.03.54 PMAlmost none of them chose to write these extra posts (which I consider my own failure — one which I am attempting to work through and respond to in future assignments). In general, our students prefer clear-cut assignments that tell them exactly what the professor wants. I don’t blame them. I wanted that A, too, and I wasn’t expecting that I would get it through a semester of botched experiments.

There are a lot of ways to bring failure, and with it, creativity into the classroom, and I’d love to invite a discussion about it in the comments or elsewhere. In fact, I’m already thinking about a faculty roundtable for next semester specifically about failure.

But in the meantime, I wanted to end this post with one idea about how to bring failure into the classroom.

Model failure yourself. Or, to put it another way, model risk taking. Erica Kaufman, the faculty member and Schwartz Communication Fellow who helped us lead the roundtable, told us about asking her students to use technologies in assignments that she herself hadn’t mastered. (One such experiment was written about in the Ticker last week.) It takes guts to go to a room full of students and say (and this is an imaginative recreation of what she might have said): “I don’t know everything about how to use the 3-D printer/video editing software/animation software that I’m asking you to use, and I’m not sure exactly what we’re going to get out of this assignment, but I have a gut instinct that creating something physical that relates to your research will be instructive, and will ultimately help you figure out your argument.” It also pays off. By creating assignments that ask her students to fail again and again, hit a wall, and then by helping them to gather strength, look around them, and move beyond their failure, and by modeling a willingness to fail herself, Erica gets her students to consistently produce work that is stunning, mature, risky, and thoughtful.You can see one of her course blogs here. (And search her other course blogs from there.) It’s worth looking at her assignments, and considering how much risk they require of her students. Look at the “Our Blog!” page on the course site and you’ll see some of the things they wrote and made. The payoff seems obvious.


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