The Importance of Failure in Learning

I have been thinking a lot about failure recently. That may or may not be tied to my recently failure in regular blog postings :) But I was in a discussion where a colleague lamented how too many A’s are being “handed-out” by professors. They are usually under pressure to produce better numbers in their classes, or they want to look good for the tenure committee, or they just want to be the “cool prof.”

A lot of this just comes from how we have approach failure as a negative thing to be avoided at all costs in education. Or, probably more accurately, we have equated educational failure with moral or personal failure. Certainly there are types of failure that have devastating effects. But why are we using the same word to describe not getting enough points in a course that we use to describe what caused a plane to crash and kill a large number of people? Its not the same.

I think this will be one of the challenges for open education. We need our educational systems to look at failure as an opportunity to re-teach or re-enforce what was missed. But as long as we have these static linear courses that cost a lot of money that have to be repeated from the beginning just to pick up the few pieces that brought your grade down enough to fail, students are also going to have a negative view of failure. And they will cheat, whine, sue, or just drop-out to avoid failure at all costs.

But of we deconstruct courses so that students can take them in cycles based on personal interests, they will more likely embrace a true failure if they just have to go back and repeat what they grasped. Oh… and if we can make it so that they get a different angle or perspective or pedagogy when repeating this section? Even better. Let’s face it – if they didn’t get it the first time, repeating the exact same stuff again is unlikely to rectify that.

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