On Failing Forward

by Chris Gasser

Nobody likes to fail. It can hurt; it is often embarrassing; and its acceptance has largely been trained out of us. It is also something that I continually encourage in Supplemental Instruction (SI). As a program that cherishes socially constructed knowledge in historically challenging courses, we believe in learning through asking, positing, and attempting to explain. Each of those carries a potential for failure. The dilemma then is that, even in a low stakes environment intentionally created for students to try new things, it can often feel easier to say nothing than to say something wrong, and this fear of failure can be a real problem. Trying to find a solution to this problem led me to failing forward, or, acknowledging failure as an important element of the learning process, which enables us to improve.

In recent professional development meetings, I asked SI Leaders to think about the idea of failing forward. SI Leaders were asked to watch a video from a doctor, an entrepreneur, or a teacher  (some of the most prominent career paths in the SI group) on the topic of failing forward and how it relates to their discipline. They were then asked to debrief the idea of failing forward, how it differs from simply accepting failure, and how we can promote failing forward at our SI tables.

Here a few of the ideas SI Leaders came up with of actions they could take to promote failing forward at study tables:

  • Explain the value of a low-stakes environments and name mistakes as valuable in learning
  • Normalize mistake-making by revealing specific places they’ve struggled with concepts
  • Acknowledging when they make mistakes at study tables
  • Resist shaming themselves for making mistakes
  • Celebrate misunderstandings as valuable contributions to the learning process

And while we often celebrate Edison’s quote of finding 2,000 ways to not create a lightbulb, before ultimately succeeding, SI Leaders raised some really valuable concerns with the idea of failing forward:

  • How much failure is acceptable in the learning process?
  • How do traditional grading concepts challenge the ideas that failure is an acceptable part of the learning process?
  • What privilege is associated with the concept of failing forward? How should students from low-income backgrounds, or students experiencing stereotype threat celebrate failure when it can have drastic implications for their future?

In addition to their questions, I still have my own that I’m grappling with:

  • Knowing that culture starts at the top, how do I show my failures to SI Leaders without undercutting my own ethos?
  • I may be their senior as a Coordinator, but I’m also the most junior SI Leader on the team; how do I share my moments of learning with them?
  • How much am I willing to accept failure as a learning process for SI Leaders? Am I ready to devote the time and energy to a professional development model that views mistakes as an integral part of the learning process?

I think the only conclusion I have come to is that failure is extremely nuanced, and not as clear-cut as I perhaps wanted it to be at one time. While I definitely don’t have complete answers to the questions above, I am finding value in thinking on them. I would certainly welcome your thoughts and ideas!

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