Failing To Learn By Fearing Failure

As we probe the boundary between what is possible and what is impossible, we observe, catalog and learn more about the probable and the improbable to become more creative.

As a researcher, I am familiar with this territory.  Every so often, an elegant hypothesis formulated in my research group has been proven wrong by experiments conducted  in our laboratory. Consequently, over the years, we have described what is, what can be and what cannot occur in some areas.

I entered the university as a professor in 1990. At first, I didn’t know any better due to my traditional training. Now, the progress of a university education perplexes me.

Students are typically asked to proceed along a curriculum through several gates that open or close depending on relatively high stakes examinations to assess their learning. Success in examinations opens gates, brings advancement and reward, but we come down hard on those who fail.

Errors are stigmatized. Failure can be punishing alternative, at the extreme bringing about removal from the program of study.

Some of this is natural.  Would you want an engineer to fail at designing a safe aircraft, automobile, bridge, or an insecure computer or app that plays loose with privacy and identity?

However, by penalizing failure severely over and again, we encourage students to become risk averse, or to even cut corners. One report of cheating at 11 Canadian postsecondary schools found that 53 per cent of undergraduates and 35 per cent of graduate students admitted to serious cheating.

Our students become the policymakers, businesspeople, technocrats, designers, engineers, politicians and healthcare professionals who serve our society. Rather than dealing with the small failures that can arise periodically, too often these university graduates embrace change only after contending with a catastrophe.

We expend considerable effort in developing “failure deprived” students. Some of them are subsequently unable to function when the world becomes cold or cruel or indifferent, as it does sometimes.

Employers tell us over and again that they value graduates’ ability to work in a team, leadership, capability to define and solve a problem, written and verbal communication, initiative, flexibility and adaptability, creativity, strategic planning, ability to take and assess risks, and interpersonal sensitivity.

We do so, often outside the classroom by encouraging co-curricular activities that consider Grand Challenges. However, much of classroom learning is based on prescribed and accredited curricula, which can be dry and abstract.

How can we improve?

Academic integrity is the moral code of universities—one founded on honesty and the commitment to truth: do not plagiarise, do not cheat, and undertake research with rigour.

As the University of Manitoba’s Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning states, “.. when we focus more on the activities and assessments that encourage deep learning, we will find that students will have fewer reasons to cheat and will cheat less often. Moreover, students are less likely to cheat if they are invested in the course material and if they feel that they will be successful.”

It isn’t necessary to radically abandon all assessments of student learning, including examinations. Instead, students could be asked to reflect on their learning, including their failures to learn adequately, and share those reflections. Thus, patterns of poor learning would be even better understood beyond the intuition of instructors and used to further improve learning.

That people and organizations should learn from failure is now a pervasive idea. Failure can be a creative ally when we learn from our mistakes and poor performance, instead of instinctively defending them.

Failures can be preventable, complexity-related, or intelligent. Preventable failures are, as the adjective suggests, avoidable. They occur, for instance, due to a student’s deviance from a learning path, inattention, inability ability to integrate learning when there is a lack of additional support, or following a flawed learning process.

Complexity-related failures can be avoidable or unavoidable, e.g., when an unattuned instructor makes assessments too difficult or complex.

Students learn from intelligent failures, which occur when we ask students to create hypotheses and test them through experiments, using concepts that also integrate their prior learning. This class of intelligent failures is praiseworthy, since students learn from them.

A design for a process or technology created by a student team in a capstone project that pursues an innovation but fails offers one example of an intelligent failure. An open ended assignment that probes students’ critical and analytical thinking is another.

When students contend with failure, they learn not only about their mistakes, vulnerabilities, doubts and misconceptions, they also learn about resilience, creativity, innovation, inquiry and success.


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