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Make Failure Flattering:  Embracing Classroom Struggles, Creating Real World Successes

Make Failure Flattering: Embracing Classroom Struggles, Creating Real World Successes

By Maj Wolfgang S. Weber, U.S. Air Force Academy[1], Assistant Professor Of Law

To all my students, past, present, and future, please forgive me, I have something I need to get off my chest:  I enjoy seeing you fail in the classroom.   

Well, at least initially. 

As educators, we constantly reflect upon how we can make our class an academic journey worth taking. Sure, we could lecture till we’re blue in the face; but is that really as effective (or fun) as an interactive effort that helps students recognize their own strengths and weaknesses within the material?

When I first began teaching, I meticulously walked my students through every single lesson, “If you have a question please don’t hesitate to stop me and ask!” I never wanted to leave a rock unturned; I never wanted to leave the class with lingering inquiries. I would spend countless hours thinking about exactly what I would say each lesson. I felt a need to tell them everything.

Before long, however, I quickly came to two realizations:  1) even though I was covering all the material, they weren’t fully processing it; and 2) I was boring.  

I was failing. But as you may guess, I’m glad I did.

From my own classroom failures, I reflected deeply on my deficiencies as an educator. I thought about everything I was doing step by step. I spoke at length with my more seasoned colleagues. Soon, it became clear – I was robbing my students of the opportunity to fail. 

Failure is undoubtedly one of life’s best teachers. As we can all likely attest, many of our most profitable educational lessons, both in and out of the classroom, come from failure. Even the most gifted toddler will certainly fall before she learns to walk. In an academic setting, nothing speaks quite as loudly as unmasking a student’s own deficiencies. Of course, this is far easier said than done. In Tony Wagner’s book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Wagner points out that many traditional academic settings penalize students for failure and discourage them to take risk. Thus, as educators, creating an academic environment that teaches students through failure can be an uphill battle. 

The best solution? We must give them permission to fail.

In all my classes, I am constantly thinking about new ways to allow my students to experience failure. In my law class, throughout the semester every student is assigned the task of creating and presenting a different hypothetical legal scenario that they must then teach the class to analyze. In my negotiations class, at some point each student must negotiate with a classmate while the rest of the class observes. In both instances, I make it a point to not teach the students the applicable material beforehand.

On the day of, the students hesitantly make their way to the front of the classroom – visibly nervous about doing or saying something incorrectly in front of their peers; but before a word ever leaves a student’s mouth, I provide a preface to the class: 

Before Sidney and Graham begin, I want to quickly tell them both … ‘thank you.’ While each of them will undoubtedly do some things correctly, they will almost certainly also do some things incorrectly … they will fail. And that’s okay. While we learn in many different ways, one of the best ways to improve is learning from our failures. The Wright brothers didn’t build a flying plane on their first attempt, and none of us, including me, are likely to conduct perfect legal analysis on our first go.  

But the important thing is that we all have the courage to make that first attempt, and that we all are open-minded, tactful, and considerate in our criticisms. Let’s thrive together from an academic environment that lauds mistakes and embraces growth. Graham, Sidney – thank you both for being vulnerable in front of all of us today and giving us this chance to learn … please proceed.

As the students proceed, the class watches eagerly. By the end of the exhibition, I ask the students to take a seat, often receiving applause from their classmates without prompting. Then, I unapologetically ask the entire class the tough questions:  What did they do right? What did they do wrong, where did they fail? What could they have done better?

On most occasions, the students burst into an array of discussion, both complimenting and critiquing their peers with little reluctance; while their peers themselves anxiously receive the feedback, often following up with further questions about their own shortfalls. From there, I jump into the academic lesson, teaching the material while interweaving it with the student presentation and subsequent dialogue.

Over years of teaching through this method, the results have remained consistent: Nine times out of ten, students fail miserably during these exhibitions. Fall flat on their face. But then, the consequent transition transforms them as they ponder all the hidden lessons that did not initially come to mind. Lightbulbs start flashing above their heads as we discuss the new material. And by the end of the class, they’re smiling. They love it. Within an hour, they have gone from defeat to success. They have experienced growth before their very eyes and they’re better for it. By the end of the semester, student feedback repeatedly reiterates these exercises as class favorites.

ather than lecturing at them, consider creating an environment in which students can readily experience and reflect on their academic weaknesses safely. Set them up for failure in the classroom. Make it an ethos in your classroom by giving them permission to fail. You may find that the only thing more enjoyable … is knowing you prepared them for real world success. 

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