Failure...Mistakes and Learning - Steve Barkley

Failure…Mistakes and Learning

This week I was working with a group of Arkansas educators examining the impacts of the Common Core Curriculum on their approach to teaching. We explored creativity and critical think skills as elements of desired learning outcomes.

From the 21st Century Partnership site, we examined the need for Learning and Innovation skills:

Learning and innovation skills increasingly are being recognized as those that separate students who are prepared for a more and more complex life and work environment in the 21st Century and those who are not. A focus on creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration is essential to prepare students for the future.”

Under Creativity they identify three areas:

-Think creatively.

-Work creatively with others.

-Implement innovations.

As I read through the elements of these skills one particularly caught my attention.

View failure as an opportunity to learn; understand that creativity and innovation is a long-term, cyclical process of small successes and frequent mistakes.

This might make a great focus for leaders and teachers to stress as they build the environments for learning at the start of a new school year.

Teachers: Do you convince students that making mistakes is critical to learning?

Sir Ken Robinson states that children are willing to make mistakes and tend to lose that willingness: “If they don’t know, they’ll have a go at it.” (Do Schools Kill Creativity?)

“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up”…Pablo Picasso

In Teaching Boys Who Struggle in School Kathleen Cleveland states one rule for teachers is …. “Replace boy’s negative attitudes about learning with productive perspectives about the role of risk (and even failure) as a necessary and valued part of the learning process” (page 195)

“When the children get to the point where they realize mistakes are okay and accepted, they are much more willing to take chances. Putting oneself out on a limb to take an academic risk…is where true learning happens.” (page 82)

Christopher Blake writes in Worthwhile Learning Is Risk-laden, Failure-ready,

“Rarely do we tell students that we do not know how much they will learn, that we cannot even be sure of the outcomes, that they will have to participate communally before they will learn, that learning may confront their status quo in an uncomfortable fashion or, even more important, that we all fail sometimes and so will they.”

If teachers are to create student comfort with risk taking and making mistakes, they need to do the same.

Glenn Wiebe wrote in Are You an Under-taker or a Risk-Taker>?

“One of the reasons that we as teachers don’t take risks is our fear of failure. We’re afraid that our state tests scores won’t be good enough or that we’ll look silly in front of kids or that the technology won’t work or that we’ll get calls from parents or…

But we also know that failure is often a prerequisite to success. Teachers take risks because they understand that screwing up is not necessarily a bad thing. Risk-taking involves possible failure. If it didn’t, it would be called Sure Thing-taking.”

School leaders need to encourage creativity among teachers to create the learning opportunities that extend student success. How might you start the year communicating the message that mistakes/failures are expected?

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5 Responses to “ Failure…Mistakes and Learning ”

  1. Michael Says:

    Your discussion on risk taking and creativity is important as school leaders design curriculum platforms with their staff. But school leaders cannot just talk the talk. What we need are creative school leaders. In a recent survey by IBM, creativity was the number one characteristic for leaders to be successful in our rapidly changing global world. School leaders cannot speak the language of risk taking and creativity unless these traits are part of their belief system. How we develop and sustain these characteristics in school leaders becomes the real challenge for our schools.

    Michael Chirichello
    Leadership Matters LLC

  2. Shari Daniels Says:

    I’m a full believer of making mistakes and learning from them. I preach it relentlessly. My wonder is, in our school systems, will we have to change the system of “grades” in order for the “fear of failure” goes away for students? Students want to know what the teacher wants in order to get a “good grade”. My most exciting classes in my masters’ classes have been the ones where the instructor says from the get-go, “Everyone in this class will get an “A”, but I need to see you grow as a learner. “

  3. chad Says:

    I agree that taking chances and not being afraid of failure is a big key to success. I let the kids practice the skill I want them to master before they are ready to be graded.


  4. Stephen G. Barkley Says:

    The grading system in many schools and classrooms works against learning. Teachers need strategies where the grade is based on the learning outcome rather than the steps along the way.

  5. Christina Steinbacher-Reed Says:

    Thanks for sharing these great resources! Your post reminded me of the “Mistake Bank”. I’m not even sure who developed this but it is basically a forum for people to share their mistakes or failures so others can learn from their story. One particular post that got me thinking was regarding a resume of failures…I would have many on mine! But I would also have a column to note what was learned from each and every one of them! Thanks for the post! Check it out:

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