I wrote this for the first year composition students at my university, and of course, like most things, I also wrote this for myself. I would be interested in hearing how other people embrace failure in the classroom.
My friend wanted to teach me how to play chess. When I resisted, she accused me of only wanting to do things I was already good at. I, of course, denied this accusation, but it rang a little too close to home. I felt a bit tentative about the steep learning curve ahead of me, and I was nervous about looking stupid while I fumbled to even remember the names of the chess pieces. I was afraid of feeling inadequate; I was afraid of failure.
I imagine that if not the specific circumstances then the general feeling will be familiar to many readers. Most of us have been taught to fear failure. Failure is scary because it makes us vulnerable. It shows our weaknesses. Sometimes you try really hard and it doesn’t work and that can feel embarrassing, disappointing, and frustrating. The problem with staying in this mindset is that if we don’t learn to fail, we are missing out on the opportunity to grow. This is where the importance of failure lies. It makes us push ourselves beyond the situations we feel comfortable in, which leads us to new abilities and new opportunities that we could not imagine in our complacency.
It is especially necessary to fail in the classroom because as Brian Croxall and Quinn Warnick write in their essay on the topic “failure is intertwined with learning.” It is the application of more effort and sometimes new knowledge to previous failures that pushes achievement forward. Edward Burger, a professor of mathematics, notes that he encourages his students to fail in classroom activities since, “By making a mistake, we are led to the pivotal question: ‘Why was that wrong?’ By answering this question, we are intentionally placing ourselves in a position to develop a new insight and to eventually succeed.” If everything is easy, there is no learning to be had. It can be difficult to admit that you were wrong, but acknowledging it provides the first opportunity to grow.
How do these ideas about failure in the classroom generally apply specifically to your experience in the composition classroom? Below, I am going to highlight some ways that we can fail in the writing classroom. Now, before we get started failing, it is important to note what kind of failure I am advocating for. I am not suggesting that you don’t turn your assignments in or stop coming to class. That is not the kind of failure I am discussing. That failure is taking yourself completely out of the game. I am talking about asking questions you genuinely don’t know the answer to, trying really hard and not succeeding, putting yourself out there and risking saying the wrong answer.
Here are two ways we can use failure to advance our thinking in the writing classroom. Can you apply these ideas to your own writing? Can you think of additional ways that failure could be used in the classroom?
Failure in writing assignments:
- The truth is that writing is almost entirely about failure. If we believe that writing is a process (and we do), what we are really saying is that to get to a finished product you need to make mistakes, muck things up, and then keep going. It is only because of these first tries that we get to a finished product that says the things we want to say. For one of your papers, keep track of every draft you write, whether handwritten or typed. Keep your notes and your scribbles. Print out the finished product and edit it again before you turn it in—keep this edited copy too. After you have turned the final product in, collect all of the drafts you have written and take a look at your process. What did you successfully change? What sections of your paper needed more attention during your writing process? What did you never quite get right even though you worked hard on it? Write a short reflection about the process of writing that paper focusing not only on what went right but also what went wrong. Where did you struggle? What was difficult? And what can you learn from those places in your writing?
- One of the assignments you will asked to complete this semester is a revision of a previous assignment. Many students want to revise the assignment that was the easiest for them or that they liked the most. Instead of picking an assignment you feel contented with, pick an assignment that you struggled with. When you make revisions on this assignments, spend time thinking about not only how to revise the assignment in terms of the things you want to add or expand but also think about the places you feel the most uncomfortable with in the essay. Make a list of the parts of the essay that you have no idea how to fix or that seem particularly daunting to revise. For each of those parts, think of three ways you could revise or change them. Make a list of all of these different potential revisions. Then pick one of them as the place to start your revision. You don’t have to do all of these revisions. In fact, that would be impossible. The goal here is to not avoid the complex changes you could make but to identify them and start there rather than with simple or easy changes.
Failure is good for a lot in the classroom; in fact, understanding and learning from failure is one of the main keys to classroom success. Learning how to be strategic about failure now will also help you in future endeavors. In 2011, The Harvard Business Review dedicated an entire issue to failure and discussed failure with leading business executives. A former CEO of Proctor & Gamble was interviewed about the role of failure in his career, and he explained the need to harness failure. He said to the interviewer, “It’s not enough to take responsibility for your failures. It’s important to create a culture that turns failures into learning and leads to continual improvement” (Dillon). How can you help create that culture of failure in your school life and your own environs? How will you fail successfully now to help you succeed in the future.
Burger, Edward. “Teaching to Fail.” Inside Higher Ed. 21 August 2012. Web. 15 April 2016.
Croxall, Brian and Quinn Warwick. “Failure.” Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts,
Models, and Experiments. MLA Commons. Web. 20 April 2016.
Dillon, Karen. “I Think of My Failures as Gifts.” The Failure Issue. Harvard Business Review.
April 2011. Web. 7 May 2016.
Additional Classroom Exercises:
Failure in the daily classroom:
- When your lecturer asks the class a question, be the first person to raise your hand and take a stab at the answer. Do this especially if you are feeling the urge to whisper the answer under your breath instead of saying it out loud to the class. You might fail here; in other words, you might get the answer wrong or you might not eloquently explain what you are trying to say, but you will have the chance to speak up and say what you mean and even in failure, finding your voice is success.
- Academic reading can sometimes be difficult. Often when people don’t understand a reading assignment, they give up on making any meaning out of it. Just like in writing though, reading is a process, and it is necessary to read complex material in order to become a better reader. Instead of giving up on a hard read, highlight places where the reading was difficult to understand. Where did you fail to comprehend the reading? Bring the reading with “failure” highlights with you to the classroom. Working in groups of three to four take turns discussing the portions of the reading that you found difficult. What meaning can you make together? How can you understand the reading using the support of each other? How does your understanding of the reading change when you discuss the difficulties with the group?
Failure in writing exercises:
- Describe an object in the classroom in a paragraph using only sentence fragments. Try not to write a grammatically correct sentence at all in the paragraph. After writing the paragraph, read it to yourself and then read it out loud to the class or a partner. How does it sound to you? What parts are awkward? What is hard to understand? Are there sections where your meaning is clear? Write a short reflection in your notebook about the process of “failing” to write grammatically correct sentences. What did you learn about your own writing? How did the process help you understand the sentences you write on a regular basis? What was surprising or especially interesting about the experience?
- In the beginning of the semester, with a group of students or a partner, spend ten minutes brainstorming how you could fail in the daily classroom setting. Make a list of all the different ways you could fail: getting the answer to a question wrong, misunderstanding the reading, not paying attention to your lecturer and missing something important. Have one group member keep the list and revisit it a month into the semester. Read over the list and see if any of those failures happened to you in the past month in any of your classes. Pick out one to write about and spend ten minutes exploring the failure and what you did or did not learn from it. The point here is not to judge yourself or feel bad about what you did or did not do. You want to use the opportunity to assess the situation and find concrete ways to grow from it.