Allowing Room for (Possible) Failure: A Favorite Teaching Moment

Ah, so many transformative moments in teaching … But here’s a recent one. In a project-based, interdisciplinary class I just co-taught at Stanford, students in English, Comparative Literature and Computer Science worked in teams on projects developing connected or social media forms of reading, studying, and enjoying literature in the digital age. The format was influenced by design thinking, which asks you to ideate, launch, test, iterate, and try again to make a product and a user experience better. This was both exhilarating and sometimes frustrating for the students, who had to let go of some grand ideas and initial perfectionism to go through the cycle of the course.

My own teachable moment came when I read a student’s final learning reflection. She included a graph that documented all her ups and downs in the course, with a vertical axis for “Affect” (plus above and minus below the line, you get the picture), and a horizontal axis for “Time” (spent in the course—ten weeks, sicne we’re on the quarter system). It was a true up and down, with high Highs at points of emotional engagement and actual success with project milestones, and really low Lows at points where things did not go as expected or hoped. The narrative described those in great detail. The amazing thing about the graph, though, was that it ended on the highest High right at the end—when it was time for the final project report and the final learning reflection the student was writing at that very moment. She was able to look back and understood, to her amazement, how far she had come, and what she and her team had, in fact, been able to accomplish in ten weeks—an astonishing amount. Although there had been frustrations and low points, she realized that those had been crucial as touchstones and turning points in her own and her team’s learning, which would never had happened this way, had they not experienced the difficult phases and worked hard to come out of them.

That’s when it hit me, too. I’m a caring, involved teacher and want my students to succeed, of course, and so I tend not to make enough room for failure and growth that comes from stumbling and trying again. I had read Carol Dweck’s work on the growth mindset and believe in the importance of failure as an opportunity for learning, and yet, I had not truly applied this knowledge to my own classes thus far. It is hard to stand back calmly and watch while students figure things out for themselves. It is hard to watch them be frustrated by the process. And yet … what rewards. This student (and others in the course) was able to own her learning in such a meaningful, deep, wonderful way.

I’m still processing the lesson I learned this past quarter, but I have a feeling it will be one of the most important ones I’ve learned in my career. Failure is an option, and it is a beginning rather than an end. We need to design for that.

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