I love failure. I really do. It is essential to learning. As a teacher, I embrace failure as part of my professional practice. I am constantly reflecting on lessons and activities. I spend more time trying to build on opportunities for improvement than celebrating my successes.

I also invite students to be comfortable with their failures. They need to know that it’s okay to not make 100% of their shots… but if they increase their completion percentage from 55% to 58% by learning from their missed shots – that’s a huge win!

I love when something falls apart: a lesson, a student project, a concept we’ve explored as a class: we get to rebuild it even better the next time. But rebuilding is hard work, and, quite often, the number of people wanting to rebuild is fewer than those who would rather re-define the terms of success than to embrace the challenge which failure presents.

Rebuilding takes its toll: for a student, the thought of doing an assignment a second or third time is beyond stressful. They feel ashamed because their job is to succeed in showing their learning the first time, not to be awesome at revising their work. For teachers, spending hours after school and into our evenings thinking about our failures and missed opportunities hurts. We feel ashamed because our job is to succeed in teaching, not to succeed in “doing it better next time.”

An engineer wouldn’t be allowed to build a second bridge after this one below… so why am I allowed to repeatedly fail my students and myself? Given our system of assessment, a wobbly bridge is a done deal… not a chance to make a better one next time.


Screenshot 2016-07-12 20.07.45
Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse Footage

This is a serious question. Why are we expected to punish failure in our assessments, but embrace failure in the process?

As teachers we love cyclical learning processes, like that of the top line image of this posting – they’re everywhere from the maker education movement to design theory to inquiry. Inherent in these processes is that perfection is a noble goal, yet seldom achieved… and that imperfection is a reality we must embrace.

Have we stretched our students, their parents, and ourselves too far? Have we over-burdened ourselves by expecting constant evaluation, reflection, and improvement? Does a cycle which, by definition, requires imperfection put too much strain on students where they still receive grades against a false standard of perfection?

If a student’s goal is to get as close to 100% as possible – these constant cyclical processes of school must feel hypocritical. Just like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge – we’re bending a lot with these competing philosophies… and something is about to break.

If education is moving to a more realistic approach of how real learning takes place, why do we still insist on final grades? How long will it take to educate our students, parents, and ourselves that a grade is just a snapshot in time? Reports and grades are just an opportunity to continue to learn and develop… not a branding of student worth.

Until we change how evaluations are viewed, failure will continue to be an ugly F-word. It’s awesome that we’re learning and applying these great cyclical, iterative processes… but we’re missing the mark if we continue to assess as if learning was a linear process.