As the semester draws to an end and the final reckoning begins, failure becomes a recurring theme.
At the Chronicle of Higher Education, Marybeth Gasman describes the phenomenon of the recent graduate who expects unrealistic success. When students don’t factor in how much time hard work it can take to make even modest career advances, they feel they have failed when in fact they’re doing great. A feeling of failure can be the result of unrealistic expectations, but real failure should be embraced as well. Many a business leader and commencement speaker reminds us that utter failure is an integral part of success. At the World Policy Institute, Neal Stephenson says “Innovation can’t happen without accepting the risk that it might fail.” At the Harvard Business Review, Francesca Gino and Gary P. Pisano analyze the pitfalls of focusing on succeeding rather than on learning.
Perhaps these students’ educations have failed them: are we teaching our students the importance and the power of failure?
At Inside Higher Ed, Nate Kreuter argues that we need to teach students that failure is a part of learning—it’s the sign that we’re taking risks and challenging ourselves. At the Chronicle, Lesboprof reminds herself that students who do poorly in her course are not necessarily failing, while Tenured Radical advises an imaginary child that it is far better to try and fail than to cheat and thus not really try at all. For New York high school students, passing might be worse than failing: only 25% are ready for college after 4 years. CUNY has a special program for the students who passed through high school but didn’t get the education they need for college; for program participants, it can be the first time they feel what it’s like to learn. And for Harvard students, the Bureau of Study Counsel’s “Success-Failure” project explores the meaning of success and failure from many different angles.
Failure is an equally important part of an instructors’ progress, too. Craig Hochbein & Bradley Carpenter argue that a failed lesson plan or assignment design should be a teachable moment, not grounds for firing the teacher. University instructors may be under less pressure to raise their students’ test scores, but we might be equally tempted to ignore or gloss over our teaching failures, rather than to take an honest, critical look at how we can improve, and to continue to take the kinds of risks that sometimes result in failure.
Individual instructors can do a lot to change students’ attitudes toward the role of failure in their lives, but what about the role of failure in the university as a whole?
In the November 24th New York Review of Books, Anthony Grafton wrote about why our universities are failing to the point that the system quietly runs on tuition from undergraduates who are expected to drop out and cheap labor from graduate students who are expected to find other careers. One of the biggest problems, Grafton concludes, is that the books being written about the crisis are either jeremiads skewed by extreme examples or sobering empirical studies whose whole-system focus is too broad to provide meaningful insight into how to improve the complex workings of any one institution. In other words, let’s have less hand-wringing about failure and more learning from it. Or, as Samuel Beckett instructed himself: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”