Inspired experience based college preparatory education for creative and intellectually curious students
Early childhood through twelfth grade

I Believe in the Gift of Failure

As a science educator, I begin each year by giving my students explicit permission to fail, and explaining to them that failure is part of the game in science. As sci-fi author Isaac Asimov wrote, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but rather, ‘hmm… that’s funny…'” Students will design experiments that don’t turn out, and develop hypotheses that will turn out to be wrong. Part of science is trying to learn as much from your failures as you do from your successes.

Although I give students this advice to embrace and learn from failure, it had been many years since I had experienced any sort of professional failure in understanding the science I taught.  As part of my work in the science department, I was charged with finding gaps and redundancies in the scope and sequence of our science curriculum. One gap I identified was that students were not learning about waves in grades 7-12, so in the Fall of 2017, I began with a new unit on that topic. The ideas and concepts were challenging for the students, but the activities were generally going well until we got to a lab about the phenomenon of refraction. In running through the lab myself, my data was very different from the data listed in the teacher edition. When students did the lab, I watched them closely as they followed the procedure perfectly and got results similar to mine. I couldn’t figure it out, and neither could they. I felt like an utter failure, because not only could I not figure out why we weren’t seeing the phenomenon we were supposed to be observing, but I also felt that I had failed the students in facilitating their understanding of refraction.

So one afternoon, I locked myself in my classroom and I tested and tried again and again until I figured out that we had failed not because we had done anything wrong, but because of the way the procedure was written, the refraction phenomenon we were supposed to observe was obscured by a much brighter light of reflection. I made some adjustments to the procedure and shared what I’d discovered with the students, and we finally were able to see the refraction phenomenon. I also emailed the Vice President of the publisher the curriculum we use, and he wrote back a few weeks later to let me know that my students and I were right about that lab not working with the procedure as written, and how much he appreciated our feedback. In response to our constructive criticism, our school was invited to test pilot a new unit in Fields and Interactions. Like last year, the concepts are challenging but the students and I are figuring it out, failing sometimes, and giving lots of constructive feedback.

I had my own breakthrough that day. I had felt like a failure because my students were not understanding everything, nor was I, but I had to stretch myself into uncomfortable territory after many years of confidently guiding students through familiar curriculum. I had been talking the talk of failure and growth mindset with my students, but hadn’t been modeling it for them in an authentic way.  I was so proud of my students, who witnessed my failure and inspired me to keep trying until we figured it out. I hope to be an example for them of lifelong learning and to embrace the gift of failure.

P.S. – I highly recommend the book The Gift of Failure (which inspired the title of this essay), by writer and middle school educator Jessica Lahey.

Toby McDonald Chou
Middle School Science Teacher

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