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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.