Teaching Opinion

Teachers Deserve the Chance to Learn From Failure

Mistakes are an essential part of learning—and not just for students
By Wes Hobbs — March 27, 2023 | Corrected: April 19, 2023 4 min read
Illustration of a teacher learning from tending her plants. One is under-watered, one is over-watered, and one is thriving perfectly.
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Corrected: A previous version of this essay included a misspelling of Amy C. Edmondson’s name.

The best teachers create classrooms where students understand that making mistakes and even experiencing failure can be a valuable component of the learning process. So why is it so difficult for teachers to allow themselves this same grace?

Many teachers view their skills and content knowledge as a large part of their identity. They work very hard to give their students the best possible instruction and they attempt to avoid mistakes and failures at all cost. However, it is critical to let our best teachers know that mistakes and failures can be a valuable part of their learning as well.

To assist in this possibly uncomfortable change in mindset, it is important to look deeper at failure. Not all failure is the same, and we must avoid certain kinds and celebrate other kinds. In a 2011 article, Harvard Business School professor Amy C. Edmondson offers some interesting insight into the failure seen in organizations. She describes a failure spectrum, where failures can be categorized on a range from “preventable” to “complexity-related” to “intelligent.”

Preventable failures, according to Edmondson’s taxonomy, stem from a lack of ability, inattention, or poor decisionmaking. In schools, we might expect to see this type of failure from novice teachers who lack experience or teachers with a limited “toolbox” of instructional strategies. We might also expect it from teachers who struggle aligning their content to the standards or have unclear structure or procedures in their classroom. Or it could be seen from teachers who are so attached to their way of doing things that they refuse to explore alternative instructional strategies or work collaboratively with colleagues.

“Complexity-related failures,” which stem from unpredictable combinations of factors in a complicated system, are where many of the school failures likely fall.

For example, maybe an instructional strategy worked miracles during the previous school year but a new and challenging group of students makes the strategy useless during this school year. Possibly one classroom of students excels working in groups, but when the same strategy is used in another classroom, the lesson fails for that group of students. Schools are complex environments, and teachers are constantly asked to adjust to the ever-changing conditions and new students with different needs.

Finally, “intelligent failures” are the ones that should be celebrated. This type of failure involves experimenting to gain knowledge, testing a hypothesis, and then adjusting.

An example in schools would be a collaborative team that meets to plan a lesson and develop a performance task, reconvenes to analyze student work, and realizes that a teaching approach did not succeed. Or it could be a teacher who decided to try certain manipulatives with her 2nd grade math students but did not see a noticeable difference in their understanding on the unit assessment.

These intelligent failures are the byproduct of being willing to experiment, try new things, and adapt. When teachers or collaborative teams are willing to experiment and reflect, the successes they discover from this process far outweigh the chance of failure.

So, what can teachers learn from this continuum of failure?

Overcoming preventable failure in schools must be a team effort for administration, faculty, and staff. To combat the lack of ability, education leaders should connect novice teachers with a high-quality mentor. Teachers should identify colleagues in the building who seem to be excelling in areas they hope to improve and work collaboratively with those individuals. Teachers and administrators should search out top-notch professional development together that helps teachers strengthen their pedagogical knowledge and fills their “tool belts” with strategies.

Looking to remove preventable failures is very important to student success, but creating a culture where intelligent failure is valued can be just as critical.

If teachers are struggling with preventable failure caused by inattention, they should consider utilizing checklists in their classroom. These can be used for any task that takes more than a few steps to complete. Teachers should reevaluate their structures and procedures and work collaboratively with colleagues on organization and efficiency.

Finally, if a teacher seems to fail from poor decisionmaking, administrators and collaborative teams should reemphasize student results as being the guiding factor in practice. If students are not performing to expectations, the teacher who avoids change must look for different strategies.

Looking to remove preventable failures is very important to student success, but creating a culture where intelligent failure is valued can be just as critical. Administrators should model the practice of hypothesis testing in their building.

For example, an administrator could solicit feedback from teachers about testing procedures during state testing and try several new strategies to improve efficiency. If none of them works, the administrator could explain this failure openly in a faculty meeting and celebrate what was learned from the process.

Collaborative teams could decide to quiz students twice a week leading up to a unit test (a strategy known as retrieval practice) and then reflect to see if the extra work improved student performance on the unit assessment. Whether teachers saw success or failure, the team could present results to similar collaborative teams across the district.

Great teachers create a culture in their classroom where students can make mistakes, ask for help, and try again. Likewise, identifying failure, analyzing where that failure falls on the spectrum of preventable to complexity-related to intelligent, and then adjusting practice based on the analysis, should become a celebrated process for teachers and administrators alike.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2023 edition of Education Week as Teachers Deserve the Chance To Learn From Failure


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