Fostering Fruitful Failure

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How many of you have heard "Failure is not an option"?  Of course, all of us have heard that mantra and, perhaps even most of us buy it as a universal truth (or at least a good mindset).  But is it?  Is it good to think that failure is not an option?  Believing that failure is bad causes most people to want to avoid doing it... at all costs.  THAT is the topic of today's post.

This blog was inspired by a Freakonomics radio podcast, "Failure is Your Friend" in which Stephen Dubner, the host & co-author, interviews Steve Levitt, the other co-author of the book Think Like a Freak (full transcript here).

The "Pre-Mortem" Strategy

Utilizes "prospective hindsight", a method to get all the players involved to think about (predict) all the ways in which the project might fail, in order to counteract over-confidence. Gary Klein explains the benefits like this:

...the pre-mortem liberates people who might otherwise be afraid of looking like they’re not a team player. Now, everybody is being asked to think about failure. So instead of looking like a bad teammate, you’re pulling in the same direction as everyone else.

So, how do we create a culture in which failure is not demonized?  Steve Levitt has this advice:

The only credible way to make failure acceptable is to celebrate failure.

In the classroom, especially the math classroom, I think this is a huge obstacle that must be overcome.  In my work with teachers and students, I am often surprised at the downright resistance to trying, often because of fear of failing.  Students are stopped, waiting for affirmation that their next step is the "right" one before making a move at all.  To someone like me who believes 99 problems is just the path to one solution, it is disheartening to witness this reluctance to venture out and risk getting something wrong.

I have spent considerable brain power trying to figure out how to get students (and sometimes teachers) out of this mindset.  Speaking of mindset, I've found Carol Dweck's book of the same name quite insightful.  In it, she discusses two types of mindsets that she calls the growth mindset and the fixed mindset.  Here's what I found especially relevant to the issue of students who won't try because they might fail:

In one world, effort is a bad thing.  It, like failure, means you're not smart or talented.  If you were, you wouldn't need effort.  In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.

In fact, it's startling to see the degree to which people with the fixed mindset do not believe in effort.

She goes on to explain that people with the growth mindset believe that success is about learning, which includes failing.  Indeed, one distinguishing factor between the two mindsets revolves around intelligence in general:  those with a fixed mindset believe that your intelligence is fixed at a certain level and there's nothing that can be done about it (a play the hand you're dealt mentality, if you will); those with a growth mindset, however, believe that you can change your level of intelligence with effort.

Perhaps you are interested in determining which mindset you have?  If so, take this little quiz here to find out.

Dweck makes a strong case to explain why students may become "non-learners" because of their mindset. I think these two ideas are connected as it makes perfect sense if you are a person who does not believe effort makes a difference and do not want to expose your areas of weakness, that you would have a huge aversion to failure.  Sadly, I think we are creating students that have both of these problems.

As always, I'd love to hear from you.  What do you think?  Is this something you've seen in your students or your children or yourself?  


Link for the podcast that inspired this blog & the opening graphic

Link to the full transcript of the podcast

Purchase Think Like a Freak

Mindset by Carol S. Dweck


The Solver Blog

Author:  Dr. Diana S. Perdue

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