Let’s talk about the F-word: failure. I was in college when I discovered that one of my skills is being able to embrace challenges, struggles, and failure. A professor of mine, now a teacher-mentor, articulated something about me in a class during my undergraduate career. I found myself in a research methods course, a class designed to allow math and science majors to get experience investigating their own questions in projects known as “inquiries” and also learn statistics and experimental design. The professor in that class was well known for letting students fail and for helping them to discover what they knew and did not know.
Now, there are many people in our world today who do not like to find out what they do not know. My research methods class was full of juniors and seniors majoring in difficult fields like mathematics and science, and these students especially did not like to find out they were wrong. So, after a particularly tough day during that class - in which a chemistry major became flustered by the awareness of his own ignorance, which culminated in the student thinking that boiling water led to the production of oxygen and hydrogen gas - I spoke to my professor about failure. He asked me what my reaction was to what had transpired in class, and I explained that it was difficult to watch that student struggle. He also asked what I thought of my own inquiry investigation, and I admitted that I was having difficulty with how it was going. I told my professor that I often felt stuck, as though I had reached a dead end.
He then asked me, “What do you do in class when I ask you questions that make you realize that you don’t know the answer?”
I told him I was unsure.
“You smile,” he responded. He went on to say that I smile not because I knew I was wrong or because I thought I understood, but because figuring out what I did not know meant I could do something about it.
That is what struggling and failure meant for me. Failure didn’t stop me from proceeding. It allowed me to carry on with the new knowledge of what I needed to find out. Failure helped lead me to what I needed to know.
I am currently in my third year of teaching, and though I would not say I am particularly good at it, I am constantly trying to help my students grapple with failure. Contextually, many of my students do not see failure as an option, due to the fact that many of them have never failed academically. The students who have experienced too much academic failure now think that they are not good at school. My students want fast answers. ‘Good’ students think they should know the answers already or, if they do not, then the answer should be given to them. Students see teachers as sages and encyclopedias (or Wikipedia for today’s student) that are supposed to feed them the answers. When I present my students with challenges, I find that it is rare that a student will persevere through problem without giving up at some point.
The times that I do see students pushing through these problems, I notice that they begin thinking about what they know, asking questions, and talking to each other. These are skills that I currently do not highlight, but I recognize them and I see them as being important. As a teacher, I am beginning to realize that it is vital to let students struggle and to praise students for how they deal with failure. Resiliency, grittiness, perseverance, and resolution (or whatever we choose to call it) are rare traits, and I want to emphasize early the skills that go into embodying these.
It took until me until my junior year of college to find out why struggling was helpful. I saw my peers struggle, and I saw myself struggle, but I did not see the connection between failure and learning. I thought struggling was just due to not being smart or capable enough. Now, as a teacher, I need to help students see the importance of perseverance, and that means putting them in situations that require struggle. A student who takes a risk during a lab by trying a different approach, asking conceptual questions in front of their peers, or providing analytical feedback to a peer should be rewarded. Most likely, when those students take risks, they have a higher chance of failure, of struggling, or of meeting a dead end. But they also should be praised highly because they stepped outside of their comfort zone. By taking a risk that leads to struggle, they may just come out of that knowing something new. My job is to provide them opportunities that require struggle and then, when they hit a roadblock, not give them the answer but applaud them for their perseverance and watch as they find new answers, new questions, and new ideas. When students do that, they won’t fear risks, struggles, or failure; they’ll embrace them all.
Camden Hanzlick-Burton teaches Biology, AP Biology, and Horticulture at Olathe Northwest High School in Olathe, KS. He is a Knowles Science Teaching Fellow and is active in collaborating with fellow alumni of the UKanTeach program and with other biology teachers. He is a member of NSTA, NABT, Kansas Association of Biology Teachers (KABT ), and an Innovative Technology in Science Inquiry (ITSI) master teacher.