Fail Forward: Are we getting it wrong?
Mistakes are forgivable if one has the courage to admit them. —Bruce Lee
Ask a teacher why they teach, or what they hope for their students, and they will share some powerful thoughts — “I believe all kids can succeed”, “I want students to be curious, ask questions, and enjoy learning new things”, and “As a teacher, I aim to cultivate society.” These thoughts are neither new nor a modern revelation. It’s the norm — teachers have always had high goals for their students. But in our every-evolving educational landscape, it’s important that these mindsets are visible and vocal, serving as a reminder of the good intentions and hard work educators put in day after day to ensure the greatest impact on kids.
However, what was considered good education 10, even 20, years ago isn’t enough to ensure lasting success for our learners today. We understand that what success looks like has changed and that the skills and knowledge that students need beyond their school day is evolving. In response, more and more school communities have begun innovating teaching & learning to foster future-ready skills and growth mindset attitudes — specifically focusing on collaboration, creativity, communication, and critical thinking.
Along with this movement came another to destigmatize failure, with educators and schools making virtuous efforts to push students out of their comfort zones by highlighting the benefits of failure and mistake-making. And this trend has merit. In Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise, authors Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool uncover that the seeds of expertise are derived from deliberate practice — or getting out of our comfort zones. Success, we’ve learned, comes for choosing to take on the hard tasks in favor of the easy ones.
It would seem that the convergence of educational shifts would create the ideal learning culture in our schools. More vocalization of our mindsets. Reassurances that success is found in failure. Research-based methods that educate us about how our brains grow and develop. However, we’re still encountering students with negative emotions about failure, who are reluctant to leave their comfort zones and demonstrate little excitement to try new things.
Why aren’t our efforts to cultivate learner mindsets working?
While we’re already, very much, on the way to new, modernized curricular goals, and assessment & instructional strategies, we have, unfortunately, neglected a key instructional practice: teaching-learning. For nearly a century, our approach to learning hasn’t changed — we rely on grades as motivators and in-time measurements.
The result? Students, especially high schoolers, perceive school as a performance because, too often, performing is the focus of our instructional design. We’re constantly evaluating, with a grade or points, student work for correctness, accuracy, punctuality, neatness, and completeness. How can we ask our students to act in spite of fear when the plurality of our instructional design assess their performance?
We know that feedback matters, yet, all too often teachers equate feedback as a grade or score. Studies on effective feedback, driven by Dylan Wiliam, have shown that this type of feedback has actually made student performance worse. In both “good” and “bad” students, scores illicit internal reactions that foster fixed mindsets — “I’m not good enough” or “I’m smart, so I don’t need to try any harder”. These are powerful emotions that present roadblocks to many of the goals we have for our students.
Don’t get me wrong, grades aren’t meaningless, especially for students and parents. For them, they have been the single most identifiable reporting tool used to communicate learning. And, there’s nothing wrong with asking our students to perform (and giving them grades, scores, or marks). But, none of this is feedback, and none of it will cultivate learner mindsets.
Look, our intentions are in the right place, and education is headed in the direction needed to build future-ready graduates. But, as long as we continue to (mis)represent performing as learning, any work schools and communities put into transforming education will be limited.
How do we cultivate learner mindsets, and motivate students to embrace — and feel safe — failing forward?
The solution lies in understanding the difference between learning and performing and then designing instruction that supports both.
Learning and performing aren’t the same. Each of these “zones” has specific goals— one is to grow, the other is to achieve. These distinctions matter if we’re going to safely motivate students to step outside their comfort zone. When everything we ask a student to do comes with a judgment (grade, score, or mark), it diminishes a student’s capability to operate outside their comfort zone — instead, it breeds fear and anxiety. There is no “failing forward”. There are no turning mistakes into stepping stones. And there is little chance of students achieving a higher level of performance.
However, the reality for most students is that we seldom, if ever, separate our learning and performing practices. We are constantly awarding points and assigning scores, on the assumption that we need to, leaving students to wonder “When does it really matter?” and/or being unprepared when it does. Worst yet, they avoid the harder tasks (studying for exams, engaging in reassessment, etc. ) in favor of doing the easy ones (completing compliance-based homework, relying on class participation, etc.).
In our courses, performance matters. Demonstrating mastery matters. Just as it does on the football field on Friday night and in the auditorium on Saturday. But, if our aim is for our students to develop curiosity, push themselves, and embrace growth & learning, then we have to create an environment where students spend a great deal of time engaged in deliberate practice — or in the learning zone — then wondering and worrying if everything we ask them to do is going to be treated as a performance to be judged.
How do we design a learning environment?
Establishing an environment for learning involves many concepts, but in my experiences and practices, there are four core components of a successful learning culture.
#1 Build Trust
A classroom culture in which students and teachers are partners in learning is crucial — for many of us, it’s why we went into education in the first place. To achieve this, a high degree of relational trust must be established. No matter what changes you make, none of it will be successful unless trust is established. But trust doesn’t just happen. It must be built, earned, and woven into our practices. Trust happens in trusting situations.
Teachers need to recognize and eliminate the dangers of out-sized power and influence, often connected to the expert curse (forgetting what it’s like to be a learner). This typically transpires into visible frustration when tasks aren’t learned quickly, and takes the shape of “using carrots and sticks” to maintain compliance behavior — “This is now due at the end of the hour!”, or “I’m going to grade this assignment if it’s not done today!” Not only do these behaviors erode the line between learning and performing, it diminishes relational trust — they’ll lose faith in you and the learning process.
Instead, maintain a pragmatic and merciful persona. Concentrate on helping students learn, be alert to their misconceptions and mistakes, and understand the difficulties novice learners face. These trust-building approaches will result in improvements in both their motivation (commitment) and achievement.
#2 Sort Work into Learning Tasks and Performance Tasks
The abundance of our energy needs to be spent on providing feedback (so students can fix mistakes), and purposeful practice (so they can make new connections), and all this must be free of judgment (grades, scores, or points). We achieve this by sorting learning tasks from performing tasks.
Learning tasks are all those opportunities for students to engage with the content and skill — or formative assignments that lead a student to mastery. It is expected that students make mistakes when completing these tasks, and thus cannot be the judge. And, yes, this even includes whether or not it was completed — the moment a learning task because synonymous with a grade or score it becomes some form of performance. Once you identify your learning tasks, use them for feedback. Don’t grade them. Don’t assign points. Give it no letter or numerical value. Use it solely for learning.
Any activity that assesses student evidence of learning is a performance task. They are designed, and implemented, to determine the level/depth of comprehension, and must be aligned to the learning process (e.g. if students are learning to write claims and pair evidence with reasoning, the performance assessment should measure this ability). These can be graded and scored. You are making a judgment on their level of execution (mastery) at that point in time. Don’t overlook this modifier — performances are judgments at a specific time in the learning process. Treat them more like check-ups with the doctor — opportunity to revisit and revise — and less like autopsies with the coroner.
The overt advantage of separating learning and performing tasks is the reduction of stress and anxiety in your students — when they know mistakes are normal and come with no academic consequence, they become more willing to try something new. The unspoken benefit of isolating theses tasks from another is that students can no longer rely on compliance-based work to offset low performances. Often students become complacent or satisfied with a poor test grade because success is carried by the formative tasks — or all those assignments we assign points to ensure that the work is completed. When they know the difference, students can acknowledge the gravity of the “test” and see a direct link between practicing to improve their comprehension and skill and their performance. In other words, students will perform when they are gaining from their practice.
#3 Design High-Quality Activities
Work, in of itself, has no intrinsic value. It has to produce something. And when work lacks meaning, there’s no dignity of labor. Frankly, this is what causes us to attach points to assignments — much like an employer paying workers to complete mundane tasks — and this causes students to copy homework in the hallway before class. In other words, when the work is bulls**t— when we can’t justify its existence — there is no honor in doing it. So they won’t. At least not with any engagement, and perhaps, without integrity.
It’s no longer sufficient to create merely functional lessons. Students want to learn, desiring satisfaction, fulfillment, and meaning from their school work. Meaningful design exists when the tasks provide feedback the student needs (and can use) right now, and when activities are logically aligned to the summative (performance). When the need for meaning is met, students will find virtue in completing them — with or without earning points.
This essential cog of effective instructional design happens during the prepare stage, where we create engaging lessons and activities for our students. To ensure the work being created is of high quality and meaningful, focus on the following prompt: “The purpose of…is to…so that…” or the one-sentence lesson plan. Also, ask yourself two questions — “If I eliminated it, would the student’s notice its absence?” and “Is it intellectually significant?”
#4 Eliminate Performance-Based Language
Moving from a performance mindset to a learning mindset requires a shift in communication. This means removing performance-based language from your instruction, and at the top of that list is no longer attaching point values to a learning task. If the assignment is truly for feedback, we can’t have points — a term associated with judgment — driving the engagement.
We want students to focus on what the tasks are teaching them, helping them to recognize and identify how success should look. As long as learning has ties to performance, it will not be possible for students to perceive the difference. Thus, work to identify and eliminate any customary performance-based expressions from learning. Instead of “assignments” call them “tasks”. Due dates are now “timelines”. Homework becomes “out of class work”. Formative assessments (“quizzes”) are now called “Check-Ins”. I’m my class, I even stopped calling my students “students”, instead calling them “learners”!
Creatively re-branding your language is hard. But the real work is making these terms the norm. Whether having conversations with colleagues, sending emails to parents, or talking with the class as a whole, use these terms (learning language) as if they’ve always been a part of schooling. If a student asks “How many points is this worth?”, reply with “What is the target of the task?” When a parent reaches out about missing assignments, share with them the tasks they were working on. Whenever given the chance to use “learning language”, use it.
In its simplest form, the purpose of school is to cultivate society. That is, for schools to help students become something greater than when they started. This requires us, as teachers, to enhance the broader picture of education by instilling practices that develop student beliefs about learning. Unfortunately, too many existing systems, specifically our grading practices, are working against this. Our actions don’t match our message. Pumping kids up to fail forward without first transforming how we teach learning, will produce diminishing returns —and is a mistake we need to admit we’ve made. From here, we need to rethink and revisit how we discuss and dissect what learning and performance look like in our classrooms so our students have the means to become the kinds of people they want to be.