As school was ending for the year and graduation ceremonies were taking place, I came across two commencement addresses – one that Conan O’Brien gave to Dartmouth College, and one by Steve Jobs to Stanford in 2005. Interestingly, both mention the importance that specific, major failures had in shaping their future careers and successes later on in life. Even though the failures both mention were extremely difficult at the time, the positive consequences born from them made the failures worthwhile. In fact, I would argue that if given the choice, both men wouldn’t change what they went through in light of the personal and professional growth that ensued. Growth happens through failure.
Around the same time, I read a blog post by Henry Jenkins called “Shall we Play.” The post examines the importance of play for children and the value of play on learning. There is a lot of great stuff in his post, but what stood out to me like a high tower on a cluttered landscape, was when Jenkins writes, “…children are afraid to fail and teachers are afraid to tell their students that they are failing. As a result, students do not take risks which might push their performance forward and they do not get the feedback they might need to better calibrate their efforts.” I find this fear of failure prevalent (and sometimes crippling) in many of my students, and my feeling is that it is present in many (if not most) school classrooms. And this is not surprising. Society teaches us to avoid failure at all cost – it’s a problem. Parents scare their children not to fail – “See that homeless person children, if you don’t do well in school that’s how you’ll end up; we’ll give you $50 for every ‘A’ you get in school…” It seems that it is built into our human psyche to avoid failure. However, if our students are to be successful in the ‘real world,’ the negative connotations need to be divorced from failure, and we need to teach our students how to fail.
To do this I’m going to get my students to play. Failure in play is never seen as failure – it’s seen as growth. For example, if someone gets a new video game, they will take the first several hours or days learning how to play the game, which will inevitably lead to lost lives or lost races or lost time and they will need to start again. The sheer enjoyment of playing and the challenges they have to be overcome make their failures worthwhile. I would love to see this mentality at work within my students at school. To see my students try, to make mistakes, to learn from them, and then to try again but this time with more success – and then to see them learn. It’s inevitable that all of my students (and myself) will make mistakes in many different areas in life, but they/we need the skills and ability to learn from them. I’m hopeful that if I can make the connection between play and learning, my students will approach school with the desire to grow and learn, and not to simply jump through hoops to the detriment of their learning.
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly” –Robert F. Kennedy