Uncommon Courses is an occasional series from The Conversation U.S. highlighting unconventional approaches to teaching.
“Failure, and How We Can Learn from It”
When I was a high school teacher, I found plenty of joy and fulfillment in my work. But I also felt the sting of failure: from a student who remained disengaged throughout the semester, or even just from a lesson that went off the rails. Now I prepare aspiring K-12 teachers to navigate that messy reality themselves, and I’m struck by how tough it can be for them to develop the resilience necessary to work so hard and yet inevitably fall short of their goals.
So I began to wonder how other fields and professions might view failure. What resources do they draw upon? What common threads might exist that could help future teachers learn from failure more effectively?
We explore the role of failure in a wide range of fields, and how what counts as failure varies as well. A bridge collapsing is pretty clear, and maybe a business that goes bankrupt. But what about a team losing or a patient dying? We also consider what mechanisms and strategies these fields employ in responding to failure, and the ways in which they see failure as part of the learning and achievement process.
As the semester unfolds, students begin to recognize that success and failure aren’t neat and simple categories. At its best, this course helps them understand how failure will be an ongoing presence in their lives. That means they need to figure out how to restructure their relationship with failure, rather than anticipate a time when they’ve finally and fully succeeded.
The most compelling elements of the course are the guest speakers from the various professions that we explore. Their honesty about their own struggles – and their willingness to avoid simplistic cliches about simply trying harder – offer my students insight and encouragement in their own journeys.
For instance, a doctor working on Los Angeles’ Skid Row – an area known for poverty and makeshift housing – describes how she navigates overwhelming need and the inability to heal many of her patients. A professional mediator explains how he deals with complex dynamics in relationships in search of compromise between the parties. Every single speaker is a portrait of someone who continues to fail, learn and grow.
We look at how to evaluate risk more accurately, and how to develop a mindset that views failure as part of the growth process. Persistence is vital, but rarely sufficient. They learn the value of focusing less on the simplistic categories of failure and success and focusing more on making good decisions, evaluating outcomes, responding thoughtfully and maintaining perspective about what they can’t control.
The course is offered through the honors college at the university where I teach. It draws students from a variety of majors.
When is it not relevant? A major theme of the course is that if people play it safe and never take any chances, they may be able to avoid failure, but they may also miss out on opportunities to learn and grow. When they reinterpret the significance of failure and make room for its presence, possibilities for learning and growth emerge.