December 2011 Archives

The Positive Power of Failure in Education

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For many bright students, making a mistake on a homework assignment or test is one of the worst feelings in the world. But could mistakes play a vital role in the learning process? According to a growing number of educators, the answer is yes.


In his book Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov says, "Error followed by correction and instruction is the fundamental process of schooling...teachers should normalize error and respond to both parts of this sequence as if they were totally and completely normal. After all, they are." Lemov isn't the only one who sees failure as an integral part of education. In their excerpt of his book, website Delancey Place notes that his philosophy reminds them of the motto of the engineering department at "the Franklin Institute's nationally recognized Science Leadership Academy": Fail early, fail often.


Even the New York Times is reconsidering the value of failure. In an article on the effectiveness of homework, author Annie Murphy Paul writes, "When we work hard to understand information, we recall it better; the extra effort signals the brain that this knowledge is worth keeping. This phenomenon, known as cognitive disfluency, promotes learning so effectively that psychologists have devised all manner of 'desirable difficulties' to introduce into the learning process: for example, sprinkling a passage with punctuation mistakes..." Making and then correcting errors may be akin to those "desirable difficulties," the struggle ultimately heightening students' ability to grasp a given concept.


We at Thinkwell are no strangers to this approach to learning. In fact, Professor Edward Burger, the star of Thinkwell's math lectures, considers it one of the most valuable parts of the educational process. "In all my courses," he says, "I emphasize the power of failure: learning from failed attempts and taking risks." In The Heart of Mathematics, the textbook Prof. Burger coauthored, the second item in his list of the top ten mathematical ways of thinking is "Make mistakes and fail but never give up."


How have you and your students approached errors and failure? Do you view them as obstacles to success or as stepping-stones on your way to mastering a subject? Have you found any techniques particularly helpful in learning to view mistakes as a good thing?

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