Failing may be best way to gain more knowledge

I have a secret. 

It’s dangerous to reveal this secret because its implications may mean that you change the way you see the world entirely. It may force you to see that everything you believe to be true is a false reality you hang on to because it’s what you’ve always believed, and you may find that letting go of it requires you to rethink everything you’ve been taught.

Here’s my secret. Your success is not determined by how much you know right now but instead, how much you’re willing to fail. Struggle, frustration and failure are the keys to unlocking doors you can’t open. To put it simply, you should embrace failure instead of avoiding it.

Seems simple, and it may not be anything new to you, but imagine how different society would be if we all embraced our, and others’, failures instead of always aiming for perfection. Imagine how different our conversations would be if our words sounded more like praise for progress instead of praise for perfection.

Let me tell you what this looks like in the world of education and what this means for our 21st century students. In English Language Arts class, students read complex texts with difficult vocabulary, and we don’t reword anything to make it easier to understand. You may be thinking, “Well, that’s not fair!” Is it not? Isn’t the secret to success failure? Come to my class of sixth graders and watch them read a Fireside Chat of President Roosevelt. Yes, you’ll see the struggle to read the speech’s complex language. You’ll also see me push them to persevere despite its difficult content. The end result is a student who not only has unlocked meaning of words that were once foreign, but also a student who has learned that just because something appears impossible doesn’t mean it is. 

In a mathematics classroom success comes from the process and not the right answer. Sounds crazy, right? It’s completely different from what you thought was true because it’s always been that correct answer at the end that helped you avoid the red ink. Not anymore. We as teachers understand that it’s through the productive struggle, the frustration, and the failures that students learn the most about how math works. 

The great part about all this as an educator is that we have a state superintendent who understands and believes in the power of failure to teach what direct instruction cannot.  On May 7, I was given the opportunity to be a part of a discussion with State Superintendent John White in which I recounted with great enthusiasm my experience with teaching the shifts in education that he implemented in our state. He visited Start Elementary School, where I teach, to see the new yearlong residency teacher program, Believe and Prepare, in action. By July 2018, teacher preparation program in Louisiana will include a yearlong classroom residency alongside an experienced mentor teacher. The new program ensures aspiring teachers have ample amount of teaching practice in the classroom alongside an expert mentor teacher. At Start, we had the opportunity to host six resident teachers this school year. As classroom teachers who understand the value of learning from our failures, my colleagues and I encouraged and pushed our residents to persevere through their struggles and learn vital lessons from their mistakes. It’s that kind of intentional practice that will make them successful in their own classrooms. It will also help them to overcome their fears of trying new instructional strategies because they will have already learned that it’s ok if they don’t get it right the first time; it’s then that we learn what works well. 

Now that I’ve shared this secret with you, what will you do with it? Failure has gotten a bad rap all these years. Let’s change that. Instead, let’s embrace its potential as one of life’s greatest teachers. Like a hidden gem nestled in the corner of our mind behind fear and uncertainty. I encourage you to give failure a chance. If you do, you may unlock doors in your life that you never even knew were closed.

Beverly Smart is a mentor teacher at Start Elementary School.

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