Failure and Learning

One of my retirement goals has been to finally get good at knitting. I learned how when I was a child, but I’ve never had the time to really master the craft. Retirement is when you’re supposed to realize some of these lifelong ambitions because you’re running out of time. And so I’ve been knitting lots of different things, using lots of different techniques.

My current quest is cables—a technique that involves putting a small group of stitches in front of or behind another group of stitches, with the result looking, not surprisingly, like a cable. It’s not a difficult technique, except when you tackle a project that involves a variety of different kinds of cables. I’m not very visual, and so often rather than looking at the pattern that is emerging as I knit, I’m reading the instructions. The written instructions tell you when to put the stitches in the back or front, but they don’t help you see what you should be doing. If you put the stitches behind when they should be in front, the error isn’t immediately obvious. In my case, it was five rows later on a vest project that is knit in one piece—that means lots of stitches on the needle and lots of time involved in correcting the mistake. I was angry with myself, but all that ripping and reknitting was what it took to finally get me looking at the cable and figuring out once and for all when the stitches needed to go in back or in front. Now I know.

I thought about all that this morning when I was refiling some article resources and ran across a very old piece by John Chiodo, titled “Professors Who Fail May Be Our Best Teachers.” Chiodo wrote that he was in the process of developing a “philosophy of failure to help ensure the improvement of my teaching.” (p. 79) His piece is really about teachers needing to take risks, as in the need to try new and different approaches even though there is a risk they might not work. Teachers avoid failure by not taking risks and always doing what they know works. Ironically, this approach usually fails over time, but it’s not the kind of failure that is as easily noticed by the teacher.

Failure in the classroom is frequently a very private affair. The norm in collegial conversation and in published pedagogical scholarship is to share success stories. We do need to learn about what does work, but often there is more learning potential when we try something and it doesn’t work. The problem, of course, is that learning from failure is rarely a pleasant experience. It doesn’t make us feel good about ourselves.

In addition to not talking about the failure, teachers frequently rely on Freud’s pain/pleasure principle and ignore the failure. Lest you think I write not knowing whereof I speak, I had a dismal failure in an upper-division business course on conflict resolution and negotiation. It was the first time I had taught the course, and the students balked at everything I asked them to do. We got to study conflict up close and personal. The problem was, I couldn’t get any of the theories and research that we were studying to successfully resolve the conflict we were experiencing. My failure was made worse by the fact that I won a prestigious teaching award that semester. I lived in fear that students in this class would find out and either laugh or protest. When the semester ended, I walked away from that course. I never taught it again, and I never faced the lessons that were there to be learned. Thinking about my failure to confront this failure is now a source of regret and embarrassment.

We also deal with failure a bit like our students do. We respond personally, with lots of emotion and grand generalizations. The failure becomes a measure of our inherent worth as human beings, not the case of one activity, class session, or course poorly executed. To learn from failure, you have to be able to put it in perspective. That may be difficult at the moment, but a bit of distance and a good colleague can put a context around what happened and enable us to start thinking about what we might learn from the experience.

Most of us regularly work with students who experience failure—on an exam, a paper, maybe even in the course. We sit across from them, and I hear us giving them a whole variety of strategies they can use to deal with and learn from the failure. It is good and compassionate advice. Maybe the place to begin dealing with our own instructional failures is by listening to how we discuss failure with our students.

As for my knitting, now I’m trying to knit an I-cord (something that looks sort of like a rope) to go around the brim of a hat I’ve just finished. I read and reread the instructions, but I still don’t understand how to do it. At this point, I’ve spent more time criticizing the way the instructions are written than I’ve spent trying to figure out how this technique works. It’s a failure in progress and, so far, one with scant learning.

Chiodo, John. J. (1989). Professors who fail may be out best teachers. Teacher Education Quarterly, (Winter), 79-83.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 25.4 (2011): 6.