“Creativity relies on the flow of ideas. This happens best in an atmosphere where risk is encouraged, playfulness with ideas is accepted and where failure is not punished but seen as part of the process of success.”
- Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds
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When did failure become such a negative thing? Every year, students walk through the door of my classroom and I see the fear on their faces . . . What if I’m wrong? From kindergarten to high school, students are taught that right answers get “A’s” and wrong answers mean failure. Guessing is considered taboo, while experimenting with possibilities isn’t even an option. The saddest part of this is watching the students who don’t know the right answer. They give up and accept the “F.” This is where I step in and ask, why is there such a narrow margin for success? Learning means so much more than a right answer and encompasses a much wider area of thinking.
Something I strive to do each year is help my students break free of the so-called “training” they’ve received and learn to not only make mistakes but embrace them as the means to success. I teach history, which is commonly considered a pretty cut and dry subject – Here’s what happened, now memorize it. I take a certain amount of pride in the fact that this motto does not apply to my classroom. I purposely create assignments where students are encouraged to guess, surmise, and speculate about events within a give era. If they are “wrong” about something, it means they are one step closer to finding an answer. Think of it this way – The amount of failure that accompanies all of humanity’s accomplishments is truly astounding. Edison didn’t invent the light bulb on the first try. Einstein’s theory of relativity didn’t occur to him in one seamless perfect thought.
To de-program preconceived notions of failure, its important to create an atmosphere of academic freedom in the classroom. Students have to feel safe enough to go beyond rote memorization. They have to know the teacher values a good guess and won’t punish a wrong answer during the learning process, (what I mean by this is the learning that occurs prior to assessment). Teachers have a golden opportunity every day to provide students with a sense of confidence to be bold and experiment with information. Too often, I see student who become “lazy” and work just enough to get the right answer they need and then shut off. They’ve never been challenged to go any further or they are too afraid to go that extra step. Or they are the student who is sick and tired of being “wrong” all the time. When we teach only the right answer, we create robots who cannot think beyond right or wrong. What about the gray area in between? What about the possibilities that can come out of the minds of every student? Most students are starving to learn and be engaged, but too often they are told to be quiet and conform.
Inside of every student is a creative, vital mind waiting to be exercised. The key to engaging that mind is allowing students to play with the information. We all know that young children learn through the act of play, so it stands to reason the same rationale can apply to young adults as well. Play can be sophisticated if it is infused with creative thought. Even simple the act of coloring can become a significant learning moment if critical thinking is part of the process.
For example, for a unit on the Aztecs I created an assignment where students draw and color an Aztec village. First, they must gather information about the architecture, art, religion, cultural customs, and government from text resources. Second, they record that information in a chart that categorizes the facts. Third, they take all that information and create an Aztec village as they imagine it would appear. It’s a challenge to say the least, but students grab onto it because they have a chance to play. Furthermore, an assignment with these parameters offers multiple outlets for different answers. There is no one right way to do this, but rather there are a number of ways to perceive the information and internalize it. In a normal class setting, I have forty students and will end up forty different Aztec villages. Regardless, of artistic ability students have a chance to show what they know or how they are thinking about the topic. Last time I checked, thinking is at the core of learning.
When students feel free to make mistakes, they are more apt to try new things and think in ways that help them arrive at an answer. Teachers have the unique opportunity to help students realize that failure is necessary for success! For without mistakes, we do not learn.