A couple of weeks ago I posted part one of this series. You might want to check that out if you’d like to read my conference proposal – or don’t and just jump in here. All you really need to know is that my presentation concerned competing personal philosophies and how we live with these as educators. Spoiler Alert: You also might want to know that this post is really about the importance of failure.
Conference Fantasies and Realities
Now for the thrilling conclusion of Why My Presentation Sucked! So I arrived at my conference to pouring rain and, of course, a complete lack of umbrella. Luckily I had a bag of donation clothes in my backseat and found a trenchcoat. A mix of bad and good omens. As I walked the half mile (!) from the parking lot to the conference center I ran through my presentation, envisioning myself spurring deeeeeep, meaningful conversations among the session attendees with my wit, emotional rawness, and a bodacious visual presentation.
Of course, conference presentation fantasies don’t ever match reality. Here’s what really happened: I walked into a room of 5 audience members. One of them was the facilitator and the other was a fellow presenter. Was this a tiny conference? Did these folks have a burning interest in my topic – or were they just there for the other dude? I went first. Although my audience appeared rapt and nodded their heads at several points I could tell that they weren’t buying my message. I invited questions and comments during my talk but no one engaged me. I began to talk faster. I gave a million examples. I talked about my probably-too-esoteric slide image choices and how they illustrated my points. I walked around a lot, smiled, grimaced, gesticulated – a grand performance. When I was finished (20 minutes early) I opened the floor up to discussion: “How do competing personal philosophies affect your teaching and living in education”? Only one taker. She talked about moving from a traditional highly structured high school to one that allows students much greater personal freedom. Although I know nothing about K-12 I immediately went into faculty development mode, leaned over the desk, and let her tell her story. The presentation became a conversation between us about the joys and despairs of structural constraints. The rest of the room was blank faced. I ended my presentation and the next presenter shot me a squinty eyed look. He began his part, introducing himself as a philosophy professor. I felt like a baby.
Why My Presentation Failed
After mulling over my conference experience I concluded that my presentation failed because:
- I didn’t know my audience: This was my first time at this particular conference and my audience (other than the facilitator and other presenter) were K-12 folks. Thus, my examples and struggles were aimed at an entirely different group of educators.
- I didn’t create an “active” presentation: Every presentation I’ve done in the past has involved a lot of audience work – small readings, discussions, short writing exercises. In this way the audience gets a few minutes to make a personal connection to the material. I always get a hugely positive response when I run sessions this way. However, this time I took a chance and did a narrative, experience-based presentation.
So, overall, I failed because I took a chance on a new presentation type at an unknown conference. But was my failure a bad thing? I argue no. Although I experienced some temporary personal embarrassment my experience as both a student and an educator suggest that failure is more educative than success. After all, would I have taken two weeks to consider and write about this experience if I had succeeded? Probably not. Instead my failure spurred me to reflect deeply on my experience. I’ve seen this same pattern in my own students again and again (with a lot of support, of course). So if you accept my premise that failure is good, how can you support failure in your own classroom?
Supporting Failure in the Classroom
Failure is an integral part of student growth in any college classroom. After all, aren’t questions and mistakes more instructive than correct answers? Doesn’t struggle create more resilient, questioning students? There are many strategies that you can use to support student failure including:
- Setting a failure-friendly tone early in a course. Try including a short narrative in your syllabus that addresses the high likelihood of struggle in your course. Offer suggestions to live with this struggle. Have students write about past failures in class and share these. Share your own failures with your class. Setting a failure-friendly tone creates a vulnerable space for rigorous, personally-rewarding work.
- Allowing students to struggle with low-stakes, formative assessments. Often big failures on exams, presentations, or other heavily-weighted assignments can overwhelm students. Instead, consider the thousand little cuts method by building ungraded opportunities for practice (and failure) into your course. Allow students to practice failing.
- Providing students with targeted feedback and support after a failure. Failure-friendly classes won’t succeed without significant feedback and support. Talk with your entire class about general patterns of performance after minor and major assignments. Offer to meet with your students one-on-one after a big fail. Put your students in groups at the beginning of the semester to spread out the failure support net.
- Framing coursework as process-oriented rather than outcomes-oriented. Most undergraduates at GSU come from a high-stakes, assessment-oriented K-12 environment. Unsurprisingly, this educational philosophy rewards getting it “right” the first time. Obviously his educational approach isn’t failure friendly. How could you help your students think about and struggle with a more process-oriented, iterative approach to thinking and performance in your course?
- Framing failure as data rather than a catastrophic defeat. Take a note from the natural sciences and help your students see failures as iterative self-experiments. Some instruction to your students on discipline-specific thought would be fantastic here. How do researchers in your area frame research “failures”?
- Building failure into the curriculum. Allowing your entire class to fail at a particular task (or tasks) can be a powerful pedagogical strategy. How could you provide your students with planned opportunities to fail? For instance, are there particular content areas that all (or most) students struggle with without significant support or resources? After failure, how could you debrief students on the process? What type of follow-up assignment or activity do you need to create to follow up on the failure? How do you need to support this activity?
- Modeling failure for your students. This one can be tough on many professors. We’re used to acting the part of the all-seeing, all-knowing experts in class – and our students usually buy this superhuman act to the detriment of the student-professor relationship. So, along with building failure into the curriculum think about how you could model failure to your students. And by model I don’t mean creating artificial one-act failure plays that you perform for the class. Instead, I’m referring to those frequent times in class when you don’t know something or you don’t know how to handle a situation. How could you struggle, fail, struggle, succeed, and then struggle again in front of your class?