Wednesday 7 Sep, 2016

The Danger of Failing to Fail: Resilient Students Through Iterative Learning

This article is part of an op-ed series from EF’s Global Leadership Summit Internship Program. The program provides high school students with a deeper experience at EF Summits by gaining valuable real-life skills through public speaking, journalism, social media and photography. We asked each intern to address a Summit topic that they were particularly drawn to. Irena G. is a high school junior from Chicago, Russian enthusiast, and lover of all things learning. She passionately believes in the nurturing classroom where not only academic, but life lessons, unfold. Irena believes iteration has incredible power in all crafts, and she eagerly anticipates its application to education.

You would hope that students would never equate the classroom, the heart of intellectual discovery and improvement, with the disappointment of defeat. Yet, high school student Sam M. sheepishly admitted, “when I think of failure, I think of school.” His self-conscious laugh made it clear that neither he, nor his teachers, had intended this connection.

That same sentiment was echoed by many other students at the most recent EF Global Student Summit in June. All of my interviewees associated the classroom — with its high pressure to perform well — with a paralyzing fear of failure rather than a love of learning. When I asked students to quantify their academic fear of failure on a scale of 1-10, responses averaged around 8. When students fear failure this much, it affects their perception of learning (a joy versus a battle), their self-confidence, and their tendency to give up after a bad quiz. Besides souring the classroom atmosphere, this fear-induced sluggishness also degrades teachers’ efforts to reach students with their feedback. The upside is that the classroom is the best place to fail. With careful nurturing, students can transform their academic fear into lifelong resilience.

Removing The Stigma From Failure

Irena Gao Pic 1

Building resilience may not be as hard as it seems. In their two-day Summit experience in The Hague, students learned Design Thinking, a radical problem-solving approach pioneered by IDEO and used by innovators like Google and Apple. The effect on student attitudes shocked me – the ‘fear of failure’ rankings halved to 4. “I used to think that failure is when you don’t succeed,” said Talmage C. “But now I see failure is more of a learning point. You’re like, ‘Okay, that didn’t work. Let’s try something else,’ rather than ‘I failed. What are my parents going to say?'” Design Thinking encouraged the resilient, upbeat attitude that classrooms need.

A Simple Solution: Iterative Learning

So what exactly is it that makes Design Thinking so powerful? Iteration. While at the Summit, students crafted and tested their products many times over. They used feedback from tests to refine their ideas. Long-term growth, not short-term outcomes, mattered. Iteration doesn’t necessarily encourage failure; iteration learns from failure. The results are resilience and growth.

I believe the easiest way to allow iteration in the classroom is to encourage retakes and revisions for major tests and essays respectively. What are grades, if not a quantification of the students’ understanding? If that understanding improves, why should students still be labeled with a past grade? Imagine if students were forbidden from retaking their driving test! The goal of learning is mastery, not a timed, inflexible race.

Research supports this. Retakes were first studied in 1988 and found to positively impact student scores. A 2012 study from the University of Wisconsin found that university students’ long-term retention (as measured by semester exam scores) increased with the option of exam retakes. Finally, a 2005 report on Connecticut schools’ integration of iterative (also called competency-based) learning indicates that the policy is not only helpful, it’s feasible logistically.

Further, by de-stigmatizing academic failure, iterative learning opens the door to a loftier life lesson. To help students who are emotionally caught up with their performance, teachers can help students distinguish between the types of failure. Most test failure can be grouped under hypothesis testing. By emphasizing that failure is a data point — a red flag on a hypothesized conceptual model — and helping students identify the flawed assumption in their conceptual model, teachers mentor students to do more than just not feel bad about failure; teachers demonstrate how exactly to learn from it.

Irena Gao pic 2

Case Study: Physics

I now deeply love learning — but it wasn’t until my sophomore year, when I entered the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, which fully embraces iterative learning, that my passion for learning developed. Take, for example, our physics class. Instead of having only one unit exam, the physics department crafts two. To encourage students to try their best on every test, exams are divided into clusters of problems that represent a specific skill set. If a student scores an A on a cluster, he or she doesn’t have to retake it. Between exams, students are required to correct their mistakes with a tutor or the teacher. The iterative style doesn’t make the class easy; we consider physics notoriously difficult because of how dedicated teachers are to learning thoroughly. But the class taught us more than just gravity — we now understand the value of resilience.

Unlike many schools that allow retakes, our physics class didn’t average new scores with the initial grade. Can you imagine telling a runner that his personal best of 10.6 seconds must be averaged with his earlier 11.5 seconds? I believe it’s powerful to allow students to grow as themselves, not as averages of their past.

Irena Gao pic 3

A Different Type of Classroom

Iterative learning is truly that — learning.

As a student battling failure-phobia myself, I can attest to the difference that Iterative Learning makes. It’s reduced my anxiety, inspired my love for learning, and prolonged my understanding of concepts. Just as in The Hague, when students passionately pursued world-changing ideas while guided by Design Thinking, classrooms too can spark students’ lives to action. When the classroom becomes less of a survival-based gladiator arena and more of an incubator for active learning, the heart of teaching and learning comes alive.

What happens when you combine a dedication to creating change with a passion for human rights? Check out more highlights from our last Summit! 

Works Cited
Bacon, R. K., and C. A. Beyrouty. “Test Retakes by Groups of Students as a Technique to Enhance Learning.” Journal of Agronomic Education 17.2 (1988): 99-101. ERIC. Web. 20 July 2016.
Freeland, Julia. From Policy to Practice: How Competency-Based Education Is Evolving in New Hampshire. Rep. Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. N.p.: n.p., 2014. ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED561275. Web. 20 July 2016.
Wormeli, Rick. “Redos and Retakes Done Right.” Educational Leadership. ASCD, November 2011. Web. 20 July 2016.