Creating a Culture of Failure


Vermont’s move toCupped hands holding a new plant in soilward more personal and proficiency based learning in public education is an enormous shift from the traditional model that we have been using for many years.  While Vermont is extremely innovative inside the classroom and offers its teachers quite a bit of autonomy compared to many other states, the overall structures and systems in public schools rely on a traditional model.  For many years, I have watched administrator after administrator try to implement an innovative vision with very limited success.  Because I see Vermont’s new legislation, Act 77 and Education Quality Standards, as an amazing opportunity for transforming public education, I truly do not want to see it fail.  I have been thinking, reading and synthesizing all I can in order to ensure that we build models for this change that can be successfully used by any school.

In order for learning to be more personal, students need to be trusted partners and collaborators in the development and design of their learning trajectory.  Students must be self-directed and teachers must change their roles to facilitating these new directions.  These are huge shifts for teachers, students and their parents.  Someone with a fixed mindset, the belief that the ability to learn, intelligence, is innate and unchangeable, whether it is a teacher, student or parent will struggle with these shifts.  A teacher may have difficulty trusting that a student who was unmotivated in a traditional learning environment could be self-directed in a more personalized situation.  A student who has previously been told what to learn and when to learn it will struggle to refocus their energies on finding their passions and making their own decisions about learning.

Imagine if those same teachers and students believed that they were capable of learning anything with the right amount of effort.  Imagine those same teachers and students coming into school every day planning to make mistakes, take risks and persist in order to reach their goals.  Imagine a school where students and teachers were praised for taking risks even when failure ensued.  Imagine if students approached failure and mistakes as a sign of learning rather than a sign of failure.  Traditional systems and structures are built on notions of a fixed mindset.  Grades have been a focus rather than learning.  Right answers have been praised over mistakes.
These are long held and deeply ingrained ideas that will take a lot of work to undo.  Developing a growth mindset takes time.  It isn’t enough to believe in growth mindset because many of our actions still carry a fixed mindset. Many conversations need to be had about shifting the focus of school from grades to learning; these conversations need to happen with all stakeholders.  Most parents, teachers administrators and community members were products of traditional schools, so change will be hard.  Administrators need to find ways to truly encourage risk taking in ways that teachers do not fear evaluative consequences.  Teachers need to create the same culture for their students.  What are the ways that you create (or don’t create) a culture where failure is a sign of intelligence?