“In a culture that is ambitious for ourselves and for our students, what does failure mean?”
It sounds like a philosophical question – maybe even a little navel-gazing. In fact, interrogating the meaning of failure is a professional quandary that provides educators and supporters of education with a unique opportunity. An opportunity to change the way we see our jobs, increase the knowledge we produce, and improve the learning that we cultivate – all at the same time.
However, this isn’t the kind of professional and academic opportunity that simply requires access to libraries, time, human resources, critical thinking, or even funding. It also requires bravery. On the October 20th 2015, our colleagues showed that we have this in spades.
In Edinburgh Napier University’s most recent Learning Teaching and Assessment Conference, Mark Huxham held a session on what he called “Creative Failure”. This was attempt to test a possible framework – a way of taxonimising failure based on the ways in which it did or did not lead to learning. There was an air of nervousness in the room. People understood that they’d be recalling their own failures in a room full of colleagues. But Mark did what any good teacher does – he brought a new idea that made sense, gave people what they need to understand it, and made them feel safe. Then he stood back and let the magic happen.
After that success (as tricky a word as failure), this work got carried forward. This past October, Mark and a team of colleagues took this concept to the next level. This time, with a very specific focus – our jobs. The Festival of Failure was a space where academic professionals came together and reflected on some of the most challenging times in the history of their own careers. They spoke of what they did wrong, what allowed it to happen, and what they had learned. But more importantly, they reflected on how they learned from it.
It may sound overly conceptual and introspective. Quite the opposite. It was all very simple. A room of highly accomplished, published, and respected academics and professional staff each took a pen, wrote a professional failure on a sticky-note and put it up on a wall for everyone to read.
They ran the gamut between big and small, new and old, funny and tragic. And it didn’t stop there. In an institution that, like many others, prizes knowledge and professionalism so highly, they did one of the bravest things a person can do – they told you how they felt.
For myself, the result was nothing short of humbling, enlightening, and connective. Not just of people, but of ideas.
I was particularly moved by the thread that began to tie all of our responsibilities together. Our responsibilities to ourselves, our students, our colleagues, our teachers, and our line managers. At some point every one of us had let one of those people down, and when we reflected on how we learned from those moments – something really inspiring happened. The conversation went beyond how we can prevent failures, and became about capturing the mechanisms that made learning from failure possible. We were talking about how to make those failures meaningful – useful even – as individuals and as an institution.
There are many dimensions to being a professional, a teacher, and student. Something about this exercise revealed a dimension where these roles intersect. We’re told that constructive alignment (what many consider to be the backbone of modern progressive teaching practices) is, in the most general sense, about practicing what you preach. Keeping that in mind, when I read my Biggs and Tang, I’m always struck by a particular line that’s drawn – one that separates the concept of performance from the concept of learning.
Creating a safe space to learn is what we’re encouraged to do for our students. Learning, even from failure, is what ask of our students. What would happen to our profession if each and every one of us did the same things for ourselves, our colleagues, our line managers, and our subordinates? The scholarship of failure and its role in learning is out there – but a library search (albeit not an exhaustive one) makes me wonder if that scholarship really leaves the classroom. How easy is it to turn that kind of learning back on ourselves? It’s probably much easier to feel like our reputations and lively hoods are on the line. I’d argue that anything which makes us better teachers deserves to be researched, understood, and disseminated. If there are great strides in the future of the pedagogy of failure, I wouldn’t be surprised if they started right here.