Failure as an unexpected benefit

Despite the obvious disadvantages of not being physically together in our building, there are silver linings occasionally piercing through the clouds of information, news, worries, and uncertainty that make up the experience of the pandemic. While there is no shortage of places to bemoan the problems educators nationwide and around the world are experiencing, this is a perfect time to reflect on what we have learned that we might otherwise have missed.

Above all else, there is one massive thing we share to greater degree than ever before:

Everyone fails.

All the time.

Spectacularly, obviously, and with a video record to prove it.

Think about a standard-issue, pre-pandemic school day. Students don’t suddenly stutter, twitch, or freeze up and become unintelligible in the middle of a discussion. They don’t show up to class and find themselves silenced and unable to make any sound at all. They don’t miss class altogether because something happened between English and Social Studies that made them unable to get from one classroom to the one next door.

By contrast, each and every one of these is a universal experience in remote learning — and it wouldn’t be all that unusual to encounter them on the same day. Someone freezes, or their video gets out of sync with their audio, or they don’t make it to class one day because there was a rainstorm near their house and tree branches are messing with their power lines… or any other one among the seemingly innumerable hiccups with which we are all too familiar, now. Zoom and FaceTime and Google Meet are wondrous tools, but they’re miles and miles from perfect.

Remote Learning makes failure more possible

The amazing and ironic thing is this: remote learning makes failure more possible, more visible, and more universal. Those who are routinely punctual can be late, because their connection wasn’t working properly. People who are reliably eager contributors can find themselves (literally) mute. And people who are adults fail more reliably in front of their students.

The adult failures are arguably the most valuable: in in-person classroom settings, students don’t often see missteps, because their teachers are adults who have simply logged more practice time at being fallible human beings, and with the benefit of fully-developed frontal lobes, these adults have created backup plans and alternative ideas and can pivot on a dime if need be.

No, in remote learning, our failures are broadcast live and in full color; there is no avoiding them. In fact, in some cases, they are far more visible today than when we were in the building together. The result can be surprisingly rich learning opportunities.

Jenga has nothing on Projects class

For example, Ms. Lyon creates a video for her K-1 Projects students each week, outlining what they will be working on. She is aware that students cannot look around to see what their peers are doing so they can learn vicariously to avoid particular mistakes, so her video offers a chance for them to all see someone else tackle the work. After introducing the students to the new contraption they will be building, Ms. Lyon then builds it on screen as an example for her students to follow. (Bonus points for Ms. Lyon for including silly bloopers that happened during her filming and are just too funny to leave out).

What happens next, though, is a remarkable demonstration of concentrated, focused, and unavoidable failures. Having built a tower, she knocks it over when reaching for a piece she needs for the next step. Then the ball she sends down the chute bounces crazily off the side walls, ricochets off the table, and bounces out of sight. Then four pieces slide off of the precarious uprights she finally got to stand up, only to careen into the bottom of the tower, making it crash to the table again. She rebuilds the tower, only to bump a piece of the track beneath it out of alignment. Then she adjusts the track, but one of the pieces seems to literally fly out of her hand to — wait for it — knock down the tower again.

All of this happens in about 30 seconds, thanks to the magic of digital video effects. She speeds up the whole thing so her students don’t spend half an hour watching her and instead can get to work building things, themselves. And while it is indeed funny and entertaining, this little sped-up montage offers children something they don’t usually see: multiply-repeated, continual, exasperating failure by an adult.

While Grayson’s teachers intentionally emphasize the universal nature and the benefits of learning through failure to our students, that doesn’t mean that they truly comprehend that adults fail, too. Honestly, if you’re an elementary school teacher, the odds of you making spelling mistakes or arithmetic errors or scientific blunders is quite low. (Or it should be, anyway.) And even if you were to make such an error — and when the students invariably gleefully point it out — you can undoubtedly identify the issue, correct it immediately, and move on.

That’s just not how failure works, in the real world.

In the real world, adults fail because they don’t know how to do something. Scientists spend the vast majority of their careers failing every day at work, for instance, since they are trying to push past knowledge we already have into areas we don’t yet understand. But children don’t see that, generally. They may hear about it, but that’s not the same thing.

During remote learning, however, Ms. Lyon has a unique opportunity to make mistakes in front of her students; in fact, one of her videos includes about fourteen failures in a row before she — finally, oh-so-carefully… and triumphantly — finishes building a particular contraption.

Children just do not have this kind of chance to see the adults they are learning from fail over and over and over. It’s understandable, therefore, that they would expect failure to mean “whoops, let me fix that little error I made,” and are not truly prepared for the level of frustration that can arise when they knock down the tower. Yet. Again. Seeing Ms. Lyon do that — even though she’s using an obvious special effect to compress the time — is an invaluable experience she is modeling right in front of them: you can fail LOTS of times, and you probably will. It’s okay. Just keep trying.

If you tried to recreate this experience in an in-person classroom, it would eat up the entire class period, frankly, leaving students no time for them to fail, themselves. The miracle of technology makes it possible for them to see an adult truly flounder around while trying to figure things out and yet still have most of the period to do their own work.

Since struggling is an awkward, uncomfortable, disorienting, and universal human experience, we would be wise to teach students how to manage their emotional response to it so they can recover, right? But we don’t — because teachers (and coaches, too) already know how to do the thing they are teaching you to do, so they don’t model how to recover when you repeatedly fail to do it right.

This period away from the building has exposed something marvelous about education in general: we humans do not teach children how to fail by doing it ourselves in front of them. Education is awash with the term “resilience,” so clearly agree that it is important. And we know that teachers should model behavior they want to see from students — but opportunities to weave those two things together is exceedingly rare.

Silver linings

Yes, everything in school is inarguably different now, in many ways (who would ever have thought that we would become so fluent, so quickly, in videoconferencing technologies?). However, it seems that there are plenty of glimmers of silver linings visible, once we take the time to notice them.

Overall, even across the highly varied landscape of our school community, something has remained steady, a focal point that Grayson’s faculty and families all keep our eyes on: our shared, deep commitment to keep feeding these remarkable minds and to keeping them connected to one another.  

That’s the shiniest lining of all.

When we started thinking about what benefits we have discovered in remote learning, we realized that there were actually quite a few—including failure—and too many to include in one article. So this piece is the first in a series of Silver Linings describing the ways in which remote learning has been a positive experience for our school community. Subscribe to our blog at the top of this page, or give us a call at 484.428.3241 to learn more about our academic program.

failure broken hammer

The importance of failure

is widely understood by our faculty (and students!). It means you are trying hard enough to fail. It means you will learn so much more by pushing yourself in innovative directions in Projects class to bring an idea to life, or to ask the really tough questions of your team in Geometry class (and surprise your teacher) by discovering and publishing a New Integer Sequence.  Please read more from our Director of Research, Jill Williford Wurman, on how we support and encourage failure at our school.

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