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InsightMar 22, 2023

Teaching and learning failure

Diana Varma RGD and Raphael Maturine Provisional RGD

Members of the RGD's Education Committee Diana Varma RGD and Raphael Maturine Provisional RGD, through experiences, share the importance of teaching and learning failure.

Failure is a scary idea. Like, a really scary idea. No one wants to fail and feel the discomfort of not living up to expectations placed upon them or expectations they’ve placed upon themselves.

But what if failure is exactly what we need more exposure to in a world where success and perfection are on permanent display? After all, the act of failure can help us understand ourselves and the world around us far better than if we’d never experienced it. It can help us re-examine our priorities to pivot in our work or in our personal lives. Failure can help drive innovation forward in ways that ‘getting the answer right’ every time will never allow. It helps separate us from the machines. Failure makes us human.

In the following article about Teaching Failure, you’ll hear two perspectives on what it means to experience failure in education. You’ll first read the perspective of Design Educator Diana Varma RGD, for whom incorporating failure into her classroom is top of mind. Second, you'll read the perspective of Graphic Designer Raphael Maturine Provisional RGD, who considers himself a life-long learner.

Diana Varma RGD, Design Educator

When my 4-year-old daughter began playing board games, she was a bit of a sore loser. If she wasn’t winning, she didn’t want to play, and it often ended in tears. In short, she didn’t like the feeling of failure. It wasn’t until the pandemic, hours-long video calls with her (very patient) aunt and hundreds of rounds of virtual Candy land later, where she lost as often as she won, that my daughter felt more comfortable experiencing failure.

I know how she felt because I was exactly like my daughter when I was a kid. I didn’t want to finish a game if I knew I wouldn’t win. It was through the persistence of my aptly-named Grade 1 teacher, Mrs. Book, that I became more comfortable with the uncomfortable feelings of failure. Mrs. Book made me finish every game I started, no matter the outcome. She showed me that experiencing failure was a possibility I signed up for when I sat down to play the game.

I share these stories because as a design educator, I believe that teaching failure is rooted in these same types of low-stakes opportunities to try and fail. In my experience, students are often placed under immense pressure to perform with big projects, big opportunities and big moments to get it right. In all the getting it right, it feels like there’s no room for getting it wrong.

Courses are often structured as though they were a single round of the game Jenga; follow the rules, move the pieces, do what feels safe until – oops! – one wrong pull and the whole tower comes tumbling down. I’ve been a student and a teacher of courses structured like this, and it’s no wonder that most of us fear failure within this high-stakes approach.

In contrast, what if courses were structured as though they were multiple rounds of Candy land? Through practice, experimentation and not taking it all so seriously, we could help students understand that design — and innovation, more broadly — is an inherently iterative, gritty, failure-ridden act that can also be joyful. By helping students understand that they are not just as good as their “successful” work, we can help unravel the complex conditioning established through years of a school system that has told them that work and worth are intimately connected, as apparent as ever amidst today’s anxiety-flooded school hallways.

Showing students that experiencing failure is a possibility that they sign up for when they sit down to create — and the magic that can come from it — is a lesson that will take students far beyond the classroom. So while failure isn’t an easy thing to teach (it’s non-linear, emotional and time-consuming), allocating classroom time to help students face the discomfort of failure, demonstrate how to get back up from failure and model embracing failure in the creative process, is time well spent.

Help students show up, take risks, experience the outcome, learn and move on. In other words, be a Mrs. Book.

Raphael Maturine Provisional RGD, Life-Long Learner

Have you ever worked on a project, forgot to hit save and then all of a sudden that one fateful click turns your computer into what looks like a scrambled Rubik’s cube? The hours you spent powering through in your focused state are lost. When you finally reboot, you’re faced with a choice: do you try to piece back together this fractured puzzle or do you accept what has happened and start over?

Let’s say you start over. In your second attempt you have a vision, you know exactly how you want it to turn out and, in fact, it’s better than the first. While I’m not sure what to call this magical phenomenon, it’s proof that failure can lead to success.

I share this experience because I see learning as a puzzle, much like a Rubik’s Cube, with countless ways to solve it. If your first shot at it didn’t work out, you can take a step back and try again. When I was a student, there were many instances where I would put pressure on myself to do well, leaving little to no room for failure. In some cases, I was so passionate about a class that failure meant any grade less than a “B”. In other instances, an actual failing grade was motivation to do better.

Then it dawned on me: at the intersection of theory and practice, I came to realize that throughout my learning journey I was never taught that failure was a good thing. Failure, to my understanding, was the inability to master the learning criteria outlined for me by my program and faculty. It was the harsh reality of feeling unprepared for real world critique and managing expectations.

It was only when I began my first full-time job that I was able to understand that growth was a direct result of failure. Had I known this before, maybe I would have taken more risks, and maybe I would have had more patience the first time I transitioned from student to professional.

Through meaningful teaching moments, educators can emphasize the importance of failure and how it is integral to the learning process. I believe that they must also do more to ensure their students understand the world outside the classroom with hands-on learning experiences. Educators should continually reinforce that there is always room for improvement, thinking about how they can help their students be just a little better with every lesson and project.

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