When you’re a little kid, you’re a little bit of everything: artist, scientist, athlete, scholar. Sometimes it seems like growing up is the process of giving those things up one by one. I guess we all have one thing we regret giving up–one thing we really miss that we gave up because we were too lazy, or we couldn’t stick it out, or we were too afraid.

I’ve started rewatching old episodes of The Wonder Years, and it’s amazing how precisely Daniel Stern’s voiceovers can capture an adult’s nostalgia for childhood. The quote above precedes the story of Kevin’s decision to give up piano lessons because another boy could better perform Pachelbel’s Canon in D, and he was embarrassed to make mistakes at the annual recital.

Kevin’s anxiety over the decision reminds me of many times I fell to challenges and gave up on my own goals for similar reasons.  As we experience more and more of life, we realize the complex consequences of failing when we try something outside of our comfort zones, and we certainly don’t hear enough about the successes that come from risk taking. Furthermore, it’s difficult to feel motivated enough to try again. It requires that perfect blend of courage, inspiration, and grit. It requires a supportive and comfortable environment, and it requires a belief that trying something in a new way will help you learn something valuable.

The one place where we should be able to teach and learn about constructive failure is school. Michael McFadden, a former colleague and engineering teacher at Hunterdon Central, used to teach his students that they have to fail before they can start. He reminded them that it’s not until they fail and have to figure out why something didn’t work that they have a real problem to solve. Brilliant!

If we apply that same logic to a question that students are exploring in an inquiry-driven class, students might need to go in directions they weren’t expecting or attempt new skills from new angles. That’s why formative assessments in the first couple of attempts at a skill are extremely important. That frees students up to try new strategies without fear of judgment. And by recommending that they start from a place of failure gives them permission to make mistakes and truly learn from the experience. Even more, we can share and (dare I say) celebrate moments of failure as springboards for learning. That will help normalize the process and maybe make it so that failing in front of others not so scary. Maybe in front of others will be the most comfortable place to fail!

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