January 2016

On the importance of … FAILURE

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. 

Winston Churchill

During this weekend, I happened to stumble a number of times upon an idea that failure is crucial for learning. While listening to Bill Nye’s book “Undeniable” in the gym, I  noticed how he talked about Dolly the sheep and cloning. Interestingly, before succeeding with Dolly, scientists had failed more than 260 times! Edison failed many-many times before he was able to improve the incandescent light bulb so it could be used for the industrial and everyday life purposes, Kepler had to scrap his beautiful book on the Harmony of the Spheres when he realized that the trajectory of Mars (the retrograde motion) didn’t fit his model. In other words, all the big discoveries come as a result of perseverance in the face of multiple failures. The same applies to learning math and science, and yet, we (in N. America) do not give our students room to fail. How can you fail if in order to be accepted to university in Canada your GPA has to be more than 90% (at least for UBC science it is true)? I read another book this summer (a very easy and fascinating read) – The Smartest Kids int he World and how the got that way by Amanda Ripley. I also have watched Amanda Ripley’s presentations online – she is a great speaker. She talks about how students in Finland have multiple opportunities to fail, to try again and eventually to succeed! The same idea came up when I watched a Netflix movie about famous chefs over the weekend. The chefs spoke about the importance of failure and how you learn to become a great chef through many failures. Nobody can learn a new skill without failing at it first. And yet, do we have room for failure on our mathematics and science classes? Do we model how we learn through failures? Do we, educators, embrace our own failures? Are we even ready to admit them?

I certainly remember one of my own failures here at UBC Faculty of Education. I was asked to teach a Science Methods course for middle school teacher-candidates and I failed. I wasn’t able to connect with them. I wasn’t able to inspire them and all in all the class was horrible. I felt that they hated me, my class and the only thing they wanted was to finish it, get their passing mark and never see science again… My teaching evaluations reflected that – they were the lowest I have ever received – embarrassingly low. The comments I have received were equally bad. I had to force myself to come to class and often tried to find an excuse not to continue. I was devastated as I was far from being a new teacher. And yet, looking back, I think I have learned from this failure a lot. While I can blame it all on the students, I could have done a lot of things differently. I failed to establish a good connection with them. I failed to inspire them and to help them engage in science in a meaningful way. Since then, I spend lots of time early in the term to bring ALL my students on board. I think it was a very important failure for me – even though it was an extremely painful one…

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So coming back to my personal thinking about my own failures (I had many more of them). Today I am happy to say that failure is not a problem for me (after I let go of it, of my ego, and stop agonizing about it). A failure becomes a problem when this failure derails me and when I give up. I am proud to say that I didn’t give up on teaching the class that I failed then. I know how to do it better today. I have learned so far is that failures are necessary for doing something new, risky and uncertain, but these are the things that produce progress and help us become better than what we are now. Let us think how we can embrace failure and how we can use technology to help us and our students fail, get up and try it again and again till they succeed. I think Churchill’s quote I wrote as an epigraph to my post shows that I am not the only one who thinks so…


A beautiful image of one of the Lion’s Peaks in Vancouver taken by my husband. As mountaineers say: ASPIRE TO CLIMB AS HIGH AS YOU CAN DREAM… I think it should be adopted by educators as well…

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