It was one of those moments that, as teachers, we all dread. In fact, I’ve had nightmares about this very instance. I’m standing in front of a group of people and I’m speechless. I have nothing to say. They are looking at me, I at them, and…nothing.
This incident happened a couple of summers ago. I was an instructional coach at a large urban high school in Washington State, working with a small group of eight teachers to fine-tune a presentation on the state’s new teacher evaluation system in preparation for its rollout to the rest of the faculty. I presented the material just as it had been presented to me, but none of this was resonating. I lacked the depth of knowledge on the evaluation system to be able to come at the subject in different ways and I could feel the frustration level rise in the room. One teacher actually threw her hands up and said, “You are going to have to just tell us what to do.”
After taking a short break to regroup, I asked for ideas on how to move forward. If the topic were producing this much anxiety in a group of eight, just think of how it would look in a group of eighty. If my approach wasn’t working, I asked, how might we change it so that it did work for our full faculty? After batting the question back and forth a bit, one of our veteran teachers spoke up: “You aren’t giving us an entry point. You are starting with a lot of state-mandated policy that is making us feel more powerless than we are. The entry point should be something we have some control over.”
“Start with assessment tasks,” she added, “something our teachers understand, and move on from there.” As she said this, the room nodded in unison. She had hit on something. The new evaluation system, with its heavy emphasis on student achievement, hinged on a teacher’s ability to measure and report student growth using existing assessment practices. By linking it to something teachers already used in the classroom, we had found our way forward. The ensuing presentation to the full faculty went off without a hitch and much of the feedback from teachers thanked us for being responsive to their professional needs.
The planning meeting had ultimately been a success, but I was troubled by my own performance. My carefully constructed agenda for the meeting had been shredded. Worse, I had momentarily frozen. I had failed very publically and I was worried that, in some way, my credibility as a coach, as a leader, had been diminished. But in subsequent conversations with the planning group, I detected no negative effects. In fact, they seemed to warm up when we talked about the meeting and the way we had solved the problem. It struck me that maybe the incident hadn’t diminished my expertise; it had, instead, humanized me. I had allowed myself to say, “I don’t have the answer” and had, albeit unwittingly, modeled being fallible in a way that allowed for our eventual success and in a way that could work for any teacher in any classroom.
This vignette from our work in the field illustrates an interesting attitude we have, as educators, about failure. In education failure is often viewed as a deficit, embarrassing and to be avoided at all costs. Yet, in so many other contexts failure is key to success. We all know of many famous people whose fame is a product of a series of repeated failures, like Thomas Edison who struggled through 100 tries before he created the light bulb. In April 2011 the Harvard Business Review even devoted an entire issue to failure with articles that promoted the relationship of failure to learning, suggesting that it is critical to (1) understand failure; (2) learn from failure; and (3) recover from failure. Tony Wagner detailed the relationship of failure to innovation in his research on young people who changed the world; without failure, many of today’s innovations would not exist (Wagner, 2012). In education too, failure has the potential to transform learning and teaching and yet, as we ourselves experienced, failure is to be avoided.
To be sure, we are talking about a particular kind of failure here. This is failure writ small, the minor failures and mistakes that happen naturally in the context of larger, hopefully successful initiatives. This is different from failure writ large, which has real consequences. For those of us who work in high-poverty, high-needs environments, large-scale failure has catastrophic effects on our students, who, as a consequence of failed policies and initiatives in their schools, run the risk of dropping out of school and, as statistics tell us, stand a good chance of winding up in jail. But we shouldn’t confuse this failure writ large with the small-bore mistakes and failures that occur naturally on the way to getting right something as complex and varied as education.
Traditionally, educators are expected to be experts in their field. But what does that expertise look like? Over the past few decades a more specific notion of the expert teacher has surfaced. Thanks to thinkers like Lee Shulman (2004) and Deborah Ball we know that in order to be effective in the classroom, teachers must be good in multiple areas. They should possess expert skills and knowledge not only in the content that their students must know, but also in the ways that content is taught to students (Ball, Thames, & Phelps, 2008). As well, there is the national reform context to think about that mandates the inclusion of student growth measures in teacher evaluation systems. Teachers are being asked to improve their practice beyond “delivering instruction;” they now have responsibility for student growth against measurable achievement targets. What was previously implied has now become explicit—and with stakes attached.
The changing definitions of teacher expertise coupled with the nationwide push to include demonstrations of student growth beg a shift in how educators and others view teacher development. Effective professional learning for teachers will have to center on what Doug Lemov described as “development strategies” that focus on making teachers better at their craft—as opposed to hiring and firing or incentivizing to try to force teachers to better performance. This means shifting educator trainings from showing teachers how to do things the “right way” to creating opportunities for educators to be researchers into their practice, embracing the ebb and flow of trial and error. By expecting teachers to take risks and guiding them to learn from their failures, creative and innovative teaching practices will be uncovered, explored, used, and refined.
And this is the crux of our argument: in order to get better, mistakes will be made. It seems almost silly to mention, but schools are places of learning. And learning is messy—it’s within that messiness that we learn and grow. So what might it look like for us, as educators, to get comfortable with failure—and even embrace it?
Carol Dweck’s research on fixed and growth mindsets sheds interesting light on fear of failure. Through her observations of children, she discovered that learners who were constantly told they were smart were more likely to pursue only achievable performance goals, goals that preserved their self-image as smart. On the other hand, learners who were told that they made great effort or tried hard were more likely to take on ever greater challenges and learn from their mistakes, seeing mistakes as an opportunity to learn and improve (Kakovsky, 2007). Unfortunately, the pressures put on teachers by local and national mandates sometimes feeds back to them a perceived expectation to know it, do it well, and “be smart.” As a result we see many teachers who inadvertently take on what resembles fixed mindsets. What education needs though is quite the opposite. Needed are teachers who are oriented towards growth, who will try things, will learn from what they tried and try again, wiser in pursuit of excellence.
We argue that the intentional act of learning from mistakes should be a constant feature of professional learning. Practice itself is predicated on the notion that mistakes and small failures drive learning and move anyone’s performance forward. Just as a dancer practices a difficult muscle extension to make it seem effortless or a musician works to master a difficult musical passage, teachers should be able to work out complex ideas and techniques in ways that improve each iteration. In the opening vignette we were, in a very real sense, practicing – rehearsing for a bigger performance in front of a larger group. As we surfaced our mistake, the feedback that followed provided the clarity we needed to find success in that larger performance. A musician hears the mistake in a recording or a teacher is questioned by colleagues about why he made a particular teaching move. These are the moments when the greatest learning occurs.
So how do we truly harness the power of learning from mistakes to transform the learning experience for adults and the students whom they serve? How do educators learn to embrace small failures and the role those failures play in an overall drive for success? How might schools and districts nurture risk-taking and the fostering of a growth mindset as a cultural norm, as a strategy for improvement? These are important questions to consider, particularly when asked in the context of an education environment that emphasizes evaluation-based accountability, often at the expense of teacher learning.
Even under the best of circumstances, taking risks and embracing failure is not for the faint of heart. Making public one’s uncertainties takes courage. But more than that, it takes a supportive culture—a high trust culture that doesn’t shame people for failing but rather celebrates their learning and growth. Lemov, Woolway and Yezzi (2012) note that organizational culture needs to embody the notion that error and success are intertwined. They say it’s important to “normalize error:”
An organization has to help its people realize that failure rate and level of skill are independent variables; it has to help them feel comfortable exposing their weaknesses to their peers so they can help them improve; it has to make them feel trust and even joy, not only to practice but to do so with others (p. 144).
When we begin our work with schools and teachers, one of the first things we explore is the level of trust that exists in the culture. It is essential that it be focused on a professional learning environment that prizes trust, respect, collegial dialogue and feedback in service of getting better. In a school where there exists a high incidence of welcome constructive feedback from peers and conversations around great teaching are seen as normal everyday occurrences, there is a strong basis for this norming of error and of mistakes. Where we see these conditions, such as those detailed below, we see schools that have made bold shifts in the way they understand and approach adult learning.
At Jewell Elementary School in Aurora, Colorado, Principal Lewis and her instructional leadership team selected inquiry learning as their primary improvement strategy. With this shift in focus came a commitment that adults would experience inquiry-based professional development. Understanding inquiry to be a new concept for her staff, Lewis recognized that she would be asking her teachers to step out of their comfort zones by taking some professional risks. Lewis now starts every professional development meeting with highlights from teachers who are trying new things with their students, sharing their successes and the experiences that were not successful, and any adjustments they may make for the future. Celebrating the learning that occurs from taking risks helps stoke the fire for individual and collective growth mindsets at Jewell.
In Northern California, Chico Unified School District secondary teachers are researching the level of authentic intellectual work that occurs for students in their classrooms. Teachers collaborate around a set of teaching standards that serve as a guide for examining their own practice. Teachers, working alongside their colleagues, instructional coaches, and administrators, use protocols to put their work on the table for feedback on evidence of rigor and relevance in their academic tasks and instructional design. They use the feedback to tune their tasks and refine their practice. What these CUSD teachers have come to understand and value through this process is the importance of making transparent their own questions and challenges about powerful instruction with others. They have found that being “safely vulnerable” is where they get the most traction. CUSD is learning that evaluation doesn’t grow practice. Rather, opportunities for educators to give and receive collaborative feedback have the greatest impact on instructional effectiveness and student learning.
Middle school teachers in an urban district in Northwest WA participate in “studio” classrooms, a professional learning structure similar to lesson study. The district’s evaluation framework provides the language and focus, guiding conversations about mastery teaching. An important component of the process is direct observation. Teachers observe the interaction of teaching and learning in a colleague’s classroom. Following the observation, the presenting teacher, who worked with colleagues on a framing question before the demonstration lesson, is given feedback by colleagues related to that framing question. Their high-trust culture that “normalizes error” is a crucial factor for the presenting teacher here, as the feedback can center on mistakes, miscues, or errors that occurred during the demonstration lesson. If feedback that notes error is not tightly linked to improved teaching practices on the road to mastery, the participating teacher cannot respond to the feedback in ways that moves his or her teaching forward.
While these examples describe practices that promote high-trust environments, the American school norm has been to administer and interpret teacher evaluations and other external mandates through a decidedly fixed mindset, often resulting in risk-adverse, compliance-based (and low-trust) work cultures. In districts such as these, however, we have also witnessed small working groups of teachers create their own high-trust environments, embracing risk and trial and error as means of getting better at their practice. These early adopters often start crucial conversations between teachers—and with administrators—about real paths to improvement that enable a growth mindset for all educators in a building.
No matter the context, it’s time we change our perception of small failures and errors to see them for what that really are: steps, within a series of steps, that lead through the thorny paths of real improvement in institutions and organizations. Using the clarity created by failure to reflect and revise one’s practice is ultimately how educators will reinvent their craft. Finding and learning from failure is, paradoxically, respectful to the profession. It engages teachers with their learning selves. It liberates teachers, taking them beyond the ethos of “just tell us what to do” to become more self-directed educators who are reflective about their practice in a very authentic way. It shifts thinking from that of static compliance to one of growth and discovery. It is the stuff of reinvention and innovation. It is what school is all about: learning.
Ball, D.L., Thames, M.H., & Phelps, G. (2008). Content knowledge for teaching: What makes it special? Journal of Teacher Education, 59, 389-407.
Kakovsky, M. (2007). The effort effect. Stanford Magazine.
Lemov, D. (2013). From “professional development” to “practice”: Getting better at getting better.” Pathway to Success For Milwaukee Schools: A Project of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.
Lemov, D., Woolway, E., & Yezzi, K. (2012). Practice perfect: 42 rules for getting better at getting better. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Shulman, L.S. (2004). The Wisdom of Practice: Essays on Teaching, Learning, and Learning to Teach. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
Wagner, T. (2012). Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world. New York, NY: Scribner.