Preparing our students to ‘fail forward’

Story written by Fanny Passeport

As part of the Minor “Future Learning with Technology”, designed and delivered by us, at ErasmusX, we conducted a resiliency workshop for students to embrace a Failing Forward attitude. We prepared students to take risks, embrace failure when it comes, and how to bounce back. This helped capturing essential lessons and acknowledging the opportunities that challenging experiences and setbacks can offer.

Why is this important?

We believe that when students take risks in their learning and are able to recover quickly from what we might call ‘failures’, they are better able to persevere and learn at a deeper level.

This is the second consecutive year that we have been leading this Minor at the Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). We challenge the status quo by pushing students to focus on the learning process (through many low-stake assessments along the way) rather than checking off rubric criteria at the end of the course. We know from research on self-efficacy (Bandura, 1986) and motivation (Ryan and Deci, 2017) that students may become performance-avoidant when we focus too much on the outcome. Since this Minor relies heavily on the Design Thinking process, failing is embedded and expected in the process of learning! We created an environment where students identify problems, analyze them and create solutions. The design of the course and its facilitation causes them to take action, reflect on experiences and respond by planning the next steps.

Our team of coaches (that refers to the course teachers/instructors) have been learning from experience, observation, and feedback. We noticed that students found it hard to throw themselves into the unexpected, to engage in trial-and-error processes, to receive feedback constructively and to dare greatly and fail gloriously! Sometimes, students experience being out of their comfort zone as a really challenging place to be in and would rather avoid it or give up easily. They may also be intimidated by the success of others, which threatens their ego, leading them to simply disregard the potential gains coming out of learning moments. They may be stuck in what Dweck (2012) refers to as the fixed mindset. It also relates to building the inner belief that we are capable, can draw from our internal locus of control and can recover quickly from failure while also enjoying the learning experience. So we decided to be explicit about failure and resiliency, by leading a workshop to set the stage for a safe social and emotional environment fostering the climate for deeper learning.

How did our workshop address this?

During the workshop, we started by going inward and asking students to connect with the topic of resiliency and slowly shift their perspective to the one of someone else experiencing failure. Through visual prompts and thinking routines, we enabled students to reflect on their prior knowledge, their fears and their hopes.

We also paused to characterize what might cause us to freeze, fly or fight, by exploring how our brain causes these reactions. Being able to notice these moments of ‘stress’ and tackling them by pausing, breathing, or using other strategies to calm and access our rational brain (pre-frontal cortex), allows us to experience failure as a low-stake moment and bounce back fast, by relying on rational thinking.

The workshop also included a concrete activity that allowed students to experience failure in a collaborative environment by attempting to recreate an elaborate painting (such as the Mona Lisa) within an absurdly limited amount of time (just 10 minutes) in a digital environment (such as Miro).

The goal of the activity is to set up an objective for the students that is impossible to complete to perfection within the parameters, but that will still provide a fun experience and show interesting results.

Hopefully, the images can speak for themselves:

The Mona Lisa’s from each of the student teams
Detail of team 3's Mona Lisa

Finally, students reflected on both the learning process and the drawing they created as a collaborative product (against the impossible expectation set by Da Vinci).

What did we learn?

Through the various learning moments during the workshop, students articulated coping strategies but also emotional states in which one might feel when faced with challenges. Some of the takeaways mentioned are summarized into the following essential points:

  • The need to suspend our judgment (of ourselves and of others).
  • The necessity to resist the impossible standards of perfectionism.
  • The importance of acknowledging and striving to regulate emotions in the face of challenge (for example, some strategies for such stress reduction may include mindfulness exercises).
  • The positive contribution of belongingness and gaining support from others to cope.
  • Adopting a strengths-based approach that elevates others and focuses on the ‘can dos’.
  • Goal setting as a practice of moving from awareness to action.
  • Considering humor as a valid strategy to cope with uncertainty.
  • Adopting self-compassion by being our best friend, coming out of ourselves and being gentler with ourselves, as we would to a friend.

We also discussed the fact that we are not equal when it comes to resiliency. Therefore, we need to avoid the trap of ‘toxic positivity’ whereby we might oversimplify the issue of resiliency with a ‘be positive’ statement. We need to recognize that we cannot control our circumstances; however, we can influence a lot more than we might think. This influence may come in the form of optimism, widening our repertoire of strategies, reframing challenges into learning opportunities. All these relate to ways that we can grow our Emotional Intelligence (Goleman, 1995).

As we continue to reflect and improve our approach to further impact student learning, we have identified some key ingredients for creating an optimal environment for students to fail forward. These do not require fancy budgets, but rather the authentic desire to make a positive difference in the lives of our students:

  • The importance of a safe social and emotional space: being intentionally inviting, having a non-anxious presence and trusting our students by releasing more control to them.
  • Supporting autonomy: listening actively, giving choices, providing a rationale, and being flexible about the learning process and the way we assess learning.
  • Decreasing emphasis on compliance and competition, and valuing creativity and collaboration instead.
  • Encouraging (internal locus of control) instead of praising (ego-involving) to motivate students to take action.
  • Limiting the focus on speed and the right answer as those may be poor measures of learning and instead, celebrating risk-taking, questions and diverse perspectives.
  • Pausing, paraphrasing and asking questions rather than giving out the answers and over-supporting students, depriving them of the gift of learning. This means that we need to let students fail and resist the temptation to control and manage all instructional elements.

Join us! Spread the failing forward mindset!

So, what do you say? Do you think that you, your students and/or your colleagues might benefit from a Failing Forward Workshop? We would love to support you in spreading this message and empowering more people to drive their learning and build the resiliency skills that are most needed within and beyond the boundaries of the university.

Feel free to reach out to us to discuss some of the opportunities: info.erasmusx@eur.nl!

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