Failing Forward: 21 Ideas To Help Students Keep Their Momentum
by Terry Heick
“Failing Forward” is a relatively recent entry into our cultural lexicon–at least as far has headlines go anyway–that has utility for students and teachers.
Popularized from the book of the same name, the idea behind failing forward is to see failing as a part of success rather than its opposite. Provided we keep moving and pushing and trying and reflecting, failure should, assuming we’re thinking clearly, lead to progress, So rather than failing and falling back, we fail forward. Tidy little metaphor.
So what might this look like in your classroom?
Failing Forward In The Classroom: 21 Ideas To Help Students Keep Their Momentum
1. Design iterative work (i.e., work that deserves and is conducive to revision and iteration)
How does this promote failing forward? If there’s no stopping point, then mistakes are simply opportunities.
Say: “Your design work on the app blueprint is coming along nicely. Awesome job using the feedback from the subreddit you got the idea from.”
2. Use project-based learning
How does this promote failing forward? Not only does PBL encourage iteration, but it also reduces the snapshot effect of academic assessment, where stakes are high, errors are costly, and there is almost always a right and wrong answer.
Say: “Your first two drafts didn’t work so well, huh? What can you take from each of them–what’s salvageable and what’s not?”
3. Help students publish their thinking
How does this promote failing forward? This helps mistakes become a matter of transaction between the student and their audience, i.e., the writer and the reader.
Say: “How did your audience respond to your ideas? Based on that, as data, how might you respond?”
4. Connect students with communities
How does this promote failing forward? In the classroom, students are motivated by performance and image; in a community–assuming it’s one the student cares about–they are motivated by the effect of the work and an identity that’s crafted over time. Or they should be anyway, depending on the nature of the connection with the community.
5. Develop a grading system that suggests it
How does this promote failing forward? Good old-fashioned extrinsic motivation. So give them points for correcting mistakes instead of not making them to begin with.
Say: “This essay was well-conceived; loved the clear purpose here, so you got full points for your initial execution. For the remaining points, you’ll now need to go back and revise this and edit that and that.”
6. Recognize it with badges, feedback, and celebration
How does this promote failing forward? As with #5, you don’t just claim to embrace mistakes, you provide instant feedback for it as a good thing with some kind of gamification, or merely a genuine one-on-one conversation with the student.
Say: “I was especially proud of the way you revisited this problem and found a better solution; you’ve now unlocked this achievement.”
7. Consider a no-zero policy (i.e., don’t “allow” zeroes as a team, grade level, or department)
How does this promote failing forward? When you insist that every assignment has to be completed by every student regardless of circumstance, you send a powerful message that all work is important. So A) Make sure the work they do is, in fact, worth their time, but B) Let them know through a well thought-out no-zero policy that failing to turn in an assignment isn’t the end of anything, nor will it simply become a mathematical effect on their grade.
8. Use Habits of Mind
How does this promote failing forward? Habits of Mind promote non-academic priorities that are hugely personal, and, once internalized by the student, valuable in and out of the classroom.
9. Help students practice metacognition
How does this promote failing forward? The more than can monitor their own thinking and performance, the more flexible they have a chance to be in real-time while doing the work to begin with, especially when you’re not around.
Say: “When you got to this point in the design process, what was your main focus?”
How does this promote failing forward? You, as a professional, are modeling the humility and perseverance it takes to fail forward.
Say: “I created this test to help me understand what you understand, but I messed up; it doesn’t do that very well. In fact, it’s confused both you and me, and now I have to figure out how to respond.”
11. Study failure (often by those with “street cred” for students)
How does this promote failing forward? See #10, only this time it’s someone outside the classroom, so it has a chance for a different kind of credibility.
Say: “In 1895 when Nikola Tesla’s lab burned and he lost many of his notes and much of his equipment, he could’ve rested on his reputation and gotten a cushy job working for someone else. Instead…”
12. Require students to revise all incomplete work (and it’s “Incomplete” if it’s not proficient)
How does this promote failing forward? This is a similar to a no-zero policy–all work needs to demonstrate a certain level of quality, or it needs to be improved.
Say: “This is so close to representing what you’re able to do. How can we take this and use it to push further?”
13. Grade for 2 or 3 prioritized ideas, not 10
How does this promote failing forward? Oftentimes, those students in need of the most help have the most to improve upon/recover from after feedback and grading. Keep it simply. Grade in stages, or better yet, personalize the grading for that student.
14. Help them be their own best critic (not worst)
How does this promote failing forward? If you can help them, in fact, become their own best critic, they’ll hold themselves to a higher standard than you ever could. but from a position of possibility, not judgment.
15. Have a crystal-clear grading policy that is knowledge and experimentation-friendly, rather than closed and risk-averse
How does this promote failing forward? By studying your grading system, you can be more certain what it “encourages.” By sharing it with others, you can get their feedback, revise it until it encourages what you’d like it to, and then make sure students understand how they’re being graded and why.
16. Have a short memory as a teacher if it benefits learners
How does this promote failing forward? Mistakes should be temporary; students can’t have a growth mindset if their learning leader holds grudges.
17. Help students create and use checklists
How does this promote failing forward? This one more protects the student from that initial failure than helps them respond after they do.
Say: “This checklist should help you as you begin planning your project. If it doesn’t, let’s revise it until it does.”
18. This one isn’t simple, but differentiate or personalize learning
How does this promote failing forward? The more just enough, just in time, just for me it is, the more it can suggest true ownership by students–and ownership can lead to pride, pride to grit and affection and improvement.
19. Gamify your classroom by highlighting the process and nuance of student performance
How does this promote failing forward? The more visible the process of failure and recovery are, the more “failure literature” students can be, and the better they’ll be able to duplicate the failure-recovery process on their own.
20. Emphasizing iteration and progress over finishing and completion
How does this promote failing forward? Like #1, this focuses on learning as a process; unlike #1, this has less to do with how you design the work, and more with how students see the work you’ve already planned and how they approach it. (#19 can come in handy here as well.)
21. Every student has their own goals, sensitivities, and insecurities. As much as you can, honor that
How does this promote failing forward?
Say: “You’re one of the most creative students I’ve ever met with extraordinary potential. With that in mind, I’ve developed a unique grading system for you this 9 weeks to see if we can’t use all that talent.”
Failing Forward: 21 Ideas To Help Students Keep Their Momentum