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What It Means To Fail Forward

November 17, 2015

Master Teacher Guest Blog Series – Part 3: Fail Forward

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In today’s blog, Master Teacher Mitchell Smith describes how he ties together his personal failures, his professional failures, and the failures of science, into teachable moments for his students.


smithblogWhat mindset governs how you apply strategies to solve problems, react to setbacks, and work your way through challenges? This issue is not without plenty of research, anecdotes, advice, and literature. In fact, Trinity College Dublin’s Science Gallery featured the exhibit Fail Better that was conceived, designed, and created around the topic of failure.

Clearly, the notion of failure is a well-worn path. But what is the connection to me as an educator? I see this as a matter of mindset and culture. From where I sit, there are three lenses through which the causes and effects of failure can be viewed, sort of like a triune Venn Diagram with failure sitting smack-dab in the middle.

  • First, as an individual, I have personally experienced difficulty and failure and the dilemma of what to do in its aftermath.
  • Secondly, as a professional, I see the role of failure from my life of studies and my present role as an educator.
  • Thirdly, the field of science requires the vision to see how scientific discovery actually advances because of failures

Failure As an Individual

There are two key “failures” that I’d like to highlight from my personal life as part of this triune Venn Diagram.

I really struggled to make it through college and earn my degree. It took seven years to earn my five-year diploma, a B.S. in Biology with teaching endorsements. I withdrew twice due to lack of funds and went back to my parents’ home to work and save for tuition, fees, and living expenses. I am proud not only of my accomplishment but also of my unwavering commitment to my goal.

From the days of my youth, I have always preferred to be out of doors. While in Boy Scouts, I was introduced to mountaineering and climbed to Mt. Rainier’s 10,000’ base camp. Recently, I had planned and prepared to summit this Northwest icon but failed to do so for various reasons. In the aftermath of this disappointment, I took the opportunity to summit Mt. Adams (12,100’) instead. Do I feel like a failure since I did not reach the highest peak (14,410’)? Not at all! Mt. Adams represents the furthest point I have gone in mountaineering. One could even call my near summit of Rainier a success since I didn’t die trying. By any measure, I feel accomplished for not giving up.

Failure As a Professional

As an educator, my “professional failure” is one I’ll summon the courage to share here, in an educator’s blog:

I have always striven to hone and perfect my craft. During the year 2009-10 I, like many of my colleagues across the nation, embarked on the grueling process of earning the coveted National Board certificate. Guess what? I missed the threshold by 2 points! Talk about devastation. After a period of mourning and some choice words for those who graded my portfolios, I dusted myself off, went after it again, and earned those letters the following year.

Failures in Science

The September 2013 issue of National Geographic featured a spot-on article titled “Failure is an Option” that captures how I feel about failure in my niche of Science.  In it, Hannah Bloch opines that successes achieved by science and exploration depend on failure. Failure is not simply an occasional by-product but an essential component of “leaning into the unknown”. From ill-fated expeditions to the “failure parties” thrown by a pharmaceutical company, Bloch provides an overview of a large number of case studies featuring notable successes and failures.

Failure and Education – The Teachable Moments

smithblog2Most investigations fail in some manner. Science is not an encyclopedic venture. Rather, it is a way of knowing. Knowing what works and what doesn’t. Knowing how to fail less ingloriously the next time, muddling through. You can’t muddle in the box.

As a science educator, I see it as my job to break down students’ expectations of perfection and help them gain experience outside the box, help them to muddle.

To do this, I model grittiness from my own life for them to see. I share with them my prolonged college experience, my travails as a mountaineer, and my resilience in earning my board certification. Whenever possible, I provide the opportunity for them to learn about all the failures that preceded the successes upon which we build our understanding of Biology, helping them to realize that those we see as “geniuses” were really just exceptionally good a failing and trying again.

Furthermore, because much of student mindset flows from the instructor, so I am careful to establish and reinforce “failure” as a perfectly acceptable option in my class. From specific lessons that embody this philosophy, to ensuring that my grading policies align with the mantra of “failure is an option,” I create an environment where students feel comfortable taking risks and failing on their path to learning.

Mitchell Smith is a high school science teacher at Kentridge High School in Kent, Washington and is National Board Certified! An avid outdoorsman, Mitchell enjoys hiking, mountaineering, camping, canoeing, mountain biking, and running. To view all of Mitchell’s Biology lessons, please click here.

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