fall flat on your face please (from time to time)

strategic dono cc shannoninottawa on flickr

strategic dono cc shannoninottawa on flickr

So, I want you to think back to your most recent moment of failure.  I don’t mean your inability to defeat theme 3 level 17 in Angry Birds.  Unless you were playing on the big screen at a stadium in front of scores of onlookers, many of whom could whip you soundly.  I am talking about a failure that is out there – like face planting off your buddy’s unicycle in front of the neighbourhood children at a street bbq.  The type of fail that, if captured on video, would easily garner epic status on fail blog.  Got it?  At the time, did you wish you could vanish into thin air?

I bet you can chuckle about it now though.  Maybe you even learned a thing or two about yourself through the experience.

Last summer I experienced several moments of failure as I learned to windsurf.

One afternoon I caught some wind and before I realized it,   I was out past the drop and the water was too deep to walk the board back to shore.  Smack! I dropped the sail and hurtled headfirst into the water behind it.  Scanning the shoreline, I saw several folks at neighbouring cottages sitting by the water, no doubt enjoying the entertainment, refreshments in hand.  On our own dock sat my two loving children waving gleefully and giving me the “thumbs-up!” sign.  Thank goodness for unwavering support!

I honestly wanted to cry.  I spent the next 40 minutes struggling to get myself back to shore, falling over and over.  Over the course of that time, I realized that my experience was not unlike that of students who struggle in their learning.   I didn’t like the experience at first, but something in it — possibly the mere distance between myself and the shore — motivated me to dig deep and commit to the achieving some level of mastery, which, according to Daniel Pink, is one of the three elements of genuine motivation.  It also provided me with a fresh perspective on the role of struggle and failure in learning.  As educators, I think it is important to fall flat on our faces from time to time.

If you’ve never failed …

Pam Fitzgerald, trustee with the OCDSB, shared this video with me earlier this week.  Viewed 1.5 million times on youtube and shared extensively across twitter and facebook, it asks us to consider the role of failure and struggle in our lives.  I like the feel-good message.  And, I think that students need to struggle and fail from time to time.  I worry that we take away too many opportunities for our students to develop the resilience, adaptability and resourcefulness skills that they need to navigate our current information-rich world when we guide them through their learning and employ on the “gradual release of responsibility” model excessively.  Too often it is overly gradual and we don’t spend quality time developing collaboration and independence.

If we don’t let go …

I’m not suggesting that the gradual release model has no place in learning, but I wonder if we haven’t fallen into the mistaken belief that it should be employed across all areas of the curriculum.  What can we do to provide an environment where struggle is valued and failure is a learning experience, where students come to collaboration through a genuine need to connect with others and learn with them?  I’m talking about a learning space where fun and discovery go hand in hand with inquiry, critical thinking and collaboration.  What conditions need to be present to make struggle enjoyable and failure motivating?

Thinking about play and inquiry has dove-tailed recently with a project that has me thinking about games in education and what we can learn from our students’ experiences with gaming.  I will end with sharing two blog posts that have me thinking for a future post: @melaniemcbride “Gamification, Gaming, Edugames:  Keeping it Real” and @cleanapple “What teachers can learn from video games:  Gaming is a literacy”.  I would love to hear your thoughts and / or recommendations for further reading with regards to struggle, motivation and learning.