Do you make space for yourself to fail?

Michael Jordan

This question has been echoing about in my mind in one form or another for the past year. Generally, it’s directed at online testing, but I’ve recently pointed it toward teaching because I suspect that if learning from failure is helpful for students, teachers could benefit from a space dedicated to failure within their classes.


Michael Jordan is the GOAT, no matter what Sam Flores may say about Lebron, and the one statement that most clearly articulates the attitude that won six championships in eight years – two three-peats separated by the years 1994 and 1995 – is:


I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.

When I played basketball, I liked this attitude because it justified my shooting guard mantra quite conveniently: shoot until you miss; shoot until you make it. I’ve found a similar mindset in education with the “testing to learn” concept. Ask me about “leveling up,” and you’ll hear me advocating for unlimited testing attempts for level one quizzes. “It’s like a video game,” I’ll insist.


But what about us as teachers? I’m beginning to think that if all my learning objectives are attainable I’m being too safe. Sure, have several or even most attainable, but why not set an objective or two that are especially difficult or even impossible for the simple purpose of seeing how close we as a class can get to it? Am I robbing my students of an incredible learning opportunity by contenting myself with attainable learning objectives?




These thoughts are riding the coattails of personal reflections about what success and failure mean as a middle-aged man. Particularly haunting is James Veronesi’s insistence that “Contrary to common wisdom success and failure are not such clear-cut issues” (152). Admittedly, I may be encountering some sort of identity crisis, but that doesn’t keep me from asking what a “failure space” may look like for me as an instructor. Take Jordan’s phrase “game-winning shot” as an example: what would that look like as a learning objective? What would it look like to miss? To sink it? In no way am I condoning careless or reckless teaching but rather provoking us to think of ways that we might reimagine the purpose of learning objectives. If Veronesi is correct, how might we as educators improve our classroom experiences by creating spaces for us to “fail [in order] to succeed”?


If anything, thinking about constructive failure has pushed me to see that objectives, while giving us a goal to direct our efforts, are also boundaries that can inhibit learning. Thus, I think that if we are willing to push out the walls of our current use of the term “learning objective” that functions as a boundary marker, we might find the freedom as students and teachers to—safely and pedagogically—surpass our own expectations. Who knows what we’ll learn then!


Veronesi, J.F., 2010. Failing to Succeed. Home Health Care Management & Practice22(2), pp.151-153.

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