Success and Failure in Higher Education

Douglas Thomas is a professor at the Iovine-Young Academy within USC. He has been USV’s commencement speaker and shares an appreciation for many of the influences at play here. This piece first appeared on his Medium blog.

I have been a professor at a major institution of higher learning for almost three decades. For the past three years, I have been incredibly fortunate to fall in with a group of academic misfits who, at least in broad terms, see the goals, functions, and purposes of education pretty much the same way I do. That is to say, we are there to mentor, guide, shape, and encourage learning — to provide resources to smart young students and then get out of their way.

That is what we tend to do for the most part. The Iovine-Young Academy program teaches “Art, Technology, and the Business of Innovation,” which has proven a bit of a moving target. In three years of teaching classes, we have fundamentally altered the curriculum three times. As much work as it is for us to do that it is also an incredibly stimulating academic challenge. Our program changes almost as fast the world does. In academia, that is saying something.

In many of the most forward thinking programs, Deans, Chairs, and teachers have adopted a new mantra, usually promoted aggressively with great gusto: Fail More! Fail Harder!

I think we need to re-calibrate our thinking about these kinds of ambitions. Because we don’t really mean it. Sure, it has a nice counter-intuitive, rhetorical effect, but when I am working with my students the only thing I consider a failure is when the student learns nothing. What I think people mean when they say “fail more” is experiment, explore, and play. What I think we ought to be saying instead is “Learn more!” because that is what we really mean.

Learning is often the result of mistakes, errors, experimentation, and exploration. We shouldn’t fear those things; we should embrace them. Learning is other things too: confusing, painful, challenging, exhilarating, joyful, and full of wonder.

I believe we are hard wired for it and that the impulse is so strong that it takes a full twelve years of primary education to beat it out of our students.

Framing learning as failure, while making for a great slogan, doesn’t give us much of a framework for education. Learning does.

As John Seely Brown and I have suggested elsewhere there are plenty of metaphors to embrace (culture, like a petri dish as opposed to what anthropologists study, and cultivation are two that we promoted in A New Culture of Learning) and there are a lot of ways we are experimenting with in the IYA to reshape education about innovation.

Reframing failure is only half of the picture.

One of the things I realized early on at IYA is that classroom are often not safe spaces to succeed either.

A couple of years ago, the students in the first year cohort were given an assignment to pitch a proposal to a major corporation. They had three weeks to work on it and due to a series of unfortunate events, our class did not meet between the time they were given the assignment and when they had to present it.

To deal with the problem, five of the students (in a class of 25) stepped up and put the presentation together. The pitched it and they knocked it out of the park.

During the following week, many of the other twenty students approached me, each of them worried that their grades would suffer because they weren’t the ones who presented. Mostly, they communicated their fear and anxiety by explaining how the students who did the presentation had excluded them or behaved in some way to disadvantage them.

The next class meeting, I began the class by explaining to them a simple principle. IYA is a place that is safe to succeed. The students who had done the work and delivered an exceptional presentation reflected well on themselves, on the class and on the program. I told the students who had felt left out that they needed to thank the students who stepped up, because they made everyone look good.

This is a pedagogical philosophy that flies in the face of almost everything we hold sacred about education: Individual responsibility and achievement, everyone doing equal work, rewards being granted to those who earn them.

My goal was quite different. I want those students to understand that their colleagues’ achievements are also their achievements. When we do well, we reflect on each other. When we begin to think this way, we become invested in the success of our teammates.

Seeing others succeed can breed resentment, jealousy, anger, even alienation. If you are shown that shared success is more powerful than individual success, you begin to see value in helping everyone around you become better. Their growth, improvement, and learning ultimately elevates the status of the group and with it, your own status.

It also challenges each and every student to ask themselves “How am I helping others? How am I making my teammates better?” and when everyone starts to think that way, learning begins to grow exponentially.

As I told the first year students in the IYA this year on the first day, I hope that over the next four years, I teach you nothing. I only hope that I can give you the tools, guidance, support, and encouragement you need to learn all you can to make the world a better place and to make your dreams come true.

So, let’s encourage our students to Learn more, Learn harder, and make our places of learning safe places to succeed, not fail.

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