Rethinking Failure in Competency-Based Education

Failure, in one way or another, can seem unavoidable. The experience can take on different meanings for each of us, but the fear behind it is something we all share. Recently I watched a Ted talk from Diana Laufenberg. She’s an 11th grade American History teacher in Wisconsin. Diana passionately explains in her ten-minute talk that it doesn’t make sense to tell students that they should never be wrong when so much can be learned from failure. She makes a strong case when she says that failure is a key part of the learning process in today’s education landscape. Students need to be allowed to fail, process, and learn from their experiences.

After watching Diana’s talk, I reflected on my own experiences with failure during my high school education. Yes, I had done badly on several occasions, but more importantly, I don’t recall learning anything from these failures. Typically, they were viewed simply as poor performances. A teacher simply attached a grade, and the course continued, regardless of whether I had mastered any of the material. That culture created a fear of failure and a sense of indifference to learning in me rather than my embracing and learning from my poor performances. If I failed, there was no going back. Perseverance, a stepping-stone for success, wasn’t necessary because it wasn’t practiced in the classroom.

It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure. – Bill Gates

Ed-tech innovators are now shifting this old paradigm. In a competency-based system, failure, which is no longer stigmatized in traditional ways, becomes an acceptable part of the students’ learning process. Failure is no longer considered an outcome but a process or path students take. This style of thinking completely changes how students view their own academic failures. Poor performance is not a permanent or shameful situation anymore. Such thinking mirrors the world beyond conventional education where persistence after failure is valuable because, through repetition and refinement, learning and growth happen.

As students progress through Hekademia’s Adaptive Competency eLearning (ACe) course model, sub-standard performances become learning opportunities as students work to master specific competencies. If one learning attempt isn’t successful, the student shifts pathways until he or she achieves mastery, no matter how many attempts it takes. Failure no longer becomes the final outcome, and perseverance is an ongoing part of the process in the virtual or blended classroom. Such innovative thinking enables students to develop at their individual rates, to learn to appreciate the subject in ways that would not have happened if they had been initially frustrated and held back indefinitely by the content under study.

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently. – Henry Ford

The whole concept of persistence through failure can sound like a cliche, but continuing despite setbacks is an inevitable part of the process for successful people. This is an exciting time in which to be a student as competency-based education brings about this cultural shift. Just thinking about such changes and opportunities makes me envious because I realize how better prepared for success these students will be.

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