Noble Failure

In my learning adventures I came across the simple phrase, “noble failure.”  In context, the phrase refers to allowing schools to experiment with new technologies and approaches; however, I believe the idea of “noble failure” to be much more profound.

There are many adages about failure–most of which involve Michael Jordan missing game-winning shots or Thomas Edison inventing a flop.  The reality for many of my students is that failure is terrifying and shameful.  As a result, students either content themselves in rote learning or refuse to try at all out of fear of failure.  Those students who are too disillusioned to give a strong effort end up failing the class nonetheless.  This failure, however, is masked by indifference.  Failing on purpose is not really failing, after all.  In this way, even many of the students who fail are too afraid to truly fail. (As a note, there are many aspects out of students’ control that can affect failure and perceptions of failure

It is this sense of raw, utter failure that I find so profound.  To fail nobly can be to sit down with one’s most sacredly held ambitions, address them head-on, and suffer defeat.  It can also be to put forth great effort in a task and get not be able to accomplish it.  Essentially, a noble failure is a failure in the face

For a scientist, noble failure might look like publishing a result only to have it refuted 5 years later.  For a teacher, a noble failure might be to design an interesting lesson and present it enthusiastically only to have it go poorly in class.  For a student, a noble failure is to try a problem, get stuck, and say to a peer, “Hey, I did this and this and got stuck with this.  What did you do?  What about this?”

This kind of failure sparks personal and intellectual growth.  This is the kind of failure that is promoted when talking about Michael Jordan or Thomas Edison.  The scientist reviews his work and refines his methods.  The teacher learns more about his students and revises the lesson for the future.  The student learns from his mistake and finds out just a little bit more about how the universe works.

Unfortunately, the education system often conflates noble failure with failure in general when assessing students and teachers.  I think that something fundamental needs to change in order to promote the kind of failure students and teachers need to grow.

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