Monday, September 17, 2018

Cliff's Column on Productive Failure

Note from SY: I'm pleased to announce a new column on The IBL Blog by Cliff Bridges, CU Boulder. This column is going to focus on Cliff's perspectives on productive failure and messages to students. Please share with your students and colleagues! Turning you over to Cliff!


I’m Cliff Bridges, long time math PhD student, first time blogger. I’m here to talk about my experience as a mathematician. The “my experience” part is really the crux of this idea, not the math involved. The math is really just a launching point where lots of folks can grab on and enjoy the ride. I am using “lots” and “enjoy” pretty loosely here… I don’t know how many math folks there are who read blogs, and the ride on which I plan to bring you is pothole-ridden and the only pit stops are on dimly lit backroads. And the background music from “Jaws” is playing. And your cell phone battery is on 1%. But let me get to the point…

Cliff Bridges

This column is intended primarily for math students. As a student, I haven’t felt encouraged to think about my experiences as a mathematician, but rather to focus on the math and assume that the rest will work itself out. But the rest, the interactions with colleagues, the personal doubt, the institutional practices, did not always work itself out. For that matter, that math didn’t always work itself out either! I hope the reflection in this and future posts can reach students and provide the encouragement to sit with their experiences in both math and the rest.

I’ve experienced a lot of failures in my math career. This is a phrase I hear a lot, but I rarely hear details about what those math failures are. This vague sense of “everybody fails, just try and try again” makes it hard for me to relate to any one person’s experience. And that makes it hard to identify how much struggle should be expected on the path to success and how much is too much. Well, this column will be about the details of these struggles, failures, and how I or others get through them. This is my service to the readers: to provide an example of the emotional turmoil failure can instigate in a person, and show how one person identifies this turmoil and works through it. To be very clear, this column will focus on the stumbles through paths to success, not the success itself. To be less clear, this is like an opposite Facebook.

Before I really begin with my stories, I want to do a bit of hedging. If you ask any of the people who know me best, they would be shocked that I am writing about my emotions. Delving into my emotional content is a new practice for me, but it is something I am very interested in. And I’m excited to go through this learning process with all you!

Okay, now for an explanation of how I arrived at the conclusion about writing about failure. I participated in a summer Inquiry Based Learning workshop a few summers ago, and really latched on to the ideas presented there. I had already tried to encourage student engagement in my classroom, but maybe I didn’t have the right verbiage to be able to convince others, or even myself, that IBL was definitely the way I wanted to frame my courses. In any case, this workshop gave me the tools and data to back up my decisions about my teaching philosophy.

That fall, returning to my campus to teach in a newly invigorated way, I focused on the idea of “Productive Failure”. I hear that in the business world this is called “failing up” or “failing forward”, but the idea is the same: to use one’s mistakes as building blocks for a future success. To me, the idea sounds lovely! I can tell myself that I’ve never really failed, I’ve just discovered what my goal should have been from the start. This always reminds me of that one line in the song “She’s Always a Woman” by Billy Joel. My students, however, seemed to focus on the underlying structure of this idea: failure.

Failure is hard. I don’t want to downplay that. For my students, failure means you have to take the class again, and in college you have to pay for that. There are harsh ramifications of failure. But there are imaginary ramifications as well: failure means your friends will banish and unfollow you from twitter, or Santa will leave coal for you instead of a present. Okay, hopefully these ramifications sound a bit outlandish, but the feelings associated with them are very real and therefore just as harsh. Many of my students honestly believe that failing means they are somehow less deserving of good things. I have had a student tell me straight to my face that their parent would love them less if they failed! With a little coaxing that student dropped the idea as just fearful thinking, but a switch had already been flipped in my mind: I have to get students through the idea of failure in order to get to the idea of productive failure. Blogging about my failures is the best idea I have had that might help students prepare for the emotional expenditure of failing. So here I am, inviting students to walk with me through my failures so that when they face failures alone, the journey may seem less daunting.

Hopefully my students will be able to get something from this blog. They might see for the first time a teacher admit to not knowing everything, which might give courage to pursue teaching. Or mathematics. Or just a life where they aren’t afraid of getting something wrong. Maybe a fellow graduate student will get something from this blog. They’ll read the blog and decide that “it” is worth one more shot. Maybe “it” is their degree. Maybe “it” is just one more job application. I don’t know who will get something out of this blog, but I bet a lot of people can get something out of it. We all fail and none of us fails gracefully every time, but bringing this productive failure idea into everyday conversation might make the prospect of failing a little less scary.