Failing Forward

As we talk about the work underway in SE Wisconsin to personalize learning, people have lots of questions since it is a very new and different way of thinking about our education system. One of the questions we’ve heard recently was about our vision of getting learning right the first time, every time. The question was about the importance of struggle, and even failure, in learning – by saying we want to get learning right the first time, were we denying the benefits of struggle and failure as a part of learning? We emphatically replied absolutely not!

Struggling and even failing are natural and important aspects of building skills and growing in knowledge and understanding. Our vision is not about avoiding struggle or failure, but rather avoiding struggle and failure that get in the way of learning. In this context, struggling is about failing forward, like what a music student would go through while learning a new piece of music.

Music students are usually first introduced to a new piece in a large group (the band, orchestra, or choir) and initial attempts to play the music by the members are not usually very successful! Many mistakes are made, many notes are missed and the general feeling is sometimes more like a train wreck than a harmonious blending of sound – as anyone who has ever attended a 5th grade band concert can attest. However, the large group continues to practice together with the band director. Smaller groups of similar instruments will also get together to practice their individual parts and the band director will work with them and assess their proficiency, offering coaching and correction right away. Musicians also often practice individually to master especially difficult sections. Indeed, a musician may play a piece many, many times before feeling like they really “know” it. Over time, however, the piece begins to come together and eventually beautiful music is the result. The challenges and struggles in the early learning are not to be avoided – this is what solidifies the learning for the music student.

Now imagine a music student who is given a piece of music and told to learn it. Some initial instruction is given and the piece is played in band class for, say, a week. The student plays it to the best of their ability, but has no feedback about how they are doing and no correction for the sections they are not performing right. Then after a week, the band moves on to another piece and the cycle repeats. Toward the end of the semester, the band may review the pieces they’ve “learned” throughout the semester, but for those who were not able to master the piece initially, trying to unlearn and then re-learn is difficult at best and sometimes impossible. At the end of the semester, the band has a concert, their final exam, where they play all the pieces they have covered that semester. Some students will be able to play the pieces tolerably well, but many will not. Better bring the earplugs!

The premise of getting learning right the first time, every time, is about ensuring that every student is able to progress through school based on growing proficiency. As students engage in learning, the pace and level of instruction are set to provide significant challenge while also allowing the learner to remain confident of eventual success. Feedback is timely, specific and focused on the next steps toward mastery. If a learner develops a misconception, it is addressed and corrected before there is time for it to become a permanent perception or assumption. In this way, learners are able to leave their K-12 educational experience having mastered all of the key concepts and learning goals set before them, confident in their abilities and prepared for college and career.

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