Learning to Fail

Former high school teacher Tony Wagner says drilling facts into the heads of students is old school. What they need to learn is how to fail.We may be short-changing today's students by not letting them fail, says Tony Wagner, a former high school teacher who now focuses on innovation in education.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's puts Wagner's message another way — we need to move beyond teaching students skills to get a job and prepare them to invent their own job.

Teaching students to become the next Steve Jobs is a tall order. "Few young people will become brilliant innovators like Steve Jobs," concedes Wagner. "But most can be taught the skills needed to become more innovative in whatever they do."

Trial and error, a tried-and-true hallmark of success, isn't on most school curriculums, Wagner claims. "In most high school and college classes, failure is penalized," he says. "But without trial and error, there is no innovation." Wagner points to Amanda Alonzo, who teaches at a San Jose, California high school and has mentored two Intel Science Prize finalists and 10 semifinalists. Alonzo says, "One of the most important things I have to teach my students is that when you fail, you are learning."

Wagner adds, "Students gain lasting self-confidence not by being protected from failure, but by learning that they survive it."

Emerging teaching models, he explains, now center on exploring problems or opportunities, often in team settings. Classes are more hands-on, where students are creators, not passive consumers of facts.

Learning facts remains, but takes more of a secondary role. "We teach and test things most students have no interest in and will never need, and facts that they can Google and will forget as soon as the test is over," Wagner says. "Because of this, the longer kids are in school, the less motivated they become. Gallup's recent survey showed student engagement going from 80 percent in fifth grade to 40 percent in high school."

Motivating students may be vastly more important than how well they perform on tests or what grades they achieve. It may be more important than how long students go to school each day.

In his column about Wagner, Friedman notes Finland may be the only country in the world where "students leave high school 'innovation-ready.' They learn concepts and creativity more than facts and have a choice of many electives — all with a short school day, little homework and almost no testing."

As we wrestle with an economy without enough jobs, certainly not enough good jobs that pay well, and imbalance between the job skills employers want and the job skills that many schools teach, Wagner's plea for innovative education strikes a chord. Oregon, like other states, has set goals to make more students college-ready. Wagner says that may not matter as much as whether they are ready to innovate their own way to success.

"Young people who are intrinsically motivated — curious, persistent and willing to take risks — will learn new knowledge and skills continuously," Wagner insists. "They will be able to find new opportunities or create their own — a disposition that will be increasingly important as many traditional careers disappear."

Tony Wagner's book titled "Creating Innovators," which encourages more attention to student motivation and passion than tests and homework.