Learning to fail

I often feel out of my comfort zone, working in ed tech. Sometimes there is the expectation that you know how to work every piece of software ever made or can pluck suggestions on what tools are out there off the top of your head at a moment’s notice. There can also be the expectations that you are an expert videographer, editor, instructional designer, web developer as well as having an in-depth knowledge of pedagogy and educational theory.

Part of this may be down to people’s knowledge and expectations of technology, particularly the educational technologies that are often made available in universities. For many, technology = efficiency and ‘quickness’, but thinking about how technology might work in any given educational situation can sometimes require some time to think, experiment and, indeed, fail and make mistakes.

I also know that a big part of this feeling is down to my own Imposter Syndrome and feeling inadequate or feeling like people will think a lot less of me if I make a ‘mistake’. I also didn’t come from a computer science or IT background and have learned everything I know on the job. My own digital confidence and capabilities has grown massively over the last 4 years and I wouldn’t be able to do half as much as I can do now if I hadn’t ended up in this line of work. My history degree, despite how much I loved it, definitely didn’t give me the kind of digital skills needed for many modern workplaces. I still sometimes feel a bit of panic and lack of self-confidence when I’m asked a difficult question at work and often need time to go away and think about it before I can figure out the ‘right’ answer.

I started a PG Cert in Academic Practice a few months ago and have been reading books such as ‘What the Best College Teachers Do’ by Ken Bain and reflecting on the outcomes of the research he conducted. Bain describes the best teachers as being able to create a “natural, critical learning environment” – situations that challenge students but also give them the support and time to try, fail and receive feedback in ways that are completely separate from any kind of final grades or marks. This, as well as some projects I’ve been working on recently, got me thinking about how staff in universities don’t always have the option to work in the kind of natural, critical learning environment that they are supposed to be cultivating for students. The time pressure of the academic year and the stress of working within departments with fewer staff and resources doesn’t exactly cultivate an environment where trying, failing and having to start all over again is actively encouraged. That sort of thing takes up too much time and may impact negatively on ‘student satisfaction’. It’s also one of the main challenges up against jobs like mine. We want to encourage people to try new things and experiment, but do they feel confident and secure enough in their environment to be able to do it?

Our neoliberal society prioritises efficiency and ‘value for money’ over all else and, in my opinion, such values are completely at odds with what a university is supposed to stand for; knowledge creation, curiosity, discovery and collaboration. From a young age, children are conditioned into perceiving failure as the worst thing in the world. I remember feeling stressed about wanting to reach the ‘correct’ level in my Year 6 SATs or worrying that I wouldn’t achieve the 5 Cs or above at GCSE. You’ve got to make decisions about the rest of your life at 16 and then again at 18 and the implicit message is that if you drop out or change your mind you’re a failure. Take this from a former university drop-out who thought her life was over at 18 and that the ‘failure’ would remain a black mark on my record forever. It took me three years to get the confidence to apply to university again after that. Now, I would always advise any young person to try things out and not worry too much if it doesn’t work out or if they want to do something else a year down the line. It’s all really valuable experience.

I’m willing to hold up my end of the bargain and admit that I can be a bit of a perfectionist and I do suffer terribly from Imposter Syndrome. I’m working on all of that and I am learning that sometimes, good enough is good enough and certain tasks and bits of work don’t need to be perfect. I’d also rather explain to someone that I do need some extra time to think and look into something, rather than bullshitting my way through an answer or forcing them into a rushed solution that isn’t suitable for what they need. However, I also believe that feeling the pressure in the workplace isn’t always a matter of individual ‘failings’ and is a by-product of a toxic neoliberal, overly managerial culture that doesn’t value taking your time and having room to fail and learn from it. This isn’t just within education – I think it could probably be applied to most sectors in the Western world. I refuse to spend the next 30-40 years of my working life in this way. We can always do better and we can definitely learn to take our time, think and fail more often.

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3 thoughts on “Learning to fail

  1. Hi. I think we all have imposter syndrome to some extent, and in a way that can be a positive force in that it keeps us trying and on our toes. Failure plays an odd role, and I think that there should be some way to accept it, even build it in to curriculum maybe, so that our students can experience it and realise that it is often a necessary step in finding your path. Wayne.

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    1. Hi Wayne, thanks for your comment. I agree! It’s tough that by the time people reach us at university, they’ve been conditioned through schooling or perhaps they’ve come back into education after being in the workplace and are lacking a lot of confidence in their own abilities – so the fear of ‘failure’ can be a real barrier for many.

      I’m pretty sure my navel-gazing is coming from a very privileged point of view. I’m very grateful to be able to work in a university and recognise that not everybody has the security and freedom to hop from job to job and try different things. Many people are very restricted by circumstances. Indeed, some of our students will probably be facing challenges in their personal lives that mean they aren’t always as ‘ready’ or capable to learn.

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