Low-Stakes Environments and Embracing the Value of Failing

Since I am a tenured full professor, I have many conversations with students and friends about the whole tenure and promotion process in higher education—or as I call it, “hazing.”

In a recent discussion about this over breakfast, I began to think about the negative consequences of high-stakes evaluations, about the culture in all formal education in the U.S. that trains teachers/professors and students to avoid mistakes and failure at all costs because of those high stakes.

As a high-stakes process (faculty depend on attaining tenure in order to continue their careers), tenure imposes onto candidates the expectations of the department, the university, and the discipline in ways that erase the faculty’s own autonomy, forcing the faculty member to demonstrate compliance above what should be more desirable qualities such as professionalism, pedagogy, and scholarship.

A clever faculty member can work diligently to create artifacts of what is expected of that faculty member in order to gain a secure status that, ironically, allows the faculty member to then be any sort of teacher, colleague, or scholar they wish (even as that was not revealed by the tenure process).

This problem is grounded in the inherently corrosive influence of high-stakes environments that foster risk aversion as well as compliance.

All high-stakes environments in education are counter-productive for teachers/professors and students.

All of them.

To teach is to fail, and then move forward.

To learn is to fail, and then move forward.

The only way teachers and students can fail with the sort of slack necessary to grow is to do so in a low-stakes environment.

High-stakes breed teaching and learning safely, stunted growth, or even stasis.

To make an analogy, mountain biking is a challenging activity beyond the cardio-vascular demands because this cycling requires in-the-moment technique and decisions that can be learned only by trial-and-error, often that have real consequences (crashing, for example).

And here is a key point because high-stake teaching and learning environments often have artificial negative consequences (such as grades) that may dissuade repeated trial-and-error approaches that cultivate expertise.

A few of us were recently on an out-of-town cycling vacation, meaning we rode new trails on our mountain bikes. These experiences are intimidating because you do not know the trail features, you have not yet made on-the-fly decisions about speed and line that mean the difference between rolling on or crashing.

Nearly all trails are better the second, third, fourth times; nearly always you gain confidence because you failed, because you learned what worked, and what didn’t.

The confidence that grows from failure, then, is the most powerful element in moving from a novice to an expert state.

Recreational mountain biking is often low-stakes because your experiments and failures are not about whether or not you may continue riding, but about how to ride better next time. In fact, the near guarantee of next time is an excellent motivator for taking risks, experiencing a little (or a lot) or pain.

While discussing the challenges of new trails with a friend, we talked about how being able to back-track in order to try a segment again is an exciting feature of riding. It isn’t a race, and there are no expectations except our own about what we want from our riding.

Low-stakes environments with room for failure as a natural feature of growth—this is a healthy way to learn, to teach, to become.

The irony, I think, is that academics on tenure track have a great deal in common with nearly all K-12 and college students because they are all inhibited by high-stakes environments that discourage sincere risk taking and healthy failure.

Academics on tenure track and students are encouraged to be dishonest, to play a game that may benefit them for their compliance but not their genuine selves.

It seems to me that all levels of formal education are the exact places where low-stakes environments that embrace failure should, even must, exist.

Yet, high-stakes environments and risk-averse ideologies tend to dominate all types of formal education, I think, because high-stakes are falsely associated with high expectations.

Here, as my final point, is the paradox since high-stakes environments tend to ask less of teachers/professors and students who are mostly complying to external demands or expectations.

Low-stakes environments that value failure and mistakes are more likely to foster autonomy and original decision making—both of which ask more of teachers/professors and students than deferring to imposed mandates or assignments.

High-stakes environments that encourage compliance instead of risk-taking work against the best possibilities in any teacher/professor or student.

By lowering stakes, increasing the opportunities to take risks, and recognizing the inherent necessity of failure, teaching and learning can and will not only survive but thrive in ways that far surpass the compliance that all too often characterizes both teaching and learning in traditional settings.