Robert Kunzman, Indiana University – Learning from Failure

Failure is inevitable.

Robert Kunzman, professor of curriculum studies and philosophy of education at Indiana University, explores how to learn from failure before moving past it.

Robert Kunzman is Professor of Curriculum Studies and Philosophy of Education at Indiana University.  His scholarship explores the purposes of education and how we can learn not only in classrooms but from life more broadly. He’s currently working on a book about navigating failure across the full span of our lives.

Learning from Failure

No motivational poster collection would be complete without championing the value of persistence and pushing past our failures.  But are there things we can learn from failure that go beyond easy cliches? 

I teach an undergraduate course entitled “Failure, and How We Can Learn From It,” and we explore the wide-ranging academic scholarship on this question as well as how different professions understand and navigate the presence of failure in their own fields. 

There is in fact a robust base of empirical findings about learning from failure, which in turn has generated a number of analytical tools and strategies: agile development and minimum viable products, growth mindset and productive failure, bias recognition, cognitive reframing, and double-loop learning—to name a few.

But ultimately the academic scholarship that proves most useful to my students is more philosophical in nature.  It pushes them to grapple with the role of randomness and luck, to consider the relationship between their goals and their core identities, and to discern what risks in life are important to take.

Philosopher Beverly Clack observes that when failure brings us down to the depths of life, it’s there that we find what deeply matters to us.  Some of my students are starting to learn this, as they navigate broken relationships, rejections from grad schools or employers, or just the growing sense that they will be dealt some disappointing hands in life.  They will graduate, but not from failure.

So instead, most fundamentally, they must learn to restructure their relationship with failure—not to pretend it doesn’t hurt, or that they can move past it once and for all.  That idea might not fit on a motivational poster, but it’s the educational priority of a lifetime.