Interview With Andrew Miller, Author of "Freedom to Fail"

Andrew Miller provides insight into his reasoning behind writing his book.

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Me:  So, what was the reason you wrote the book?

Andrew: I’ve had two life experiences that really made me write this book. One, I’m a gamer at heart. Games are one of the best tools that show how failure helps you and doesn’t punish you. When you play Super Mario Brothers and fail, you get to try again. You reflect on what went wrong and try new strategies. I think education needs to look more like games. The other reason I wrote this book is related to grading and assessment. I’m passionate about the idea that it is never too late to learn, and unfortunately our assessment systems don’t always match this. I am guilty of this as well. Early in my teaching career, I used grades as a way to punish students. Eventually I realized that this was not inspiring a growth mindset. I then moved to a place where my grading practices allowed for growth, risk taking, and eventually success.

Me:  How have you seen the idea of “failure” being embraced with educators?

Andrew: Grit, growth mindset, and the like have been part of the conversation in education for quite some time. I think now, educators are seeing all of these concepts and ideas coming together as theme for educational change. This is just one part of the puzzle of increasing educational achievement, but nevertheless an important part.

Me:  How are you using this idea of failing with the teachers you work with?

Andrew:  I try to be transparent with teachers as we design projects, assessments, and other instruction that we may not get it right the first time. I also share my mistakes and failures in the professional development I provide. I share what ideas didn’t work, and how I tried new ideas. All teachers deserve the space to take risks and innovate in a safe way in their classrooms, and I try to foster that when I work with teachers.

Me:  Do you have examples of classrooms you have seen where this idea is being demonstrated?

Andrew:  One teacher I know, uses coding often in his elementary class to build the culture for risk taking. Coding is complex, and requires trial and error. He knows this, and tries to include regular times for students to experiment with ideas in the hopes that this mindset transfers to other instructional times. Another teacher starts off the having a socratic seminar on quotes and other readings on risk taking and failure. It really helps to start the year off with growth mindset.

Me:  Have you heard any thoughts from parents on this idea?

Andrew:  Interestingly enough, I had some great conversations with parents on how they embrace this in how they go about parenting their children. They understand that mistakes will occur in learning, and that they need to be a cheerleader and partner in the learning process. For example, one parent told me about how their daughter got her first ticket. Yes, this was a serious moment, but instead of simply treating her child like a failure and punishing her, she sat down and talked about appropriate consequences and what she need to learn and do next time.

Me:  What kind of push back have you seen/heard from educators?

Andrew:  I think the biggest push back comes from the assessment perspective. Many of us hold onto how we were graded or how we’ve graded students. This doesn’t make us bad people, it just means we need to work through these antiquated practices. In addition, many teachers have assessment systems that are out of their control. For instance, the mandate to put in one grade a week. I think this is the biggest “make or break” for a classroom that embraces failure as a learning opportunity; assessment practices need to align to a growth mindset.

Me: In the section of your book called, “Checklist For Ensuring Freedom to Fail,” you list having high expectations. How do keeping high expectations and allowing failure go together?

Andrew:  At the end of a unit, we want all children to see success. Students should know what success looks like, and teachers need to provide differentiated instruction to help students be successful. Remember, success doesn’t come from doing the right thing all the time, it is a journey that mixes failures and successes.

Me:  How can teachers start this process in the classroom?

Andrew:  There are 4 areas teachers can start with: assessment, culture, curriculum and instruction. While it may seem overwhelming to work on all four, teachers should start in an area they feel comfortable. For example, if a teacher has competence in classroom culture, they can try some of those related strategies I articulate in my book. I always think it is important to start small when changing one’s practice so that you can reflect and learn from experiences in manageable ways.

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Photo of Charles Shryock, IV

Thanks for sharing this interview. I recently started Freedom to Fail, after attending Andrew's talk at ISTE 2015. Really good stuff.