For students of any age, the traditional measure of whether they grasp and retain certain concepts tends to come down to a simple pass or fail. Students are taught, evaluated and then—regardless of their individual learning outcomes—the entire class moves on to the next lesson.  

Unfortunately, this way of teaching tends to rob students of an important lesson in learning, and in life: there are benefits to failure.  

When it comes to the pedagogical model of Expeditionary Learning (EL), instruction leverages project-based group learning, where students use a more hands-on approach. As such, one of the main principles of EL is the understanding of the importance of trying, failing, trying again and eventually succeeding. 

The EL pedagogy was conceived in 1991 via a collaboration between the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the outdoor education group, Outward Bound. In EL schools, students learn through “learning expeditions,” instead of classroom-based, one-subject-at-a-time instruction. EL continues to grow rapidly and is currently embraced at more than 150 schools across 45 states as well as the District of Columbia. 

By showing students that failure is an important part of the learning process, EL provides them the room necessary to try new approaches and new ways of thinking. Additionally, EL must have the buy-in from teachers to allow their students to make mistakes, and encourage students to diagnose, discuss and learn from their mistakes. When failure then occurs, students have a safe space to talk about their experiences with their peers and their teachers. This approach allows them to learn from their mistakes and from each other. 

The field of architecture presents a similar exercise in success and failure. For example, in 27 AD, the wooden Fidenae Amphitheatre collapsed due to the weight of the spectators, teaching the Romans that amphitheatersand the future colosseumwould need to be built out of stone. As an industry, we’ve been iterating, failing, learning and applying the lessons learned ever since. 

In the end, we all experience failure. From students to architects and everyone in between, failure will always occur. But by embracing it as a component of the overall learning process, instead of penalizing ourselves for it, we can ultimately create better ways of doing things and can find ways to achieve the best possible outcomes.