Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

From Where I Sit - Failure Analysis: News

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

From Where I Sit - Failure Analysis: News

Article excerpt

The philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey argued in 1933 that "failure is not mere failure. It is instructive." But 80 years later, we still don't know a lot about why things fail in higher education. We know failure happens: students drop out or don't achieve passing grades, and occasionally academics don't deliver the intended curriculum or don't do it well. But the causes go largely unstudied.

Elsewhere, however, learning from failure is well established. It dates, at least, from the construction of the "Bent" pyramid in Egypt, dating from about 2,600BC, which was modified after the collapse of the nearby Meidum pyramid.

The infamy, costs and visibility of structural failures make identifying causes and learning from them an important part of engineering education. Case studies of bridge and building failures are pored over in structural engineering courses. The education sciences do not yet have such a disciplined, codified approach to identifying or analysing failure.

Why not? It may be simply issues of time and scale. Higher education as a mass phenomenon is under 100 years old and its failures have been largely observed in individual increments - the student who does not "pass". Despite years of attention to inequities in college access, it is only recently that national higher education completion rates in the US have attracted political scrutiny, because economic competitiveness has been at stake as other nations have achieved better graduation rates.

A bridge collapse understandably will attract more popular attention than university dropouts. Yet the latter failure costs more when we consider lost productivity and opportunity, social utility and the unhappiness individuals experience when their education fails them. The scale of this loss means we should search for lessons from failure in other disciplines, which might in turn improve educational quality. …

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