Science has a closely held secret: it is full of failures.
Failed experiments. Failed hypotheses. The experience of failure is a rite of passage, a cornerstone in every scientist’s career. To be explicit, I am referring to the day-to-day mistakes every human (scientists included) make, not blatant unethical research methods. Failure is common, and expected. Yet despite its prevalence, few scientists discuss or bring to light their mistakes. Shrouded in secrecy and shame, these mistakes are tucked away.
This perpetuates a sinister misunderstanding of science; that science, and by default, scientists are the peak of perfection in our society. As a result, young scientists are taught to fear failure, to be ashamed, and to even hide failed experiments and hypotheses. This is the fundamental breakdown between the reality of scientific research and public understanding of science.
As science educators, we serve as the conduit between science and the general population. With this unique position, we have the power to connect, disconnect or reconnect the general population with science. It is how we do this that has a lasting impact on our students. We often integrate a culture of error in our teaching, framing our mistakes as learning opportunities, yet this seems to get lost in science. Why is this? I can’t think of a better time or subject to teach failure. Through science we can teach failure as expected, respected and valued.
Failure is to be expected
Failure occurs at every level of science, but is not often seen. More often than not we only see the end results of an experiment rather than the countless failed attempts and accidental discoveries in between leaving us to assume that the entire scientific study was as flawless as the end result. This could not be further from the truth. Developing an expectation of failure is essential for young scientists to understand the scientific method.
Expecting failure more accurately reflects the reality of a non-linear scientific method. We are taught that the scientific method is a one-way road that occurs step by step when in actuality the scientific method is a complex web of steps, missteps, and redirections. When something does not go as planned it is reevaluated and immediately remediated. Bringing this process to light both in scientific communities and in the classroom promotes transparency, ethical practices, and culture of error.
Failure is valued
Failure is the ultimate teacher. By pointing out our mistakes, and providing a pathway to improvement, failure teaches us how to be the best versions of ourselves. Failed experiments and methods provide us with the greatest learning opportunities in science. Unabashedly sharing our failures and mistakes with the world allows others to prevent making similar mistakes, resulting in the advancement of science as a whole. Openly presenting the details and missteps of every failure provides insight into how and why something went wrong. At its core, science is the pursuit of explaining reality, the hows and whys of the world. It is logical then to assume that every failure is not merely a roadblock but a stepping stone bringing us closer to a more accurate understanding.
Failures can result in the accidental discoveries of cures, theories, and technologies. Take Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery for example: a failed sterilization technique and consequently contaminated experiment resulted in the discovery of penicillium mold that fought the flu virus he had been culturing. This resulted in the discovery of the antibiotic Penicillin, which saved countless lives. Many scientific discoveries have been the direct result of failures, mistakes and imperfect methods. Why should then be so afraid of failure if it has brought about so many successes?
Failure is respected
Respect for failure comes in multiple forms. From recognizing to addressing mistakes, we must respect what failure is telling us. Is this failure informing our practice? Is it pointing to an accidental discovery? Is it telling us that we are looking in the wrong direction? Each failure has a message, one we must listen to with respect if we want to grow from it.
Not only must the failure itself be respected as an opportunity to learn but the scientist who made said mistake must be too. The fear of failure comes directly from the fear of our peers’ reaction. Establishing a culture of error in our scientific communities allows our failures to be shared without hesitation, resulting in healthier, and happier scientists, and students. Respecting failure allows to us to work free of judgment or fear of failure.
Learning from failure is respected in many communities. Why would the scientific community be any different? A fundamental perspective shift must occur in our scientific communities and it starts in early science education. If we teach students to expect and value the inevitable failures of science, we have taught them to respect failure. Only after we have established respect for failure can we successfully establish a far-reaching culture of error in the sciences.
In teaching these practices early we can allow students to embrace science as a plastic, ever-changing subject. Breaking down the fear of failure in young scientists is essential for student growth and scientific advancement. We can teach failure by being open and vulnerable with our students when we make mistakes. Modeling the ability to adapt and reframe failures as learning opportunities is arguably the most important step in creating a culture of error. When failure occurs we must celebrate with our students. We should embrace this failure and seek to learn all we can from it.
Recognizing failures as learning opportunities requires a critical look into scientific history. Students should be shown the colorful history of accidental scientific discoveries, where apparent failure turned into unimaginable success. Instead of only teaching the end result of scientific studies, teach the in-between. Show the uncomfortable, the messy and frustrating side of science by drawing back the curtain. This result in a better understanding of the non-linear scientific methods, confident students, and who knows, maybe another accidental discovery.