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Each month, a different member and NAEA awardee is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Patty Bode just wrapped up her second year as interim principal of Amherst Regional Middle School in Amherst, MA. She is an art educator, researcher, lecturer, and activist. Bode’s research, teaching, and community collaboration focus on advancing student and teacher voices in art curriculum reinvention and transformation—opening borders and questioning what counts as knowledge. Throughout her work, she consistently asserts critical multicultural perspectives and teaches racial literacy through imaginative practices in art education. Click "GO" to read her full bio.



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May 30, 2017

Failing forward

From: Mary Elizabeth Meier

As art teachers work to develop assessments to gather information about student learning, I argue that we should assess habits and concepts which are of great importance in creative idea development. When I ask, “What matters most?” as I plan teaching and learning experiences, I consider the idea of failure. That is, making mistakes and exploring responses to failure. I attend to my role as teacher-facilitator to create a classroom culture of creative exploration in which students are empowered to play, exercise choice, make creative decisions that are not always successful and then work in collaboration to revise.

I remember exploring the idea of failing forward for the first time in a design-based thinking workshop led by Randy Granger, Past President of the Pennsylvania Art Education Association. Randy teaches his high school art students to work through many iterations of designs. Several years later, students enrolled in my art education methods course posed the question, “How should we support k-12 art students who are afraid of making a mistake in their artwork.” Together, we investigated the idea of “failing forward” as a framework for gathering information about student learning. (Students gave me permission to share our class discussion and some of their written reflections here).

One student, Letty, wrote in a reflection, “Instead of allowing failure to be one changeable mark in a whole composition, we [teachers tend to] assert failure as the sole, final mark” (Letitia Cawley, personal correspondence). Letitia observed that we must do more to help students understand creative mistakes as changeable and fruitful shifts along a meandering path of possibility. Therefore, failure is part of students’ experience to engage and persist (Hetland, et al, 2013) in their artistic process. Failure and its ambiguous role in creative process is worthy of our energy to document it. We can work in partnership with students to gather information about the role of creative failure, healthy risks, and momentum in artistic process.

Another pre-service student in our class, Beyona Eckstein, described the value of assessments of process by working with students as they develop a portfolio. Students can evaluate (find value) in their own work and the work of their peers by reflecting on their work as it unfolds over time. She wrote, “The idea of failing forward is about rethinking the way teachers have students document growth, how students are critiqued, and how they are assessed” (Beyona Eckstein, personal correspondence).

Beyona was making connections between “failing forward” as an assessment strategy and its value as part of a teaching philosophy rooted in her artistic practice as a ceramicist. Beyona wrote, “Not only is failing forward a method of teaching I want to practice, it is also a philosophy I want to follow... Art is the expression of human imagination and creative skills; when applied to students it is about eliminating the concept of finished work having beauty. As an artist, I find myself focusing on the making and the steps to a finished work, and rarely is the finished work ever complete. The process and method of failing forward is just that, [a] focus on the experience of creating. Finally, failing forward is about realizing mistakes and making them your motivation to work or create more” (Beyona Eckstein, personal correspondence).

Beyona asserted her intention to facilitate a studio-classroom where students are confident that failure is acceptable and is not permanent. She observed that help student to develop this stance of failing forward would help them grow as individuals in many of their life pursuits.



Hetland, L., Winner, E., Veenema, S., & Sheridan, K. M. (2013). Studio Thinking 2: The real benefits of visual arts education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.



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