Freedom and Failure in Learning

Spring 2016

By Antonio Viva, Raymonde Arseneau, Stephen Lacy, and Tom Keenan

Antonio Viva
Head of School
Walnut Hill School for the Arts (Massachusetts)

Editor Stan Izen’s opening message, “Feel Free — Don’t Hold Yourself Back,” in the fall 2015 issue of Independent Teacher, wonderfully illustrated the philosophy of teaching and learning that I am fortunate to observe daily as head of school of Walnut Hill School for the Arts (Massachusetts). “It is crucial that we not impose restrictions on ourselves out of fear or timidity,” Izen encouraged. Yes!

Consider Vincent van Gogh, who was regarded as a failure by many of his contemporaries. During his lifetime he sold just one of the more than 800 paintings he completed — and that was to the sister of a friend for a mere 400 francs (approximately $50). Yet we now celebrate him as a master painter whose works are displayed across the world and valued in the millions.

Taking risks and embracing failure is just as relevant in traditional academics, where there is often great temptation to limit the definition of success to right answers and positive final outcomes. Sir Isaac Newton, inspired by the alchemists of his age, tried in vain to change lead into gold. He never let the inevitable failure prevent him from continuing this line of inquiry until his death — all the while building a legacy of groundbreaking scientific and mathematical concepts.

We know that the road to success is not linear; it involves discovering how to pivot and regroup, and accepting failure as a learning tool. Outstanding teachers create classroom environments in which students are encouraged to ask questions and think critically and where process is valued as much as — and sometimes more than — end results.

Still, the obvious question occurs: “If there is no right answer, how can you know whether students are learning?” Below, three Walnut Hill faculty members share how they foster “free” learning in their classrooms.

Raymonde Arseneau
Head of World Languages, Junior Class Dean

Our world languages curriculum is full immersion. Before beginning every class, I ask my students to recommit to keeping a positive attitude, working exclusively within the target language, and, especially, to having fun. I set high expectations and give constant feedback. I ask students to meet me halfway in the learning process: Students bring their best efforts, perseverance, and an open mind; I take care to engage with each student as an individual to understand what makes him or her tick so that I know when and how to push.

Learning a language is all about taking risks. I want my students to be able to meet a French or Spanish speaker and communicate, not necessarily to have mastered the language but to have the confidence to try. What matters most is that my students can communicate an idea; whether they do so with perfect grammar and eloquent vocabulary is a secondary concern. Once a student is unafraid of speaking, then it is my job to help that student refine his or her use of the language.

I often lead activities where the students don’t realize they are actually doing work. For example, getting students fired up in a debate about a current topic at school — they’re speaking, using different tenses, and listening to each other, but they don’t realize that I am pushing the conversation subtly to get them to use the tenses or grammar concept of the day. Their own desire to participate in the activity helps them overcome their anxiety about making mistakes.

I expect students to own their learning. Everything builds on what they’ve learned before. I don’t administer grammar and vocabulary tests anymore because I don’t want my students to cram material they will quickly forget. Instead, I want them to be able to use the material in context to have a conversation or write an opinion.

Stephen Lacy
Writing, Film, and Media Arts Faculty

In my film classes I like to make sure that, with some historical background, students learn that artistic classics don’t jump fully formed from the artist’s hand. Each artist has to work through the false starts to get a handle on his or her particular area of expertise. This comes only from doing more work.

My hope is that students begin to hone ways of working that foster creative development and critical thinking. I urge them to take conceptual risks in idea development, as well as more practical explorations with technique and materials. In filmmaking and in class discourse, we use group work in many ways. Students are paired to review and present content, or they are organized into small groups to create short videos in a variety of styles. In this manner I hope to give students not only a sense of responsibility over a portion of the content but also an opportunity to build a project collaboratively.

Risk taking in my classes takes many forms. It could be learning how to formulate a question or respond to content, sharing an opinion, or trying a new piece of equipment or technique. I ask students to move outside of their comfort zones and try something new in regard to materials. I often say, the worst that can happen is you might get the opportunity to improve on your first try. “Practice, practice, practice!” is a key phrase I use often.

Tom Keenan
Head of Math and Science, Sophomore Class Dean

At Walnut Hill, we strive to make student learning experiences and assessments as authentic as possible. In the science classroom, I structure lessons around the notion that science is a set of questions, not a set of answers. Taking risks and being willing to fail is in the DNA of professional research science and likewise belongs in the science classroom.

Laboratory lessons often pose a question and supply students with the tools to find a solution, but never prescribe exactly how to get there. Students are given the time and space to make their own choices and forge ahead with procedures that often prove inefficient and ineffective. Traditional science laboratory assignments follow a recipe that will get the “right” result as long as you follow the directions. Instead I work to develop a classroom environment that invites the genuine learning that comes with making mistakes and moving outside students’ comfort zones.

For example, I might ask chemistry students to work in teams to separate a mixture of sand, salt, and iron. Inevitably students end up doing an adequate job but still have small amounts of sand contaminating the iron, or they accidentally create rusty iron when they get the sample wet while trying to dissolve the salt. Though the activity may seem simple at first, it is a task that requires an enormous amount of time and energy to produce a flawless result. The separation challenge mirrors real experiences students will encounter in work and life. It’s messy. Results are never perfect, so the team must decide together when it is time to leave good enough alone.

Students demonstrate that they have learned how to separate a mixture by fully communicating not only their observations and data but also their uncertainties about their answers and how they might improve them. In this way, the discussion in the lab report becomes the most valuable component of the learning process. This is where the budding scientist can think like a “real” scientist, recognizing the limitations of experiments and dreaming of ways to collect the perfect data set that contains trustworthy results in all conditions. In the process students quickly recognize that there actually are no right answers, merely answers that you can be confident are nearly right and others that really have no basis.


I hope that these insights shared by our faculty challenge and inspire you to explore process in new ways in your classroom. When we develop frameworks that go beyond “right” and “wrong” answers, we open up a world of possibilities for meaning making and learning.

Antonio Viva

Antonio Viva ( is the 12th head of school at Walnut Hill School for the Arts (Massachusetts).

Raymonde Arseneau

Raymonde Arseneau ( teaches French at Walnut Hill School. She has been the head of the World Languages Department at Walnut Hill since 2008 and a member of the faculty since 2007.

Stephen Lacy

Stephen Lacy ( joined the faculty of Walnut Hill’s Writing, Film, and Media Arts Department in 2015 and is an artist working with film, sound, and drawing.

Tom Keenan

Tom Keenan ( is the head of the Math and Science Department and serves as the Sophomore Class Dean. He has been teaching at Walnut Hill since 2011.