Allowing Space to Learn through Failure

Teachers, administrators, and parents all want one thing: to ensure our students are safe, happy, and successful. We want this so badly that we often do everything we can to protect them from experiences and feelings that are contrary.

While no one will disagree that our students should (and need to) be safe emotionally and physically, we need to be allowing them to sometimes not feel happy and not feel successful. We need to give them the tools to navigate these situations on their own by allowing them to get into these situations. We need to let them “fail” in school, allowing them space to grow, pushing them to take the risks needed to truly learn.

The Atlantic included a piece called “How to Land your Kid in Therapy” by Lori Gottlieb. The tagline which reads “Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods” pretty much sums up the entire article. In it, Gottlieb discusses her experiences both as a new parent trying to be a “good mother” and as a therapist trying to make sense of her patients who were “just not happy.” Gottlieb describes patients who would speak of their parents as loving and caring and supportive, leading to a conclusion that perhaps these parents were doing too much. These parents, in their attempt to be “good” parents, went to extreme measures to prevent their children from experiencing any unhappiness and any sense of failure to the extent that when they reached adulthood and the associated independence, they did not know how to handle normal struggles and normal feelings. They did not know how to build their own self-esteem, and they did not know how to recover from failure in the real world, when it really mattered.

School, however, is the perfect time to experience failure, to recover from failure, and to learn from failure. Tony Wagner, Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, discusses the importance of experiencing failure in the learning process. Trial and error, he argues, inevitably involves error. How can we learn from our mistakes if we are never in a position to make a mistake? He brings in real-world examples from companies who follow this philosophy and post signs like “Fail early and fail often” and “If you haven’t failed, you haven’t tried” around the building. There is no innovation, Wagner says, without trial and error, and there cannot be trial and error if students are afraid of error.

Teacher Edward Burger notes a similar problem and offers a suggestion in his piece, “Essay on the Importance of Teaching Failure.” He states, “Individuals need to embrace the realization that taking risks and failing are often the essential moves necessary to bring clarity, understanding, and innovation.” Burger has actually included a “failure” grade into his students’ grades as a way to encourage students to take risks. He even asks students to intentionally fail as a way for them to get over their fear of failure and recognize the value of learning from the experience.

Failure and struggle help students to build self-confidence and a strong work ethic, two qualities that can lead to success both inside and outside of school, two qualities that our students are seriously lacking, especially when compared to students internationally.

In the chapter entitled “Rice Paddies and Math Tests” in his book Outliers: A Story of Success, Malcom Galdwell connects the rice paddy culture of South China to academic potential and achievement. Growing rice is meaningful (involving a clear relationship between effort and reward), complex (basically running a small business), and autonomous (giving independence and responsibility to the famers). It teaches perseverance. It teaches the value of hard work, and it teaches about personal responsibility. Gladwell connects this to the TIMSS test (an international test designed to compare the achievement of one country to another). Prior to the actual questions of the test, there are about 120 background questions in order for the test to gain information about the test taker. Not all students complete all of the questions, though, with the test takers from each question generally answering a different number of the preliminary questions. Interestingly, however, when comparing the rankings of the number of preliminary questions answered to the actual math rankings of the test, they are exactly the same. Students who have the perseverance to answer more preliminary questions also are the students who score better on the test itself. Additionally, Asian students last roughly 40% longer than American students before giving up when faced with difficult puzzles, adding to their dominance in the academic field. Gladwell connects this success to the culture that has been created by growing rice. Growing rice is hard work, but those who stick with it are rewarded through valuable, transferable skills. Those who fail see the direct consequences through lack of food and lack of income, and they work to improve so that they will not fail again; they do not have their parents send an email, excusing them.

As educators, we can assure all parents that we do not want their children to be failures, but there is a difference between being a failure and experiencing failure. Being a failure is what results from a lack of learning from experiencing failure, and there is nothing wrong with experiencing failure as long as there is learning involved.

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