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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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No one likes failure, the F-word, no matter how you sugarcoat it. But failure is a part of life. Sometimes things don't work out. Sometimes you don't get what you want. Stuff happens. But if we recast these situations right, we learn to create a new normal, to persevere, to learn to be more flexible, or to redirect our energies.

Using the F-Word in School

There is a major disconnect between schools and the real world on the notion of failure. School teaches us there is only one answer for every problem. And if we don't get it, we are a failure. This dissuades students from trying -- they fear failure. We need to teach students how to make friends with failure.


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Failure is hard for everyone, but interestingly, it's particularly hard for high-achieving students. They don’t know how to deal with this unfamiliar territory. It kills their spirit because their performance is so linked to their self-esteem. I've seen this firsthand as an Ivy-League professor, and it isn't pretty. Some high achievers don't deal with failure well. It can be so bad that some universities have decided to do something about it. In addition to the usual dorm counselors that can help students adjust to college life, Stanford University has created the Resilience Project, where prominent people, including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, tell their stories of failure. While there is limited access to this website, it shows how important the skill of embracing failure can be.

We need to give our children more opportunities to build a relationship with failure. In my estimation, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education is a key way to do it. In STEM, failure is a fact of life. Experiments don't work out, the data doesn't look right, or someone knocks over your experiment. There are plenty of places to learn persistence and resilience. We can also learn how failure is instructive to the design and innovation process. Science and innovation are based on trial-and-error (which is just a glorified way to say "fail a lot"). If children have to learn about failure, I would choose a setting where the stakes are not so high, and that would be with STEM.

One cure for the fear of failure is to rebrand it. As I say in my book Save Our Science, "Scientists fail all the time. We just brand it differently. We call it data." If you learned something from the experience, you did not fail. By rebranding failure to something as harmless as data, that failure loses its sting. Whatever you did was all part of a fact-finding mission!

Rebranding Failure

Schools have this failure-thing, the F-word, all wrong. They focus on getting the answer, but it is the questions and the mistakes that are actually more instructive. It's in these spaces where we learn. I often hear students preface their question with, "This might sound stupid, but . . . " Students fear sounding dumb -- they fear being viewed as a failure. Shouldn't it be OK to ask questions in a classroom?

We have to take the classroom back and make it a sacred space where asking questions is OK. And the instructor has to present vulnerability as well. If an instructor doesn't know the answer, he or she must be brave enough to say, "I don't know, but let's find out together." Education's focus on the right answer and the grades has made students afraid to ask questions. Deborah Stipek, Dean of Stanford's School of Education, writes in Science that schools incubate the fear of failure, which causes stress and anxiety to perform, which do not enhance learning.

This is ironic, since children are innately risk-takers. If there is a curb, they will try to balance on it. If there is a shiny object, they will reach out for it. This is how they discover the world. Failure and risk-taking are how they learn. However, that sense of discovery and wonder is squelched in the classroom. Testing removes our desire to take risks. We need to bring risk-taking back.

We need to teach children great stories of failure. Thomas Edison tried 10,000 different materials before he found the right one for the light bulb filament. Failure? No, that's data -- lots of it. Or as he put it, he learned 9,999 ways that it didn't work. To defuse the F-word, we should start Failure Clubs in our schools. At the meetings, students would report what they learned from taking a risk. We should award merit badges that would encourage children to take a risk, and we should ask them, "How did you fail? And what did you learn?"

To succeed, we must make friends with failure. Failure makes you a better, kinder, stronger and wiser human being.

Now, get out there and fail!

Comments (22)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Dale newton's picture
Dale newton
High School Home Economics Teacher

Very thought provoking. As teachers we should not make our students feel that failure is the end of the road, but in fact they should be taught to learn from their failure.

Kara Aharon's picture

It's so sad how children loose their creativity when they begin school. I'm sure this is part of it.
In the movie "Yentl" the Rabbi of the Yeshiva tells Yentl that they accept students by their questions, not only by their answers. All schools should adopt this attitude.

DeShawn Wert BS, M.Ed. & ADHD Coach's picture
DeShawn Wert BS, M.Ed. & ADHD Coach
ADHD Coach, Consultant & Educator

Hi Ainissa,
You are totally right about the "f-word" in school. Compliance is more important than thinking it seems. But I see that compliance also expected in educators and not limited to only students.

I want to share with you something I've experienced personally in the past with school reform as I work in education.

The high stakes testing environment is removing innovation and risk- taking out of teaching and administration. I've seen a huge lack of trust emerge between staff and administration because the test score must go up!

If an administrator walks in a classroom and doesn't "see" what s/he considers research based instruction, teachers instructional skills are called to question. This makes taking risks with new instructional techniques very difficult for teachers (new & old) placed in new roles, juggling new technology skills and working with more diverse student populations very intimidating.

Mistakes/failures are going to happen when integrating the new and complex strategies, but teachers are not allowed the luxury of mistakes/failures nor can they actually have discourse about their intention for the instructional technique and the results to be gained if implemented correctly, it is about results now! No time for experimentation or classroom research of your own making.

I feel that for innovation to take place, allowances for novice and new practitioners (no matter how many years experience) need to be acknowledged in education, not punished or shamed if unattained.

Unfortunately, in an era where,educators & administrators are called to be the most risk-taking and innovative, they are being shamed and punished for inadequate student growth and achievement. This is not collaboration, learning or collegiality. It's competition.

Let's face it, there are many more variables involved than the teacher and the child in learning process but we only seem to want to measure those two variables! I want to ask teachers and administrators, "how would you teach if you weren't afraid?"

I agree with your post and look forward to a day when failure is embraced by educational culture (administrators, school boards and community), rather than a novel idea to be thought about and rallied around. Hopefully, this is a first step! Thanks again, Ainissa!

Ainissa Ramirez @ainissaramirez's picture

Mistakes are instructive.

I am glad that my blog resonated with you. Creating children that resist trying is scary. Fear prevents innovation and it prevents us from exploring. Last time I checked, these are some of the very things that make us human.

Jennifer Gonzalez's picture
Jennifer Gonzalez
Blogger at Cult of Pedagogy

Language seems to be really important here -- the re-branding of failure as data is such a great example, as are your suggestions for using the word "fail" in so many positive contexts in school. If we start putting the word in a different light, it will initiate an eventual shift in thinking.

Apart from that, though, I have this concern: I think any time a practicing teacher reads something like this, many of them will only get as far as thinking, "Good idea. Not really sure how to implement it, though." Without concrete examples of teachers putting a philosophy like this into practice and really seeing how it can work, teachers are often left without direction. So if you or anyone else can direct us to those examples, it would certainly speed up our evolution toward embracing failure in schools.

Jeanine's picture
Parent of middle schooler and elementary student - Chicagoland

My 6th grade son is afraid to fail. He has attentional problems but gets all A's and B's because his IQ is very high. Ironically he has never had to work hard at anything because things come so easy to him. He has admitted to me he is terrified of failing (whether it be socially or academically - but academically is probably the big one). How do I teach him that failing is OK? I will look at STEM - any other suggestions?

Ainissa Ramirez @ainissaramirez's picture

Failure Experiment: Swinging Buckets of Water

Materials: (This experiment is best done outside.)
* A small bucket (like one for the beach)
* A plastic cup
* Water

Fill the bucket with water and grab the handle. Now, swing the bucket in a vertical circle with your arm extended above your head, across from you and then back along your side again. Try different speeds and see how slow you can go before you spill the water. Remember to have fun. It is just water. (Getting wet is not failure but data collection.)

Try a more challenging experiment and do the same thing but this time swing water in a plastic cup. Can you swing the cup over your head and back down again without spilling the water? (Hint: Hold the cup with your hand pointing downward (thumb close to the base of the cup)).

The water wants to fly out of the bucket because of inertia, but the bucket gets in the way and keeps it in place. This is the same effect you feel when you are squished to the side as a car makes a tight corner.

Ainissa Ramirez @ainissaramirez's picture

As I mentioned, high-achievers don't do failure well. It is important to have your child try lots of different things that are not their expertise. Try a new musical instrument, ice skate, play chess, or play a new sport. Doing something that is challenging encourages a new relationship with failure, and, hopefully, this new relationship translates to other arenas in life and becomes a life skill.

And, when they don't succeed, emphasize that this is part of the learning process and no big deal. Failure does not mean you are a failure. We need to decouple this. Best wishes.

Andrene_Dz's picture
Secondary Education Teacher | English Language Arts | San Diego, CA.

This is brilliant & so necessary in today's schools. Thank you for your insight!


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