Easy to Say—But How Do You Really Help Students Learn From Failure?
Teachers need real, actionable strategies when it comes to teaching students how to develop the resilience to learn from their mistakes.
The importance of developing a growth mindset isn’t exactly new, yet many of us still struggle with the notion that failure is a vital—or even necessary—precursor to success. In classrooms where success is synonymous with acing tests, the idea that trial and error are critical parts of the learning process can feel foreign to students.
“Students with a fixed mindset may feel that they’re either good at a subject or bad at it with no room for growth. They may feel anxious about failure because they see it as a negative statement on their basic knowledge in a subject or class,” writes Michael Bycraft for EdSurge. “Students who have been at schools that encourage experimentation and the process of learning (or growth mindset) are not as discouraged by failure, as they see their work can always be improved, and learning comes from failure.”
Bycraft, who is head of design and innovation at the Korea International School and who focuses on teaching middle-school robotics, has learned that paying lip service isn’t enough. As a teacher, you need to have real strategies to help students develop the ability to cope with, and grow from, mistakes. He identifies four strategies that are important for teaching students how to tolerate failure and develop resilience.
Focus on the process
When he introduces a project to his students, Bycraft says he very intentionally spends time discussing goals for the work, how students will be assessed, and expectations for what they’ll be learning. This helps students adopt the mindset that it’s mainly about the journey and what they learn along the way, rather than the outcome.
“It’s crucial that teachers, students, and administrators all have the mindset that it’s OK to step outside the box and do more experimentation in the classroom,” he writes. “It’s the belief that the process of creating is what teachers should be assessing, rather than the final product.”
Give students the reins
When teaching robotics via traditional instructional methods—telling students exactly what to do for a specific project, for example—resulted in unmotivated, uninterested students, Bycraft realized he needed to give his students more leeway in deciding where to take projects.
“In my mind, I was angry with myself. ‘How have you made robotics boring? Why isn’t it better?’,” he writes. “I realized I was leading the class and needed the students to lead their own growth to build their confidence through more active, hands-on learning.”
Bycraft changed his lessons to be more open-ended and flexible. For example, he created a tiered system of challenges where students were free to select how they’d meet the requirements. “If we were learning about gears, students had to create a robot that would travel 10 meters as fast as possible. If I wanted to teach programming directions and precision, students had to make their solution solve a maze with four possible outcomes.” By switching to a "more flexible robotics toolkit," Lego Mindstorms Education EV3, Bycraft could give students more creative freedom. “I asked them to create carnival rides inspired by modern amusement parks. I had them create a robot zoo. I asked them to create Lego solutions that moved and sounded like animals, and then create entire zoo exhibits.” The results were joyful, engaged students who “laughed and celebrated failure and successes, and still learned all the curriculum I had planned for them.”
Find time to teach resilience
Setting aside dedicated classroom time for students to cycle through projects, stumble, start over and improve, is critical so that students may learn from their mistakes.
“It’s a universal understanding—all teachers wish we had more time in the day to help our students learn and grow,” he writes. “That said, I’ve found it is so important for educators to carve out a dedicated time in their classroom to really go into iterative cycles of projects numerous times to allow students ample time to start a project, experience failure and then have the time to improve and learn from their failures.”
Get buy-in from administrators, teachers, and parents
To illustrate the learning and growth that comes out of this process, Bycraft had his students create their own websites to track projects, record reflections, chart progress, and demonstrate learning. The websites were empowering for students: they had control over how they documented their design process and were able to see their progress over time.
As an added bonus, the websites helped convince other teachers, administrators, and parents that the approach was worth the effort. “Getting administrators to buy into this mindset can be tricky; it’s difficult to assess the design process that students go through,” Bycraft writes. Because the websites were public, he was able to share them with his colleagues—a tangible record of just how far his students’ learning had come.