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!

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Jeff Miller's picture

Excellent article. One of my kid's teachers has discussed this very thing with her students. She recommended . I found the program very helpful in getting adults (young and old) to deal with fear of failure

Teacher Dan Deslaurier's picture
Teacher Dan Deslaurier
Lower School Art Teacher (PK-4)

Thank you Ainissa for your thoughtful post! While I understand and appreciate a popular saying embraced by many art teachers, "There are no mess-ups in art," I teach my elementary school-age student artists that yes, in art, and in life, there are "mess-ups" or mistakes; it's how we deal with, and learn from our initial mistakes that helps us to grow...

Elaine Hansen's picture
Elaine Hansen
Mother, Educator, Chemist, Founder of Academics in a Box Inc

Great blog for our kids, big & small! We definitely learn the most from our mistakes.

STEM education incorporates a safe place to try and try again because the expectation is for failure to occur. If our children are not making mistakes then something is going wrong. Experimentation is never squeaky clean, but messy and chaotic. It's from this chaos that creative ideas our born.

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Maker Educator, Google Certified Innovator & Trainer, Dreamer, Doer. Learning experience designer, workshop leader/speaker, author. Stanford #Fablearn Fellow. #GoogleEI #GoogleET

Anissa, I love how you say "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." That is exactly my sense as well, and since I am our school's elementary STEM teacher, I get the privilege!

We have a saying in my classroom - "failure is not an option - it's a *requirement*!"

My classroom and lessons are the ideal place for failure. We are not a high-stakes tested subject. I tell parents all the time that my class is the only one in school where failure is celebrated. Some look at me a little funny until they 'get it.' But eventually they all do. Failure is central to my instructional strategy!

Great post and conversation!


Elaine Hansen's picture
Elaine Hansen
Mother, Educator, Chemist, Founder of Academics in a Box Inc

Ainissa, We are noticing parents/children overwhelmed while experiencing an engineering design challenge for the first time. Communicating STEM, and failure is essential. So, we've done our own "Redesign" to better communicate and reward the failures which happen along the way. #3 will now be a staple throughout our lab notebook moving forward which will look something like this (an excerpt from TEST IT! "Fly with Me!" - Aviation)

If it didn't work (AWESOME!) or you have even BETTER ideas (GREAT!)....TRY AGAIN! OBSERVE and RECORD DATA. Remember the Wright Brothers didn't just get up one day and say to each other: "Hey, lets go down to Kitty Hawk and fly this airplane we built last night." It took them years of tinkering with kites, bicycles, parachutes, and all kinds of mechanical and aerodynamic devices. So don't get frustrated STEMists, keep trying, investigating, and figuring things out. Remember you have to "TINKER" to become a great "THINKER."

1. Set up and LAUNCH!

2. Did it work?

3. How did I fail?

4. What should I change?

5. What should I keep the same?

6. What did I learn?

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

I sometimes wonder where we lost the concept of making mistakes as being vital to the learning process and this "win at all costs" /participation trophy attitude that seems pervasive. It's rather perverse. We want kids to compete for grades and take high stakes tests, but then we tell them they are all perfect and wonderful- glossing over the core issue is that learning is messy and requires risk taking and mistakes to happen.

We have to encourage risk taking, which may lead to failure, but we also have to make it a safe environment to take risks, knowing that we learn as much from stuff that didn't make the cut, as long as we make sure the evaluation/reflection/analysis portion is key and central.

We had a great meeting at our school yesterday, talking about blended learning, and how simple things like Quia testing allows teachers and students to get immediate feedback about what they have and have not mastered, so lessons can be changed on the fly, tweeked, reworked, and the like- all with data so teachers can also look for bigger patterns and help identify strengths and weaknesses in student skill sets and then target those specific needs.
What's important here is using assessments as diagnostic rather than merely evaluatory or punitive. If we look at education as more of a skill building process and less of a competitive race, the greater chance we have for success of all students. We can make sure that the kids who acquire knowledge quickly can keep moving forward, while kids who need more support get that as well. Teachers likewise can get more instant feedback on how well they are doing with this particular set of kids- something we all need more frequently than the once a year standardized testing regime.
I think if we can begin to look at "measurement' of progress as being diagnostic, we can get away from the fear of failure and start to look at everything as more of a stepping stone to better skills and results over time. As much as I know we've trained kids, parents, colleges, teachers- everyone- to look for grades, rankings and comparisons, in the long run, we're all better served by helping to build and develop better human beings, and hopefully ones more tolerant of each others imperfections.
Failure should be embraced, as long as its tied to the key analysis and reflection- because thats where the heart of the elarning lies.

Kim Pasculli-Festa's picture

Hi Ainissa! Don't know if you remember me from SDA? Love this article. So relevant and so important. Will share this with many of my colleagues.


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