George Lucas Educational Foundation

Schools That Work | Practice

New Mexico School for the Arts

Grades 9-12 | Santa Fe, NM

Embracing Failure: Building a Growth Mindset Through the Arts

Teach your students the recipe for success: taking risks, making mistakes, and integrating critical feedback.
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Adam: Great, thank you. So you take your jete role, you need to run that way.

Cristina: The power of arts education is that the students learn that it's okay to make mistakes. It's okay, to fumble. It's okay to make bad work. In fact, you need to make bad work in order to get to the good work.

Cindy: We're a state-wide charter, created so that students from across New Mexico could access arts programming, and academically prepare for college. They attend a dual curriculum program. They're in the academic block in the morning, and then arts block in the afternoon.

Serena: [singing]

Serena: At two o'clock every single day, we work on our art, we hone it, we practice. And those periods are really us learning how to perform in front of others with a smaller group first. And when you get up and you don't know your music, it's not great, it's not fun. You have to put the work in. It's required. There's no way to get around it.

Geron: The strengths and skills that these artists come to us with are hard work, and just a willingness to keep trying. They have perseverance. They take constructive criticism well, and they build on it.

Serena: There's so much going around him, and despite all of it, he's still happy, and he's still playing.

Student: So I'm gonna disagree that he's happy. I don't think he really is wrapped up in his own fantasy either.

Serena: Being able to accept critique and not feel hurt by it is an important skill for us to learn, and we're taking those critiques and learning how to put them to use.

Santana: So many times when you have people critiquing you, they will tell you, "Take it back to the beginning and start again, because you'll discover things that you didn't find before."

Teacher: Good, all right. So when you get here, make sure you get a really clean pedal on the B-flat, but that was great. That's the kind of energy you want.

Santana: I take their feedback, and I use it to construct something greater, rather than taking it hurtfully.

Brass: I kind of take it upon myself to come and listen to Santana play sometimes and give her a little bit of sage advice from the senior. The feedback is a second set of ears.

Brass: There are almost two conversations, two lines, two waves, and the real illustration.

Neil: When people say practice makes perfect, and practice doesn't make perfect. Practice makes permanent. So if you practice the mistake over and over and over, you have just gotten really good at a mistake. So I think it's important to recognize and then explain it to the students. As long as they're learning from those mistakes they're moving forward.

Class: [applause]

Joey: You will be seeing the fundamental students doing "Working in Silence." So you'll see the piece, the faculty will give a little bit of feedback, and then they will do it again.

Joey: I believe that you don't end on a mistake. In the education process, you know, oftentimes it's, "Okay, you did that wrong; tomorrow we're going to move on to something else." So even in my rehearsal process, it's like, "Let's correct that. Let's end with a victory, or you getting something out of it."

Kara: We've been getting to do them a couple of different times, which really helps, because then we get to take the feedback, and we get to apply it, and that is the whole learning process, is that if you fail, then you know, you can do it again, and you can just make big leaps and bounds and learn from that.

Camille: When we were working with this scene before in the classroom, we got a lot of negative feedback, and it was totally trashed. And our teacher said, "Well, it's workable."

Avonlea: Workable! [laughs]

Camille: And we're like, "What does that mean?" So we decided together that we would change it, and decided to make something new and better.

Teacher: You haven't pulled it off yet. Right now we're scratching our heads and wondering why these two mutes [laughter] have bumped into each other. And yeah? So--

Joey: It's hard to hear criticism, because who in the heck wants to fail? Who in the heck wants to do it wrong? So they have to think back, reassess, do it right. And then they own it.

Joey: Because you're going to do it again, do you have a sense of what we're asking?

Avonlea: Yeah.

Joey: Okay, go ahead!

Camille: This is the place to fail. If you're gonna fail anywhere, it's here and now.

Girls: Oh!

Camille: And because of your failure, you can go somewhere better.

Cristina: Great art comes from risk-taking, from being willing to fail. That's something that is so unique to learning in the arts.

Adam: Failure is inevitable. Critical feedback is essential to growing oneself as a person in the world.

Adam: Good! So an attitude--

Cristina: It's just so great to watch a student go through that process of struggle. Have a teacher believe in them. And then at the end, they really have a result that they can be proud of.

Class: [applause and cheers]

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At New Mexico School for the Arts (NMSA) -- a dual arts and academic curriculum -- failure is taught as an important part of the journey toward success. Understanding that mistakes are indicators for areas of growth, freshmen learn to give and receive feedback. By senior year, students welcome tough, critical feedback -- and even insist on it.

When Natesa, a senior at NMSA, arrived as a freshman, she had a hard time pushing herself in the areas that were difficult for her to master: choreography and getting into character. "Now, I feel like I can channel my inner self and my inner fierceness when I need it, and even my inner beauty," reflects Natesa. "I became more willing to take risks, and I think that taking risks is a big part of who you want to become, and who you're choosing to be."

A close up of a female teen with a nose ring, stud earrings, a black dance shirt, and French braids sitting in a dance studio.
Natesa, a NMSA senior

Students audition to get into an NMSA program specific to their craft -- dance, theater, music, or visual arts. Each day, they have their academic classes from 9AM to 2PM, and after lunch, they have their art classes until 4:45PM.

"Students have to take risks," says Cristina Gonzalez, the former chair of NMSA's visual arts department. "That’s something that is so unique to learning in the arts. Great art comes from risk taking, from being willing to fail. Maybe it will work. Maybe I'll discover something about myself, something about my capacity that I wasn't even aware of, and that's so exciting for a student."

If you want to help your students develop a growth mindset -- the belief that they can improve their abilities through effort -- helping them become more comfortable with risk-taking and modeling critical feedback through critique journals are two of NMSA's strategies that you can adapt to your own practice.

How It's Done

Teach Your Students That It's OK to Make Mistakes

Making mistakes, not knowing the answer -- this is part of the artistic process. "You're going to make bad paintings," says Gonzalez. "You're going to make bad photographs. You're going to fumble your way through it, and in fact, that's how you learn. You need to make those mistakes."

The idea that you learn from your mistakes is embedded into their entire arts curriculum. Teacher, expert, and peer critiques are innate to the arts process. Immediate feedback is part of the norm. You might pause your piano student in mid-rehearsal to say, "When you get here, make sure you get a really clean pedal on the B flat, but that was great. That's the kind of energy you want." In dance class, you might tell your students how they need to rotate their legs differently when taking their demi-plié in first position.

When ninth-grade theater students rehearse their Working in Silence scenes, they perform in front of their peers and faculty, receive feedback from their teachers, and then re-perform the scene to immediately incorporate their feedback.

"Getting to do the scenes a couple different times really helps because then we get to take the feedback and we get to apply it, and that is the whole learning process," says Kara, a ninth-grade theater student. "If you fail, then you can do it again, and you could make big leaps and bounds and learn from that."

Related Article: Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes

Teach Your Students to Take Risks

You can connect risk taking -- and helping your students build comfort around it -- to their interests outside of school. Gonzalez has students in her class who enjoy skateboarding. She draws connections to risk taking by referencing their experience with trying a new trick. "A skateboarder knows what it feels like to try a new trick, how scary it is that they actually might fall," she says. "They could get hurt, and all their buddies are watching. We ask them to do that every day in the art studio."

With any art form, students can fall into a pattern of doing what they're comfortable with or what they're good at doing without risking something new because they don't want to make a mistake. "It's our job as teachers to go, 'Do that new new trick. Go to the precipice,'" explains Gonzalez. By encouraging your students, you're helping them to explore their craft and expand their ability -- whether they execute a new technique right out of the gate or over time with feedback and practice. Either way, they see that taking risks pays off.

"Failure isn’t the end of the road," explains Cindy Montoya, NMSA's principal. "You learn from failure. It gives you more information on how to do something better. It’s fodder for success. It’s a cycle of either learning about yourself, the content, or your art form."

Teach Your Students to Appreciate Feedback

Once your students go through the process of applying constructive feedback to improve their work -- and once they create something beautiful as a result -- they'll see its value. They'll learn to appreciate and even want feedback. "Being able to accept critique and not feel hurt by it is an important skill for us to learn," says Serena, a 10th-grade student. "We're taking those critiques and learning how to put them to use."

Creating something, receiving feedback, and revising their work is a natural part of the artistic process that your students can apply toward their academic classes. "The strengths and skills that these artists come to us with are hard work and a willingness to keep trying," says Geron Spray, an English and history teacher. "They have perseverance, they take constructive criticism well, and they build on it."

It's not uncommon to hear students say, "I'm not good at math," or "I'm bad at writing essays." An arts education helps students to see that they can improve at their craft with effort. They can become better at math. They can become better at writing essays. "They start to see that connection between struggling through the practice, getting feedback, going in for help, and the outcome," says Eric Crites, NMSA's assistant principal.

"It's just so great to watch a student go through that process of struggle, have a teacher believe in them, and then at the end, they have a result that they can be proud of," adds Gonzalez.

Teach Your Students How to Provide Critical Feedback

Model Critical Feedback Through Critique Journals

Give your students journals to write down the feedback they receive from you. It's a way for them to store immediate feedback from each day to review and apply later, and it also allows you to model giving constructive criticism. When providing feedback to your students, share both their successes and areas for improvement, and be specific.

"Feedback is fundamental to growing oneself as an artist," says Adam McKinney, the chair of NMSA's dance department. "I try to model what it means to provide critical feedback to my dancers." One way that the dance department models critical feedback is through dance journals.

Throughout class, students write their teacher's feedback in their dance journal. For example, says McKinney, a student might write, "'When I'm taking my demi-plié in first position, rotate from the top of my legs so that my knees are going over my first and second toes.' For me, that next level of cognition -- to understand the feedback, realize the importance of the feedback, and then to incorporate that into their bodies -- is essential as young artists."

Give Your Students Opportunities to Provide Critical Feedback

By giving constructive criticism to their peers, your students will learn to better appreciate receiving feedback and they'll improve their skills to self-assess their own work. "Having young artists provide critical feedback to each other provides a deeper understanding and another layer of what it means to get better as an artist," says McKinney. "That critical feedback is essential to improving one's art."

Related Article: The Power of Critique and Redrafting

NMSA develops students' abilities to assess their own and others' work through showing them examples of mastery, equipping them with technical vocabulary, and providing them with opportunities to practice peer critique through fishbowl discussions, Visual Thinking Strategies, and Post-it note critiques (See Mastering Self-Assessment: Independent Learning Through the Arts).

"Our students have learned that they can receive feedback -- even negative feedback," says Crites, "make a correction, and then come up with something amazing."

"We develop this idea of self-reflection very early in the department," adds McKinney. "Why are you a dancer? Why is that important to the world? I know that the power of art saves lives. I have several young people in the department -- and who have graduated -- who communicate that art has saved their lives, and it certainly saved my own."

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John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Jordan, This year our entire elementary school embraced the growth mindset. In fact, we have a family night tomorrow night for all school families to learn more about the growth mindset and what they can do at home to encourage it. Already it has been really successful at providing even our youngest students language around how they can do their best, take risks by challenging themselves, and work on growing their brains. In fact, I would argue it is much easier to do at this younger level before their mindset becomes too fixed. If more educators and schools take this on, it would pay off in the upper grades down the road. All too often I see elementary children give up or take on their parents school experience and say "I'm not a math person" or "I wasn't a reader." In my 1-2 classroom, my students reflect often, take risks ALL the time (even my introverts), and are great at given and taking feedback from adults and peers. It takes a lot of work and must be intentionally taught throughout the year, but it can be done and is SO WORTH IT. It is best done when the whole school is on the same page. Ideally each year the concepts build and some similar language is used throughout the school and as the students get older the language becomes broader and complex but centers on the same growth mindset ideas.

Natalie Durham's picture
Natalie Durham
Piano Teacher at Hoffman Academy

Great post! As a music teacher, I particularly think the part about "taking risks" is important. It's very common for music students---especially those who are playing at high levels--to feel reluctant to take risks musically, especially if it means they might make more technical mistakes. But reluctance to take risks can lead to uninteresting performances, and hitting a plateau in musical growth.

Cagri Kanver's picture
Cagri Kanver
Interested in Education Information

Face your fear

"The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but, it is fear" Gandhi

Marshall Barnes's picture
Marshall Barnes
Founder, Director of SuperScience for High School Physics

I just want to say that I've witnessed a quantum leap (and yes, I actually now what that phrase really means) in the embracing of failure as a concept from what it used to be, which I find suspect. It comes from how I've seen it misapplied in the innovation industry, and now I'm seeing it here. No one thought of "failure" in art or music class when I was coming up or "fear". Fear of painting? Fear of taking a bad photograph? Such concepts were never in our lexicon all through K - 12 and I was in an original Arts Impact school! Never did teachers talk about fear or failure - they talked about how to do things the right way for best results and how to fix our mistakes to be better.

I'm just identifying that there's something dramatically different in our society, when it even has to be discussed, on how not to be afraid to draw a picture!

Chris Rolon's picture
Chris Rolon
university faculty in physical therapy

I appreciate the connection of fear and students' aversion to making mistakes. I think many times students need the affirmation from positive feedback, whether it is verbal or written in the form of a grade. Many students learn from a young age to seek the affirmation and avoid the criticism- no matter how constructive. I think students fear the loss of self worth.

Melissa Chandler's picture

As a music teacher, I agree with teaching a growth mindset through the arts. I have been successful in getting my elementary students to be willing to make mistakes and know that they can improve with effort. I am excited to try some new ideas from this article about using feedback constructively. Writing is a high leverage strategy for our school progress plan. I want to create student journals (perhaps digitally) where the students can record my feedback, peer feedback, or self-assessment. I give students verbal feedback after every formative assessment, but it would be really helpful for them to have a record of it. We could then take this feedback and have students apply it self-reflectively at various points so they can externalize their progress. This will also help them develop their skills at critique using musical vocabulary. As young students, they often struggle with this and typically use only the simplest level of analysis.

Kathleen Robson's picture

"Practice makes permanent."

The words of Neil Swapp, the Music Department Chair, resonate with me. As a music teacher I often have students declaring the hours of practice that they have committed to a piece of music only to discover that they had been reading or interpreting something wrong. I feel the frustration of the student when they have to return to the start and not only learn the task but in some cases undo habits.

I take from this article the importance of not fearing feedback. If my students were to have more access to feedback, either from peers or the teacher, how much more effective would their practice be? How can students be more open to critique so that they aren't hurt by it?

I was reminded of a Ted Talk featuring Eduardo Briceno called, "How to get better at the things you care about", November, 2016. Briceno discusses two Zones, the Learning Zone and the Performance Zone. Essentially, schools are too focused on assessing and working within the Performance Zone, which requires minimal errors. The Learning Zone, however, is a place where students can make errors and explore learning. He argues that for growth, students need to constantly return to the Learning Zone. He outlines four points to achieving learning: Have a growth mindset, have a goal, practice deliberately, and allow for failure.

Students participating in a low-stakes learning environment where they aren't living in fear of performance failure and marks but, instead, embracing it, seems to be an essential strategy for learning. It's a strategy I am planning to employ more and more in my classroom.

kdmillar68's picture

Growth mindset methods are greatly connected to Self-efficacy and self-regulated learning techniques, these educational methodologies can provide a significant increase in the learning and performance stages of a student's learning process. Incorporating the ability to learn from one's failures is a fundamental component to achieve mastery of knowledge and skills. There is a great TED talk by Eduardo Briceno, that outlines the power of growth mindset and developing self-efficacy within different learning areas. I loved the ideas of having the student's create a feedback journal.

Yanglish's picture

"Learning starts with failure; the first failure is the beginning of education."
~John Hersey

Ashmita Chatterjee's picture

It is very important to embrace students mistake and encourage them to learn the correct thing. Scolding or punishing students will make them shy and that will lead to fright of facing people, Students may turn aggressive and may not at all put effort to correct them or may become withdrawal. It was really interesting to go through the video and the article. It has rightly been stated that failure is the path to success. Thus I personally feel yes it is very important to identify the mistake and groom children accordingly. Students must learn to face it and be strong enough to stand-up and run again...

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