Learning to Fail

Posted: 12th October 2016 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

This year I started at a new school that has an active and interested parent community who wants to know more about what is happening in their children’s classes.  To help this, I started a blog on our school website.  I’m hoping to use this forum as a means to start different conversations with the community.  What follows is a post that came out of some of the work of our recent PD day.  We’re trying eliminate the “f word” mentality to failure.  What do you think?

I don’t know if there is anything more difficult for parents to do than to watch their child fail at something.  Whether it is a sport, an academic task, a developmental milestone, or a social situation that just goes frustratingly wrong for your child, failure of any kind is painful to watch.  Do you give them a nudge and help them succeed?  Or should you set them up for success by altering the task to make it manageable or to eliminate the possibility of failure?  Or do you bite your tongue, sit on your hands and watch them fail, with their tears/disappointment/anger/frustration weighing heavily on you?

On our recent Professional Activity Day, the staff at our school spent some time discussing failure.  Here are a few of the thoughts we discussed.

Some amount of failure is not only inevitable, but important to a child’s growth and learning.  It’s true – as painful as it may be to watch a student fail, we know that some of our best learning comes out of experiencing failure.  You fail, learn from your mistakes, reflect on what you could do differently, develop motivation to try again, and then try again.  Hard won success out of failure can often equal really good learning.

Failure is an indication that learning is difficult.  We want the learning our students do to be challenging.  If learning comes too easily, it means we aren’t ensuring that those students are learning to their full potential.  But hard learning means that there will be failure along the way.  Which would you prefer?  Hard-earned deep learning or easily achieved more superficial learning?  The truth is, we need a balance of both, but we can’t avoid that difficult learning.

Perseverance can be tied to a student’s willingness to try (and fail).  In the education world, there has been lots of talk in recent years about developing perseverance or “grit” in students as a key indicator of rich learning.  When you look at many of the key skills we are measuring in student achievement (problem solving in mathematics, inquiry skills in language and social studies, for example), a student’s ability to persevere through difficult learning is vital.  Ironically, this mindset of perseverance that is essential to student success in difficult learning, is inhibited by a student’s worry about failing.  Too often we see students unwilling to even attempt a task because they are afraid to fail.  We have a difficult job to convince students to put that fear behind them and give it a try…so that they can be more successful.

So what are we doing about it?

We’re talking about failure.  Whether it is on morning announcements or in class meetings, staff are committed to making failure a topic of discussion.  If we take away the taboo of the topic, we hope students will be more willing to see it as a necessary part of life and learning.

We’re modelling failure.  We know that school staff are learning role models for our students.  So, we are “thinking aloud” our own failures and showing students how we own them and then modelling the process we take to move past them.  I even wrote about it in my professional blog to share my own learning from failure.  You can see that here, if you are interested.  https://kkeerybishop.commons.hwdsb.on.ca/2016/07/11/fail/

We’re providing opportunities for “hard” learning.  We know that we need to offer students tough problems and deep learning that will stretch them.  We know that it may mean that we have to bite our tongues when students start working on a math problem and go awry.  Sometimes we don’t “save” them right away, but let them work through the problem, misconceptions and all, to let them come to the realization on their own that they are wrong.  And then we let them figure out where they are going next.  Many of our lessons involve conversations about those misconceptions and what led to them because this is a rich source of learning for students.  Hard learning, but rich.

Please don’t misunderstand.  We are not trying to set our students up to fail.  We want them to succeed at learning widely and deeply.  The truth is, though, that to do that we will have to help them experience failure along the way.  Just like every parent who watched their children learn to walk had to also watch them fall at times, we know that we’ll have to weather some difficult experiences of failure with our students in order to help them find success.

  1. adunsige says:

    I love that you’re looking at “failure” as a school, and the value that “failure” can have in learning. You mentioned that you started a blog on your school website, and I’m assuming that this “failure” topic was addressed there. I’d be curious if some of your school approaches to failure are being used at home, and anything you’re noticing as you make this a focus. I would love to know if a “focus on failure” leads to increased student success. Good luck with a great focus!