Teaching Failure

How learning to fail can produce the biggest gains in life

We absolutely love walking into kindergarten classrooms. There is a richness in colors that cover the walls, activities, and learning stations can be found scattered across the room, and let’s face it, those cubbies are so cute and smell so much better than the lockers we have in our middle schools.

But, in the midst of the excitement and newness, there is something else happening, a phenomenon that is often missing from our middle school classrooms. You see it when kindergarten teachers ask their students what happens next in a picture book they are sharing. You see it when they pass out markers and crayons and ask their students to draw and create a picture. You are overwhelmed by it when the kindergarten teachers asks the class an open-ended question, and virtually every hand shoots up into the air.

Kindergarten students do not fear failure. They eagerly give answers with no fear of consequences for being wrong, and they attempt new challenges without lamenting their lack of experience with the challenge.

Fast-forward six or seven years and these same students are in our middle school classrooms. Yet now, they fear failure. Very few volunteer answers or take risks in their learning. Students avoid eye contact, they rarely go beyond the expectations for assignments, and they are often focused on the grade, not the learning.

Our classrooms have also changed from what they experienced in kindergarten. We institute rubrics and minimum scores on assignments and we design lessons and activities to help eliminate the possibility of our students failing. When students do fail, teachers often focus on the consequences—the act of failure—and not on the opportunity for learning it presents.

Certainly, there is a variety of reasons for this change in student behavior, including their psychological, cognitive, and social-emotional development as described in This We Believe. However, we would theorize that schools and education in general have played a role in transforming student behavior too by associating the act of failure with negative consequences. What would our classrooms be like if all students acted like their inner kindergartner?

More importantly, we have witnessed in our own teaching the power and benefits that can be achieved when our students are allowed to fail. When we removed the fear of failing from our classrooms, and adjusted our lessons to incorporate failure, we began to realize amazing gains in our students, both academically and more broadly in their character.

Teaching middle school students how to fail promoted resilience, perseverance, and mindfulness. These character education traits are immensely beneficial in supporting classroom learning, but we would argue they are essential for developing the type of lifelong real world skills that students will need upon leaving school.

With this in mind, we present our roadmap for teaching failure within your classroom. Each of these suggestions incorporates an aspect of failure while building students’ resilience, perseverance, and mindfulness. For the purpose of clarity, we define resilience as the ability to bounce back with a task after experiencing failure with it; perseverance as the ability to continue with a task, despite the possibility for failure; and mindfulness as the understanding of how your failure affects yourself and others.

Seven ways to teach failure in your classroom

1. Have your students experience failure at least once a week.
Experiencing failure may sound bad at first, however, if students learn how to fail in a safe environment while they are still young, they will be able to overcome greater failures and challenges as adults. From failing in a simulation, or even a complex question, to failing at a classroom game, students will be able to recognize that these failures do not define their capabilities. Furthermore, when students are able to overcome these initial failures, they will emerge stronger and more confident about their own abilities.

2. Encourage (require) risk taking in academic and social/emotional tasks.
Encouraging academic and social/emotional risk will build self-esteem and encourage learning. Have students take these risks by answering questions or completing a project that may be new to them, like creating a video instead of writing a report. Ask students to do things they are uncomfortable with, like talking to adults in the community or presenting to an audience. Encourage students to try new foods or join new clubs. Students may potentially fail when taking these risks but they will be surprised how often they succeed, thus nourishing curiosity and confidence in their own abilities.

3. Students should reflect once a week on how their decisions affected others.
Students can spend the first five minutes of class once a week reflecting on their actions and the reactions of others to their actions. Students will see that some of their decisions were positive and other decisions were places in need of growth. This activity will help to instill reflective and accountability traits in students. Students will see that their actions always have repercussions on themselves and others, both positive and negative. Students will also become more accountable for their own actions because they will understand the effects their actions have on themselves, others, and the world around them.

4. Have students take a weekly inventory of everything they have accomplished during the week.
Have students create goals at the beginning of the school year and smaller weekly or bi-weekly goals. At the end of the goal period, ask students to write down the factors that lead them to achieving or not achieving their goal. Their goals should include any aspects of their lives they want to improve and do well in. Since it is student driven, it should keep students motivated and focused. If students accomplish their goal, they can create a new goal to accomplish. If students do not accomplish the goal, they can reflect on how to accomplish the goal and think of what to do better. Student goals can include anything from making a middle school team to giving someone a compliment each day. It is important that the goals be student driven to ensure student ownership and eventual success. A great way to expand on this is to spend time in class having students share with their classmates the goals they selected, the evidence of their progress towards or away from their goals, and celebrations for achieving their goals.

5. Have students participate in simulations and role-plays with ethical dilemmas.
When given a choice, people will often take the path of least resistance, and middle school students are no different. However, there are meaningful gains to be achieved when we ask our middle school students to engage in simulations and role-plays that wrestle with ethical dilemmas. A favorite activity of ours is to play “Take a Stand” with our students. In our version of this activity, we create two signs, “Agree” and “Disagree,” placing each sign on different sides of the room. We do not offer a “Maybe” or “Sometimes” option, because when offered, students will usually go to these options in order to have a safe answer. Then we read our students statements with ethical dilemmas. For example, in our social studies class we might say, “Christopher Columbus discovered America.” Students grapple with the idea of what it means to discover something, especially in light of the fact that people were already living in the western hemisphere. More importantly, having these ethical discussions helps students realize that sometimes there are no right answers, but rather multiple interpretations of questions and scenarios. This is a valuable lesson for students to learn, especially in our current “bubble test” culture that emphasizes only one correct answer for a given question.

6. Character Growth Plans (CGP)
Identifying and recognizing our failures is the first step in overcoming them. To this end, we have our students create a yearly character growth plan (CGP). Students identify at the beginning of the year a weakness in their character or something they routinely fail at. Students then provide strategies and goals they plan to undertake during the school year that address their weakness. Twice each quarter, students reflect on their progress and submit evidence of their work towards overcoming their weakness, including attempts that resulted in failure. At the end of the school year students will create a portfolio of the character growth plan, including evidence and reflections collected throughout the year. These portfolios are then shared with the class and with the school community through an organized gallery walk.

7. Encourage curiosity.
Fear of failure has helped to kill curiosity in the classroom. One of our jobs as a teacher is to rekindle a sense of curiosity within our students. To accomplish this, you could have students speculate about society, life, and general events. For example, students could speculate about the impact of driverless cars or social media on our society. To take it a step further, you can ask students questions that have no answers. For example, you could ask students if the average human life span were 30 years, how would you live your life differently? Alternatively, you could ask them what would you do differently if you knew nobody would judge you? Questions like these spark intense curiosity within students and teach them that it is ok to answer, even when there is no correct answer. In fact, it helps build in students the notion that often answers are discovered only after we have played with them through our curiosity. We highly recommend this activity for those days when you have shorter class periods. Like after a fire drill or on picture day.