As the seniors I teach wrap up their final year of high school, I have one hope for them above all others: I hope they have their share of failures along the way. After all, we need to let kids fail.
All of my students know this is what I think. They know it because I have made it clear that if all they do is succeed, I have failed as a teacher. Plus they know that I am trying to push them beyond their current capabilities. With that, I anticipate them stumbling along the way. Finally, they know from the moment they step into my classroom that it is okay, even mandatory, to make mistakes.
I suspect part of the reason they trust the process is because I make a point of showing them my own failures. For instance, I tell them all about getting fired from my job as department coordinator, a failure that led to my work as a freelance writer and photographer. They love the story of how I shattered my wrist trying to learn to snowboard at age 40, which is a failure that prompted my love of skiing. We talk all the time about failures and lessons learned.
Every time I personally blow it or let kids fail, I see another teachable moment. Only through failure can people really learn, develop perseverance and resilience, and grow.
Good teachers want to let kids fail.
Miscalculations are the necessary precursors to mastering calculus. The courage to grossly mispronounce a word in a foreign language class is a stepping stone to fluency. Even the sloppiest stylistic risks taken while drafting an essay can lead a young writer to find her voice.
When failure is not embraced in a classroom, kids shy away from it. Too often schools teach kids to strive only for excellence and a high grade. The inherent risk in that scenario is creating risk-averse kids. Rather than hazarding an original idea they have, they bottle it up and simply regurgitate what their teacher has said. The “right” answer earns them a good grade, and they see that as success.
When they succeed, they are praised. That praise feels good, so they continue to censor their thinking to focus tightly on the “right” answer. It becomes an endless loop that restricts real learning.
When students don’t perform perfectly and we let kids fail, in addition to praise for what they did well, they receive feedback about areas that need improvement. That is a big difference.
The key is managing expectations. Students need to know not only that they are allowed to fail, but that they are encouraged and expected to fail. When kids expect to struggle, they are generally fine with it.
Rather than sitting passively in class, waiting for the teacher to tell them the right answer so they can later repeat it and get a good grade, students become actively engaged. Knowing failure is okay, they start voicing educated guesses. When they are wrong, they begin to enjoy rethinking and trying again.
From failure comes perseverance and resilience.
The first thing kids learn by failing is perseverance. Kids don’t need to be crushed by offering a wrong answer. Instead of frustration and self-doubt, it’s an opportunity to encourage excitement. Wrong answers are now cause to rush back to their desks and try something new. It begins to feel like a game.
This is why kids love sports, or music, or art. They are naturally wired to problem solve, and they simply need permission to engage in problem solving’s most important steps: thinking, testing, failing, and rethinking. No one gives up in a basketball game because another player crossed them up and got to the hoop. They try a new form of defense. Kids learning a new guitar riff are willing to fail hundreds of times before they can play it. In those areas failure is encouraged. We just need to get that into the classroom more consistently.
When failure is embraced as the key to learning, students begin searching out opportunities to stretch themselves. They vocalize theories with their peers as part of a process to unlock the truth rather than as a contest to see who is supposedly “right.” They become willing to voice partial answers and listen as others fill in the gaps. Classroom exercises become more collaborative. Rather than crushing them, daily failures are met with a laugh and a recommitment to try things a different way.
In the event they hit a real dead end and their failure is more complete, they learn how to bounce back and start the process anew.
Let kids fail, and you will see real growth.
The theory of growth mindset was popularized by Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford University. Her concept is the foundation for why I want to see my students failing in my class rather than breezing along without struggle.
Peter Bregman, writing for the Harvard Business Review, sums the theory up nicely. “If you believe that your talents are inborn or fixed,” he writes, “then you will try to avoid failure at all costs because failure is proof of your limitation. People with a fixed mindset like to solve the same problems over and over again. It reinforces their sense of competence.”
By contrast, a person with a growth mindset believes that their “talent grows with persistence and effort and so they then seek failure as an opportunity to improve. People with a growth mindset feel smart when they’re learning, not when they’re flawless.”
This is the underlying lesson I want to teach every day. Students’ intellects are not fixed but capable of growth. Growth is not easy and requires lots of failed attempts. If they take nothing else away from my classes, I hope students learn that failure leads to growth. If teachers manage that, we will be churning out innovative and excited learners ready to tackle our world’s most complex problems—problems my graduating seniors will be tasked with solving.
So, as I wish my seniors a bright future, I will also be wishing them some sleepless nights, figuring out how to bounce back from life’s inevitable failures.