How to Succeed at Failing

Nobody likes to fail. At its best it’s an embarrassing moment, hidden with furtive looks and quick coverups, at its worst, failing is humiliating, debilitating, and demoralizing. In response, many people try to fail as little as possible, fear of looking silly, unprepared, or untalented causes many people to not try at all for fear of being judged. How then do we change our attitude towards failure? The first step is creating culture.

Oftentimes our fear of failure does not come from ourselves. It comes from the pressure we take on from parents, teachers, peers, friends, and even strangers. We do not worry about how we will perceive ourselves after failure, but about how others will perceive us and our abilities. The first step in eliminating that pressure is to create a culture that does not make judgements but rather discusses. As a teacher you have tremendous power in creating that culture. It is absolutely worth your time to teach your students what appropriate behavior is in your classroom. If you do it right, you create a classroom where a wrong answer isn’t laughed at, and a stuttered speech isn’t met with eye rolls. Once students understand how to disagree, react, discuss, and question appropriately, it is important to model failing. The amount that you want to fail, depends on your ability to pick yourself up and remain on track.

As you teach students to perform new tasks both mental and physical, it is important to remember that it is human nature to fail at and need practice with new tasks. In fact one of the best ways to fully understand and learn a new concept is it fail at it because you learn you to navigate the pitfalls and difficulties of accomplishing a certain task so that you can manage unpredictability and variation better than if you had never struggled in the first place. To this end i think that it is valuable to show your students how to fail and get back on track. You can do this in two ways. Pretending to fail and actually failing. Make no mistake that your kids will see right through your lies though. They can still learn a lot from a false fail but you might miss out on connecting with your students by failing with them. I think that the middle ground is practicing your failure before you model it to your students. This way you have an idea of what strategies or ideas will be most useful to your students, but you can also show them how you have actually struggled with a text, or new idea.

I think that it’s important that students not only learn how to fail properly, or “fail forward”, so that they learn from their mistakes and learn that they can try again. But i also think that modeling ¬†failing is important because it humanizes the process of learning. Modeling failing teaches kids that learning is a constant process and that even those who supposedly know what they’re talking about still struggle and face challenges as they continue to grow and learn as people. Modeling failing also teaches kids that you’re more than a teacher, that you are also a student, learning alongside them, sharing the struggle and not sitting on a pedestal high above. Though it must be done carefully, i think that modeling and teaching the art of failing and failing forward would be beneficial to students for a variety of reasons, but mostly because it teaches them that nobody is perfect, and most importantly that having to practice, try again, or get help is not a bad thing, but in fact, probably the best thing they could do to succeed.


One thought on “How to Succeed at Failing

  1. You make a strong case for modeling failure because it can help students see how a more experienced learner perseveres. Your post also made me think about how important it is for us as teachers to ask our students to reflect on their learning processes. Identifying what went wrong AND what went well can help students be more intentional about how they will learn in the future.


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