The Power of Failure

When you think of failure, your proudest moments probably don't come to mind. You think of defeat, despair, and inadequacy. Yet, some of the greatest innovations in time have been the result of failure. How can we use failure as a positive tool that teaches our students resiliency and fuels their curiosity to continue?

As a student, I was never the best. At a lot of things, I was far from the top but there was one thing that kept me going...I wanted to learn and soak up anything and everything that could make me better and I had to work hard. In our own schools we have students very much like that. We also have students who are highly intelligent and always excel and when they meet failure, they are paralyzed with what to do next. We have students who don't appear to care and are okay with "failing," although we know that is far from how they really feel.

So what can we do as educators (and parents)?  I think there are lots of ways that we can cultivate a growth mindset but there are three things that really stick out to me (at least from my experiences).

1. We have to change how we talk about failure

When I worked as a counselor, I did a lot of academic conferences with kids. In these conferences, we would discuss where they were with their grades and classes and then set goals of where they would like to be. When students used the word "fail" it was heartbreaking as to how defeated they seemed to feel.  Many times, they would say there was no point in trying because they were already failing. We had to change how we talked about failure. It was not a permanent, shameful place to be. It's called being human. Then we talked about how it was a learning experience and not a forever state of being. We have to have conversations about failure. I love the video with the founder of SPANX and how she said every night at dinner, her and her family would discuss something they failed at that day, they laughed about it, and then talked about what they learned from it. Check out the video below!! We have to change the connection that kids make with failure and embarrassment. Many times, that's why kids would give up. They were embarrassed and didn't want to to risk that feeling again through failure.

2. We have to celebrate GROWTH but still have expectations
This is such an important piece. I truly believe growth equals hope. If you don't celebrate the "in between" from where you're struggling and where you hope to be, it can be a long, unrealistic road. If you have a student making a 63 (even though it's not passing) but they went up from a 52, CELEBRATE. Obviously they are doing something to head in the right direction and we have to encourage whatever they are doing to make progress. It's important to balance celebrating progress yet still having high expectations. We want to encourage their success along the way but still have high hopes of where they are going!


3. Reflect and Support

The thing about failure is there is always something to be learned. If we want to create the connection between failure and learning, we have to make sure kids are reflecting on what exactly it is they learned from the experience. I believe that having meaningful reflection is the biggest piece in creating this growth mindset in our kids. When they experience failure and are reflecting on the why (why did it go that way) and the how (what can they do different next time), that is when the most exciting ideas and meaning come about. That's also the time when it's important to provide support. As educators we have to let them know it's normal to fail at things and the exciting thing is that there are many more chances, and we are right there to support them.


With education focusing on innovation, student choice, growth mindsets, technology, and things like maker spaces we have to change how we view, discuss, and confront failure. Our kids have to realize that they are so much more than a number, a grade, or an embarrassing moment...they can turn those moments into moments of great ideas, inspiration, and success.



-Melanie


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