Failure is Not a Good Thing

You would think that most educators would understand that simple idea.

But how often in the past few years have we heard someone discuss failure and students? We must teach students how to fail they tell us. Failure is essential to learning. Some even adapt a philosophy for success from Silicon Valley: fail fast, fail often.

Beyond the fact that schools are almost the last places where failure is accepted or even encouraged, I’ve always been bothered by the whole idea. And this short post (directed at those Silicon Valley types, not educators) is a great expression of why.

This advice has been taken too far and confused the word ‘mistake’ with ‘failure’. A mistake is touching the hot stove and burning your hand. A failure is setting yourself on fire and dying when you touched the stove. One of those two you learn from, the other kills you.

The advice feels like it came from a good place, but it’s been horribly twisted since. You should be confident in what you do, but know that failure can still happen — and failure is not good. That’s how you avoid failure itself — by seeing it as possible, and correcting mistakes which can lead to failure along the way, not the next time around.

Students don’t need to learn “how to fail”. They need to understand how to make lots of mid-course corrections to avoid failing in the first place.

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