Teaching How To Fail Shouldn’t Be An Option

This is just a short rant about something that’s been buzzing around my head for a while. Feel free to ignore it.

Over the past few months, at several conferences, in a webinar or two, in more than a few articles, and in a long Twitter discussion, I’ve heard some variation of the “it’s ok to fail” trope. Usually accompanied by the idea that we as teachers need to teach kids “how to fail”.

That’s garbage and we need to stop saying it. Especially to our students.

Failure is not a good thing. It’s not something that builds character. It should not be a part of our instruction.

Instead, we should be teaching students an iterative process that identifies possible errors and fixes the problems as they are identified. NASA calls that midcourse correction. Some relate it to design thinking.

I rather like the very simple way that Mitch Resnick from the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT explains it in this creative cycle.

Creative cycle

Whatever you want to call it, the whole “permission to fail” business should have no place in our instruction.

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.

When Do Kids Have Time For Failure?

We hear a lot from politicians and education reformers about teaching kids to be creative. Learn to be innovative. Helping them develop an entrepreneurial spirit. Teaching them “how to fail”.

However, in the real world creative results come from experimentation. Innovators are those who do something different with familiar parts and processes. Failure results when trying something other than a prescribed recipe, then learning how to fix it.

And these are all things schools largely discourage in students, even punish them for on occasion.

If kids ask questions in class, we expect them to ask the right ones, or at least the ones we anticipated in the lesson plans.

In the world of school math there’s one “right” answer. Science classroom experiments have one established conclusion. The writings of Shakespeare, as presented in English texts, have a single set of interpretations. In music everyone sings from the same score.

Since the over-riding goal of most schools is the highest passing rate possible on the annual standardized tests, when are students allowed to be creative or innovative (something I think is a natural instinct, not learned)? How can they experiment in the learning process if everything is prescribed for them?

When do they learn “how to fail” when we have already decided on the “intervention” process if they do?

Failure is Just One Option

A few weeks ago I noticed a large sign hanging in a high school classroom that read “Failure is not an Option”. Since the poster had no obvious historical connection, to the Apollo program, for example, 1 I gathered it was supposed to be motivational for the kids.

But is that really a philosophy you want to teach students? That you want them to adopt?

Even if you go back to the space race example, no one working on that complex project actually believed everything would be completely error free. On the contrary, they knew that  something was going to fail at some time. Which is why they prepared for failure, spending a relatively large amount of time and effort planning, modeling, practicing for what everyone would do when something went wrong.

In a few weeks, the students of our overly-large school district will be in the middle of testing season, and their teachers are already making clear (directly or by implication) that failing to pass the SOLs (or whatever the high stakes tests are called in your state) is not an option. Or at least one that will be very unpleasant for everyone concerned.

However, instead of telling kids that failure is not an option, that it’s something to be reviled and feared, we should helping them understand how best to cope with situations that don’t go according to plan. Creating a plan B (maybe even plan C). Find a new approach. Repurpose the pieces of a project that doesn’t work.

Learn that failure IS an option, and to think of it as a starting point, not the end of the line.

Recovering From Failure

The New York Times Learning Network blog has an interesting lesson on the topic of failure, with some good examples from sports, business, the arts and other fields.

It also asks students to consider some interesting questions about failure in their own lives and those of people they know.

Can failure be useful? Can you think of examples, from your own life or someone else’s, when it has led to something positive?

How is failure defined and dealt with in your family, your school, the activities you do outside of school, among your friends and in your community? Which of those definitions and responses to failure seem fairest or best to you? Why?

What can be done to avoid failure? Should people try to avoid it?

What is “failure” and what is “success”? Who decides?

Missing, however, is any real consideration of failure as it applies to school. What happens if you fail the midterm in English 7? What recovery options do you have for getting a bad score on the SOLs?* Suppose you get a 1 on an AP test?

We really don’t deal well with the concept of failure in school, especially in helping students learn from it and discovering options for recovery. Maybe in sports, possibly the arts or other “non-academic” contests. But for most kids, failing a class or a grade means they will repeat it.

But the most likely scenario is that they get to cover the same content, often using the same materials and teaching techniques, often in the compressed time frame of summer school. And usually with only slightly better results, not anything we might call “success”.

Doing the same thing in the same way hoping for different results.

Is that how people recover from failure in real life?


*For those outside of Virginia, that’s the acronym for our spring standardized tests.