Why Failure Is Actually a Good Thing
I was walking the other day and passed a skateboard park. In the park was a lone kid, probably no older than 14, and he was trying various tricks on the concrete structures placed in the park for skateboarders to work with. What I was amazed at was how many times this kid tried to grind his board on the edge of a concrete wall, only to fail. Yet he would relentlessly try again, determined to get the move down, until after about fifteen, twenty minutes, he successfully planted the edge of the skateboard on the wall and slid down it a few feet. The look on this kid’s face spoke volumes about how happy he was about his accomplishment. I couldn’t help but wonder if he had that same dedication to a math problem, or a particularly difficult essay. How many times would a kid be willing to fail? I’m not sure he would have the endurance for that.
Why is this? One of the problems is that we don’t let kids fail enough. I’m not saying allowing kids to flunk a class. I mean creating a classroom environment where students are encouraged to try something outside of their comfort zone that they may fail at. Give them something that is above their head and see how they respond to it. It would be the equivalent of noticing that a 2nd grader is really good at addition and subtraction so you give her a few multiplication problems to see how she handles them. She might be completely stumped and unable to comprehend how to multiply. She may surprise you, though, and get a couple of them. The point though it not that she succeed, the point is that she be challenged.
As learners, we tend to do the best, more effective learning when we feel a little uncomfortable. In fact, being pushed to the brink of failure causes a lot of people to be very innovative and come up with things they would not have had, they had it easier or more resources. Take James Dyson, for example. You hear the name Dyson, and you think of one of his innovative products such as the bagless vacuum cleaner, the automatic hand dryer, or the bladeless fan. However, it took him 5126 failed prototypes before landing on the idea of his vacuum. That’s a lot of failure. But he learned from each one of them before he produced the bestselling vacuum in the world.
Kids come by this naturally too. Think about how many times a child fell while trying to walk but got right back up and tried again. Could you imagine if that child simply folded his arms and said, “Na-ah. Not going to try to walk anymore.” The same goes for playing sports. How many times does a kid strikeout before learning to hit the curveball? Or how many times must a figure skater fall before landed the jump? Basketball involves many more misses than buckets made and football is a sport where most of the plays are stopped or fail. You see this mostly in the playing of video games. A kid will try hundreds of times to defeat a level, failing time and time again, and yet persevering unless getting past it.
One thing to consider doing regularly in the classroom is using the STEM design process that engineers use in their profession. What is so effective about the design process is the constraints that are put on the project and the possibility of failure that causes people to think of creative solutions. You are told what not to do and what you are allowed to use. These limited resources cause one to be creative about the solution and not always taking the easy way out. It causes one to have to fail in order to succeed. It allows people to take risks and to do so in the spirit of learning. In this process “F” simply means “Find” another answer. Failure is built into the process, as evidenced by the “improve” step in the process. They realize you are not going to get it right the first time, so what are ways you can learn from the failure and improve the product to be better?
The issue though, is changing the mindset of not only the student but the teacher as well. Teachers sometimes feel immense pressure to be the expert of the classroom, and part of this role is having all the answers or knowing what is going on all of the time. Because of this, teachers may play it safe and not be willing to try something that would benefit their students because they are afraid of failing. I have to evaluate my staff and they just freak out if they are rated a skilled versus an accomplished. One of them even commented to me, “I have never been anything but accomplished before.” If our teachers are afraid to not be perfect, isn’t that going to naturally rub off on the students?
The power of failure is that by building an endurance to it and losing your fear of it, you are going to be so much more willing to take risks. It is these risks that produce high-quality work and allows the students to grow more as learners. The real-world application here, of course, is that in life, we are going to fail several times. There are usually two reactions to this failure. One is the response of shutting down. I failed, so I’m never going to try that again. The other one is learning from the failure and either trying again or trying it another way in order to have success. What are we doing in the classroom to ensure that our students take the second path?