The Value of Failure?

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about the value of failure.

Sounds counterintuitive, I know.  But last week, I went with the other teachers at my school to the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) conference for a day.  I expected lots of information about how we can set our students up to succeed, but in two different workshops, the presenters talked about the importance of letting students fail sometimes.

One teacher was describing an impressively complex and student-driven project he calls the “World Peace Game,” and he explained that he sets the game up to “fail massively” at first.  Another teacher was talking about how she lets her students choose their own teams for a challenge-based learning unit, but only after she has set them up to “safely fail” at picking suitable groups for an earlier project.  That way, they can choose more wisely when the stakes are higher.

There are several reasons why teachers might want to allow their students to fail.  Some kinds of failure can teach a specific lesson.  I still remember the “quiz” that taught me to read the directions carefully before beginning any assessment.  I was in elementary school, and the quiz had all sorts of complicated questions.  Most of us slogged through problem after problem, sweating and grumbling at our little desks, but a few kids just sat there contentedly, giggling at the rest of us.  Turns out the directions said to turn the paper over without answering any of the questions.  After failing at that task, I learned my lesson for good. (But I also felt pretty duped by my teacher.)

In addition to teaching specific lessons, failure can also lead to success.  As both presenters at NAIS suggested, when students experience failure (preferably without any drastic consequences), they can learn from their mistakes, take more responsibility for their learning, and figure out how to succeed later on.

And more than that, we’re all going to fail sometimes.  As the teacher who designed the “World Peace” game put it, failure is a part of life.   Things are going to go wrong, so we want to help our students become resilient.  One way to do develop resilience is to experience failure and see that you can deal with it.

I know this rationally, but it isn’t easy to watch kids struggle.  It isn’t easy as their teacher, and I’m sure it really isn’t easy as their parent.  It isn’t even easy for me as a writer to let a fictional person fail.  But I like the idea of allowing for “safe” failure, and I’ve been thinking about ways I can incorporate safe failures into my teaching.

This could be as simple as including difficult but ungraded writing challenges—things like writing a poem that follows a strict form or writing for a set amount of time and then having a set amount of time to cut the word count in half without losing content.  I can also work on setting the bar high for writing assignments and then being truly rigorous about evaluating the work, even if that means that students do poorly at first and have to revise one or more times before they have succeeded, or I can give students more flexibility in choosing groups, even if I don’t think their groups will work, to let them problem-solve and manage conflict.

Letting students fail is scary because it involves giving up some control, and it’s hard to ensure that the failure will really be safe. I mean, I can ensure that everyone will be physically safe, but is it still a “safe” failure if two students argue during failed group work and one really gets her feelings hurt?  And is it still a safe failure if a student ends up with a slightly lower grade for the marking period?  It’s difficult to factor in opportunities for safe failure when grades matter so much to people and everybody always feels short on time.  But if we really want to help students develop resilience, then maybe we do need to let them struggle and rebound sometimes…just as we writers have to let our characters suffer and bounce back in order to create compelling fiction, and just as we’ve all had to do, in large and small ways.

3 Responses to “The Value of Failure?”

  1. laurasibson

    Laurie, thank you for this thoughtful and provocative post. Your students are fortunate to have a teacher who gives so much consideration to their learning and welfare. This topic has been brought up at my son’s school, too. As you note, failure is a good teacher and when it is couched in a safe learning environment or a loving family, all the better. Like you, I find it painful to watch children struggle. I’d like nothing more than to fix all their problems, but as my two sons go full on into adolescence, I see clearly the benefit of allowing them to fall and watch as they develop the specific satisfaction of learning to pick themselves back up. This goes for our fiction, too. The most interesting stories are not the ones in which the character wins all the time (where’s the story in that?). The satisfying stories are the ones in which the character must struggle and fight and overcome whatever odds are in the way of what she wants. Thank you for helping me to think about this on a deeper level.

  2. L. Marie

    It takes a brave and caring teacher to consider how to help her students fail safely. I agree with Laura. Your students are fortunate to have you. I’m also fortunate to have the parents I’ve had. When I was growing up, in order to learn my way around my home city, my dad reminded me that I would probably get lost trying to navigate my way through it. But that was okay. I would learn from my mistakes. He was right. That taught me to try and keep on trying, even if I failed. Like Laura, I also appreciate the reminder to allow my characters to fail–to not protect them from failure, just like my parents didn’t try to “save me” from failing. So, thanks for this post, Laurie!

  3. Sandra Nickel

    Ah, yes. Not getting it right is how we learn to make it right. And I do believe that learning to turn a failure into a success is one of the most fulfilling, confidence-building events that can happen to anyone, adult or child. Thanks for reminding us.