Facing Failure Head-On

If at first, you don’t succeed, try and try again. The saying is easy to remember, but sometimes hard to put into practice.  We want success. We have little patience for failure, and we want what we want immediately.  Many of us shy away from struggle, mistakes, and failures. Although, they are an inevitable fact of life.  And in our school system, coming through the era of standardized testing, there is no time for failure.  The expectations are high, the stakes are high, and we must rise to meet them.

So, when I heard an administrator address his staff by saying, “It is okay to fail,” I paused.  Many Type A personalities (like myself) squirmed in their seats.  I imagine everyone’s inner monologues were much like mine: “If I fail, my kids fail.  The stakes are too high.  We can’t let kids slip through the cracks.  Our time and resources are too precious to spend on anything that won’t be 100% successful.”

Shortly after this address, I experienced my own personal “failure.”  Once I got over my initial disappointment, I reflected on what I could do differently to better position better for success.  As I crafted a plan for improvement, I created a list of steps I could take to better myself. In addition to, creating an opportunity for future success. The words of my administrator finally hit home.  Through failure, I learned a great deal.  Through failure, I would actually be better off in the long run through a process of self-reflection, revision, and refinement.  Because I “failed,” I had an opportunity to demonstrate resilience and perseverance.

Failure is a valuable experience that can be embedded into our teaching practice.

When I use the word “failure” in regards to student performance, I don’t mean in terms of lacking comprehension of concepts or failing to do the work, but rather “failure” in cultivating a culture of trial and error, taking risks, and learning from mistakes.  If our responsibility as educators is to prepare students to be college and career ready, we must also prepare them for the inevitability that things don’t always work out the first time around.

As more schools adopt cultures of inquiry based learning, of STEAM, or of the Maker Movement, we must shift away from “teaching to the test” and create an atmosphere where failure, where trial and error are okay.  Instead of focusing on getting the right answer, the focus should rather be on the process.  And we must reflect on our own teaching practices: are we allowing students opportunities to make mistakes and work through problem solving strategies, or do we hold too much control?

We need to create a school atmosphere where students are willing to take risks, without fear of failure.

This is difficult for many students, particularly those who are high-achieving, but I see the anxiety of “getting the right answer” in my students of all ages and of all backgrounds.  The arts are a great place for students to take risks, to learn from past experiences and refine performance.  In all content areas, we can cultivate this atmosphere by giving students as many opportunities to take ownership of possible solutions by giving them hands-on experience, by allowing students to engage in discourse with other children about their thinking and their problem solving processes, and through trial and error as a viable, vital problem solving method.

It is also difficult for us, as educators, to let go and give students control to reflect on errors, ask questions, and explore solutions.  We need to be willing to take the leap with our students.  I don’t suggest that we let students “fail” to the point of no return, but we will nurture a spirit of problem solving, of perseverance, and of resilience in our students by letting them learn through struggle, reflection, and refinement.