Is failure part of learning?

I say, “It is and we should celebrate our failures.” You may be wondering why I would possibly want to celebrate not doing something correctly. The first step is to answer the question, “What is failure?” defines failure as “1. an act or instance of failing or proving unsuccessful and 2. nonperformance of something due, required, or expected.” For the purpose of this post I am defining failure as not getting something fully correct. Many students feel they fail when they get the wrong answer.

How many things have you learned in your life where you did not fail as a part of learning? When you learned to walk, did you fall down? When you learned to talk did you make mistakes? When you learned to ride a bike, did you have perfect balance? When you learned to multiply, did you never make a mistake? My guess is that you answer to these questions is the same as mine which is “Yes.”

The reality is that in order to learn things must be hard and we should fail at times. The video above is a great example of how a person who has definitely been a success in his field still made mistakes. He still fell short. Failure is not a negative thing. It is what you do when you fail that defines the experience. Michael Jordan would work harder to improve when he failed at something and we can see the results.

So if we can agree that failure is a part of the learning process then I must ask if that is how we currently run our schools? I feel the answer here is less clear.

Example: If a student is allowed to make up a test that he or she does poorly on then that could be an example of it being ok to fail. If that make up score is averaged with the first score then I would argue that this is not failure being ok. Any time you average grades you lower the overall grade for a student for every mistake they make. What if you substitute the make up grade for the lower grade. Then initial failure is ok. Elizabeth Wentworth is a seventh grader at MMS and when I asked her if it was ok to fail at things, she said “Sometimes it is.” Elizabeth went on to explain that when they got things wrong on a test they could make it up, sometimes. Elizabeth said that other times there is not an opportunity to make up the work so getting something wrong lowers her grade.

When you extend this idea of averaging making it not ok to fail, you see implications for GPA, college applications, eligibility to take part in sports or drama or other co-curriculur events. If you make too many mistakes then you could lose these opportunities.

What happens when it is not ok to fail? It becomes more dangerous to try. You might fail. If you do not try then you can’t fail and thus you are safe. If it is not ok to fail then you do not want to take the challenging class or push yourself to complete the more difficult task. Ultimately, when it is not ok to fail, learners, regardless of their typical grade average avoid failure (and the learning that it brings).

As Messalonskee Middle School and RSU 18 move toward a customized learning experience, we will be looking at the way that we track learner growth on standards and how we report that information to parents and students. In the future parents, students and educators will be able to access a list of learning goals and see where the learner is in the curriculum. You will be able to see the level of learning on each learning goal and see the next goal the learner will be focusing on. The learning goals will be clear and understandable and as you learn old scores will be replaced by new ones which report the learners current understanding of the goal. Issues like organization and behavior will be reported in their own location and kept separate from the score for classes like Science or Social Studies.

When I spoke to an 8th grade student, Bryce Eldridge, he told me “I have always learned from my mistakes in sports and school so I am ok with getting things wrong.” He went on to say that in school it is not ok to fail because when you get something wrong, it lowers your grade. We need to set up our reporting system to encourage growth instead of encouraging learners to avoid failure.

Although the customized learning approach is relatively new the standards based approach is not. Recently there was an article in Family Circle magazine which one of our parents shared with me that discusses the idea of grading. It is worth a read.

The video below is from a TED Talks session where a teacher is talking about how it is ok to fail and that it is actually important in the learning process. She makes some great points.

I encourage you to post your thoughts in the comment area and share this blog with others you know.

8 thoughts on “Is failure part of learning?

    • Well, I think it starts with this post. Then we need to help children and adults develop a growth mindset around learning and failing while learning. I’m still working on that. Watch for my post on growth mindset coming soon.

  1. After reading this post yet again, actually crying now. It has such a resonance for our school life and how we have approached creativity and important areas of life. Thank you very deeply for sharing

  2. I am a 9th Grader at MHS and i fail in sports and in school all the time but i learn from my mistakes. But i hate it when i fail in school because it lowers my grade. When teachers grade things i think that they should see if we did the homework and give us a grade for actually doing it and then we go over it because it is better to learn from them then to always be worried that you might get something wrong and it hurt your grade.

  3. What about this whole new learning thing called: “Learning at own pace?” is this really going to happen instead of grades in the future?

    Please Reply!

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