Building a Perspective of Failure
“Again, again, again,” my 2-year-old son Mason chants as we look at the pile of blocks on the floor. Seconds before, standing before us was the tallest tower ever built (at least through Mason’s eyes). Well, actually, it was the fourth or fifth tallest tower ever, as the previous ones had met a similar fate. Tower construction is fun for Mason, but the falling down part is even more so. I welcome Mason’s excited response, because meltdowns and tantrums enter a parent’s mind in situations in which life does not go as planned.
Thinking about it, I realized I was caught between two worlds: At home, failure was something to be expected and accepted, but in the classroom, it was something to be feared and avoided. So what was the difference? And, more important, how could I make my classroom atmosphere regarding failure more like the atmosphere at home?
Part of the problem, I feel, is that at some point (sometime after tower-building and before 4th grade) students have been programmed to fear failure. We have managed to thrust kids into a world of success versus failure. We have forgotten that they are not all that far removed from building towers on the floor with their parents. They were not born with this mind-set; rather, we helped create it for them. In response, we must shift the view from failure as a result of the learning process to failure as being part of the learning process.
Here are some tips for encouraging students to experience failure as an important part of learning:
1. Highlight people who have persevered. The world is full of people (in both the past and the present) who have encountered failure, persevered, and succeeded. We should highlight these people not only for their successes, but also for their struggles with failure. Although reading full biographies may be too time-consuming for most of us, a more practical way to begin this type of discussion is through the use of quotes about the traits that led the people to eventual success. One suggestion is having a quote of the week for the class for reflection and discussion.
2. Don’t overreact to failure—embrace it. This is difficult because our initial reaction when a student fails is usually to offer sympathy, embrace any small success that may have occurred to protect them from failure, make comments connecting their performance to the behaviors we noticed in class, or immediately offer suggestions for improvement. Earlier this year, I learned that these types of comments could be counterproductive. A student who was so unsure about the newly introduced concepts left her entire formative assessment blank. As she handed it in to me, she said, “It’s no big deal, Mr. Parr. I’ll practice more and do it better next time.” Had I reacted to her failed attempt instead of accepting it, the situation would have played out very differently. (A week later, the same student demonstrated proficiency and continued to do so in the weeks following.)
3. Offer multiple opportunities. For students to accept failure as part of the learning process, we must make them believers. This is where teachers need to “walk the walk.” If we say that initial struggles are expected and that perseverance is key, then we need to show it. We can accomplish this through our grading practices. Whereas basing grades on a single, end-of-unit test only maintains the belief that failure is a result of the learning process, offering students multiple opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge supports a growth mind-set that embraces failure.
On a final note, a student’s perspective of failure affects not only their academic success, but also their success in life. In fact, learning to rebound from failure is one of the most important skills our students will need in their academic, professional, and personal lives. Reminding them that towers can be rebuilt might be the most beneficial thing we as teachers can do.
Kevin Parr is a 4th grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Wenatchee, Washington. A native of Michigan, Parr earned his undergraduate degree in environmental science from Central Michigan University. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, he realized his passion for teaching and working with children. Parr earned his master’s degree in elementary education from Johnson State College in Vermont in 2003. Connect with Parr on the ASCD EDge® social network, by e-mail, or through his blog.