The Fallacy of Failure


Failure is all the rage in education circles these days—but not in the ways you might assume. Today’s failure conversation is less about academic grades or the achievement gap and more about how children react to personal letdowns, lapses, and losses.

While this emphasis on the emotional aspect of learning is well intentioned, it misses the mark when it comes to equipping students with true growth mindset. In fact, Carol Dweck found it necessary to dispel common misconceptions and misapplications of growth mindset, a term she coined. As she explained, growth mindset is a thoroughly researched, proven educational tool—but only when employed correctly.

The Failure Fanatics

I also see growth mindset regularly misconstrued, particularly when educators declare how they actively encourage their students to embrace failure. As proud role models of failure themselves, these teachers reveal to their classes that they too fail all the time.

Ostensibly, such empathy and honesty are refreshing. For don’t we want every child to survive adversity with their ego and honor intact? Don’t all students require strategies to assuage their occasional feelings of difficulty, disappointment, and defeat? Isn’t mitigating mistakes a hallmark of growth mindset?

While all of these are correct, we must also realize and teach that outright failure is actually an extremely rare occurrence. Seldom are the instances when a person does not achieve some degree of accomplishment, improvement, or understanding while engaged in a serious endeavor, no matter how short of one’s goals they may have fallen. To say any important effort resulted in abject failure is to focus on the negative rather than on the multiple little triumphs, enlightenments, and headways likely gained in the process.

Figuring Out Failure

Take a moment to reflect upon the personal and professional experiences you have previously regarded as failures. Now, were those blunders, bummers, or blows really as calamitous as the word “failure” connotes? Are you still willing to classify those enterprises as utterly devoid of any redeeming objectives, efforts, insights, or advancements on your part?

Moreover, is this mindset of misfortune how you want your students to approach their education and life in general? Like it or not, this doom and gloom mentality is precisely what the word “failure” suggests.

I find it no coincidence that the term “epic fail” so trendy on social media and in student conversations took root right as teachers began exclaiming, “It’s okay to fail!” the instant a student expressed confusion, experienced challenge, or uttered an incorrect answer.

Forget Failure

Because I value precision when choosing words, I never use the word “failure” when speaking with my students. I also take issue with the popular F.A.I.L. acronym that sends this ill-considered message: Failure is merely a “First Attempt In Learning.”

Rather, every sincere attempt at learning and personal development consists of positive ventures featuring pluck, perseverance, and patience, all of which are the very factors that most often lead to eventual success. This combination of gumption, grit, and putting one’s nose to the grindstone—along with gathering assistance, advice, and encouragement from experts and allies—transforms aspirations and effort into achievement more often than not. Failure has nothing do with it.

It is not just that failure is not an option; it is that failure is not an outcome to which one should ever give much attention. For to do so is to dwell on a disaster that most likely will never materialize—and certainly not in the completely catastrophic scenario your teachers have heretofore exhorted you to embrace!

Substitutes for “Failure”

We do not fear failure in my classroom, but we do not focus on failure either. Instead, I explicitly state that struggles, setbacks, snags, and stumbles, as well as shifts and switches, are common and necessary parts of growth.

I routinely substitute words like these for “failure” as I underscore to my students that obstacles are to be expected, managed, and placed in their proper context. They are also to be used as the fodder for the wisdom that often can only be gained through direct experience and multiple earnest attempts.

There is no reason to be apprehensive about feeling stuck or stymied. In fact, these hitches and hindrances are natural and ubiquitous. If we want our students to see and share examples of growth mindset, we should focus on anecdotes of exactly how we each strategically overcame, powered through, or enlisted help in order to eventually get the job done—well, on schedule, and with plenty of satisfaction!

Together my students and I honor journeys, no matter how long and winding, and we celebrate progress, even baby steps, on the way to eventual victories. I teach my students to value process just as much as product as we each more forward just a bit each day.

If true growth mindset entails faith backed by finesse, flexibility, and fortitude, then all the more reason to downplay failure and falling flat on your face, both of which are ultimately counterproductive exaggerations that obscure the realities and rewards of rising to challenges. Instead, try featuring for your students all the positive steps and productive strategies that eventually lead to giant leaps forward and the promise of “yet.”

Robert Ward is an enthusiastic educator who is currently in his twenty-fourth year of teaching English to a wide diversity of students at public middle schools in Los Angeles. Robert is also the author of three books: The Firm, Fair, Fascinating Facilitator, The Teacher Tune-Up, and A Teacher’s Inside Advice to Parents: How Children Thrive with Leadership, Love, Laughter, and Learning.

In addition to his Rewarding Education blog, Robert’s articles have been featured by Edutopia, Education Week, the U.S. Department of Education’s “The Teacher’s Edition” newsletter, the International Literacy Association, GetConnectDAD, and UKEdChat magazine. Interact with Robert on Twitter: @RewardingEdu