It’s the end of Reading Workshop and I have asked my second graders to read an article and write about what they think the word deforestation means. This assessment prompt is supposed to be a quick check to see how things are going in our non-fiction reading unit. It is not going quickly.
I notice Lanie bent over her Chromebook, tears dripping onto the trackpad. “I can’t do it,” she says. Everything about the assessment seems hard to her. Google Classroom. The article. The typing. It is just too much. I sit down beside her and think of all of the times I have heard educators talking about failure and how important it is for our kids. But in this particular moment, when my student is unable to complete her assignment, I’m sure that the person who is really failing is me.
When educators talk about the importance of failure, they point to the learning that comes from it. But, it can just as easily be a sign of poor instruction or a teacher’s lack of understanding of the roles that power and privilege play in classrooms. Productive failure is a luxury that not all students have. If we really want to cultivate classrooms where our students benefit from failure, we must shift our focus from the importance of failure to the underlying conditions that allow student to learn from their mistakes.
Kids learn from failure when it is the result of carefully crafted instruction that falls within a student’s zone of proximal development (Vygotsky 1978). When the work is too hard or too easy, students miss the opportunity for what Burkins and Yaris call “productive effort–hard work that results in success rather than frustration” (2016). “Just-right” learning opportunities require that we know who students are, what they need, and offer them multiple engaging paths to get there. I did not do right by Lanie that day. I chose a text that was too hard and a digital format that was too new. My instructional planning took Lanie right out of her zone of proximal development and into a place where the failure she encountered did nothing for her. We cannot use the benefits of failure as an excuse for poor teaching.
It is also important for teachers to realize that failure in classrooms is an exercise of privilege. The effects of failure aren’t the same for everyone. For students who are marginalized in any way, failure has the potential to reinforce every negative image, bias, or stereotype they are facing. For students who struggle academically, failure can tell people they aren’t smart enough. For students who are marginalized socially, failure can tell people they aren’t cool enough. For students of color, failure can reinforce racist beliefs that they aren’t good enough.
In the video, “Muslim Students in America,” from Teaching Tolerance, eleventh grader Saria says, “I feel that I have to show that I am not a terrorist and I have to show that I am not a bad person by being extra kind to people. By being extra honest. By making sure that I never do a mistake because that mistake could be pinpointed against me, you know, proving that I’m a quote unquote ‘terrorist.’” Some students simply don’t have the same margin for error as others. Casually tweeting that failure is just a “first attempt in learning” glosses over all of this. We cannot praise the benefits of failure without respecting how hard it is for some kids to fail. The consequences they face loom large.
When I sat down next to Lanie and understood how overwhelmed she was, my first inclination was to ask her questions and offer reading strategies. But as we talked, I realized how far away she was from feeling remotely up to the task before her. I knew that the only way out was to apologize for my own mistakes. “I’m sorry,” I said. “My job is to find great articles for you to read and ask you just-right questions. I didn’t do that today. This doesn’t feel hard because you aren’t doing your job. It’s hard because I didn’t do mine.” I didn’t want her to misinterpret my failure as hers.
In order for failure to be good for all kids, the rewards must be greater than the consequences and our students must learn more than they lose. And we won’t get there by just telling our kids that failure is okay. If students are failing because they experience poor instruction on a regular basis, we need to stop talking about helping our kids “fail forward” and focus on developing the high quality instruction that our students deserve. If our students are are afraid to fail because they lack a safety net of privilege that their peers have, then we need to stop talking about cultures of risk-taking and focus first on addressing how privilege and power impact how our students learn and grow. If educators continue to separate conversations about “normalizing failure” from the privilege required to do so, only the most privileged students will benefit. But, if we shift the conversation to the work needed to create high-quality and equitable learning environments, we can ensure that each child experiences failure not as a luxury, but as a truly productive moment in our classrooms.
Courtney Sears is a second grade public school teacher in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is National Board Certified and a 2015-2017 North Carolina Hope Street Group Fellow. She has been teaching and learning with young children for eighteen years.