Teach Your Students to Fail Correctly

After 20 years of teaching I have started to really take a long look at education and how we are educating our students. There are a lot of great things happening in our schools and a vast number of teachers who are taking risks and stepping out of their comfort zone to see what they can do to enhance student learning. That step can be hard and it can be quite nerve wrecking. When you put yourself out there you really want to be careful in what you say or try to do that others may see as wreckless or unprofessional. With that being said, it is sometimes taboo to say or think in a certain way such as when I tell my students at the beginning of the school year, “I hope you fail at least once in my class.”

What did he just say? Yes I want my students to fail. Not the class or specific grade level. But I want my students to not be afraid to put themselves out there, challenge themselves, and throw caution to the wind. As long as I can remember, education has taught us that failing is wrong and not something we do as learners. That failing makes us weak and poor students. We begin to feel that when we fail at something we are not as good of a student as those who never fail. I am saying that unless our students do fail at something from time to time, they indeed may be the low achieving students in the classroom.

I teach an Innovations class at the local Jr. High School to both seventh and eighth graders. In this class students search for opportunities where they can solve problems while impacting the world in a positive way. Students are asked to find problems, narrow those problems down to something they can effectively tackle, find innovative solutions to solve those problems, work with outside collaborators where they receive feedback and suggestions, report out to the world what they are working on, and then turn that solution into an entreprenurial opportunity. Many students are successful at what they attempt but many students fail at something at least once or twice before they find success.

Failure of a task leads to learning. When students become unafraid to fail, students put down their guard and not worry of letting down their parents, teachers, or peers. Once this happens, wonderful things begin to happen. One particular activity that I use requires students to prove without a doubt that a project we have designed as a class will fail. This is how we do this. I sit down with our students and discuss particular problems that they see in either their school, community, or the world. Once we have a problem in which we decide on, we brainstorm solutions to the chosen problem. The crazier the solution the better. When they have found a solution students become excited because they have solved the problem and hopefully made the world a better place. Then I lower the boom when I tell the students that I want them to prove to me that the project will indeed fail. Students are asked to conduct research, collaborate with outside experts, experiment, etc. to prove with evidence that the solution is destined for doom. Instead of showing disappointment with the failure, I celebrate the students who can prove where the solution failed.

Once students have found failure they are asked to look at the elements of the solution that caused failure and find alternatives that will change failure to success in our solution. Students begin to understand that failure does happen when we innovate, but failure is not always a bad thing. Students see that it is more important to put themselves out there and challenge themselves, then to worry about if what they attempt may not be successful. In addition, students discover when something they try does not work it is not the end of the road. Instead of giving up, new solutions are looked at until success happens.

No matter what you teach I ask you to take the time and find ways that your students can have an opportunity to fail at something. It can be fearful at first for both student, teacher, and parent but in the long run it will have a tremendous impact by showing students the impact it will have on both their success in school and the real world in which we are preparing them for. They will fail from time to time in life but how they respond is the true test of success.

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