Why Teachers Should Celebrate Failure in the Classroom
Dr. Annie Snyder, Sr. Learning Scientist
How do we know when a student has successfully learned?
Images of learning are everywhere in popular media: students raising their hands, an aha! expression on a child’s face, an A-plus on a test paper, kids giving each other a high five when they get an answer right. It’s so simple to think of learning as another way of saying correct. After all, isn’t learning all about correct answers, correct approaches, and correct applications of new skills?
But what if we turned this upside-down?
One of the finest teachers I have ever met, Mrs. L., does this every single day. I first witnessed this several years ago when I observed a math lesson in Mrs. L’s first grade classroom. It was right after lunch (always a challenging time!) but the students came in from recess already excited to get started. Straight away they got to work on a challenging story problem, involving skills that Mrs. L admitted openly that they hadn’t quite covered yet. After having the students work in pairs for a bit, she then invited a volunteer to work through the problem with the whole class at the board.
A little boy marched right up to the board, wrote out his attempts and explained his reasoning, and then said, “I think I got this wrong, and I don’t understand how to do the middle part.”
But! His head wasn’t drooping, he didn’t look flustered — in fact, he looked rather excited as he gazed expectantly at the other students.
Suddenly, the entire class erupted into applause.
“What happens when we fail at something, friends?” asked Mrs. L.
“We gather information, we work with friends, we try again, we LEARN!” cheered the class, and I just about fell out of my seat. I had never seen anything like this before.
Interestingly, Mrs. L’s efforts to celebrate failure have in fact led to great success for her young learners. Her students are consistently among the highest performing and most engaged in her district, and she has won countless awards for her excellence in teaching. Parents beg to have their children placed in her class and students from years past visit her nearly every day. Mrs. L also frequently serves as a mentor teacher, and she always begins by explaining that failure is a welcome part of her learning journey.
Why is this so effective? Learning science suggests that by explicitly placing failure back into the learning equation, not as an undesirable variable but as a necessary and valuable part of the process, Mrs. L is in fact tapping into fundamental realities of how humans learn.
Failure at the Neuron Level
If we examine learning at the neural level, we find clear evidence that failure is an essential part of the biological processes behind learning. Take the example of neuroplasticity — the overarching term for the remarkable ability of the brain to change through learning. Our brains are constantly creating new neural connections at a rate and a level of complexity that is staggering, but this doesn’t happen because we succeed at everything. In fact, what happens is a sort of complicated dance between success and failure, all in relation to the stimuli receive from around us as well as our emotions, our thoughts, and even the things we already know.
Sometimes those neural connections are strengthened through successful encounters, but an equally important part of the cognitive process involves what happens when things break down. Sometimes the things we learn are incorrect or not useful, or we simply need to change course — like when the little boy realized that his original math strategy wasn’t working. In the case of failure, rather than strengthening connections and holding on to old information, the connections weaken through a process called axon terminal arbor pruning.
What would happen if our brains never built failure into the process, and instead just held on to all the information that leads to correct answers? Research suggests that this simply doesn’t work. In fact, experiments with mice have demonstrated that when synaptic pruning is prevented or altered, the mice end up with more synaptic connections in the brain, but at a severe cost: those connections are weaker, and their brains are unable to free up space for anything new. These mice then engage in odd repetitive movements, and demonstrate negative social behaviors and, strikingly, are unable to learn new information. By building failure into the process, the brain actually makes success more likely.
From Neurons to Theories: Conceptual Change
Zooming out from neurons to human behavior, we can see that failure is critical on a grander scale as well. In fact, several influential theories of learning, such as conceptual change theory, place an important emphasis on the role of breakdowns in learning. In models of conceptual change, in fact, the examination of student misconceptions is a necessary part of the teaching and learning process. Here, the failure to create a correct initial mental framework or understanding of an idea is not considered a problem, but rather a key component of learning.
Sometimes called “unlearning to relearn,” students who engage in conceptual change activities are actively presented with ideas that challenge their own current conceptions of the given idea. The role of the teacher is to help expose the misconception or learning failure, and then build mental “bridges,” such as analogies to other more familiar concepts, that allow students to understand a failure in understanding and then build a newer, more accurate understanding of the content. Because misconceptions can be both pervasive and long-lasting (for example, see this famous example of Harvard graduates trying to explain the seasons) it is especially important to address them early on, and often.
When Teachers Embrace Failure, Everybody Wins
How teachers choose to approach learning failure thus has important implications for student achievement. Every learning failure, whether that failure is a misconception, an inefficient method for solving a problem, or an inability to remember a concept, can actually serve as a valuable opportunity for teachers to set students up for success, but only with an active commitment to inserting failure back into the learning equation.
The practice of embracing failure can take many forms. For example, teachers may begin by examining their own pedagogical content knowledge; that is, their own understanding of not only the academic content, but how best to teach that knowledge. And in this case, teaching correct content is not always enough. For example, in a trailblazing 2013 study at Harvard University, researchers found that gains in student achievement were closely related to a teacher’s understanding of student misconceptions. Put another way, teachers who are able to predict what students might get wrong have students who perform better than teachers who only know what students should get right.
In addition, as I saw firsthand in Mrs. L’s class, embracing failure can also extend into the realm of social and emotional learning (SEL). Indeed, many of the skills and core competencies that fall within the SEL umbrella are directly related to how students individually and collaboratively handle failure. Problem-solving and perseverance, for example, cannot be sufficiently developed without working through experiences that involve failure, and having a safe classroom culture in which to fail is key. In fact, as we saw in the case of Mrs. L’s students, her dedication to embracing failure became the very motivator that encouraged students to persevere together, and ultimately, to succeed.
The Future of Failure
Does this mean that we should stop caring about correct answers? Absolutely not! After all, one primary goal of education is to help students develop all they need to become informed, productive, and happy citizens, and that requires the development of accurate and effective content knowledge and skills.
However, effective learning is about the balance of correct and incorrect, and also that remarkable gray zone in between — in which we aren’t too sure whether something is correct or incorrect, but we discover that we sure want to find out. Researchers are already beginning to explore this balance in greater depth: case in point, the Education for Persistence and Innovation Center (EPIC) at Teachers College, Columbia University. Established in 2018, the Center is building upon the work of Dr. Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, who published a widely-acclaimed study in which students performed better in science after learning about the failures of famous scientists such as Marie Curie. Today, researchers at the Center are dedicated to creating new theories and approaches to teaching and learning that harness failure as a catalyst for learning.
With organizations such as EPIC, we can look forward to learning a great deal more about this catalytic function of failure and how it can influence what happens in school. Of course, there are bound to be failures along the way, but it is here that we can borrow from the wisdom of Mrs. L’s student:
That young gentleman never did successfully solve the math problem that day, but when I asked him about this, he simply grinned and gave me a high five.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I didn’t get it right today. Not yet. But I will someday, so you’d better watch out!”
Dr. Anne Snyder, Senior Learning Scientist within the Applied Learning Sciences team at McGraw-Hill, holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from Columbia University. She joined McGraw-Hill in 2016 and previously held numerous roles spanning the education industry, including as an elementary school teacher.
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