Failure, reconsidered

The following was published in NEOTIE’s first magazine this past weekend. There’s a lot of great content in there so read it! NEOTIE is having a conference on October 3, and registration is just $15. I attended (and was a presenter at) their February event, and I highly recommend it. High quality sessions, great food, not too far from home, and not expensive.

You failed. You’ll continue to fail, over and over. Same for me, same for our students. Feel terrible now? You shouldn’t! Let me explain. Failing is, has been, and will always be a sign of reaching for something that is simply out of reach at this point. Maybe only slightly, or maybe by a whole bunch.  I want to reframe failure as a necessary, and helpful step in achieving awesome goals. Failure is striving for better. You, me, and especially our students need to be told this explicitly, and be encouraged to keep failing, learning, and growing, throughout our lives.

In the first week of my quarter-long 7th and 8th grade tech classes last year, I wanted to empower students by helping them realize that failure will happen, and how they deal with it can make them better. One way I did this was by telling them about my grading system. Any assignment that they received less than 70% on, they were allowed to continue working on and resubmit. This way, students had the opportunity to view their “failing” D or F grade as a chance to improve, and truly learn the material. One student resubmitted an effort-intense assignment 3 or 4 times! I supported him with comments in the document, helping at lunch, and communicating the redo option to his parents. He showed great persistence in refining each draft until it was nearly perfect. He was so proud of himself; it made me get teary. There were always a few kids each quarter who took this option to heart, and they learned much more than they would have in the traditional mindset of failure equals done, grade-sunk, oh-well, moving-on.

Another first-week activity to make this point clear is an assignment all about failure. Please, use these resources to make your classroom a safer place for striving. The first part of the assignment is watching a video by Derek Sivers called “Why You Need to Fail”. 

I like to have them use where they watch the video on the left and take time-stamped notes on the right. It helps them to be more personally engaged than just projecting the video to the whole class, and allows them to pause and rewind the video to adjust to their own learning needs. They share this with me so I can see what facts jumped out at them personally.

The second part of the assignment is a document asking them to reflect on what they learned in the video, apply it to a personal situation, and surmise what my opinion is on failure once they’ve been presented with all of this, including this screenshot of a tweet.

Failure Google Docs

I’ve found that this approach really helps students understand that failure doesn’t have to be viewed as an extremely awful event marking a sad end, but can be seen as a not-there-yet guidepost. Throughout our time together, I am sure to praise and thank students who continue trying to make adjustments after they do something poorly, and to remind students one-on-one, and as a class that they are allowed to redo their assignments.

An essential element of students being able to use their failures to learn is feeling and really knowing in their hearts that asking for help is a smart strategy. I know that I have not always felt that way personally, and I talk to them about it on the very first day they are in my class. Luckily, a great example of me realizing that I can’t always figure things out on my own was when I was in middle school, so they can easily relate. I tell them the story of how I was at a summer-program in a class about personal development. Our teacher took us all outside where there was a long rope strung at waist height around trees and poles, creating a circle-ish shape. We were instructed to close our eyes, put our left hand on the rope, and feel our way around the circle, until we could find a way into the middle. Also, we could ask for help any time we needed it.



So, I walked for a while, and heard kids in the middle after a few minutes. I cheated, and peeked, and saw that I had been the whole way around at least once, and that some classmates were inside. I felt frustrated, because I was always one of the top performers in school. I figured I must have missed something, but continued my slow walk around. After what felt like hours, it was just me and another boy left outside the circle.When the teacher told us we ran out of time and called us to come inside, I was embarrassed. He explained that the point of the activity was that sometimes, the only way to achieve your goals is to ask other people for help and guidance. You just can’t always do it on your own. To get into the circle, all I had to do was ask for help, and I’d be invited in. This lesson hit me hard that day and I use it to illustrate how even if you’re used to understanding everything right away, there will come a time when you just don’t know what to do. A brave and mature thing to do is to admit this to yourself, and ask for the help you need.

This year, let’s make it a point to reframe failure for ourselves and our students. Talk to them about your own failures and what you did to improve. Tell them about times you needed to ask for help. Encourage them to recognize failures, strategize ways to improve, and view these actions as strengths rather than weaknesses. Then, watch them grow as learners, and most importantly, people.


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