At SchoolSphero Staff
A man holds a small sign that reads "Don't be afraid to fail."

“If you fail, never give up because F.A.I.L. means ‘First Attempt In Learning’.” - A.P.J. Abdul Kalam

Risk-taking, leaping, trying again, and failing are part of our genetic material. Without it, humans would not have inhabited every corner of this planet.

Oftentimes we can see failure, particularly in exams, as negative — one of the worst things we can allow students to experience.

But what if we allow students to fail in a safe space and make learning a personal endeavor? It will make the academic process more about growth than achievement and grades. Also, by emphasizing finding meaning and purpose in education, students can then distinguish between procedural and content knowledge.

How To Fail in a Safe Space

Allowing students to fail must be done where students can feel that making mistakes is a normal part of learning. It cannot be on standardized exams or advanced placement exams.

Acronym for FAIL that reads, "First Attempt in Learning."

You can teach students to fail safely by helping them focus on the process of getting to the answer. In science and math, students are asked to show their work when getting the answer.[1] In engineering fields, students take a series of steps to come up with a solution to a problem.[1] There will be many times that the solution does not come immediately and requires the student to fail many times and learn from their attempts as they try again to get to the solution.[1] This is part of the trial and error aspect of the engineering process.[1]

In current curriculums, students are graded based on their answers, especially if it is multiple-choice questions. By asking students to box in and underline the correct, we are taking away their ability to focus on the process rather than the outcome.

Teachers asking students to show their work allows students to build the skills to problem solve and troubleshoot — skills that are often not graded in the curriculum but are pivotal to everyday life.

Building Resiliency

Getting students to feel comfortable with failing and building resilience needs to be encouraged by adults early in a student’s life. Many successful individuals relate in their personal stories how they learned from their failures.

The earlier you teach students the importance of failure in education, the easier it is for them to grasp the need for failure to learn to grow. If this is attempted later in a student’s life, like in high school, the educational stakes are higher, and this can cause more anxiety and further prevent students from seeing failure as a normal process.

Teachers can emphasize this learning in the classroom by teaching students to focus on the process, work in groups to get to an answer, and even have problem sets without answers.[2] Doing this will create hesitations, frustrations, and conflict, with students defending each other’s work and solutions.[2] But this is where the learning happens and the soft skills of resiliency develop.[2] This represents real life, where as adults, we may be handed a problem and work together to find the best solution without having an answer key to know if it is the right solution.[2]

Developing Trust With Failure

Many students deal with major struggles in their everyday lives, and ignoring the problems is not a possibility. Students need to understand that struggling and failing are natural. Therefore, the most important part of defeat in life is the determination to get back up, try again, and move forward.

When students are permitted to fail, they can nurture a better sense of who they can go to for help, what kind of help they need, and advocate for themselves as they learn who to trust. When students constantly succeed, they avoid asking for help and tend not to feel as comfortable reciprocating it. Therefore, they do not develop those skills of knowing who they can trust when they need help during difficult life situations.

Where To Start?

For educators to be comfortable with failure, a school needs to establish a culture with a learning approach to failure. Examining academic growth — rather than achievements — is how school administrators can take steps to work with their current system.

Failure is not a bad thing, but rather guaranteed and inevitable when learning.[3] Embracing and learning from it teaches trust, resilience, and lifelong learning.[3] You can serve as a guide in the process of learning through lessons that encourage discussions and problems without answers to them.[3] This can help students learn how to find meaning, problem solve, trust, and be resilient.[3]

References

[1] Science Buddies. (2021, January 05). The engineering design process. Retrieved from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/engineering-design-process/engineering-design-process-steps

[2] Lam, R. (2019, May 31). What students do when encountering failure in collaborative tasks. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41539-019-0045-1

[3] Lenz, B. (2015, April 08). Failure is essential to learning. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/failure-essential-learning-bob-lenz

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