Failure = Learning

As I reflect on my career in education, it is interesting to see where I was and where I am now. I’m certainly not the same teacher that I was at 22 years old. Nor am I the same teacher that I was at 28 years old. I’ve grown, I’ve matured and I’ve improved.

But it didn’t happen overnight.

The teacher I am today is due to a long journey in education. A journey where I had moments of being successful and moments where I failed. In this journey, I can remember times where my lesson plans were perfectly on point. But, I can also remember times where my lesson plans completely failed. Times where my classroom management was flawless and times where I was challenged. The same concept could be applied to anything else I have done – department chair, AVID coordinator, Google Innovator, etc. Each role had its moments of success and it’s moments of failure. However, every moment was a learning moment, particularly the failures.

As I think about my successes, it’s clear that many of these moments were a result of learning from my moments of failure. Even though those moments were difficult, they helped me to grow into a stronger educator and leader. It’s these moments that transformed me.

Yet, as I think about our educational system, I am not entirely sure that it works the same way for students. When I encountered a failure in my classroom, I was never fired or beat down by that failure. I was encouraged to try again. I was encouraged to find what worked, what didn’t and learn from it. I was encouraged to grow and to become better.

Unfortunately, the majority of students do not get the same experience.

When a student fails in a classroom, they rarely get opportunities to improve. The failure is permanent. That’s it. End game. By not having an opportunity to improve, students are missing out on one of the great parts of failing – learning. They are losing the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and gain a deeper understanding. They are losing the opportunity to discover a love for learning. They are losing the opportunity to become problem solvers.

Instead, students will learn that if they aren’t successful and/or if they struggle, it will lead to a failure that they can’t come back from. The road ends there. Failure = the end.

I worry about this mentality. I worry that, if this mentality continues, our students will not gain the necessary “soft skills” to be successful in today’s ever-changing world. They won’t develop perseverance, adaptability, initiative and curiosity. I worry that they won’t develop a love for learning.

In order to avoid seeing failure as “end game” and instead as a learning opportunity, I have four strategies for you to explore. Whether you are a teacher, instructional coach or administrator, I hope that these strategies can help you promote failures as learning opportunities:

1.) Allow opportunities to improve.

If students are allowed opportunities to improve, they will become problem solvers and will gain a greater understanding the content area. In addition to this, they will begin to develop soft skills, such as perseverance and initiative, through learning from their failures.

There is nothing to lose in allowing a second chance – but there is everything to lose by not allowing one. Be strategic in allowing these opportunities. Provide students a pathway to improving their assignments, assessment or projects. Challenge them to improve – don’t just give it to them. Help them understand that the greatest part of improving is the final product and what they have learned from it.

2.) Promote a growth mindset.

“When students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger. Therefore they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement.” (Mindset Works)

Many students will enter your classroom and believe that they are not smart. Help them understand that they can learn if they are willing to put in the effort. Help them understand that who they are at the moment is not who they will be in the future. They can grow. They can improve. They can be more than their wildest dreams.

3.) Praise improvement.

Over the last year, I’ve had several students express discouragement over a result that they have received – whether that is on an assignment, activity, project or assessment. During these times, I often show them how they have improved. For instance, maybe the student received a 70% on a quiz but the previous grade was a 50%. While it may not be the grade they want, it was still an improvement!

Help students see how far they have come because they usually can not see it for themselves.

4.) Be transparent on your own failures.

Share your failures with your students and be transparent when you make mistakes in class. If they see that you can fail and improve, then they will be more likely to do the same. Let your students see that you are human so that they can better relate and trust you.

I challenge you to implement these strategies in your classroom. These are easy-to-use strategies with a high return rate. There is literally no downside to these strategies – only opportunities to help our students become problem solvers who persevere in every situation.

So, I ask…how will you help students learn from their failures?

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