Why Failure Should be an Option

A small child, unsure and unsteady, wobbles away from the couch supporting her, trying for the first time to walk on her own. Her parents hold their breath, letting it out in an audible rush when she plops down suddenly, but they clap excitedly and shower her with praise and encouragement, urging her to try again.

Flash forward six or seven years and the same parents hover next to and behind her, uneasy as she straddles a bike without training wheels for the first time. Both offer words of encouragement and advice and she pushes off with cautious confidence. She makes it a few feet before taking a spill and scuffing her knee on the asphalt. Her father bends extends his hand to help her up, praising her efforts and telling her to try again. They are proud of her. Even though she fails, and they know that she must fail in order to learn.

These scenarios are familiar to all of us, either as children or parents of children or both. We learn at an early age that failure is a necessary part of success. No one learns to walk without falling down; no one learns to ride a bike without taking at least one spill (I’d have to question your membership in the human race if you claimed to be an exception). But something changes in our attitude toward and about failure as we age; there’s this obscure threshold we cross at some indistinguishable point in our lives where failure is no longer acceptable. Schools have all but removed the possibility of failure for students. We are no longer allowed to let them fail, and under such a system we are actively impeding their success.

Bottom down pressure is in large part to blame for this: teachers and administrators face punitive action if students are failing, so they remove the option to fail in order to avoid punitive measures. This is not to suggest that teachers and administrators shouldn’t be held accountable for student success, because an accountability system should be in place to ensure that all educators are doing their jobs effectively and genuinely; however, it is to suggest that the accountability system in place needs to equally distribute responsibility to all stakeholders involved in a child’s education, including the child and the parent(s)/guardian(s) of that child.

I know this is an unpopular opinion, but think of it this way: An adult holds the position of project manager in a company and is in charge of ensuring the completion of a special project that will result in large financial gain (or loss) for the company. His boss, the branch manager, has provided the project manager with all the knowledge, material, tools, and workers he needs to successfully accomplish this project. The project manager misuses his time and does not complete the project by the deadline despite multiple conferences with the branch manager, resulting in a serious financial loss for the company. The CEO of the company travels to the branch to address the issue and decides to fire the responsible party. Who does he fire? The branch manager or the project manager?

The end goal of education is NOT and SHOULD NOT be graduation. The end goal of education is to create quality people who will be successful and will contribute to whatever field they enter. Adults in the workforce are held accountable for their own actions or inactions, but in stringing up multiple safety nets that preclude failure or in redistributing blame exclusively to other parties, we are not preparing students for the reality of the world outside the school building. Deadlines exist for a reason, and very rarely are there second chances in the work world.

Not only does the possibility of failure create both accountability and responsibility for us as individuals, it makes of us problem solvers, innovators, creators, inventors, and revisionaries. In overcoming obstacles and setbacks, we have to discover or create better/different/more effective/more efficient ways of doing something. Experiencing and overcoming failure makes us resilient, and we gain invaluable knowledge from failure that cannot be attained through other means. Failure teaches us what not to do, what doesn’t work, what changes need to occur,  what improvements can be made. We receive from failure a clearer understanding of what we should do–each failure is like hitting the autofocus button; we see the right path more clearly having identified all the wrong ones. Experiencing failure brings about reflection and metacognition–we revisit our actions and think through the thought processes that lead us to the failure in the first place, and then we revise those actions and thought processes and try again. Those who overcome failure develop the stick-with-it-ness that is essential to achievement and success and learn to see failure as a stepping stone to successfulness.

Theodor Seuss Geisel, the beloved Dr. Seuss, was rejected 28 times before his first manuscript was accepted by Random House/Vanguard Press.

Henry Ford failed over 100 times before successfully designing the combustion engine.

One of George Lucas’s first films, THX 1138, was a financial failure that resulted in a loss of money. His Star Wars project was rejected by United Artists and Universal before Fox eventually picked it up.

Thomas Edison failed 1,00 times before creating a viable commercial lightbulb.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by 12 major publishers before a small literary house in London called Bloomsbury accepted the project.

We have to rewrite the way failure is perceived and treated in education if we want to produce students capable of overcoming failures in life. Most school mission statements proclaim something along the lines of ensuring success for ALL students no matter what it takes. We need to make room for failure as a pathway to success within our mission and vision statements. I am not suggesting that we brush off students who fail or that we do nothing to help those that are, but I am suggesting that we revise a perception of failure that is not working. A 98% graduation rate means very little when only 30% of the students who even make it to college successfully earn a Bachelor’s degree.

So how can we create space for failure as a pathway to success in our classrooms? Promote a pedagogy of inquiry and discovery. Create the opportunity for students to self-select problems (real problems where they can work toward an attainable solution) to address. Allow them to take their education in their own hands, design their own curriculum and projects around these problems, and learn to troubleshoot when an obstacle arises. Show them that failure is necessary be letting them experience it, and show them that failure is merely a step in the ladder of success by encouraging them to discover solutions or means of overcoming failure.

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