The Value of Failure

Let your child fail.  That was my initial reaction to a recent message that showed up in my inbox.  We live in a “little league” age of celebrating success.  In t-ball, every player gets to bat.  In little league, every player gets a trophy.  I don’t disagree with instructional league rules by any means.  However, at what age does failure begin to have value?

I was sitting in a department meeting recently when a district-level administrator asked me if I had analyzed test scores of last year’s students to determine if Khan Academy actually had any effect on those students’ test scores.  I replied honestly, and said that I had only checked on a handful of students’ scores.  But as I continued to ponder her request, I lost my appetite for looking up any more test results.  I realize that no matter what those test results may show, they don’t reveal one of the most important skills being taught in my class.  They might reveal which students learned how to apply the Pythagorean Theorem in a real-life situation, but what is not tested is perhaps the most important.  Tests of that sort do nothing to promote the value of failure.

Upon reading that recent message from my inbox, I wanted to shout out “let your child fail.”  The shouting was not due to frustration, rather to be sure that my voice was heard by many.  And when I say fail, I mean fall.  Let them fall.  How can we learn to get back up if we never fall?  Or if someone else always picks us up.  Too often today, students are given every possible opportunity NOT to fail.  But why?  Why are we afraid of failure?  Putting students in frustrating and uncomfortable situations is a tricky part of my job.  I have to find that zone where students are frustrated enough to seek out a solution THEMSELVES.  I hear this a lot, “Well I’ll just get my mom to help me.”  There’s nothing wrong with phoning a friend or a mom.  My message to parents, though, is to let your child fail.  Sometimes teachers put students in a certain situation so they will fail.  Because until they fail, they’ll never seek out that solution themselves.  Tests don’t measure whether a student has developed the fortitude to seek out a solution himself, or whether they’ve developed persistence in problem solving.  Even if a student doesn’t arrive at the correct solution, the journey or the number of attempts is often what is more important.  I always try to make sure that I’ve directed my students to places and opportunities where they can develop, create, or find a solution.  But I try to stop there.  Too often are students lead, directed, and told which solution is correct.  We call it “spoon-feeding”.  And students know all about this.  They know all about it, because it hits them like a brick wall the first time a teacher or parent shrugs their shoulders and refuses to help them at the first sign of adversity.  I want my daughter to be a successful, hard-working citizen.  I know that won’t come without learning to fail, get back up, and seek out a solution.

The picture below is a graph of a student’s last 35 problems on adding/subtracting negative numbers.  You’ll find the number of problems completed at the bottom the bars.  The red bars indicate a wrong answer was inputted first, but eventually the student arrived at the correct answer.  You’ll also see that the student’s longest streak correct was 11.  This particular student has been struggling adding and subtracting negative numbers for quite a while, but has just recently shown some progress.  We’ve exhausted ourselves on learning strategies.  We’ve talked about spending money, owing money, number lines, football plays, temperature, etc.  The student has struggled to find a solution that works consistently enough to stick.  However, it appears the student is finally getting it.  This particular student has learned a lot about persistence in problem solving.  The student has sought out the answer him/herself and used multiple resources along the way.  Consider what this student learned throughout this journey, in addition to learning how to correctly add and subtract negative numbers.  All because she was allowed to fail.


2 thoughts on “The Value of Failure

  1. Great post Derek. FAIL=First Attempt in Learning
    SAILS Second Attempt In Learning Successes!

    The hardest thing is not in never falling but in rising after you have fallen.

    I once helped coach a track team and I showed them through hard work they could achieve. They never lost on the field and this lesson transferred for some to their classroom work.

    Keep sharing.

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