Why Learning Failure Is Essential (And Unavoidable)

Nobody likes failure. As children, we’re conditioned in school to study hard, pay attention and memorize material to avoid failure at all costs. And, in the evitable instance that failure does occur, we are shamed, punished, or made to feel bad for it.

But why, as humans, do we try so hard to avoid something that is literally unavoidable and, moreover, essential to growth, progress, learning, and positive change?

The Realities of Failure

If it weren’t for failure and its resultant lessons, we would have never learned to walk, talk, or eat on our own. Yet, schools have made failure a punishable offense. For teachers and parents, this article will discuss how to navigate failure in the classroom, how our perceptions of failure impact our kids’ ability to learn, and how failure breeds creativity, ingenuity, and success.

Failure is hard and can cause both physical and psychological pain. As a result, we’ve developed a natural distaste for it. Since the advent of conventional schooling, however, society and educators developed an education system around avoiding failure in a way that, in extreme cases, leads to woefully overprotective helicopter parenting and hindrances to child development and learning.

Failure in Our Education System

With college admissions hinging on standardized test scores and GPA, it is no wonder that kids are seduced into choosing “easy A” classes over ones with higher potential for growth – and higher potential for failure.

American academic culture has stigmatized failure to the point of instilling fear in children and putting the focus on passing instead of learning. In reality, failure is an impetus to ask questions, learn how to integrate feedback, change unproductive habits, and come up with innovative solutions. Historically speaking, every major scientific, mathematical, social, technological, and other breakthrough has come on the heels of failure. Perhaps, instead of only teaching students about the successes of the humankind’s great innovators, we should also be teaching them the origins – and often long histories of failure – that preclude such monumental discoveries.

Psychologically speaking, failure does more than teach students about the task, lesson, topic, or field in which they’ve failed. By nature, failure incites discomfort and from this discomfort, students are challenged to either change their course or repeatedly experience the same failure. This basic cycle – of failure and change – is the practice of resiliency, a key characteristic in childhood development.

How children learn to adapt through failure also teaches them valuable social skills, such as the two-way communication involved in asking questions and receiving criticism. As teachers and parents, our responsibility is to refrain from belittling or berating our children for their failures, instead offering them encouragement and constructive feedback. Healthy feedback and empathetic responses to failure, in turn, reinforce these same response patterns in our children, teaching them to be forgiving, empathetic, and constructive givers of feedback themselves.

Lastly, there is often solidarity found in shared experiences of failure or struggle. Unpleasantness and pain, both common feelings after failure, can serve as a sort of “social glue” when experienced by two or more people. There’s likely more than one student who fails at a given task. Instead of singling students out, use failure as an opportunity to create a shared learning experience that allows kids to work together to study, retake a test, or tutor each other.

To take away failure is to take away learning. Instead of pairing failure with fear, we can rebrand it as a symbol of opportunity, creation, innovation, personal growth and understanding.

What are some of your favorite historical failures, and how are you teaching your students about them?

Choose your Reaction!